Monday, October 28, 2013

Elaine Pagels


One of the foremost scholars of ancient Christianity is Elaine Pagels of Princeton University. She is known primarily for her work with the Gnostic Gospels, and the Nag Hammadi Library, which was a collection of ancient Christian writings discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945. As a young scholar, she had access to the Nag Hammadi library, and did scholarly research on the Gnostic gospels. She published her landmark popular book, The Gnostic Gospels, in 1979.

Not only did Pagels study the Gnostic Gospels but she also found them personally meaningful. She likes their emphasis on finding the divine within one's self, and the subversive nature of the Gnostic Gospels. Pagels notes in her writings and interviews, that if one can find the divine within one's self, that makes the Church or Church authority superfluous. She hypothesizes that this may be one reason that Church authorities suppressed these ancient Gospels. In particular, she notes Athanasius ordering the burning of Gnostic or Secret gospels, and his Easter letter listing the 27 books of the New Testament as we have it today. Some of the monks though, liked the Gnostic gospels, and one such monk buried his treasure of Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi.

The Gnostic form of Christianity emphasized finding the divine within one's self more than beliefs about Christ or God, according to Pagels; it was not unlike Buddhist spirituality. She also believes that early Christianity was quite rich in its diversity, and that  there were several different ways of understanding Jesus and his message. She also notes that women had authority in some of these ancient Christian communities, though not in the proto-orthodox communities after the second century.

Some will say that the Gnostic Gospels did not make it into the canon because they were not very good, and that because the Gnostic Christian writings are disparate, they did not present a coherent faith. Another criticism of ancient Gnosticism was that it was elitist.

Pagels herself admits that Christianity probably endured because of the coherence of orthodoxy. She even says in her book Beyond Belief that the orthodox understanding of Christianity was likely winning even before it was established by church and imperial authorities. But she also finds the spirituality of the Gnostic Gospels compelling and that it was a vital force in ancient Christianity. Early Gnostic leaders, such as Valentinus and Marcion enjoyed large followings and were a challenge to ancient orthodoxy. As William Barclay notes, Gnostics were part of the ancient church. Pagels says that if the Gnostics had won the day, and had become the dominant form of Christianity, that the Church would resemble more closely the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Pagels experienced personal tragedy in the 1980's as she lost both her six year old son, and several months later, her husband. She describes a morning in which she was jogging in Central Park, trying to deal with the grief of losing her son. As the weather was cold and rainy, she slipped into the back of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest. There she observed the worship, and found it comforting and meaningful, and came to appreciate the importance of the faith community. She later remarried a man who had also been widowed, and they raised a blended family together.

Pagels has written many books, a very popular one being Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, released in 2004. In this book, Pagels talks about the controversy between Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas. One portrays Jesus as the Light of the World, and the unique source of salvation; the other teaches that although Jesus is the light of the world, this light can be found in every person for themselves. She believes that the Gospel of John was written in part to counter the Gospel of Thomas. Of course, Thomas is portrayed as doubting Jesus at first, and then later, confessing him as Lord and God after putting his fingers in the wounds of the Resurrected Christ.

Not all will agree with Professor Pagels, and her take on early Christianity. But she has brought to light the richness of diversity in early Christianity, and the intriguing Gnostic Gospels.

Below are some links for Elaine Pagels:

PBS: Mary Alice Williams's interview with Princeton historian Elaine Pagels

The Politics of Christianity: A Talk with Elaine Pagels

PBS NOW Interview with Bill Moyers

Elaine Pagel's Faculty Page from Princeton University

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