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From the Nov/Dec, 2013 issue of Touchstone


The Gnostic Evangelist by William J. Tighe


The Gnostic Evangelist

The Neo-Gnostic "Alternative Christianity"
of Elaine Pagels

by William J. Tighe

Elaine Pagels is Harrison Spear Pain Professor of Religion at Princeton, and is widely acknowledged, not least by the media, as one of the most renowned American academic experts on Christian origins and the early Church. She obtained her doctorate from Harvard University, where she studied under Helmut Koester. Koester, whose own Doktorvater at Marburg was Rudolf Bultmann, was himself both one of the first promoters of the importance of the Nag Hammadi discoveries for understanding the "diversity" of early Christianity and a strong proponent of the view advanced by Walter Bauer in Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity (1934)—that there was no "orthodoxy" at the beginning of Christianity, just variant and competing forms of belief and teaching, among which Bauer saw Gnostic forms as dominant until well into the second century.

Bauer's thesis is basic to an understanding of the presuppositions of Pagels's own oeuvre. Bauer maintained that what later became dominant as orthodoxy—or, as he termed it, "ecclesiastical Christianity"—was originally simply the type of Christianity dominant in Rome by or around a.d. 100, but embraced at the time by only a few isolated figures elsewhere. Over the course of the next century, Bauer claimed, the Roman Church forced its understanding on the greater part of the Christian world of the Roman Empire by use of its prestige as the Church of Peter and Paul, its wealth, the able leadership of its bishops, and its compassionate attitude towards repentant sinners and simple Christian believers, with the result that other types of Christianity became marginalized and stigmatized by this dominant form as heretical.

Pagels, although she has considerably altered the details and the supporting arguments, still upholds the essence of Bauer's thesis in claiming that there was no primitive Christian orthodoxy, but only an inchoate welter of diversity: "Christianities" rather than "Christianity." In a way, she has even made it more radical by insisting that the documents comprising the New Testament canon themselves ought not to have, and in fact do not have, any priority either in time of composition, in authenticity of contents, or of authority for belief over other, non-canonical documents.

But in doing this—and this is what differentiates her from the skeptical scholars who comprise the "Jesus Seminar," of whom the most egregious must be John Dominic Crossan—she manages to give the impression that she is not an enemy of religious belief or of Christianity, but rather someone who wants to uncover the true spiritual essence of Christianity and the truth about its origins by stripping away from it "church dogmas" that have perverted the one and obscured the other.

Themes Introduced in The Gnostic Gospels

The Gnostic Gospels (1979), the first of Pagels's popular works, is divided into six chapters. Chapter one, "The Controversy over Christ's Resurrection: Historical Event or Symbol," contrasts the difference between the orthodox (and New Testament) view that Christ's resurrection was real, historical, and physical, and that the apostles (the Twelve plus Paul), as its official witnesses, had an authority within the Christian community that was unique, with the Gnostic view that its physical reality was irrelevant, whether true or false, and that what was important was that the true Gnostic Christian experience spiritual resurrection within himself.

The second chapter, "'One God, One Bishop: The Politics of Monotheism," deals with the ideology of episcopal authority in the Church in the late first and second centuries. Pagels views this as asserted most emphatically in the writings of St. Irenaeus against Gnostic denials, but she also sees it explicitly in the letters of St. Ignatius around the year 100 and in the Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians some time earlier. Basic to the orthodox case, as she asserts, is the identity of "God the Father Almighty" with "the Creator of Heaven and Earth" and with the God of Israel. Some Gnostics were, of course, dualists, as were the Marcionites, but the Valentinians (to whom she gives the lion's share of attention in the book) were willing to confess "God the Father Almighty," but the "Creator of Heaven and Earth" and "God of Israel" they regarded as an inferior being, the demiurge.

It was the demiurge who had established celestial hierarchies, and so the Valentinians were able to reject the argument from hierarchy by which Clement, Ignatius, and Irenaeus were to defend the nature of the Church as a structured community, the distinction of orders between clergy and laity and within the clergy, and the distinction between men and women. Instead (as Pagels sees it), in Valentinian communities a "spiritual equality" obtained by which those who performed functions of leadership and service were chosen frequently and on a temporary basis by lot, without distinction of sex, age, length of membership in the community, and the like.

Chapter three, "God the Father/God the Mother," expands on the idea of an androgynous god in various Gnostic groups, or else the complementary idea that "the male and female principles" are equally expressed in the manifestations of the Gnostic god. This chapter particularly stresses how women played both spiritual and sacramental leadership roles among the Valentinian Gnostics, as well as among the Marcionites, the Montanists, and the Carpocratians, and contrasts this with the strict upholding of differentiation between the roles of men and women in Tertullian, Irenaeus, Clement of Rome, and (as she sees it, ambiguously) St. Paul. She ends the chapter with an allusion to the 1977 papal statement Inter Insigniores rejecting the ordination of women.

The Appeal of Pagels's Emphases

Chapter four, "The Passion of Christ," deals with differences of outlook over martyrdom. Some Gnostic groups rejected it altogether and felt that their adherents could deny being Christians when brought before the public authorities, while others, like the Valentinians, although they thought that martyrdom was preferable to a direct denial of their faith, insisted that martyrdom could not bring salvation and perfection to those who were unenlightened, and that even for those (Gnostics) who were enlightened, it was a lesser form of witness than living a spiritual life.

Chapter five, "Whose Church Is the 'True Church'?" deals with the contrast between the one, visibly united, sacramental, and creedal body under the authority of its bishops, with the invisible and spiritual church of the Gnostics, defined by the degree of illumination of its members, their relations with one another, and their spiritual kinship.

The sixth and final chapter, "Gnosis: Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God" contrasts the orthodox reliance on external authority, revelation, dogma, and the sacraments with the Gnostic stress on individual insight by means of meditation and other spiritual practices, leading to a "transformed consciousness." Pagels explicitly likens the Gnostic approach to that of modern psychotherapeutic technique and insists that what the Gnostics valued above all else was "the primacy of immediate experience."

From even this brief summary, we can see in Pagels a certain emphasis on individual spiritual autonomy and self-sufficiency, a functional equality of community roles, including equality between men and women (contrasted with an "inflexible" hierarchical order conceived as reflecting the order of Creation), and a primacy of individual experience over rules in one's spiritual life (and perhaps in what we would term moral decision-making)—all of which has an obvious appeal to both the generally egalitarian and the specifically feminist currents of thinking in the contemporary world.

Against Augustine

Pagels's second popular book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent appeared in 1988. This book does deal to some extent with the contrast between orthodox and Gnostic exegesis of the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, their tempting by the Serpent, and their Fall, as told in the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis. But it is rather more concerned with what Pagels portrays as an almost revolutionary reversal of Christian thinking on such related subjects as human free will; the possibility of rejecting, at least within the community of Christians, the tyrannical world order of the Roman Empire; the goodness of sexuality and marriage; the restoration of primal innocence; and (at least implicitly) the possibility of a more egalitarian social order.

This drastic "reversal," which she clearly deplores, she attributes in large part to the efforts and writings of St. Augustine—in particular, to what she sees as his invention of Original Sin, his emphasis on human depravity, his pessimism concerning both the human race as a whole and the possibility of altruism and selfless behavior on a large scale, and his consequent insistence on the need for the authority of both church and state to cooperate in the repression of self-will and vice.

She draws a striking, and almost absolute, contrast between Augustine's views and those of other Christian thinkers such as Justin Martyr, Origen, and John Chrysostom. And, without explicitly saying so, she seems to regard Pelagius as a more orthodox Christian, in traditional terms, than Augustine. Likewise, she strongly hints (again, without stating outright) that such "evils" as patriarchalism, misogyny, authoritarianism in both church and state, and sexual guilt and neurosis were, if not created by the triumph of Augustinianism, at least supported by it.

A Theory of Demonization

Her third popular book was The Origin of Satan, which appeared in 1995. Contrary to what the title might seem to imply, it is not a history of the origin and evolution of the figure of Satan and the demonic powers (although one chapter touches briefly on this theme), but is rather a kind of social history of Satan in Christian thinking—or, in her own words, "Satan as a reflection of how we perceive ourselves and those we call 'others.'" What she attempts is, in fact, nothing less than to trace back to the New Testament (and to orthodox Christian thought in the subsequent period, before Constantine) the origins of seeing human existence as a conflict between Good and Evil, and the development, in those controversies, of the process of demonizing opposition groups.

The first four chapters trace what she sees as the demonization of Jesus' opponents among the Jews, and eventually of the Jewish people themselves, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, although she does recognize that this process of "demonization" was itself initiated by the Jewish followers of Jesus. Perhaps surprisingly, she alludes hardly at all to St. Paul's attitude towards the Jewish people; and perhaps not so surprisingly, she avoids the question (although indicating her awareness of it) of whether Jesus' own strong words against his opponents were genuinely his own, or attributed to him by the Evangelists.

The last two chapters of this book deal with the demonization of the pervasive pagan cults and social customs of the Greco-Roman world by the persecuted Christians, and of dissident heretical Christians and Christian groups by St. Paul and such church fathers as Clement of Rome, Tertullian, and Irenaeus. Throughout the last chapter, we can see once more her strong predilection for the Valentinian Gnostics and their views, as compared to those of the orthodox. At one point, for instance, she contrasts what she clearly regards as the Valentinian Gnostics' more mature struggle for self-mastery over inner drives and vices for the sake of freedom, with the struggle of orthodox Christian ascetics such as St. Anthony of Egypt against the attempts of the demonic powers to insinuate suggestions from outside to tempt weak, but redeemed, Christians.

The book ends with the suggestion that modern fundamentalisms—Christian, Islamic, Marxist-Leninist, and even the fundamentalism of modern political rhetoric—all owe their origins to this orthodox Christian mode of thought.

Autobiographic Undertones

Her 2003 book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, is (I think it is fair to say) the most propagandistic (for the most part implicitly) of her books, as well as the one with the strongest autobiographical undertones. In fact, one might plausibly view this book as a kind of justification of her desire to participate in the life and worship of Christianity (in her case, of the Episcopal Church) on her own terms and without accepting the creedal and dogmatic claims of orthodox Christianity.

It begins with a strongly autobiographical chapter, "From the Feast of the Agape to the Nicene Creed," which postulates a division between seekers and believers in Christianity. Pagels implies that the first generations of Christianity contained room for both sorts—she clearly numbers herself among the seekers—but within three centuries, it came to impose creedal requirements upon its members, thus largely excluding those hoping to find release, comfort, and forgiveness through participation in its rituals, as well as "communion" in sharing a common meal with fellow-seeking human beings.

The remainder of the book is basically a discussion of how the dogmatic believers and their orthodoxy came to triumph in early Christianity by marginalizing, excluding, and branding as heretical the seekers. Chapter two, "Gospels in Conflict: John and Thomas," begins with a confession of her teenaged love for the Gospel of John, which diminished as her discomfort with its condemnations of non-believers and Jews increased. She goes on to speak of her amazement and fascination with other gospels she was introduced to once she began her doctoral studies at Harvard.

Contrasting John & Thomas

Soon we come to one of her principal theses: that the Gospel of John was written as both a response to and rejection of the Gospel of Thomas (and here one might note that her Harvard Doktorvater, Professor Koester, has maintained since the early 1960s that the Gospel of Thomas was written before any of the four canonical Gospels), Thomas being (these are my words, not hers, but they seem a fair enough characterization) the seekers' gospel and John being the believers' Gospel. The other three canonical Gospels are somewhere in between, but closer to John, although they are less dogmatic and more ambiguous in their claims about Jesus and his status, and they contain echoes of the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas.

There is another contrast as well: while John's Jesus gives answers for his followers to accept, Thomas's Jesus poses questions for his followers to answer for themselves, which they do by stripping away their illusions and looking within themselves. Thomas claims that we all may become like Jesus through reflection and introspection, while John portrays Jesus as absolutely unique, and his followers' hope as consisting in participating corporately and spiritually in his uniqueness as "the Word made flesh."

Chapter three, "God's Words or Human Words?" is an extended discussion of the rise of Christian orthodoxy and of the Church as an organized and disciplined community in the face of persecution in the early centuries of our era; of the marginalization and rejection of certain individuals and groups; and of what Pagels sees as the invention of both the four-gospel canon and the concept of an authoritative apostolic tradition by St. Irenaeus himself. Among the marginalized groups she discusses are the Montanists, who proclaimed an ongoing revelation; the Gnostics and those who, like them, sought God on their own, without adhering to the Tradition handed down in the Church, as Irenaeus taught; and the Valentinians, to whom she again gives considerable attention.

Chapter four, "The Canon of Truth and the Triumph of John" is a discussion of what Irenaeus termed the "evil interpreters," and their largely allegorical reading of the Christian Scriptures, primarily the Gospel of John. Again, her sources are chiefly Valentinian writings, such as the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Philip, and the Round Dance of the Cross, all of which she views as based on readings or re-workings of the Gospel of John. She makes the point that what St. Irenaeus really opposed in such groups was not the possibility in itself of a variety of interpretations of Gospel passages, but the manner in which the Valentinians claimed a privileged status within the Church for their interpretations as deeper and more advanced, and for their followers as more mature and more spiritual Christians, while at the same time diminishing the status of ordinary Christians and, in consequence, of both baptism and the Eucharist.

Two Interwoven Themes

"Constantine and the Catholic Church," the book's fifth and final chapter, weaves together two themes. The first of these is the triumph of orthodoxy through the efforts of Irenaeus and others within the Church and their embrace by Constantine. Then came the formulation of the Nicene Creed and the ensuing decades of struggle—in which St. Athanasius was the principal protagonist—to enshrine the Creed as the unquestionable standard of orthodoxy and to exclude its opponents from the Church. The protagonists also sought to define the bishops of the Catholic Church as the guardians of orthodoxy and to secure the backing of imperial authority for their goals.

The chapter's second theme, coming in at its beginning and at the end, is a kind of defense of the way that "seeking" and "intuitive" Christians such as Pagels herself and her daughter Sarah can participate in the rituals and activities of Christian churches without necessarily affirming the Creeds as truth or the dogmatic Tradition of Christianity as binding.

Pagels has already (as we have seen) differentiated between seekers and believers, and now she further differentiates between faith, as the stance of the seekers, and belief, as that of the believers. Faith, in her sense, is an act of choice to participate in certain aspects of the Christian Tradition. While admitting that such an act of choice is precisely what those like Irenaeus and Tertullian stigmatized as heresy, she ends with the confession that, given the impossibility of accepting religious authority on its own terms, the only other possibility for those like her is to "strike out on our own and to make a path where none exists." The commandment to do this, she asserts, is precisely the message of the Gospel of Thomas, and her book ends, in fact, with a translation of that gospel.

Pagels's Popular Appeal

Looking at Pagels's oeuvre as a whole, one can easily see the reasons for its popular appeal. She writes in a demotic and easily understood fashion: the four books reviewed here—especially The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief—are all immensely readable. Her works appeal to a distrust of authority and tradition that not only is a prominent secular motif of modern times, but also is widely shared by various strains of religious liberalism. More significantly, though, her works possess a direct appeal to "communities of sentiment" that have achieved a certain cultural and especially media prominence in recent decades. These include both the feminist and homosexualist communities—or, rather, I should specify, those sub-communities in each of these groups that wish to identify themselves as Christian and to participate in the life of Christian churches on their own terms.

This last is important. There may not be entire agreement as to what their terms are, but at the very least they include the acceptance of the "ordination" of women on a completely equal basis with men and the blessing of homosexual partnerships as tantamount to marriage (and the eligibility of individuals in such partnerships for ordination). For the most part, the proponents of such innovations, it appears, do not wish for their church bodies to repudiate their confessional documents or to revoke their dogmatic decrees (unless, as in the case of the Catholic Church, they bear directly upon their aspirations), but rather to ignore them and to produce justifications for these actions that either ignore the confessional statements or attempt to twist them in their favor. The effect of this is, of course, to relegate the confessions to the status of mere historical documents of uncertain authority and limited value.

Finally, Pagels implicitly flatters her readers by conveying the impression that they are competent to decide for themselves what to accept and what to reject from the Christian Tradition. In other words, her works tell readers that to be a heretic (in the etymological sense) is a token of both intellectual ability and spiritual maturity.

The Example of St. Irenaeus

As a final word, it is worth underlining how much of the general phenomenon of religious revisionism—of which the Pagels enterprise is a striking example—is media-driven. By its very nature, what in media terms is newsworthy is almost of necessity new or novel. Since much scholarly endeavor proceeds slowly and is not easily comprehensible by the reading public—and more especially because the scholarly community is so fragmented that its judgments upon particular scholars usually proceed slowly and obscurely, except in cases of obvious fraud (and often there as well)—it is usually the scholars who can write with a common touch or who are "telegenic" who get the most attention. Elaine Pagels is one of these.

Most recently, Pagels has published Revelations: Visions, Prophesy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (2012), a book that sees the last book of the New Testament as offering a unique insight into how the earliest Christians viewed the chaotic and violent "wartime conditions" of the 60s a.d., and as a frightening and dangerous book, yet one that has offered comfort throughout the centuries to the downtrodden and oppressed. In this respect, it is a partial return to some of the views of the earliest exponents of nineteenth-century German liberal scriptural scholarship, to the fountainhead of that austerely rationalistic school of revisionist Christianity, which has descended by degrees to the kind of largely subjective, self-invented, neo-Gnostic, "therapeutic" Christianity represented in, and encouraged by, the work of Pagels and other contemporary scholars.

This article was originally prepared for a Festschrift in honor of Bishop Roald Nicolai Flemestad, who has shown himself eminently aware—from the Norwegian perspective and through long experience of various ecclesiastical and academic milieus—how strong a current, or even a deluge, the more general views discussed in this essay have become, and how necessary it remains for the teaching authority within the Church to resist and rebut them. He may well find some consolation in the example of St. Irenaeus and his vindication of the apostolic tradition, which speaks directly to the needs and conditions of our own time and place. •

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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“The Gnostic Evangelist” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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