A Response to “The Gnostic Gospels”— Can We Trust Princeton Professor, Elaine Pagels?

Before I became a Christian I spent a few years looking at evidence for all the major religions. One of the books I read was “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels. The local library where I lived at the time had many books written by her so I figured I should read her work. This was about 17 years ago, so even though we had the internet I preferred library books to get my information, besides the internet wasn’t full of information as it is today.

I couldn’t even make it through reading half the book when I felt compelled to look at other sources. I soon discovered she was a historian who taught at Princeton University. Princeton was reputable but I couldn’t accept what she was saying about these gnostic gospels. As a historian she was claiming that we should trust the gnostic gospels as truth. Here are some quotes I struggled with as a non-believer:

“Contrary to orthodox sources, which interpret Christ’s death as a sacrifice redeeming humanity from guilt and sin, this gnostic gospel sees the crucifixion as the occasion for discovering the divine self within.”

“Another group of gnostics, called Sethians because they identified themselves as sons of Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve, say that the disciples, deluded by “a very great error,” imagined that Christ had risen from the dead in bodily form. But the risen Christ appeared to “a few of these disciples, who he recognized were capable of understanding such great mysteries,”86 and taught them to understand his resurrection in spiritual, not physical, terms.”

“the Word of the Father goes forth into the all … purifying it, bringing it back into the Father, into the Mother, Jesus of the infiniteness of gentleness.”

I’m a classic doubter, so I always have to fact check by doing the research myself to see if something is actually true. As some know I was primarily raised by my Father who is an atheist and as a child I attended church a few times but that was the extent of my experience with anything church related. I didn’t know the Bible hardly at all but something in me noticed that there were problems with the ideas that Pagels was presenting. That is what drove me to read about how the Bible was written and by whom. I have always been an evidentialist so I followed the evidence I found. I suppose it also helped that I had a passion for research. This is not always the case for people but I knew I needed to know what history and evidence said about the Bible and how significant were these gnostic gospels.

I soon discovered that the gnostic gospels were not trusted writings. They were written late (2-3 centuries after Christ) with no known authors other than the biblical names were falsely attributed to them. Many ideas in these gospels are actually in conflict with the Bible. The fact is the Bible can be trusted as I’ve written about before in How Did We Get the Bible? and 5 Reasons How We Know That the Bible Is True. Through my research I also found that the Bible is the most trusted ancient writing with over 22,000 manuscripts. The gnostic gospels has 1. It is mind baffling that a Princeton Professor would push the gnostic gospels as trusted writings when they were only just found in 1945 and like I mentioned above there is only 1 manuscript.

As Christians we need to have ongoing training so that we know how to defend our faith and it starts with the younger generations. They will hear in high school and college that we can trust people like Pagels and the Bart Ehrman’s of the world because they teach at reputable Universities. They have written many books that will be a required reading for some and we must teach our children what opposing viewpoints are out there. William Lane Craig responded to what Pagels is doing to christians at the University and I felt it was an excellent response:

“Other students I met with at Princeton were enrolled in a class taught by the New Testament critic Elaine Pagels which they nicknamed the “Faithbusters Class” because of its destructive effect on the faith of many Christian students. They had no way of knowing how far out of mainstream scholarship Prof. Pagels’ views on the Gnostic gospels are. It was a privilege to share with them grounds for the credibility of the New Testament witness to Jesus.

Their experience is not unusual. In high school and college Christian teenagers are intellectually assaulted with every manner of non-Christian worldview coupled with an overwhelming relativism. If parents are not intellectually engaged with their faith and do not have sound arguments for Christian theism and good answers to their children’s questions, then we are in real danger of losing our youth. It’s no longer enough to teach our children simply Bible stories; they need doctrine and apologetics. It’s hard to understand how people today can risk parenthood without having studied apologetics.

Unfortunately, our churches have also largely dropped the ball in this area. It’s insufficient for youth groups and Sunday school classes to focus on entertainment and simpering devotional thoughts. We’ve got to train our kids for war. We dare not send them out to public high school and university armed with rubber swords and plastic armor. The time for playing games is past.”   – William Lane Craig

If we aren’t willing to investigate what people like Pagels say we are failing future generations. We must know what these “experts” are claiming and know how to respond to people like her.

1 Peter 3:15 tells us as much, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”


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