Elaine Pagels | Critical Review by Henry Chadwick

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Elaine Pagels.
This section contains 1,771 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Henry Chadwick

SOURCE: "The Paths of Heresy," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4017, March 21, 1990, p. 309.

In the following review of The Gnostic Gospels, Chadwick discusses Pagels's efforts to address modern problems in Christianity by considering the early church.

In December 1945, an Egyptian peasant made, with his mattock, an archaeological find that has coe to generate a substantial industry among students of early Christianity and of its pagan environment of high mysticism, low magic, and religious syncretism. The find consisted of a cache of Coptic codices buried in the second half of the fourth century a few miles from Nag Hammadi, containing fifty-two texts most of which were either gnostic in origin or congenial reading in gnostic circles. That is, they represent a broadly theosophical doctrine divergent from and at times severely critical of main-line Christianity as that emerged out of the various second-century groups claiming the Christian name. The spot where the codices were discovered is close to the ruins of a monastery founded in the first half of the fourth century AD by Pachomius. It seems probable that the books once belonged to the library of a monk admitted to that community. Fourth-century Egypt pullulated with Manichees and dualistic gnostics of many brands. In the year 367 Archbishop Athanasius of Alexandria issued throughout his jurisdiction a warning against the reading in the church lectionary of books other than the Bible canon and especially deplored the study of "secret books" or apocrypha composed by heretics. Perhaps his instruction led to the hiding of the codices.

The story of the find's zig-zag course towards eventual publication is a mixture of folly, selfishness, generosity, and energy. Some of the original papyri were used as fuel by peasants ignorant of their value. But news came to percolate through to Cairo dealers and so to Western scholars in Egypt with their ear to the ground. One codex was smuggled out of Egypt and, after a journey across the Atlantic and back, was finally bought at a Brussels cafe by Gilles Quispel on behalf of the Jung Institute in Zürich. It was later added, wisely, to the twelve other surviving codices in the Coptic Museum in old Cairo, where the manuscripts now occupy a small room.

A first volume of facsimiles appeared in 1956, a book which is still an essential tool as the codices have not been immune from damage since that time. An initial attempt to restrict access to the new material to a small group of approved scholars was a mistake. Thanks to the energy of James Robinson of Claremont in California and the support of Unesco, the entire set of manuscripts were photographed and English translations made from the transcribed texts! Dr. Robinson and his collaborators produced in 1977 an invaluable volume offering a provisional translation of all the new texts other than the fragments which defy reconstruction. Through an opulent series of facsimiles all the texts are now an open book to scholars able to read Coptic.

Of the fifty-two new documents only three are entitled "Gospels", and one more, because of its opening words. "The gospel of truth …", has been accorded that title by modern scholars. The most important of all the new texts is certainly the 114 sayings ascribed to Jesus in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas and this rightly attracted excited attention when the 1956 facsimile text was first translated into European languages in 1959. It remains a matter of scholarly judgment, for each individual saying, whether or not this tradition about Jesus preserves authentic features. Admittedly the proportion of matter with reasonable claims to such respectful treatment may not be large, and the good tradition keeps some pretty bohemian company.

Elaine Pagels teaches at Barnard College, New York, and is a gifted, clever communicator with a lively interest in the new texts and some inclination to think the Christian tradition, in spite of its power and undiminished attraction, sadly responsible for fostering discrimination against women. So she approaches gosticism with very contemporary expectations: notably the hope that in these gnostic documents suppressed by ancient authority we may find an alternative Christianity sympathetic to Eastern and individualist mysticism, unencumbered by historical and miraculous events, emancipated if not from clergymen, at least from the notion that holy orders ought to be a male preserve, and allowing one to be bolder than the main-line Christian tradition in admitting "natural evil" (in contrast to those evils which human beings cause by their actions) to be not only within the purpose but even within the very being of God.

The author's purpose [in The Gnostic Gospels] is not to offer a description either of the gnostic systems or of the mainline defence against them, but rather to bring out the social and political implications of some of their characteristic doctrines. The gnostics interpreted Christ's resurrection not as an objective event but as an inward psychological experience in the souls of the apostles and in all who aspire to their vision: She feels that this psychological interpretation undercuts the classic defence of Catholic Christianity to the effect that teaching authority, entrusted by the Lord to the apostles, is then passed on to the churches which their mission founded.

The gnostics also disbelieved in the human reality of Christ's passion, a view which naturally raises the speculative question whether, in the seventh century, Muhammad was influenced towards the same opinion by fringe gnostic sects in Arabia. For many gnostics this disbelief entailed the moral consequence that physical martyrdom could not be something to which they were called.

A feature of gnosticism which seems especially congenial to Elaine Pagels is the large liturgical and teaching role allowed to women in at least some gnostic sects. Admittedly on this point she has to exert gentle pressure on the surviving evidence. The new material from Nag Hammadi offers only few grains of encouragement to liberated women readers, unless it be the gnostic readiness to think the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene erotic. In most of the new Coptic texts the sexuality of woman is an object of fear and contempt. Femininity is interpreted as symbolic of those earthbound appetites which hinder the divine spark in the mind of mankind, of which the symbol is masculinity.

Accordingly, for evidence of gnostic sympathy for feminine emancipation Professor Pagels relies on long familiar texts in Irenaeus and Tertullian. Irenaeus describes Marcus, a seducing heretic addicted to alphabetical magic, as allowing women to prophesy in the community and to minister the chalice in his eucharist. Tertullian knows of heretical women who are allowed to teach argue, exorcise, cure, and even (climax of horrors) baptise. The sentence illustrates little more than Tertullian's unrivalled capacity to manufacture polemic; we may be sure that his climax would have been the exercise of presbyterial or episcopal functions had he known of these being exercised by gnostic women.

Some confusion is introduced here when, to the evidence that in gnostic sects women could exercise liturgical functions, Elaine Pagels adds the Montanist prophetesses Prisca and Maximilla without the least note that their hostility to gnosticism cannot be exaggerated. I am also sorry she allows herself to write that "from the year 200 we have no evidence for women taking prophetic, priestly, or episcopal roles among orthodox churches", a true sentence apparently intended to carry the false suggestion that before the year 200 women are known to have exercised presbyterial or episcopal functions in the great Church. (That they prophesied is of course certain.) When Professor Pagels wants to quote a Christian writer who speaks of women in the Church as she would like, she turns not to any Nag Hammadi text but to the highly anti-gnostic Clement of Alexandria who affirms both a feminine element in God and the equality of men and women. Fourth-century Syrian Fathers would be vexed at her pronouncement that "by 200" virtually all the feminine imagery for God had disappeared from the orthodox Christian tradition. The Odes of Solomon too have something to offer her there. It may be pertinent to her thesis that the first evidence for the invocation of the Virgin Mary comes in the mid-third century.

This book will dissatisfy some learned readers familiar with the new Nag Hammadi material who may feel it to be a pity that so good a scholar has not treated her texts with full rigour. But for most readers that will matter little. Elaine Pagels has an enviable gift for writing easily. Her thesis that the exclusion of gnosticism impoverished the Christian tradition is not convincingly defended here, and it lies in unresolved tension with the recognition that the heretical sects fostered pretentious mumbo-jumbo. They replaced the New Testament affirmations of God's presence in the historical life of Jesus and of his church with a vast fabrication of irrationality that appalled Plotinus and the philosophers. But the bond between the gnostics and the author of this book is perhaps that she and they both share the same basic difficulties about the pattern of main-line Christian tradition.

The trouble with the main-line tradition is no doubt that it speaks the language of paternal authority. Bishops are fathers in God. The minds through whom the tradition took its decisive and irreversible shape have received the honorific title Church Fathers. The authority structure looks unattractive to those who prefer the alternative society or underworld where bearded weirdies are more obviously welcome or at least in evidence. The gnostics expressed an alienation both from this world and from the normal sacramental life of the Christian church.

They expressed their alienation from the world and from the human condition by attributing it to incompetent or malevolent angelic powers. They denied human responsibility by their thoroughgoing determinism. Most of the sects required strict renunciation of sex and marriage, and criticized orthodoxy for asserting marriage to belong to the divinely intended order of creation. A few sects drew the opposite conclusion from the same dualistic premises, and had exciting nocturnal ceremonies where men and women prayed together naked or danced in a ring chanting solemn hymns of no clear meaning. One or two had erotic orgies. This heady stuff, however is wholly unrepresented in the Nag Hammadi texts, which sing in unison of their dedication to the radical suppression of sex. Whatever form gnosticism might take, one is still allowed a sigh of relief that the second-century churches succeeded in their life-and-death struggle against it. Elaine Pagels may begin her book with the suggestion that the gnostic defeat was regrettable, but by the end she is explicitly inclined to the opinion that there is a lot to be said for something very like the main-line stuff.

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