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Originally published Wednesday, April 28, 2010 at 7:12 PM

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'Gnostic Gospels' author Pagels to speak in Seattle

Author Elaine Pagels ("The Gnostic Gospels") speaks in Seattle on April 30.

Special to The Seattle Times

Event preview

Elaine Pagels

7:30 p.m. Friday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $10-$70 (206-621-2230 or

In December of 1945, a pair of brothers digging for fertilizer near limestone caves near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi discovered an ancient red earthenware jar containing 13 papyrus manuscripts.

The works were third- and fourth-century Coptic language translations of earlier Greek texts from the first 200 years after the death of Jesus Christ. These were largely secret writings of Gnostic Christians, a sect of early believers condemned by more powerful, organized Christians as heretical.

It would take decades before these manuscripts were fully researched, translated and published. When they were, they revealed an even more rich, extraordinarily diverse and contentious early Christian culture than previously thought.

Elaine Pagels, then a doctoral student at Harvard in the 1960s, worked on the find. Since then, Pagels (who speaks Friday at Benaroya Hall), a professor of religion at Princeton University, has done much to draw attention to what became known as The Nag Hammadi Library, particularly "The Gospel of Thomas," a collection of sometimes unexpected sayings attributed to Jesus.

In her best-selling books "The Gnostic Gospels" and "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas," Pagels describes striking thematic contrasts between the canonical gospels of the New Testament (especially John) and Thomas. The latter portrays Jesus not as a messiah, but as a teacher revealing a path to eternal life through self-insight.

"Orthodox Christian tradition was built on only 60 pages of gospels in the New Testament," says Pagels by phone from a train to New York. "There was so much other contemporaneous Christian literature, other perspectives, other collections of the sayings of Jesus. The criterion for determining which are authentic has been, 'If it sounds like Jesus, it must be the real Jesus.' But rabbis often speak in an advanced way in private. Jesus surely did, too."

Pagels says the essential contrast between John and Thomas is in their messages about Jesus.

"John says Jesus is utterly unique, and you have to know about Jesus because your salvation depends on it," Pagels says. "Whereas Thomas says that, yes, Jesus is a manifestation of divine light — but so are you. The light is buried in you and me, obscured and forgotten. Jesus speaks as one who is divine, but the same potential is in everyone. So one's salvation is in discovering who you are."

Pagels says decisions about which gospels were accepted in the New Testament had much to do with the survival of Christianity. Canonical uniformity was key to establishing an organized church.

"The message of the New Testament is that if you want to know God, you need to go through our church," says Pagels. "So if someone else, such as Thomas, says you already have access to God just because of the way you are, that doesn't help a church."

Tom Keogh:

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