Elaine Pagels | Critical Review by B. Cobbey Crisler

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Elaine Pagels.
This section contains 759 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by B. Cobbey Crisler

Critical Review by B. Cobbey Crisler

SOURCE: "Gnostic 'Books'," in The Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1979, p. B6.

In the following review, Crisler describes The Gnostic Gospels as a lucid history of the Gnostic movement.

The shattering of two ancient jars, one in December, 1945, near Nag Hammadi in Egypt and the other, almost a year later, in a Dead Sea cave, still reverberates in the alcoves of Biblical scholarship.

Although the extraordinary manuscript discoveries in the Dead Sea area have been widely examined, published, and commented upon (with certain notable exceptions), the "gnostic" library found hidden in the Nag Hammadi jar remained "for eyes only", (except for the "Gospel of Thomas") among scholarly initiates until the end of 1977. Then the 52 tractates in 13 codices appeared in a full facsimile edition and a simultaneous English edition, both under the general supervision and editorship of James M. Robinson, director of the Institute of Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont Graduate School in California. Said Professor Robinson at the time. "The floodgates have just opened."

Random House is in the sluiceway early with this book by Elaine Pagels, a member of Professor Robinson's translation team. As a book, it is the logical and inevitable outcome of her close association with the Nag Hammadi material. She writes for the layman, which is refreshing and she does so lucidly, which is a challenge, especially when "gnosticism" was regarded by its own adherents to be for the initiated only.

But as a title The Gnostic Gospels is inappropriate and was probably an editorial choice—the word "gospel" has market appeal. Certainly there is no indication in the introduction or in the text that the author ever intended to isolate the so called "gospels" of truth, of Thomas, Philip, the Egyptians, and Mary, from the rest of the corpus. Nor is any effort made to compare the "gnostic" gospels with the canonical gospels, as would be expected if the title correctly expressed the book's purpose.

Dr. Pagels instead has chosen to examine some of the primary concepts of "gnosticism," its themes and their major challenge to orthodox Christianity, all of which, she thinks should be re-evaluated in the light of the total Nag Hammadi find. In this same light, even the term "gnosticism," like Alice's Cheshire Cat, seems to be losing more of its definition, when it is made to apply to an amorphous collection of sects, loosely related, divergent in many points of view, and allegiant to scattered teachers.

If there is a common denominator that unites all sects called "gnostic," it is not theological concord. For represented in the relevant literature are the monadic and dyadic; the Scriptural and anti-Scriptural; the roots of paganism and source materials both Jewish and Christian; the ascetic and the seducer; the heresy of Simon Magus and the disillusionment of Tertullian.

In her search for a common denominator for a motivation that would and might have linked all these sects, Dr. Pagels writes: "In many churches, the bishop was emerging for the first time, as a 'monarch'—(literally 'sole ruler'). Increasingly, he claimed the power to act as disciplinarian and judge over those he called, 'the laity.' Could certain gnostic movements represent resistance to this process? Could gnostics stand among the critics who oppose the development of church hierarchy? Evidence from Nag Hammadi suggests that they did." This is a prominent thesis in her book.

Dr. Pagels also devotes a full chapter and much detail to the divisive views of the role of women in the church which she thinks may have helped motivate and widen the gap between "gnostics" and orthodox Christians. Some "gnostic" women "were revered as prophets; others acted as teachers, traveling evangelists, healers, priests, perhaps even bishops." Noting the topicality of this issue today, she adds, "The Nag Hammadi sources, discovered at a time of contemporary social crises concerning sexual roles, challenge us to reinterpret history—and to re-evaluate the present situation."

Dr. Pagels is sensitive to the fact that her work might be mis-interpreted. Her book practically closes with a disclaimer: "That I have devoted so much of the discussion to gnosticism does not mean, as the casual reader might assume, that I advocate going back to gnosticism—much less that I 'side with it' against orthodox Christianity." For her, there is no question that Christianity would never have survived without the protection of its developing organization and structure, but she also provides the reader with reasons for sympathy with the "gnostic" outlook, not in its phases of wild distortion, but in those phases that offer logical, perhaps even Scriptural, occasion to review inherited ecclesiastical traditions.

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This section contains 759 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by B. Cobbey Crisler
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