Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Gospel According to Pagels

Bruce Chilton is a well-known biblical scholar who has written an interesting article about Elaine Pagels for The New York Sun. Pagels was one of the lead translators for the Nag Hammadi collection and has become an authority and popular author in all matters gnostic.

Chilton gives Pagels her due as a scholar but also takes issue with some of her conclusions about gnosticism. For one thing he thinks she overstates the case that the emerging Christian orthodoxy was in an asymmetrical power situation with regards to the gnostic movement, and that this contributed to orthodoxy's eventual "victory":

Because successive emperors promoted or permitted the persecution of "atheists" — people such as Christians who refused to acknowledge the gods of Rome and the divinity of the emperor — both Catholics and Gnostics were martyred, paying for their convictions with torture and even death. Although the great majority from both sides managed to find an accommodation with their Roman masters, enough of them refused to bend to the will of their persecutors that Catholics and Gnostics alike had to contend with the question of how much their adherents should put themselves in harm's way for their beliefs.

Under the circumstances of Roman rule, it is unconvincing, misleading, and inaccurate to portray Catholics as somehow exercising power over Gnostics in the period prior to the fourth century. After Constantine's conversion, of course, Rome's might did back Catholic Christianity in military and financial, as well as political, terms. But it is anachronistic to describe the two groups' relationship prior to that as a power inequality. Both of them were oppressed. They did argue with one another, and amongst themselves; that was the nature of theological debate in earliest Christianity, and in the ancient Mediterranean world as a whole. Moreover, the lines of demarcation and debate were fluid: Many Catholics claimed access to true gnosis, while Gnostics claimed their truth was universal. In fact, "Catholic" and "Gnostic," though convenient terms for grouping differing communities in retrospect, did not at the time represent mutually exclusive orientations, as Ms. Pagels herself admits.

He also thinks Pagels often looks at gnosticism with glasses tinted by her own liberal agenda:

Ms. Pagels is too wise to pretend that the Gnosticism of the historical sources supports the Neo-Gnostic fashions of our time that have thrived in New Age circles. Yet in "The Gnostic Gospels," she does compare the texts to what existentialists, feminists, and environmentalists have to say. Her habit might be seen as part of the historian's function, to use today's language to help explain yesterday's events and movements. But by impact if not by intent, her book has promoted the view that Gnosticism is a liberal version of Christianity, when in fact liberalism and Gnosticism are radically different phenomena.

By softening the hard edges of the texts she herself had a hand in translating, Ms. Pagels has robbed many of her readers of an appreciation of the real force of the Gnostic Gospels. The fact is that Gnosticism, even after Constantine, was not successfully repressed. Many of its books were indeed destroyed or hidden away; it seems plausible that the Nag Hammadi library was sealed in a jar and buried to protect the writings from overzealous orthodox monks during the fourth century. But even as the books went underground, the power of gnosis remained.

And, Chilton argues, remains to this day. Gnosticism is alive and well not only among some liberal Christians who, like me, find some parts of it attractive but also among fundamentalist Christians where a form of gnostic thinking thrives:

Fundamentalism is fiercely attached to the ultimately Gnostic doctrine that God paid Satan by permitting his son to die.

Pagels is still one of the best sources for knowledge about gnosticism, and she has helped open the door to understanding the great diversity of the early Christian period, but she too succombs to the temptation I called attention to a few days ago.

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