The Gnostic Gospels is the best-known of Elaine Pagels' books studying the early Christian and Nag Hammadi manuscripts. Pagers is a Harvard-educated religious historian and her work generally takes a deeper look into the way in which women were viewed throughout Judeo-Christian history.
Published in 1979, the Gnostic Gospels deals with the divisions in the early Christian church. After the first hundred years or so of Christianity, two main divisions developed - the orthodox and the Gnostics. The orthodox held true to what became the books of the Bible as we know it today. The Gnostics held very different views of Jesus, the Bible and Salvation. However, they had no actual apostolic writings to legitimize their way of thinking. This is how the Gnostic Gospels came to be created. The Gnostics attached the names of well known Christians, such as Thomas, Phillip and Mary, and fraudulently declared them to be Gospels. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt in 1945 discovered what were often referred to as "the lost books of the Bible". Early church fathers recognized these as false teachings about almost every major Christian event. They are a useful tool for studying early Christianity but are not considered a true representation of the Christian faith.
Elaine Pamela suggests that Christianity could have developed quite differently if these Gnostic texts had become part of the Christian canon. Gnosticism shows God as a mother and a father figure, shows Jesus and Mary Magdalene as romantically involved, and teaches that the road to knowing God is through knowing oneself. Pagels posits that Christian orthodoxy was influenced and shaped by political needs and the necessity of forming a church leadership and that it might have. Even more unique had the Gnostic Gospels been included in the orthodox teachings.
The Gnostic Gospels was extremely well received by critics and was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award.