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Critical Essay by Kathleen McVey
SOURCE: "Gnosticism, Feminism, and Elaine Pagels," in Theology Today, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, January, 1981, pp. 498-501.
In the following essay, McVey explores issues of feminism in Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels.
A collection of Coptic documents discovered at Nag Hammadi (Chenoboskion) in Egypt in 1945 has shed important light on early Christianity by increasing our understanding of gnosticism. Gnosticism existed in pagan, Jewish, and Christian forms and was a major competitor with orthodox Christianity during the second century A.D. Christian gnosticism, a complex and varied movement, is nevertheless theologically distinct from Orthodox Christianity because it differentiates between the ineffable true God and the inferior Demiurge who created the material world and who is essentially identical with the God of the Old Testament. Christian adherents of gnosticism further believed that they, the "pneumatics" or spiritual people, constituted the true church over against the "psychics," ordinary Christians, and the "hylics," the material people.
Accepting the basic thesis of Walter Bauer's Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, some scholars believe that gnosticism represents a form of Christianity, the antiquity and legitimacy of which equals that of orthodox Christianity. Elaine Pagels of Barnard College is among those who accept Bauer's basic understanding of the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy. Her recent book, The Gnostic Gospels, is therefore a popularization not only of the Coptic gnostic find at Nag Hammadi but also of the Bauer thesis. As such, it is naturally attractive to certain readers and correspondingly abhorrent to others.
Pagels participated in the preliminary publication of the texts in question (The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. J. M. Robinson and M.W. Meyer, New York, 1977). She has also written on gnostic biblical exegesis and on other aspects of gnosticism, especially in its Valentinian form. The Gnostic Gospels begins with a lively account of the discovery of the texts, their eventual emergence into availability to scholars, and a general description of the state of research on gnosticism. The book itself consists of six chapters, each of which concentrates on some aspect of theology, contrasts the orthodox with the gnostic view, and seeks sociological explanations for the differences. She considers the theological differences, although real, insufficient to account for the opposition between the two groups., The chapters focus, in turn, on the understanding of Christ's resurrection, on the monarchic episcopacy, on the understanding of the deity in male vs. female terms, on attitudes toward martyrdom, on ecclesiology, and, finally, on "self-knowledge as knowledge of God." Throughout the book she draws out modern parallels to the attitudes of both gnostics and orthodox—with notably greater success in translating the gnostic beliefs into terms attractive to a sophisticated modern audience.
Elaine Pagels' Gnostic Gospels is a book calculated to appeal to the liberal intellectual Christian who feels personally religious but who dislikes "institutional religion." In the midst of the resurgence of anti-scientific and anti-intellectual currents throughout American Christianity, Pagels has presented us with an appealing portrayal of the gnostic Christians as a beleaguered minority of creative persons ignorant of their rightful historical role by a well-organized but ignorant lot of literalists. Although in her conclusion the author says she does not, "as the casual reader might assume,… advocate going back to gnosticism," she goes on to claim to have presented the gnostic texts "as Christians in the first centuries experienced them—[as] a powerful alternative to what we know as orthodox Christian tradition." Not only the "casual reader" but some careful readers and specialists in early Christian literature have perceived the book as a kind of modern apology for gnosticism.
Rather than repeating the remarks of the reviewers, I propose here to evaluate briefly one of the book's several related theses, that "two very different patterns of sexual attitudes [emerge] in orthodox and gnostic circles." Pagels claims three areas of evidence for these contrasting attitudes: (1) the gnostics describe the deity using both masculine and feminine terms while the orthodox use only masculine images; (2) gnostic exegesis of the creation story focuses on Genesis 1, where humans are created "male and female," while the orthodox emphasize Genesis 2, in which the woman's creation is secondary and for the happiness of the man; (3) the social practice of the two communities differs, the gnostics practicing a "principle of equality" between the sexes, while the orthodox subordinate women to men.
What is the evidence presented on each of these points? First, on the nature of the deity, the Bible is taken as sufficient evidence of the orthodox use of almost exclusively masculine epithets for God. The few exceptions noted—Deut. 32.11, Hosea 11.1, Isaiah 66.12ff., and Num. 11.12—are insufficient to challenge the overall impression. Without denying the patriarchal framework of the Judaeo-Christian understanding of God, we may ask whether Pagels succeeds in showing that gnostic belief is any less sexist. She notes that "gnostic sources continually use sexual symbolism to describe God…. Yet instead of describing a monistic and masculine God, many of these texts speak of God as a dyad who embraces both masculine and feminine elements."
The simple fact that these texts often use "sexual symbolism" to describe God tells us nothing in itself. The relationship between male and female elements in the dyad is the crucial issue. Since the male principle represents the spiritual realm and the female principle at worst the material realm, at best the spiritual elements in the material realm, all the gnostic cosmologies are ultimately patriarchal in conception.
Pagels' citation of excerpts from gnostic writings without their requisite contexts obscures the overall relation of male and female divine powers. For example, when Ialdabaoth boasts (in clear parody of Yahweh) that he is the only God, his Mother reprimands him, "Do not lie, Ialdabaoth." Since nothing of the context is revealed by Pagels, one might imagine that the female divine principle is superior to the male. But the Mother here is herself the "abortion" of Sophia, who is, in turn, the youngest of thirty aeons descended from the ineffable Father. Sophia's fall, caused by her attempt to know the Father apart from Nous, his only-begotten son, is ultimately the cause of the existence of the material world, from which the gnostic must escape.
On the second point, the exegesis of the Genesis creation story, it is simply untrue that orthodox Christians focused exclusively on Genesis 2. In support of her view, Pagels cites only I Corinthians 11.7-9. Other examples could be cited as well, but Pagels is evidently unaware of the Platonic Christian tradition of exegesis from Clement and Origen of Alexandria to the Cappadocians, Ambrose, and Augustine, which concentrates on Genesis 1. Pagels mentions Clement of Alexandria, but as a "striking exception to the orthodox pattern," and she notes that the consensus of orthodoxy "ruled out Clement's position." But Clement was not really so isolated and exceptional as she claims.
On the third point, the social practice of the two communities, our sole sources of information are the orthodox writers. Irenaeus and Tertullian, the only extant sources which describe the behavior of the gnostics, are discounted by Pagels when they describe behavior of which she disapproves but taken literally when the behavior is acceptable to modern feminist views. As Pagels remarks, "no one knows" whether to believe Irenaeus' claim (also, to his mind, an accusation) that Marcus allowed women to celebrate the eucharist with him is simply added without comment to the evidence that "clearly indicates a correlation between religious theory and social practice."
Further, Tertullian functions in this book as the mouthpiece of the "orthodox" view that women should not speak, teach, baptize, or claim any "masculine" function. He was indeed a first-class misogynist as well as one of the most important early Latin Fathers of the church. But Pagels breathes scarcely a word about Tertullian's doctrinal peculiarities, his extreme rigorism, and the fact that he spent more years as a Montanist than he had as an orthodox Christian. Although early Montanism in Asia Minor provided a context in which women played a prominent role, Tertullian's brand of Montanism, having disposed of the "feminist" elements along with some other less viable eschatological tenets, lived on as a rigorist form of Christianity in North Africa for nearly two centuries, and was known as "Tertullianism."
In short, Heresy and feminism were not such good bedfellows as either Pagels or the modern Christian misogynists would have us believe. While there is some evidence that women may have played a larger role in some heretical communities than in their orthodox counterparts, attempts to link activity with the beliefs of the communities in question have failed.
Insofar as modern proponents of women's rights are concerned, does gnosticism offer a "powerful alternative" to Orthodox Christianity? I think not. Further, I hope that the intellectually curious will refuse to be swept along by Pagels' implicit appeal to see themselves among those "creative persons [who find] themselves at the edges of orthodoxy" but will instead investigate the matter for themselves.
This section contains 1,478 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)