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Critical Review by Raymond E. Brown
SOURCE: "The Christians Who Lost Out," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 85, January 20, 1980, pp. 3, 33.
Below, Brown offers a negative assessment of The Gnostic Gospels.
Some 30 years ago, there were two discoveries in the Middle East that have great, even if indirect significance for our knowledge of early Christianity. In 1945, Coptic codices (books) were found at Nag Hammadi, near the Nile, about 300 miles south of Cairo; in 1947, scrolls, mostly Hebrew and Aramaic, were found at Qumran, near the Dead Sea.
These parallel discoveries reflect curiously parallel histories. The Egyptian codices, in fourth-century A.D. script, contain 52 works translated from earlier Greek texts, many of them composed by Christian gnostic sectarians. They contain views of Jesus and God that were condemned by the Fathers of the emerging Catholic Church. Weeded from the library of a nearby monastery, the codices were buried in a jar, probably to prevent their discovery during the anti-heretical purges inaugurated in 367 by Athanasius, the famous bishop of Alexandria. The Dead Sea scrolls came from pre-Christian Jewish sectarians, probably Essenes. They propose legal interpretations and apocalyptic dreams (some shared by Christians) that were anathema to the Pharisees who gave shape to orthodox Judaism. Some of these Hebrew scrolls were also buried in jars, to hide them from advancing Roman armies.
The Dead Sea scrolls got notoriety when Edmund Wilson popularized them in The New Yorker and in a subsequent book, unkindly dubbed a novel by some critics. The coptic codices are on their way to notoriety now that Elaine Pagels, chairman of the religion department at Barnard, has popularized them in The New York Review of Books and in The Gnostic Gospels. Wilson was a littérateur and an amateur scholar of Hebrew, Professor Pagels is a recognized scholar of gnosticism; but her popularization, like his, may well be a controversial success. Both books make important discoveries of antiquity accessible to readers who might otherwise have ignored them, but both are accused by scholars of underlining the sensational.
In her introduction to The Gnostic Gospels, Professor Pagels asks why the Nag Hammadi discovery is so little known. She reports that Pahor Labib of the Coptic Museum granted only a few scholars access to the manuscripts and that, as a graduate student at Harvard in 1968, she was "delighted" when she was allowed to study mimeographed transcriptions of the texts. Yet a dozen years before that, it was perfectly possible for me and other graduate students at Johns Hopkins to study a book of photographs, published by the same Pahor Labib, of 13 of the treatises. And the fact that 4,000 studies of varying length have already appeared on the gnostic documents suggests that they have not exactly been neglected.
Without detracting from Professor Pagels's original contribution, let me note another possible confusion in her presentation. She has chosen to call the Coptic library The Gnostic Gospels, even though not all the treatises are gnostic and only about 10 percent are called "Gospels." The title of her book thus might lead us to anticipate new knowledge about the historical Jesus. But from these works we learn not a single verifiable new fact about Jesus' ministry, and only a few new sayings that might plausibly have been his.
Professor Pagels recognizes this, for she does use the Coptic works correctly, not to describe Jesus but to describe the struggle within early Christianity between a smaller group that lost out—i.e., the gnostics—and the larger group that was to become the orthodox Church. Gnosticism is so diverse that it almost defies definition. In general, its Christian proponents claimed special knowledge—about the divine status of human beings—that had been obscured in the Old Testament but was revealed to the elect by Jesus, who was thus regarded as an illuminator rather than a dying savior. Until now we have known the gnostics through the polemics of their adversaries, especially Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. A.D. 180). The importance of the Nag Hammadi find is that it gives us the gnostics' own writings and thoughts. When the Coptic library first appeared, W.F. Albright argued that it proved the Church Fathers were correct in both their analysis of gnostic thought and their aversion to it. Professor Pagels's arguments are more nuanced, but it is noteworthy that The Gnostic Gospels contains more references to Irenaeus and the other Fathers than to the Coptic works. The ancient orthodox texts are still the key to the very obscure gnostic writings we now possess.
One can only applaud Professor Pagels's intention to write as a historian of religion, "not to advocate any side, but to explore the evidence." But about nine-tenths of the discussion of each topic in the book consists of her sympathetic effort to understand the gnostics' side, which will leave the reader cheering for them and wishing that the narrow-minded orthodox had not won. Only at the end, nearly buried, comes Professor Pagels's dispassionate statement pointing out the chasm into which gnosticism could lead and hinting that the orthodox, despite their dyspepsia, may have had their heads on straight. Thus she can defend herself against the misinterpretations people will draw from her book.
Indeed, she even anticipates such misunderstandings, Her book, she says, "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." But such a one-line disclaimer will not satisfy other scholars who will ask whether she has responsibly executed her duty to the "casual reader." Pheme Perkins, whom Professor Pagels cites for her contribution to gnostic research, will not be alone in her judgment that The Gnostic Gospels is "flawed by hasty generalization, over-interpretation of texts to fit a pre-determined scheme, and lack of sympathetic balance."
The scheme into which Professor Pagels seeks to fit the gnostics is drawn from the sociology of religion, a delicate task for a minority such as the early Christians, and an even more delicate task for the gnostics, who were a minority within that minority. She sees theological differences as reflecting differences in church politics. The orthodox insisted upon the bodily resurrection of Jesus, she argues, because the authority for that claim was a chain of tradition going back to the apostles—a chain that supported the authority of the bishop in the church structure. The gnostics, on the other hand, had a-nonphysical view of Christ, based on the spiritual experiences of his presence by the illumined elite; their view lessened the need for an authoritative church teacher and allowed greater freedom.
Yet did not Paul (who did not have a simplistic view of physical resurrection; see I Corinthians 15:44) already emphasize the need for an identifiable chain of witnesses to Jesus raised-from-burial (I Corinthians 15:3-8), long before anyone argued about the authority of bishops? And did not the gnostics develop their own authorities, so that eventually they were as critical of one another as they were of the orthodox? In another chapter of The Gnostic Gospels, it becomes clear that the denial of bodily resurrection was less a matter of reliable information than a corollary of the gnostics' denial that Jesus was truly human and really did die.
We are told by Professor Pagels that the orthodox, in order to have a theological analogy for the authority of one bishop, emphasized the one God, while many gnostics downgraded the cruel creator god of the Jews and had a more subtle vision of the Unknown. Here Professor Pagels slips badly by making Clement of Rome, whom she thrice calls bishop, a primary advocate for a church structure ruled by a single bishop. Yet there is no evidence for a single bishop in Rome until well after Clement's time; he never gave himself any title, much less that of bishop; and he clearly advocated an earlier church structure with a plurality of bishops. Moreover, the orthodox insistence on monotheism was surely part of the heritage from Judaism; any relationship of monotheism to monepiscopacy was only a very minor factor.
Professor Pagels presents the orthodox as upholding the distinction between the ordained (male) clergy and the laity—a distinction rejected by gnostics, who often rotated cultic functions, even among women. Yet the discriminating reader of The Gnostic Gospels can learn, from material tucked away in the book, that the gnostics' stance reflected neither a laudable democratic instinct nor an anticipation of women's liberation. The gnostics could share the highest clerical functions among themselves because they regarded themselves as the elite and all other Christians as ignorant and (for some gnostics) as the massa damnata. It would be a rare orthodox clergyman whose contempt for the laity would be comparable to the gnostic contempt for the non-gnostic.
Similarly, the careful reader can discover that the gnostic texts that praise women do so because these women have rejected the "works of femaleness." One of the most famous gnostic gospels ends with the principle that "Every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." If some gnostic texts present Mary Magdalene as the great Christian spokesman—as against Peter, the hero of the orthodox—it should not be forgotten that men were probably the authors of such works and that Mary Magdalene was only their mouthpiece. If the gnostics had been victorious, one may suspect sadly that the history of the male manipulation of the female in religion would still be dreary.
A final word on the greening of the gnostics by promoting this book through appeals to sex and daring. On the third page of her introduction, Professor Pagels quotes a passage that has Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene often on her mouth, and that passage is featured in advertisements for the book. It is only fair to warn the prurient that the action goes no further; this book, like the gnostic gospels, rates a PG rather than an X. As for the hint that it would be daring to read such a heterodox book, why not be more daring? Trust neither Professor Pagels nor her possibly suspect detractors, but instead buy the convenient collection of the gnostic works by James M. Robinson. Read the texts themselves and you may emerge "conservative-chic," concluding that crusty old Irenaeus was right, after all, to regard the gnostics as the crazies of the second century.
This section contains 1,713 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)