Elaine Pagels / Gnostic Christianity

This is an excerpt of an interview with Elaine Pagels that will appear in Species #1


There is much else Jesus did. If it were all to be recorded in detail, I suppose the whole world could not hold the books that would be written.

– John 21: 25


Jesus said: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

--  Gospel of Thomas 45. 30-33, in Nag Hammadi Library 189.


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The subject of Gnosticism and Gnostic Christianity is a very large one and a starting point from which to present an introduction is a difficult position to come to. For centuries scholars of western history were aware of what seemed to be a primeval counter Christianity that rivaled the Catholic Church in the early Roman Empire called Gnosticism. What exactly the beliefs were seemed hard to pin down although two strains came through the murk of history concerning what exactly Gnosticism was all about. Gnosticism was anti-authoritarian and individualistic in direct opposition to Roman Catholicism’s traditional authoritarian and hierarchical structure. Gnosticism also seemed to contain proto-feminist elements such as woman priests, books from the Bible which were attributed to the women in Jesus’ life, in particular Mary Magdalene, and many names for the female aspects of God who would be described as Father-Mother in Gnostic texts. The Holy Spirit in Gnostic writings is ascribed as female in gender rather than neutral and beings such as Sophia and Eponia are perceived as female aspects of the diety.

            At its most radical Gnosticism turned Biblical tradition and Christian dogma on its head by insisting that while there was no devil the existence of evil could be accounted for by the belief that God, or at least one aspect of God, was insanely arrogant in his demands to “recognize no other gods but me” which was a “sin against the entirety.” These views, expressed in books like The Hypostasis of the Archons created a mythology whereby Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, was in actuality the demiurge, a being who along with his allies the Archons (or Princes) created the material universe and the planets to trap spirit in gross matter. Sophia and Jesus were sent by the true and Higher God – Anthropos – to correct matters and liberate the human spirit from political and physical oppression.

            The Catholic Church once it was aligned with the Roman Government in the fourth century destroyed all of the Gnostic texts they could find and the authors of the same although strains in Gnosticism kept popping up in heresies throughout the Middle Ages and even made its presence known in nineteenth century occult societies such as The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

            The rediscovery of the bulk of the Gnostic Gospels is an amazing story. In 1945 an Egyptian night watchman shot an intruder in the farm machinery lot he worked at. The next morning a relative of the intruder murdered the night watchman in retaliation starting an Arab blood feud. The sons of the night watchman vowed to their mother they would avenge their father’s death. Not long after doing so one of the sons, Muhammad Ali al Samman, found a clay jar under a rock in the Nile Valley while looking for fertilizer. Smashing open the jar thinking that it might contain gold he found instead thirteen ancient papyrus books bound in leather which he took home. His mother thought they were trash and burned some and bartered some away to the neighbors. One day Muhammad Ali and his brothers found the man who murdered their father asleep under a palm and fell on him with their machetes, hacked him to pieces and ate his heart. The luckless man was, incidentally, the son of the local sheriff. Fearing that the ancient books would be confiscated by the police the family gave them to a Christian Coptic priest whose  brother-in-law was a history teacher. The brother-in-law recognizing that the language in the books was the  ancient Coptic language spelt with Greek letters took one of the manuscripts to Cairo. Soon antiquity speculators and black marketers were  lousy in Nag Hammadi, the town where the books were found, hoping to make a fortune on the find. Thirty years of political and international academic intrigue followed until the Egyptian Government was finally able to unite all of what became called The Nag Hammadi Library in the Coptic Museum in Cairo as national property and an international team of scholars were able to translate into western languages the entire contents of these ancient writings. What these scholars, including Carl Jung, found were forty texts that had never been seen before and some others. These texts have radically altered the way students of the origens of Christianity have perceived the religion as a whole.

            Elaine Pagels is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and one of the translators of the Nag Hammadi. In 1979 she wrote a book called The Gnostic Gospels for the non-academic public detailing the importance of these books in understanding western belief. As a historian and scholar Professor Pagels has tried to reconcile what she says she loves about Christianity with what she “cannot love” that is to say Fundamentalist intolerance and the belief that only through a particular take on Jesus can someone avoid eternal damnation. Bored by the conventional Protestant church of her youth and alienated by the cultishness of the evangelical sect she joined as a teen ager Pagel's turned to academia. She learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew and eventually Coptic in order to read religious texts in their original languages. I met Professor Pagels at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and conducted a phone interview with her in Princeton on August 30th.


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S: I want to compliment you on the level-headedness of your writing.


EP: Thank you. Religion is not a subject most people are level-headed about but thank you. I appreciate your compliment.


S: Your last book Beyond Belief seems to be your most personal and autobiographical work. What led into your writing this book? What was the initial premise?


EP: Well there are several starting points for a book like Beyond Belief. I was reading The Gospel of Thomas, intensely and the more I read it the more I was struck by an intimation that The Gospel According to John in the New Testament was written in response to Thomas, an older writing. Thomas was one of the Nag Hammadi books that had been discovered in Egypt and had previously only existed in fragmentary form. That was one of the impulses to my writing this book, understanding the difference between these two interpretations and what it meant in terms of the history of the early church and what Christianity is now and why. In early Christianity, contrary to what we once thought, there was a wide diversity of interpretations of what it meant to be a Christian. Christianity wasn't a small, pure and simple sect that many, myself included, once thought the movement was. Two prominent groups of early Christians seemed to be people who followed the sayings that were written down in The Gospel of Thomas called "Thomas Christians" and followers of the teachings of John called "Johannine Christians." Both of these texts, The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of John, departed in many ways from the three other gospels in the New Testament and have similarities between them. They also depart from one another in radical ways. The Gospel According to John, like the other three synoptic gospels, tells the life of Jesus and records his teachings but changes the order of events and adds things that don't appear in the other three accounts such as Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. This text was written around 100 AD in Syria and while it is attributed to John, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, it probably wasn't written by him. It is the one gospel that unambiguously identifies Jesus as God and where it is said that only through Jesus is one able to come to "the Father." John was the last of the canonical gospels to be written.

The Gospel of Thomas on the other hand, while predating John does not tell any of the events in the life of Jesus, describe any miracles or provide any biographical information. It is rather a list of sayings attributed to Jesus that the author calls secret teachings. The assumption here is that the story is already known. Like John this other gospel was probably not written by the disciple called Judas Thomas (not to be confused with Judas Iscariot) but by someone or a group that revered the disciple Thomas and his interpretations of the Christian message. Some of the sayings in Thomas are familiar from other places in The New Testament -- others are unique to Thomas. Thomas seems to stress certain tendencies characteristic of what we see in Gnostic writing such as the need for a seeker to find truth through individual experience in addition to just receiving it through tradition. When the church fathers denounced the "Gnostics" one of the problems they had was the wide-range of divergent views and beliefs about God or the "spirit" that Gnosticism seemed to have. Many Gnostic writings encouraged individual insights rather than group cohesion. When Orthodox Christians collected the writings that made up the New Testament they embraced John as one of the four canonical gospels of the New Testament while Thomas was suppressed. This suggests a political history involving the formation of the early church that I wanted to investigate. Why was Thomas suppressed? Another reason for writing the book is I love this material.


S: There seems to be a real pop revival of Christianity -- both orthodox and heterodox understandings. This is apparent in the culture right now. On the heterodox side you have The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown which is about Jesus having passed down his bloodline through Mary Magdalene. Whenever I've mentioned the Nag Hammadi to people many of them have asked me "Is that like The Da Vinci Code?" While Christian groups and publishers have been trying to refute this understanding one reading of The Gospel of Philip, one of the Nag Hammadi texts, suggests a marriage or possible erotic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Can you speak to this.


EP: As I wrote in The Gnostic Gospels, where Dan Brown read it, The Gospel of Philip says that "the companion of the Lord was Mary Magdalene; and he loved her more than the other disciples, and he kissed her often on her (---)." Brown took off from there to write a fiction thriller. Does the text support the idea that Jesus was married and had children? Not at all. The Gospel of Philip takes Mary as a symbolic figure for the Holy Spirit and the Church. The Holy Spirit in Gnostic writings is often perceived as female in the way that God the Father is perceived as male. Terms like Sophia Greek for "wisdom" expressed in the feminine gender convey this understanding.


S: On the more orthodox side of things you have the success of Mel Gibson's Passion film in which all the dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin.


EP: Yes when they actually would have all been speaking Greek. [laughs]


S: What's your take on the phenomena of the film from a scholar's position?

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EP: Well the authority of Christian religious institutions have come into question as you know. Whether we're speaking of Roman Catholicism or what is happening in the Protestant Churches. I don't know of a single church that isn't divided on social issues. There's a lot of division over sexuality, gay sexuality and abortion and so forth. Every church is having its institutional authority questioned. I think we are living in a time where people are becoming aware that what we call Christianity is an interpretation or maybe many interpretations of a very ancient tradition.

            I had a teacher at Harvard who was a Calvinist Dutchman. He used to say: "I want to make you Catholic" and he meant by that "universal." He wanted his students to understand that Christian doesn't mean whatever they were raised with. It means Pentecostal, it means Baptist, it means Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox. It's a huge spectrum.

            What Mel Gibson was doing was advocating the Catholicism of pre-Vatican II and that's what he thinks is important to do. Certainly most Catholics wouldn't agree with him but he got his message across pretty well in that film.


S: I thought that basically what he was trying to do was put a Catholic High Mass on film in Latin and Aramaic. Make a film out of the whole ritual.


EP: That's a good point. I think you're absolutely right. You mean the way he did the crucifixion as a sort of Eucharist at the end?


S: Yeah. One of the criticisms people had of the film was that it just seemed to focus on this gory suffering and death. One critic called it "a Jesus snuff flick." I think they missed the point. I was raised in a heavy traditional Spanish Catholic Church in an uptight Irish Catholic family and the blood and pain is a big deal. Lent and the death of Jesus and then a three-hour Good Friday mass. I think for Gibson his film was a genuine religious statement and I don't think everyone who saw the film understood that or understood where he was coming from. This is not to say that I'm a political fellow traveler with Mel Gibson by any means.


EP: I think you're perfectly right. It was clear that the film was a mess in some ways. Somebody said to me "But it doesn't explain anything. You just enter the garden and…" Of course not. You have to know the story. The story is a traditional interpretation of the suffering of Christ which, as you know, comes out of the gospel accounts, in this case with Catholic devotional material mixed in. The story was also structured after the tradition of Medieval passion plays and art -- people standing at the foot of the cross. This was a devotional act in that sense. I think it's very exciting in a way that people are recognizing the power of these religious traditions and exploring them in this way.


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S: One of the main criticisms of the film -- and I don't want to focus on Passion too much -- was perceived anti-Semitism. You deal with this subject in The Origin of Satan. As you examine the four synoptic gospels which became the canon of the New Testament the tone of the gospels seems increasingly anti-Semitic from Mark to John. I don't think the authors, whoever they were, were anti-Semitic as they were probably Jews themselves -- but this language seems to have had an unfortunate trajectory throughout Christian history as a justification for persecuting Jews.


EP: I agree with you. I watched the film with a friend of mine who is the head of the theater here at Princeton. She's Jewish and she kept saying to me "Is that in the gospels? Is that in the gospels?" and I kept saying "Yes, yes, yes." Much of it was. Mel Gibson said "I was just taking it out of the gospel truth." What he didn't acknowledge was the gospels have their own interpretations influenced by the intense and terrifying persecutions the Christians went through from both Jewish and Roman authorities. Peter and Paul were crucified and beheaded -- whatever happened to Paul we don't know. James was stoned to death. The leaders of this movement were brutally killed early on and the others were put on warning that their lives were at stake. So they told the story of the passion in an attempt to exempt the Romans to some extent and demonstrate that Jesus was not a seditionist. This was to keep themselves safe in a situation of enormous danger mostly from Roman police. So the gospel writers had an agenda and a spin. The gospels were not anti-anybody, they were just written in a way meant to preserve the movement.

            When this group became allied with the Roman Empire -- which nobody expected in the first century -- then this anti-Jewish spin became very dangerous because then the government could legislate anti-Jewish measures. You can make it a capital crime to convert somebody to Judaism for example and kill them.


S: Which is what Constantine, the first Christian emperor, did?


EP: Actually Emperor Theodosius about fifty years later. Interestingly Constantine and others in his family chose not to be baptized until they were dying because they realized the business of being an emperor was a rather dirty one and you'd probably have to do things that were sins. It was only when he realized that he was dying did Constantine accept baptism. So he took his crown off and he died. Theodosius later was baptized while he was still the living emperor and ended up becoming very zealous and enacted a number of anti-Jewish and anti-heretic laws.


S: One thing that I wanted to say contrasting Gnosticism with Orthodox Christianity, the one being very individualistic and the other rigid and authoritarian, is that the orthodox church had the strength to survive the fall of the Roman Empire. Perhaps this was because it was rigid and authoritarian although those qualities alienate many people now.


EP: Well this church came out of persecution and it was necessary to have a tight hierarchical structure. How else could you run anything like that in those days except through one ruler that everybody obeyed. This was the structure of Roman society with Caesar on top and the church copied it. They had a different kind of social order than what we have now -- fortunately for us.


S: In that case I have to ask did the Gnostics fall or were they pushed? In Constantine's Sword there's an account of a Christian mob burning to the ground both a synagogue and a Gnostic Church in a Roman border town on the Euphrates River in present-day Iraq. Theodosius responded by ordering the mob to rebuild the structures out of their own pockets. While he had no love for Jews or Gnostics as emperor he wasn't going to tolerate lawlessness or mob rule in the empire. St. Ambrose, the bishop who baptized St. Augustine into Roman Catholicism, confronted him on this interrupting mass in Constantinople to do so. He forced Theodosius to rescind the order so that the buildings were left in ruins. Ambrose insisted that neither Gnostic nor Jew be treated with impartiality.


EP: Or even justice.


S: Or even justice. It seems like the Gnostics didn't just dissolve from lack of order or discipline but were, in fact, helped to disappear.


EP: Certainly that. I really think now that the Gnostics were not a separate group. They were members of the church. They were baptized. They professed the same god that the orthodox did. It's just that they went on to ask questions. "We believe in Jesus," they'd say, "we have faith but that's not enough. We want to go on to understand. We want gnosis." It's really what St. Augustine was talking about when he talked about faith seeking understanding. They wanted understanding. They were really theologians in a way. They did what Catholic priests and rabbis do when they teach their own students and say "Well we don't think hell is a burning pit. Its meaning has to do with spiritual suffering." They reinterpreted a lot of things. I don't think they were a separate group so much except in the fourth century they tended to meet separately in meetings that were not authorized by the bishop. I think they intended to be the mystical enclave in the church. When you mentioned the orthodox churches Joe, they never excluded that dimension. So today the Copts, the Russian Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox have that mystical element much more integrated into monastic piety. It's not that Catholic monastic piety lacks it, because I just got through visiting a Trappist monastic community in Colorado and they explore that as well -- monastic communities have always done that -- there was just a historical censorship imposed on the question of "Well we have faith. How do we go beyond that?"

            We used to think Gnosticism involved a big rebellion against orthodoxy when in fact, as Irenaeus has said, many of these so-called Valentinian Christians (a school of Gnosticism) were priests themselves. The Gnostics had nothing against the hierarchy but they tried to go beyond the first level of faith toward greater understanding.


S: One thing that seems to be characteristic of the New Testament, and you get into this in your first book The Gnostic Gospels, is the lack of a woman's voice or female perspective. You wrote that among the Orthodox Clement of Alexandria was "unique in praising women" pagan and Christian, Jew and gentile, for noble works.


EP: As far as I know yes.


S: When I was going to UC Santa Cruz which was a hardcore feminist school…


EP: Yes I know. I grew up in Palo Alto and spent a lot of time in Santa Cruz.


S: Well in some of the lit classes they used to like to beat up on the church fathers for their perceived misogyny.


EP: [laughs] Really?


S: In particular Origin and Tertullian were singled out.


EP: Origin doesn't deserve that. Tertullian maybe. Tertullian loved to say outrageous things and probably believed them until he broke with the Catholic Church and became a Montanist. The Montanist movement was a movement of so-called "New Prophecy" which was headed by three prophets: two women and one man. Tertullian changed his views at that point. I don't think Origin was a misogynist. Origin was a resolute celibate but that's quite different. He even castrated himself so that he could mingle with his women students without suspicion.


S: Speaking as a male that's an extreme length to go to for virtue.


EP: [laughs] Justin Martyr, another church father, praised such a gesture and many Christians did castrate themselves although others criticized such behavior while some admired it.


S: Well what I was getting at is that in the Nag Hammadi there are many books that are at least attributed to women. Something like "Thunder, Perfect Mind" for instance. Do you think a woman wrote that?

For I am the first and the last
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.
I am the members of my mother.
I am the barrren one
and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
and I have not taken a husband.

Thunder: Perfect Mind -- In the Nag Hammadi Library translated by George W. MacCrae and Douglass M. Parrott.


EP: That's an interesting question. It's certainly written in the voice of a feminine power. It sounds like the hymns to Isis and I don't know if women or men wrote them. There were priestesses of Isis and priests also. For example you can read a wonderful book called The Golden Ass which is written by Lucius Apulieus in the second century. He was apparently an affluent Roman who became a devoté of the Egyptian goddess Isis. The premise is that a man turns into an ass and then by the eleventh chapter the ass turns back into a human being. This is a metaphor for a person living on an animal level becoming an initiate of the goddess Isis, therefore becoming transformed. It's a comic religious parable and in the book the author writes prayers and monologues in the voice of Isis. So it could be written by a man devoted to Isis.


S: "Thunder, Perfect Mind" reminded me a little bit of Taoist poems while The Gospel of Mary Magdalene with its fragmentary descriptions of what's supposed to happen to you after you die reminded me of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the language in translation.


EP: That's right and there are other passages in The Dialogue of the Savior that talk about the soul after death. That's obviously an important topic in some of these texts. They are probably similar to The Tibetan Book of the Dead. They talk about overcoming the power of fear, for example, which is a major theme in some of these sources.



Elaine Pagels has also written The Origen of Satan, Beyond Belief and Adam Eve and the Serpent available through Vintage.

For further reading:
The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures. Edited by James M. Robinson. HarperCollins (New York) 1978.