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In 1945 fifty-two papyrus texts, including gospels and other secret documents, were found concealed in an earthenware jar buried in the Egyptian desert. These so-called Gnostic writings were Coptic translations from the original Greek dating from the time of the New Testament. The material they embodied - poems, quasi-philosophical descriptions of the origins of the universe, myths, magic and instructions for mystic practice - were later declared heretical, as they offered a powerful alternative to the Orthodox Christian tradition. In a book that is as exciting as it is scholarly, Elaine Pagels examines these texts and the questions they pose and shows why Gnosticism was eventually stamped out by the increasingly organised and institutionalised Orthodox Church.