In 1979, Pagels published “The Gnostic Gospels,” a brief and elegant analysis of a series of ancient documents known collectively as the Nag Hammadi Library. Just as Edmund Wilson illuminated for a wide audience the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Pagels explained the value and meaning of a trove of manuscripts unearthed in 1945 in the upper-Egyptian desert by a peasant named Muhammad Ali al-Samman. While digging near the village of Nag Hammadi for sabakh, a soft soil used as fertilizer, Muhammad Ali found a red earthenware jar. Thinking there might be gold inside, he smashed the jar with his mattock, and found instead thirteen papyrus books bound in leather. That night, his mother burned much of the find in the oven as kindling. What she did not burn ended up in the hands of black marketeers, antiquities dealers, and, eventually, scholars of first- and second-century Christianity.
“The Gnostic Gospels” won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the praise of Pagels’ professional colleagues. Harold Bloom, a literary critic with a minor in Gnosticism, credited Pagels (in the Washington Post) with “devoted and sound scholarship”; reviewers remarked on her skills as an artful, concise explainer. She had, remarkably, delivered a complicated argument to a popular audience without cheating the demands of scholarship.
Through a careful reading of the fifty-two sacred texts that survived—they are Coptic translations of Greek originals, some as old as the four Gospels—Pagels made it clear that early Christianity was far more complicated than anyone had ever imagined. A wildly diverse compendium of poems, chants, myths, gospels, pagan documents, and spiritual instructions, the texts are distinct evidence of fierce theological debate and of an alternative tradition within early Christianity—a kind of mystical variant, much like the Zen tradition in Buddhism, Kabbalah in Judaism, Sufism in Islam. What was more, Pagels argued, the early Church Fathers, in their attempt to eliminate this more experiential Christianity in favor of building an orthodox institution—a universal, or catholic, church—declared the texts to be heretical. The Gnostics may well have buried the texts to avoid brutal purges being led by the notorious Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in the year 367. Although many of the stories in what became the New Testament—the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of Christ—are at least as strange as anything in the Gnostic texts, the Church leaders canonized the Gospels attributed to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John as a reliable basis for a social organization with mass appeal. Gnosticism, with its emphasis on individual divinity and unmediated personal communion, was a threat to the authority of bishops and priests. Its suggestion, for instance, that the Resurrection of Jesus was a mythological vision, rather than, as the Synoptic Gospels assert, a historical event, was intolerable, and so was the Gnostic notion that God was both father and mother of Jesus. Thus, in the second century an orthodoxy began to take shape—and, with it, a temperament. Irenaeus, the orthodox Bishop of Lyons and one of the leading crusaders against the Gnostics, declared that, while certain heretics “boast that they possess more gospels than there really are,” no Church leader may, “however highly gifted he may be in matters of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these.”