Christianity and/or Elaine Pagels


Although not really a review of Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief, the following correspondence may have something to offer both those who consider themselves "for" Pagels' work and those who are stridently "against" it.  I only hope readers will be able to get beyond the personal nature of the exchange.


A month after I suggested to my Lutheran mother that she buy Pagels' new book, she wrote me the letter posted below.  I responded as best I could and, a rarity, she found my response worthwhile and even agreed with much of it.  (Or at least she claimed to agree with it: maybe the truth was she just didn't want to continue the discussion.)  I've posted our exchange here for what it may reveal about two different ways of taking the work of scholars like Pagels.  A brief review follows the correspondence.


Eric Mader,

August, 2003





I am sorry I bought Pagels' book Beyond Belief.  I thought you had read it and considered it a real Christian read.  The book actually ticked me off a lot, if you want the truth: especially the way the author danced around with constant suppositions.  I definitely did not feel the book was truly Christian.  The woman has more doubts than faith and in all does not even back up her doubts.  To me it was a total waste of time. The only thing of interest to me was her statement that Jesus told Thomas some things that he never told the other disciples.  When finished with the book I felt I had wasted my time and I think the author wasted hers too.








In my original letter I told you I wanted to read Pagels' recent book, but hadn't yet gotten a copy shipped to Taiwan.  I've read others of her books, but not Beyond Belief.  Of course this means that I can't really defend it, since I haven't read it.  But I will say I'm surprised to hear Elaine Pagels wrote something that was "a waste of time." I want to try to address some of the issues of Pagels' work as I understand these issues, at least in terms of generalities.


You complain that she "danced around with constant suppositions."  Perhaps you shouldn't consider her "constant suppositions" something out of the ordinary.  Pagels may be doing just what a scholar is supposed to do.  Her task is to understand and explain the beliefs of the distant past, and she must make her suppositions in large measure on the basis of cryptic and often contradictory texts.  On the basis of scant information--and our information on the life and times of Jesus' early followers is pretty scant--the scholar must ground her interpretation.  It is a matter of applying a keen interpretive intelligence to the web of texts as we have them.  Because the texts are all we have.  So the scholar must question all the little turns of phrase or telling omissions that most readers of scripture would ignore or take for granted.  But this is not all: another crucial thing to remember is that a scholar trying to reconstruct the first couple centuries of the Christian era must necessarily ignore all the interpretations of Jesus that came later.  This is because the later doctrines and interpretations do not necessarily shed light on what happened during those first centuries.  Very often, in fact, they can obscure the original meanings of things.


I will give an example from the related field of Old Testament studies.  When we read the story of the Garden of Eden it is obvious to us that the serpent that tempts Eve is the Devil.  But it is also obvious to scholars of ancient Israel that the writer who wrote that story around 900 B.C. did not consider the Devil part of the picture.  The serpent is the serpent, a sly trickster in the Garden.  Our theology of the Devil developed slowly and it would only be a thousand years later that it began to take on shape as something like what we now understand.


If you were to talk to one of those ancient Hebrews (900 B.C.) about a fallen angel bent on seducing men to evil, an angel who rebelled against God and who moreover occupies a subterranean place called "Hell," that ancient Hebrew wouldn't know what you were talking about. 


When Satan tempts Job later in our Old Testament, it is clear, based on the Hebrew text and Hebrew tradition, that the figure tempting Job is not the Christian Satan but rather merely "an adversary": i.e., he is a member of God's court, perhaps an angel, playing the courtly role of adversary or accuser, in this case against Job.  Compared to the serpent in Genesis this is already a step toward the Christian Devil, but it still is not quite the same figure.  In fact the Hebrew word satan meant literally adversary, so that the word could even be used to refer to human adversaries.  At one point in the book of I Samuel the Philistines worry that David might become a "satan" to them.  There's no implication of supernatural evil in this: it is merely descriptive of David's potential opposition.


The point is that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was not written as a stand-in for the Devil because the inspired writer who produced that text was living before the theology of the Devil had come about.  And the same goes for the later text of Job, although in that case we already see the notion of a "satan" in God's court.


We're talking about the Old Testament so far.  But look how much we've imposed our own late interpretations on these texts: we read them in ways that might not be at all familiar to the people who wrote them.


The problem is that this is true also of the New Testament, and it is true of Jesus.  The way we understand his words is the product of two millennia of interpretations--a continuous piling on of doctrine after doctrine.  Many believers never question how far from Jesus their beliefs may have drifted.  But I consider this a crucial question, one every Christian must ask.


Imagine Jesus of Nazareth as a painter.  Imagine that he painted a square meter of space in the middle of a white wall and then, over centuries, his followers came and painted round it.  Jesus' followers added their own elements around the master's original painting.  But this is not all they did: some of the earliest even dared modify bits of the original.  They thought they could make it better, make it more compelling.  Then while this was going on--as there developed a growing studio of artists around Jesus' first painting--Paul of Tarsus came in.  Magisterially Paul brushed over some of the first apostles' additions, painted a few meters of wall on his own, and left it at that.  Afterwards, if you walked into the studio the first work you saw was mostly Paul.  That's because he was sure to put his major efforts near the door so as to catch the eyes of visitors. 


And what of us, two millennia later, as we enter the room?  What is this room we are called to enter?  The whole wall is covered with myriad pictures and interlocking designs; the ceiling is completely painted over, the floor covered with mosaics.  There's a certain harmony to it all, true, but there's much mystery also: mystery in how it all fits together.  And look--we can no longer tell where Jesus' part of the mural ends and where the followers' parts begin.  In fact in some ways it's obvious there are different styles here, but in other respects the paintings seem all mixed up, it's hard to tell where one painting ends and another begins, and the walls and ceiling really do give the effect of one large whole.  Only with the closest study can we begin to determine what comes from which artist.  But most visitors don't even think about this.  Because when they walk in the pastor, the guy at the door, is already saying: "Look at what Jesus hath painted!  Look at the grandeur of it!"  As if everything in the room from ceiling to floor was Jesus' original work!  And really some of it is not all that grand.


Would Jesus of Nazareth be happy with this "studio gallery"?  Many people suspect that if Jesus entered the room he'd be amazed at what a Baroque mess his original painting had become.  Martin Luther, for one, thought this way, so he scraped off centuries of Catholic doctrine to create a religion closer to the original Jesus.  But consider: this guy Luther painted quite a few new things of his own, not content just to scrape.  And it turns out Luther's religion "closer to Jesus" is really closer in most respects to the stuff painted by Paul; and it further turns out that Luther wasn't exactly a very precise imitator of Paul either.


This is the history of Christianity.  I for one find this history fascinating and think study of it is important.  Nonetheless for centuries Christians have been saying: "Don't look too closely at the work.  It's a sin to talk about what might have been painted over.  It's a sin to point out where things seem to have been scraped off.  Those olive leaves were always there!"


Why have I penned this extended metaphor of the "studio gallery"?  Because I want to stress what it means to be a scholar of the first few centuries of our faith.  Elaine Pagels is such a scholar.  This means that she is interested in those first few paintings, especially in Jesus' own painting and in the first artists to add to the edges of his work.  This is what a scholar must do. 


I think the work of understanding the first centuries is an eminently Christian work, because Jesus is the Christ.  I suspect that if you say Elaine Pagels is not "truly Christian" that what you might be reacting to, what might have turned you away, is the fact that this writer has not simply come forward and reiterated the whole painted and mosaic-covered room that is orthodox Christianity: a two-millennia work of art.  Pagels has not simply given the basic tour of the room--the tour the pastor by the door may give--but rather has tried to analyze some of those earlier meters of painting. 


It's perfectly legitimate, of course, to say that over the centuries the Church has been guided by the Spirit and so its doctrines are correct.  Thus if we reject a doctrine like the Trinity simply because it was formulated centuries after Jesus, we might be said to be un-Christian.  Because those Church doctors who formulated the doctrine were also under the direction of the Spirit.  So far, so good.  The problem for me, however, is that many doctrines formulated long after Jesus seem to be treated with more respect and are given more weight than Jesus' own life or sayings.  This is a serious problem.  There should be nothing more important to a Christian than interpretation of Jesus' life and sayings.  But many Christians take most of their favorite tunes from Augustine or Luther or the Vatican.  None of these figures is Jesus.  They were inspired by the Spirit perhaps, but so can modern Christians be.  Or rather: I do not accept that their inspiration led to a somehow perfect or complete formulation of Jesus' meaning.  We who believe in Jesus must also study Jesus' life and sayings, must also seek for the guidance of the Spirit, and must also develop our own interpretations of his meaning.  Scholars like Elaine Pagels have much to teach us in this regard, if only because they try to understand and explain what is really there in the earliest texts of the Christian tradition.


Above I write that Paul "painted a few meters of wall on his own."  Perhaps that is unfair.  Paul is the earliest Christian writer we have, and most Christians believe his understanding of Jesus is in the main correct because his encounters with the risen Christ were real.  It is still an impossibly thorny issue: the question of how Jesus' teachings and intentions may be reflected in Paul.  But I think one thing is certain: if anyone can clarify this thorny issue for us, it is scholars working through their different "suppostions."






*     *     *


Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief:

The Secret Gospel of Thomas


I've finally acquired a copy of Beyond Belief.  With this work, Elaine Pagels offers a challenging and carefully nuanced presentation of the issues, one that Christians shouldn't ignore.  As with her first major study The Gnostic Gospels, the reader comes away with a fuller appreciation not just of the "gnostic" gospels, but of the canonical New Testament gospels as well. 


Of particular interest here is the consideration of the Gospel of John in relation to the Gospel of Thomas.  Pagels supports the argument that whoever wrote John may very well have been responding directly to Thomas and the Thomas Christians.  If correct, this thesis would do much to establish Thomas' importance: the text becomes, as many scholars have long believed, an authentic witness to very early traditions of Jesus' teaching. 


Going beyond merely historical issues, however, Pagels sketches out many of the spiritual implications of these two ancient writings.  How are we to understand Jesus according to John, and again according to Thomas?  The contrast is a striking one.  Pagels has the gift of a lucid prose style, and she has as well the knack of relating academic discoveries and debates to her own spiritual life.  The result is that she has made the scholarship her own, and communicates it through the lens of spiritual experience.  The reader can only share her enthusiasm at the wide range of ancient interpretations of Jesus and at how these different interpretations may influence our own understanding of the key questions of our faith.  


Pagels returns as well to a figure of major importance in her Gnostic Gospels: the great second century bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, who more than anyone is responsible for fixing our four gospel canon of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Her detailed presentation of Irenaeus' career is sympathetic, but at the same time she reveals (to evoke the metaphor from my above letter) how confident a painter Irenaeus was.  In Irenaeus the church gained what we might call a master of a Mannerist cast of mind, one who established many of the motifs we now find on our walls.  Before reading Pagels' book, I hadn't known to what extent the creeds grew out of Irenaeus' polemical readings of John.  But, as I've said, Pagels' presentation of Irenaeus is sympathetic, as is only right.  She explains the bishop's doctrinal development by showing us the forces he saw threatening the church: persecution from the pagan majority on one hand, and fragmentation into spiritual castes on the other.  Driven by a need to hold the church together, Irenaeus developed his own notions of correct doctrine, which he then projected back onto the apostles and their early followers.  The questions a Christian is left with after reading these chapters are:


1.       How much of true apostolic tradition was thus saved by falling within the borders of Irenaeus' orthodoxy?  (I believe the answer to be: quite a lot.) 

2.       How much was lost?  (I believe the answer to be: some, such as, for millennia, the traditions found in the Gospel of Thomas.) 

3.       How much that was new--i.e., not truly apostolic--was invented and imposed by Irenaeus himself?  (I believe the answer to be: certainly quite a bit.)


All in all, Beyond Belief is a brilliant and inspiring work, of both historical and spiritual importance.  Though I've written more here about Pagels' reading of Irenaeus, it is her pages devoted to Thomas and John that are of most interest.  Beyond Belief contains an English translation of the Gospel of Thomas as an appendix.



August 4, 2004



A Review of Pagels' *The Gnostic Gospels*


Check Pagels' *Beyond Belief* at


Though my correspondence with my mother is not always so theological, it is often a matter of controversy or debate.  And we usually argue only the most important questions.  The following for instance:







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