Elaine Pagels / Gnostic
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.
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
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.
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
Elaine Pagels is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion
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
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?
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
EP: As far as I know yes.
S: When I was going to UC
EP: Yes I know. I grew up in
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
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