Philobiblon: Those women-friendly Gnostics

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Those women-friendly Gnostics

I've been saying for years when the subject of women and Christianity came up: "Well of course the Gnostics were different and women had a prominent place among them," without knowing any more than that.

So, prompted by a review of another of her books, I finally got around to buying Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels.

It is not so much about what they believed, in fact she suggests that the label was applied promiscously to a wide variety of beliefs that didn't square with the organisation that would become the established church.

Instead, it looks at why The Establishment won and the Gnostics lost. She argues this was not fundamentally because of politics, or chance, or geography, but because what became the orthodox beliefs were the most functional for the setting up and growing of the institution.

Among these were:
*Literal belief in the physical resurrection of Christ (which one Gnostic called the "faith of fools"). For the orthdoxy contact with the risen Christ gave the apostles an authority that they then passed down to the early bishops. Authority was in an agreed, settled form.

* Belief in Christ's humanity, and hence his suffering on the Cross encouraged others to be martyrs, hence strengthening the church. (Lots of Gnostics said this was a stupid idea and there was nothing wrong in lying to the Roman authorities about their beliefs.)

*Gnostics believed in a spiritual church that only consisted of those who had seen the light, dismissing organisational links as meaningless. (Rather as a lot of 17th-century English dissident grousp did.) For both lots, however, it did tend to be a basis for argument and schism, rather than agreement.

Next, why they were good for women ...


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