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.
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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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