P2- Evaluating Episode 3: Bible Secrets Revealed – The background of fascination with the Nag Hammadi texts

sample photograph of Nag Hammadi texts from: http://www.nag-hammadi.com/index.html

Introduction and Review:

In yesterday’s post we began evaluating and critiquing the third episode of the current History Channel series: “Bible Secrets Revealed”.  We discussed the revisionist approach to history that the series has utilized in its radical retelling of the history of the formation of the New Testament Canon.  We also briefly defined the Gnostic Movement and how one scholar in particular (Dr. Elaine Pagels, who is featured in the documentary) is an example of the aggressive campaign against historic, Bible believing Christianity in the series. Today we continue evaluating the third episode of “Bible Mysteries Revealed” by attempting too understand why the radical scholars being consulted in the series are so enamored by the Gnosticism in general and the Gnostic Gospels in particular.  The aim of this series of blogs is to equip the Christian reader with an understanding of what is being communicated in the History Channel series and to hopefully untangle error from truth.

Peeling back the layers to reveal the worldview driving episode 3 of “Bible Secrets Revealed”

1. Elaine Pagels 1979-present: A Ph.D on a mission

          If we are to trace the recent fascination with Gnosticism and the “Gnostic gospels”, we must start with Dr. Elaine Pagels, who in the History Channel Series is identified as the Professor of Religion at Princeton University.  As was mentioned earlier, Pagels has written quite a bit on the early history of how we got our New Testament.  For her, the Gnostics and their speculative mysticism produced works that reflected the true teachings of Jesus and the early church.  As she states in one of her best selling books:

“I intend to show how Gnostic forms of Christianity interact with Orthodoxy –and what it tells about the origins of Christianity itself.”[1]

As Pagels unfolds her case, we find out that she wants to show that Christians at one time believed that God had elements of a feminine character, as well as having denied the literal bodily resurrection of Christ.[2]  You may have noticed reference being made to God having a supposed “wife” or “consort”, which represents a total re-reading of what actually took place. This emphasis on the “sacred feminine” and the female goddess is something which we heard being mentioned in episode three of “Bible Mysteries Revealed”.  As mentioned yesterday, such ideas are not knew and were promoted during the popularity of Dan Brown’s Novel “The Davinci Code”.  If one were to listen to interviews done by Dan Brown back in 2006-2007, evidence would show that such backgrounds were the basis of Brown’s research in his novel.[3]

Though more could be said about Pagels, the point is that she represents a group of academics who have shown increased interest in a scholarly level pursuit of the study of the Gnostic gospels.  The question is, from whence did she gain her interest and conclusions?  Pagels’ promotion of the Gnostic texts can be trace back to the scholarship surrounding the Gnostic Gospels and literature to her mentor, the one man who put it on the map: Dr. James Robinson.

 2. Dr. James Robinson – 1960’s – 1970’s : Translator of the Nag Hammadi texts                                                                                                                                               With his publication of the English translation of the Gnostic Gospels (Nag Hammadi) in 1970, Robinson put the study of the Gnostic gospels on the map.  Robinson was the dissertation advisor of Pagels, thus giving the reader a connection between Gnostic literature research today to what it was when it began. Both Robinson and another scholar by the name of Helmut Koester developed a literary theory called “trajectory theory”. Much like tracing the flight path of a cannon ball, both Robinson and Koester shot their own cannon in an attempt to impact how some people would come to understand the New Testament.[4]  Essentially their theory states that if you can take two different texts from two different centuries (such as the “gospel of Thomas” (200 A.D) and the Gospel of Peter (170 A.D), and find points of common interest between them, you can apparently assume that they come from a text that dates back to the days of Jesus and the apostles. [5]

In other words this theory causes radical critical scholars like Pagels to push the dates of the Gnostic gospels back to the days of Christ and thus make it one of the origins of Christianity itself.  This theory seems to be echoed through much of the repeated statements we find in the current History Channel series and their retelling of church history. So as we probe deeper through the layer of thought driving the History Channel series, the question to ask next is: from whence did Robinson get his ideas?

3. Discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts – 1945

Robinson’s research into the Gnostic Gospels derives from the very texts that he translated and produced – The Nag Hammadi texts.  Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, a leading evangelical New Testament scholar describes the Nag Hammadi texts:

Until 1945 our major sources of information on the Gnostics were: the church fathers;and the late Mandaic texts. Then in that year a spectacular cache of 13 Coptic Gnostic codices were found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt.These now give us a substantial corpus of early documents from the Gnostics themselves.[6]

The discovery of these 13 codices (containing 52 books in all) had scholars studying and researching the Gnostic movement at a feverish pace.[7]  Not only that, but with the dates of these supposed gospels being at least 100 years after Christ’s ascension (The gospel of Philip, a key Nag Hammadi document, is dated 170 A.D, 200 years removed from Christ himself!).

Why this matters

With the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, the study of Gnosticism took off and quite frankly provides much of the background for the worldview driving the third episode in the current History Channel series.

More tomorrow…..

[1] Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage books. 1979.

[2] Ibid introduction

[3] Brown, Dan. The DaVinci Code. Introduction

[4] Allen, Charlotte. The Human Christ. The Free Press. 1998

[5] In fact John Crossan in his book “The Gospel of the Singing Cross” states that the four gospels originated their passion narratives from the Gospel of Peter.  He is the only scholar who dates this work to 70 A.D.  All other N.T scholars do not place it any earlier than 200 – 250 A.D.

[6]The Evangelical Theological Society. 1971;2002. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 14 . The Evangelical Theological Society On the Mandale sources see Edwin M. Yamauchi, “The Present Status of Mandaean Studies,” JNES, XXV (1966), 88–96; and Gnostic Ethics and Mandaean Origins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970).

[7] This fact is aptly pointed out by the former theological researcher to the Canon of Westminster Abby, Dr. Nicholas Perrin.


About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
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