November 12, 1979 12:00 PM

In 1945, two years before a goat herder stumbled onto the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jordan, an Egyptian peasant chanced upon a cache of equally startling ancient documents. They were apparently authentic writings from the early days of Christianity—perhaps at one time part of the New Testament. Barnard College assistant professor of religion Elaine Pagels, 36, describes them as “a set of preachings that claimed Mary was as much whore as virgin, that flaunted Christ’s physical passion for Mary Magdalene and told the story of the Garden of Eden through the eyes of the serpent.”

Only now, however, with the publication of Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, have the 1,900-year-old manuscripts escaped the arcane world of religious scholarship and the restrictions of church dogma. (An early Christian sect, the Gnostics believed they could only know God by understanding themselves. “This sort of knowledge is intuitive,” says Pagels. “The Greek word for it is gnosis, although it borrows heavily from the Eastern philosophies of Zen and Buddhism.”)

The documents were found in December 1945 near the town of Nag Hammadi, when a farmer dug up a red earthenware jar containing 13 papyrus books. A few weeks later the farmer and his brothers attacked a townsman they suspected of killing their father. Fearful of being caught with strange religious texts, they gave them to a local priest. In 1952 10 of the books (called codices) reached the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

Some scholars believed the manuscripts included lost gospels of the New Testament. They may have originated in oral form as early as A.D. 50.

The documents have also been coveted by greedy collectors, smugglers and, in 1948, a one-eyed Egyptian outlaw who sold several codices to an antiquities dealer. Since their discovery, the gospels (as the 52 works are known) have inspired more than 4,000 academic articles, and in 1977 the first English translation was published under U.N. auspices. Nonetheless, Pagels felt their message was being suppressed because of scholarly snobbism. “Some academics think that if you’re not writing just for them, what you have to say is trivial,” she protests.

Pagels is no stranger to academe. Her husband, Heinz, is a theoretical physicist at Rockefeller University in New York, and though her interpretation of the gospels is only 180 pages long, it has 700 properly academic footnotes. Still, Brown University professor of religious studies Jacob Neusner calls Pagels’ book “a masterpiece of popularization of difficult problems.”

Pagels says her focal point was the question, “As Christianity moved from the personal charisma of Jesus to the social institution of the church, what made certain biblical texts survive into dogma, while others vanished?”

To a second-century church bureaucrat, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, the Gnostic works could be construed only as open heresy. Irenaeus attacked them in the five-volume Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge, and the texts eventually disappeared. Fortunately, those at Nag Hammadi turned up 16 centuries later.

One reason for such harsh treatment was their demystification of Christ’s life. Reconstructed to fill gaps left by damage to the manuscripts, the Gospel of Philip reads: “The companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and said to Him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Savior answered, ‘Why do I not love you as much as I love her?’ ”

In addition, the Gnostics’ introspection didn’t build congregations. “The more I studied,” Pagels says, “the more I understood that orthodoxy was as much a means of preserving the institution as the word of God.”

Brought up as “a WASP, but not an institution-oriented one” in Palo Alto, Calif. (her dad was a biologist at Stanford), Pagels pursued religious studies because “it embraced my interest in all other subjects—poetry, literature, dance, history.” She got her B.A. at Stanford, then went to Harvard for graduate work and was introduced to the gospels. After further study at Oxford, Pagels, who by then knew Coptic as well as Greek, Latin, German and French, helped translate the documents in 1977.

Her new book has already been attacked by conservative theologians. A spokesman at one leading Midwestern seminary observes, “The church has traditionally considered Gnosticism an aberration of Christian belief.” Pagels insists discussion of the Gnostics is healthy for Christianity. ” ‘The greatest modern repression is not sexuality,’ ” she sighs, quoting Carl Jung, ” ‘it is spirituality.’ ”

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