Elaine Pagels,

The Gnostic Gospels

Vintage Books, 1979, 1989, and

Beyond Belief,
the Secret Gospel of Thomas

Random House, 2003

[8:5] And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, [8:6] And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. [8:7] And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. [8:8] The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. [8:9] For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. [8:10] When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. [8:11] And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. [8:12] But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. [8:13] And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.

Matthew 8:5-13

[15:12] Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? [15:13] But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen; [15:14] And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching is vain, and your faith is also vain.

1 Corinthians 15:12-14

Τὸ λοιπόν, ἀδελφοί μου, ἐνδυναμοῦσθε ἐν Κυρίῳ
καὶ ἐν τῷ κράτει τῆς ἰσχύος αὐτοῦ.
De cetero, fratres, confortamini in Domino et in potentia virtutis eius.
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might

Ephesians 6:10

The discovery of the texts of the Nag Hammadi ( ) library in Upper Egypt in 1945 set off a kind of revolution in Christian theology. It also, marvelously, has promoted the Coptic language from being an obscure footnote to Ancient Egyptian into one of the major languages of Christian history and doctrine. With the Copts themselves under assault, some of it physical, from Islamic fundamentalists, and Coptic emigration increasing, it is nice to see anything that calls attention to them, their religion, and their Church's ancient language.

The revolution in theology is something else. The texts of the Nag Hammadi library include actual Gospels, like those of Thomas, of Philip, and the Gospel to the Egyptians, and other texts, like the Secret Book of James, the Apoclypse of Paul, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Apocalypse of Peter, that were rejected by orthodox Christianity from the canon of the New Testament, as this was eventually formulated at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325. These were texts of the Gnostics, an early branch of Christianity that came to be rejected as heretical. Its doctrines and texts were discussed by orthodox writers, but full examples of the original texts were long unknown. There were clues that some texts survived in Egypt. Fragments of the Gospel of Mary had already been recovered. But the Nag Hammadi cache was the Gnostic jackpot.

In The Gnostic Gospels Elaine Pagels says that she does not present Gnosticism and its Gospels as better or preferable to traditional Christianity. This seems disingenuous, and her preference for Gnosticism, discernable in the early book [1979], is obvious in her recent Beyond Belief, the Secret Gospel of Thomas [2003]. The title itself tells a tale. "Beyond belief" is an expression that can mean different things. It can mean something unbelievable, which is the characterization that Pagels gives to Christian doctrines like the divinity of Christ or the physical Resurrection. Or it can mean something that is "beyond," i.e. better and more advanced than, mere belief. Both of these meanings appear to be in play, however unconsciously intended. With each meaning, we have points relevant to the differences between Gnostic doctrine and that of orthodox and traditional Christianity. At the same time, Pagels must explain why historically Gnosticism lost out to orthodoxy. If she thinks that Gnosticism is actually better, more appealing, and more believable than the triumphant alternative, it is a grave challenge for Pagels to explain what, in effect, went wrong.

In Gnostic doctrine the "unbelievable" aspects of Christianity are denied. Such divinity that Jesus possessed is actually shared by us. We do not have to believe in Jesus as much as believe in ourselves, for it is through ourselves that we achieve knowledge, γνῶσις, gnôsis, of God and become, in effect, as divine as the Savior. Jesus has simply gone there first. The physical resurrection is pointless and unnecessary because through gnôsis we become as eternal and pure as Jesus, need no physical body, and don't have to believe anything that we cannot know directly. The "Resurrection," in its genuine meaning, happens when we achieve gnôsis. If we have reached that level, we have already experienced true resurrection as much as Jesus. With some Gnostics we even find the doctrine, later accept by ʾIslâm, that what was crucified was not even Jesus himself, but a substitute. Others saw what was crucified as a meaningless bodily remnant:

He whom you saw being glad and laughing above the cross is the Living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving the nails is his fleshy part, which is the substitute. [The Gnostic Gospels, p.72, from the Apocalypse of Peter]

Nothing could be more modern or trendy than a religion that is about, not confession and dogma, but self-realization, a religion where God is within and can be known without doctrine, Churches, and preaching. Gnosticism, indeed, was the earliest form of Christian mysticism; and Pagels cites a revealing incident when, at the Zen Center in San Francisco, Roshi Richard Baker told her that if he had known about the Gospel of Thomas, "I wouldn't have had to become a Buddhist!" [Beyond Belief, p. 74].

While Gnosticism is more like Advaita Vedânta than like Buddhism, the point can be well taken, and Pagels herself speculates that Buddhist missionaries in Egypt may have had something to do with the origin of Gnosticism. The contemporary appeal, at least in elite culture, of (usually denatured) Buddhism and Eastern religion (generally without any monasticism, asceticism, or even rigorous morality) reinforces the impression that traditional theism, whether Christian or otherwise, is no longer believable or agreeable. Whether this explains anything about Christian history or religion in general must be considered.

Another agreeable aspect to Gnosticism, to which Pagels devotes an entire chapter in The Gnostic Gospels ("God the Father/God the Mother"), is the expanded role of the feminine in the theology and of women in the Church. Nothing, again, could be more modern or trendy than feminist religion. However, although Pagels only partially acknowledges the problem, there is a dark side to this aspect of Gnosticism, which we see indicated here:

For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. [The Gnostic Gospels, p.49, from the Gospel of Thomas]

How does a woman "make herself male"? Apparently through celibacy. The Gnostics don't care much for the world or for the flesh. Egyptian monasticism, which later become orthodox and spread through the traditional Church (before being rejected by Protestants), began with the Gnostics. It is perhaps the one enduring contribution of Gnosticism to Christian practice.

There was a range in Gnostic attitudes towards the material body, from regarding it as evil, or an illusion, to just being inferior. But either way, ordinary activities of marriage, intercourse, and procreation are to be avoided for spiritual growth. Pagels characterizes this side of Gnosticism as due to "some extremists" [ibid. p.67], but I seem to have missed the texts where mainstream Gnostic opinion said something different. It doesn't look like it did -- I think this is Pagels' own wishful thinking. Although some Gnostics were accused of "violating strict warnings concerning sexual abstinence and monogamy" [ibid., p.43], abstinence is actually more consistent with the rest of Gnostic doctrine.

"If spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth [the spirit] has made its home in this poverty [the body]." [p.26, from the Gospel of Thomas, Pagels' brackets and quotation marks]

If the body is in any way inferior or tainted, one might wonder why God would have made it that way. The answer is the general Gnostic view that God didn't. The Creator God of the Old Testament, often referenced using Plato's term for the Creator of the Timaeus, the Demiurge, was regarded by Gnostics as not the genuine ultimate God who is the source and "the depth" of reality. Since the God of the Old Testament is jealous, vengeful, judgmental, and undoubtedly masculine, the Gnostics were able to dispense with these disagreeable characteristics and introduce things like the feminine aspect for the ultimate God.

Indeed, some texts, like the Hypostasis of the Archons, construe the snake that tempted Eve as the "Female Spiritual Principle" that gives Eve, and then Adam, the knowledge to recognize the character of the "arrogant Ruler" who had made them, or thought he did [p.31]. This led the orthodox to accuse the Gnostics of dualism or polytheism. This could reasonably be denied, but the picture in Gnosticism is actually more like Monism than Monotheism. God is the "Monad," dwelling "in silence." A God who is no longer the personality of the Old Testament, or uniquely the Jesus of the New Testament, but is a potential in us all, becomes depersonalized on the one hand but identical with us on the other. Such notions, and effects, are familiar in Vedanta.

They are also familiar in Neoplatonism. Although Pagels occasionally mentions the founder of Neoplatonism, Plotinus, usually with a critical remark about the Gnostics, she never explains or discusses the undoubted similarities between Plotinus's mysticism and Monism and that of the Gnostics. This is a curious oversight. I will suggest the reason for it shortly. Here, it can be noted that Gnosticism and Neoplatonism alike may be characterized as both Monistic and polytheistic. Where Neoplatonism allowed all the gods of paganism to exist in an inferior position to the One, Gnosticism allowed the Demiurge and other entities, like a personified Wisdom, to exist in an inferior position to "the depth." Indeed, the Apocalypse of Adam invokes the nine Muses, one of whom separates [p.54]. This becomes Wisdom, who conceives and bears the Demiurge. She also bears Life as a daughter. When the Demiurge (variously named Ialdabaoth or Saklas), becomes arrogant and jealous and claims all of Creation as his, he is rebuked, in the Hypostasis of the Archons, by Wisdom and Life [p.58]. The divine is beginning to get a bit crowded here. We also get non-canonical additions to the family of Adam and Eve, with a third son, Seth, and a daughter Norea. The "Sethians" became a branch of Gnosticism.

The demotion of the God of the Old Testament to an unpleasant impostor demotes the Old Testament itself. This can mean devaluing and denigrating the Jewish roots of Christianity. Indeed, this is what appears to happen, as the critic of Gnosticism, Irenaeus complains, "They imagine that they themselves have discovered more than the apostles, and that the apostles preached the gospel still under the influence of Jewish opinions" [p.21, boldface added]. It became part of orthodox Christianity that the God of the Old Testament is identical with God the Father of the New Testament and that all the claims of the Old Testament were true:  Israel was the Chosen People of God, and the prophets were delivering genuine and binding instructions from God. The Gnostics didn't need to believe any of this, and they could construct something like a de-Judaized Christianity.

Now, Christianity, as in origin a sect of Judaism, always had ambivalent attitudes about Jews and about what continued through the Middle Ages as Rabbinical Judaism; but orthodoxy never countenanced the rejection of Israel and its God that became possible in Gnosticism. Indeed, Christians have often, at different times and for different reasons, more closely identified themselves with the Old Testament than with the New. This is conspicuous with Protestants, and especially Protestants engaged in war, for which there is much example and precedent in the Old Testament and none in the New. Although much of Christian history is criticized as anti-Semitic, one result of embracing the Old Testament is the possibility of the philo-Semitism that is now evident in the broad support for the state of Israel in American evangelical and fundamentalist Churches -- a support immune to radical and leftist critiques of Zionism -- as it was in Arthur Balfour, who effected the original British philo-Semitic recognition of the goals of Zionism.

With Gnosticism, Christianity might have simply severed its ties to the Old Testament and gone on its merry way without a backward glance or care for Judaism. Both anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism might have been avoided. Or perhaps a de-Judaized Christianity would have been essentially and profoundly anti-Semitic. It is hard to say. Continuing denigrations of the Creator of Genesis and disparagements of the moralistic Law would not sound exactly like leaving Judaism behind. The belief in multiple divine beings, however, like the Demiurge, Wisdom, Life, and even the Muses, reveals something else about Gnosticism, that it apparently left behind another aspect of Judaism:  its exclusivism and claim to unique truth. Irenaeus complains that Gnostics ate meat sacrificed to pagan gods and attended pagan festivals [p.43].

Most strikingly, Gnostics were not very interested confronting pagans or in courting martyrdom -- "they are neither persecuted nor put to death," said Justin [p.84]. The Gnostics are "opponents of martyrdom" [Tertullian, p.88] and, in the midst of ferocious persecution of Christians, "the heretics go about as usual!" [p.88]. After all, the command of Exodus 20:3, "You shall have no other gods before me," is part of the paranoia and arrogance of the Demiurge. Why should Christians provoke the authorities or reject pagan gods? Not very loving.

In modern terms, this would be very appealing. A Christianity that is not intolerant, not judgmental, not exclusivist fits wonderfully into the Open Society. It is, indeed, more like modern liberal Christianity. However, history would have been very different with such a Christianity. There would have been no reason for the old gods and the old religions to disappear. A Mediterranean world in the Middle Ages with many traditional religions, and not just the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and ʾIslâm, would have been a very, very different world than it was. A Judaism denying the truth of other religions would have (or continued to have) been unique, unless, of course, ʾIslâm had developed as it did anyway. Europe might have been left as the redoubt of Zeus, Aphrodite, and a living, tolerant Jesus.

Although Christianity is often excoriated for its Mediaeval intolerance and exclusivism, this is indeed just part of its Jewish identity. Gnosticism as a de-Judaized Christianity could be tolerant, could go along and get alone, just because it never would have considered confronting or condemning the old religions. But if Gnosticism failed, and if Christianity forged ahead with its Old Testament intolerant ferocity, what went wrong? How could such a Christianity have succeed and tolerance failed? Pagels' answer seems simple enough:  it was all politics.

Pagels should be quoted at length on this:

If the New Testament accounts could support a range of interpretations, why did orthodox Christians in the second century insist on a literal view of resurrection and reject all others as heretical? I suggest that we cannot answer this question adequately as long as we consider the doctrine only in terms of its religious content. But when we examine its practical effect on the Christian movement, we can see, paradoxically, that the doctrine of bodily resurrection also serves an essential political function:  it legitimizes the authority of certain men who claim to exercise exclusive leadership over the churches as the successors of the apostle Peter. From the second century, the doctrine has served to validate the apostolic succession of bishops, the basis of papal authority to this day. Gnostic Christians who interpret resurrection in other ways have a lesser claim to authority:  when they claim priority over the orthodox, they are denounced as heretics. [The Gnostic Gospels, p.6-7]

This thesis, that orthodox Christianity defeated Gnosticism because of the political implications of its doctrine, seems to me false. In The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels applies the thesis to ideas like the Resurrection and the divinity of Jesus, while in Beyond Belief it is applied to the divinity of Jesus and, more profoundly, to the difference between a religion of belief, as found in the Gospel of John, and a religion of self-knowledge, as found in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. One is tempted to see Pagel's thesis as simply of a piece with Protestant anti-clericalism and with the distaste of liberal religion for "organized" religion, confessional religion, religious dogma or doctrine, and, last but not least, Popes. Be that as it may, the thesis can be quickly and decisively refuted with counterexamples.

  1. Physical resurrection, something still "beyond belief" for most people, is a fundamental belief in ʾIslâm, repeatedly asserted and even argued (against objections) in the Qurʾân, yet there are no priests, bishops, Popes, or apostolic succession in ʾIslâm. There is an Islamic Community, whose standards are determined by consensus, but no Islamic Church. After the death of the Prophet Muḥammad, there was no personal claim to religious authority in matters of doctrine except in Shiʿism, where the ʾImâms were regarded as speaking with divine authority. The orthodox Caliphs sometimes tried to exert influence on doctrine, and executed heretics, but Islamic Law did not recognize any special dogmatic authority in them, and the Consensus of the Community became the ultimate standard. An ʾimâm in orthodox ʾIslâm simply leads the prayer. Since the Shiʿite ʾImâms are now themselves also gone, Shiʿism is more or less in the same situation as orthodoxy.

    Thus, if Pagel's thesis is that resurrection implies and necessitates the Church and episcopal authority as these developed in Christian history, we have a glaring example of a religion where such belief implies and results in no such things. Apostolic authority, if not apostolic succession, certainly exists in ʾIslâm, since much of Islamic Law is based on Traditions that are traced back, authoritatively, to the Prophet, his Companions, the Rightly Guided Caliphs, and others. A paper trail, not priests or bishops, makes do for that. In Pagels we find absolutely no mention or discussion of ʾIslâm in comparison to Christianity with respect to doctrine or history. On the other hand, Gnosticism, with respect to Apostolic authority, is really in no worse a position than orthodoxy. It is not clear why resurrection, even the specific Resurrection of Jesus, would make a difference.

    If the Gnostics claim the authority of Apostles who saw a Jesus who was spiritually, but not physically, resurrected, why is their testimony less compelling than Apostles who saw a physically resurrected Jesus? It isn't -- and Gnostics could claim to still be seeing the resurrected Jesus. Muḥammad wasn't resurrected at all, and this did not diminish his authority, or those of his followers, in the least. The idea that a succession of bishops, by a laying on hands, is necessary to transmit apostolic authority is thus refuted by the example of ʾIslâm. And if a religion of belief is supposed to imply a succession of bishops, etc., this is also refuted by the case of ʾIslâm.

  2. The divinity of physically existing, incarnate God does not imply or necessitate the existence of bishops and Church because we find such beliefs in Hinduism, as with the incarnation and divinity of Krishna, where there are priests but certainly no Church, Popes, or overriding dogmatic authority. Reading the Bhagavad Gita, one might sometimes mistake it for a Gospel:

    I am the Way, and the Master who watches in silence; thy friend and thy shelter and thy abode of peace. I am the beginning and the middle and the end of all things:  their seed of Eternity, their Treasure supreme. [9:18, Juan Mascaró translation, Penguin, 1962]

    Belief in Krishna exists in a religion, Hinduism, that has no overriding organization, structure, or authority. Indeed, Hinduism, although displaying philosophical attempts to organize its beliefs, remains poorly systematized but has not even bothered with general Councils, as in Christianity or Buddhism, to try define orthodox belief by vote. As in ʾIslâm, though without explicit legal principle, consensus tends to be responsible for what is common in Hindu belief. Although Pagels occasionally refers to Buddhism in these two books, I did not detect a single reference to Hinduism, let alone to the devotionalistic tradition of Hinduism in which we find Krishna, or, for that matter, even the devotionalistic tradition of Buddhism, where we find Savior figures like the Buddha Amitâbha or the Tibetan Târâ.

Why would Pagels have ignored religions like ʾIslâm and Hinduism? Well, they damage her case. If belief in resurrection or divine Incarnation can exist without priests, bishops, and Church, we are suddenly left without an explanation for the success of orthodox, traditional Christianity and the failure of Gnosticism. Pagels says, "we cannot answer this question adequately as long as we consider the doctrine only in terms of its religious content." It may be that we can only answer the question "in terms of its religious content." It may turn out, gulp, that orthodox Christianity succeeded because, at the time, it was more appealing. It won fair and square in the marketplace of religious ideas.

The flip side of the argument that orthodox Christian belief was politically effective is the notion that political power was then used to forcefully suppress Gnosticism. This is the implication all along with Pagels' books but is rather more explicit in the last chapter of Beyond Belief, "Constantine and the Catholic Church." The Triumphant Church, with the power of the Roman State behind it, could annihilate Gnosticism.

Unfortunately, this idea doesn't hold up in terms of the history that Pagels herself relates. Gnosticism was already under attack in the 2th century and had largely disappeared in the 3rd. The last Gnostic heretic mentioned by the Church historian Eusebius was Ambrose, who was living around 220 but is mentioned just because he was converted to orthodoxy by Origen. This was when the Church had no political power whatsoever, indeed when it was illegal and under sporadic but ferocious attack, and when it did not exist organizationally above the level of local bishops. Origen could only use verbal persuasion on this Ambrose. Thus, the Church had no power to suppress anyone, yet Gnosticism lost out precisely under that regime. So it must have failed through lack of appeal.

In Beyond Belief we don't get the same references to the "second century" that we do in The Gnostic Gospels, so perhaps Pagels feels the awkwardness of the chronology. Instead, we get the Council of Nicaea presented as the orthodox deathblow against Gnosticism. Unfortunately, the Council of Nicaea doesn't seem to have been very worried about Gnosticism. The doctrine Pagels presents as receiving the wrath of Nicene orthodoxy is Arianism. But, although Arianism discounted the divinity of Jesus, which gives us a point of comparison with Gnosticism, it was not a form of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was already so far gone as to represent no doctrinal challenge to orthodoxy.

Even worse for Pagels' thesis, the Church and the State were unable to suppress Arianism. The last Arians were the Visigothic rulers of Spain. They did not join the orthodox Catholic Church until the year 589, more than two and a half centuries after Nicaea. Of course, as a sovereign German tribe, the bane and death knell of the Empire, the Visigoths could believe whatever they wanted. Nobody could have ever forced them into orthodoxy. Only persuasion could ever have undeceived them of Arianism. But they never had been Gnostics.

If Gnosticism failed before the orthodox were in any position to forcefully suppress it, we are thrown back on the awkward possibility that orthodoxy may have just been more appealing to Christians. But another awkward circumstance for Pagels' thesis is the simple truth that, after a fashion, Gnosticism did not die out. The Monism, the self-realization, the mysticism, the celibacy, the feminism of Gnosticism all continued in the Neoplatonic School of the Egyptian philosopher Plotinus -- indeed, in 415 when the Neoplatonic mathematician Hypatia (who by celibacy made "herself male" in the Gnostic sense) was murdered by Christian monks in Alexandria, a feminist martyr was created who has given her name to a modern feminist philosophy journal. As noted, Pagels only mentions Plotinus to quote his criticisms of Gnosticism. This is remarkable when Plotinus otherwise had so much in common with Gnosticism. To be sure, Plotinus leaves out Jesus and Judaism from his religion, but then Gnosticism already had rendered Jesus relatively superfluous and Judaism a positive embarrassment. Neoplatonism was thus simply Gnosticism without the complications of being a sect of Christianity. Since Neoplatonism didn't reject the old gods, it never had any argument with traditional religion, nor did it ask anyone to believe anything they could not verify by their own reason and experience. The ideal, in other words, of liberal and tolerant religion.

So how did Neoplatonism do in the religious marketplace? Disastrously. It was never appealing to more than philosophers and a few of the educated. When the Emperor Julian, the last of the Constantians, tried to restore and revive the old gods, with his own Neoplatonic convictions and the advice of Maximus of Ephesus, the results were not just ineffective but tragicomic. On Julian's death, the army, stranded in Persia and a law onto itself, elected the Christian Jovian to succeed him. The full significance of this event, the act of a force personally loyal to Julian, much of it probably having served with him since his days in Gaul and familiar with his goals, is rarely appreciated or acknowledged. But even under the 4th and 5th century Christian Emperors there were no laws against Neoplatonism, no official or systematic persecution. It wasn't until the 6th century, in 529, that Justinian decided that enough was enough and closed Plato's Academy for harboring holdout pagans. It was a suppression easily accomplished when so little remained to suppress. Justinian didn't even have to arrest the pagans. Damascius and Simplicius left for Persia, but then returned home. They were no real threat.

Egypt holds another lesson. While the Egyptian Bishop Athanasius championed orthodoxy at Nicaea, earning the disapproval of Pagels, as of Thomas Jefferson, the Egyptian Coptic Church later drifted into heterodoxy. Where the Gnostics were unconvinced of the unique divinity of Jesus, the Egyptians moved toward the belief that he was entirely divine, not with both human and divine natures as in orthodoxy. This Monophysite doctrine was condemned as heretical at the Fourth Ecumenical Council, at Chalcedon in 451. As with the earlier Gnostic Egyptians, Pagels' thesis might lead us to imagine that the Monophysites were then efficiently rolled up and stamped out by the power of the Church and State (they were not an autonomous and powerful German tribe, after all). Unfortunately for her thesis, no.

Not only did the Egyptians remain Monophysite, but attempts to suppress them resulted in their alienation from the Empire, so much so that nearly two centuries later (in 640), when the Arabs arrived in Egypt, the Patriarch all but welcomed them. So if the Egyptians clung to Monophysitism in the 5th century, despite the condemnation of the organized Church and the persecution of the Emperors, why did they not cling to Gnosticism in the 3rd century, when there was no organized Church and the Emperor only persecuted the crazy Christians who courted martyrdom? Well, they must not have liked it as much.

So, for manifold reasons, Pagels' view that Gnosticism disappeared mainly for political reasons, and not because of its religious appeal, appears to fail. But with Pagels, who likes Thomas better than John and Gnosticism more than Nicaea, the question then is why the religious appeal of the two sides is different, why she clearly wants to get "beyond belief" and devotes a career to, in effect, reviving Gnostic Christianity. The answer should be obvious enough:  Pagels is a Neoplatonist at heart. An open, tolerant, feminist Church of self-realization, without irrational dogma and confession, is what is to be preferred by the modern educated and enlightened person.

However, just as with the 3rd century, we must then ask how successful this is as religion, and the answer must be that, just as then, it isn't. Liberal churches are long in decline, while the evangelicals, the fundamentalists, the Creationists, the Bible thumping retards, these are the people who pack growing membership into bursting Churches, or surge to the movie theaters to see The Passion of the Christ. As the 21th century dawns, Islamic fanatics on "martyrdom operations," denounced by the careful but celebrated by the masses, have been murdering thousands in suicide attacks, screaming ʾAllâhu ʾakbar! "God is greatest!" This is not the way it was supposed to be. Science and education were supposed to undermine superstition and bundle this stuff off with the other junk of history.

As it happens, however, education has often simply purveyed its own forms of superstition; and the educated and intelligent have frequently ended up believing things so preposterous, foolish, and vicious that, in George Orwell's words, only an intellectual could believe them. This is not the way it was supposed to be either. I think there are a couple of mistakes involved. One is not to appreciate the limitations of rational knowledge and the place of faith in religion. This has been discussed elsewhere, with the conclusion that historically and psychologically we tend to cycle through phases of faith, works, and knowledge, for the simple reason that none is sufficient on its own. Yet even when the Zeitgeist puts emphasis on one or another, there are always individuals involved in each, usually with more people relying on faith. We find a system acknowledging each in the Bhagavad Gita:

Some by the Yoga of meditation, and by the grace of the Spirit, see the Spirit in themselves; some by the Yoga of the vision of Truth; and others by the Yoga of work. [13:24]

And yet there are others who do not know, but they hear from others and adore. They also cross beyond death, because of their devotion to words of Truth. [13:25, ibid., p.101]

In terms of the popular practice of Hinduism, the devotionalistic approach of verse 25 (bhaktiyoga, the yoga of devotion) vastly predominates. In Indian philosophy, however, especially in the forms that have become popular in the West, devotionalistic religion may be regarded as the province of the dull, the ignorant, and the stupid, as Krishna himself appears to say at one point:

For all those who come to me for shelter, however weak or humble or sinful they may be -- women or Vaisyas or Sudras -- they all reach the Path supreme. [9:32, p.83]

This is reminiscent of another aspect of Gnosticism:  elitism. In Beyond Belief especially, Pagels discusses the Gnostic view that there was an Inner and an Outer Church. The Outer Church was entered by water baptism and consisted of those who simply believed. The Inner Church was entered by a kind of second baptism, of the Spirit and of gnôsis, by which a select number rise above the merely believing. It is hard to tell how far this ever really developed institutionally, but if the Gnostics expected the spiritually advanced to be celibate, we suddenly get a modus vivendi for a functioning Church, with a mass of lay believers living ordinary lives, and an elite of adepts under a monastic regime.

This would do no more than make Christianity into something like Jainism or Buddhism (we might say if the regular rather than the secular clergy ruled the Church). It does not, however, seem to be what Pagels looks forward to -- most American Buddhist converts, indeed, show little interest in monasticism. It is, curiously, like something from an incident later in the Middle Ages:  At the beginning of the 13th century, a sect generally known as the Albigensians in the South of France, especially around Toulouse, provoked a declaration of a Crusade by Pope Innocent III. Little is known about the Albigensians, who sometimes are characterized as Manicheans, regarding matter as evil (like Neoplatonism and some Gnosticism), but they seem to have been led by self-described Cathari, or the "Pure." If Manicheans, why not Gnostics? Perhaps a little late for that (and for Manicheans), but one wonders if the Cathari were a kind of monastic elite.

Now it hardly seems like the modern distaste for priests and bishops would countenance any more favorably an elite of monks and nuns. Nevertheless, these were more like the choices between orthodoxy and Gnosticism, and the tradition settled on the former. This effected a kind of egalitarianism, not to mention an affirmation of the flesh, that Pagels occasionally acknowledges. On the other hand, she also seems to like the idea that, in principle, Gnosticism could be more egalitarian, where we eliminate the monastic elite, as well as the priests and bishops. However, if Gnosticism is not just a pop psychological form of self-realization, but a serious mysticism, like the Jewish mysticism (but, again curiously, not the Islamic) that Pagels occasionally mentions, the reality would seem to be that mysticism actually is not for everyone. It is a mentally difficult and demanding discipline and practice, which is why it is relatively rare even where, as in Judaism, ʾIslâm, and Hinduism, it does not labor, as in Christianity, under suspicions of heresy.

To the extent that the Gnostics meant gnôsis as union with God, a Church divided between Inner and Outer was inevitable. The kind of elite that the orthodox Church accepted was one made by ritual (the laying on of hands), not one made by mystical transport. If Pagels is simply searching, like a kind of Diogenes, for an egalitarian religion, Gnosticism ends up being a poor candidate. Indeed, what Pagels might esteem could just be a Protestant Church, which is based on the faith of the multitude but has a clerical elite no more than a monastic or mystical one. Again, this is why I might wonder if nothing more than traditional Protestant anti-clericalism is behind the (as it turns out confused) vogue for Gnosticism.

The failure of Elaine Pagels to explain Christian history, and the failure of Gnosticism, in political terms simply means that the "religious content" in question must be addressed. A religion of intellectuals or mystics, like Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Sufism, or Advaita Vedanta, has difficulty existing without a broader religion of faith to bear it. The intellectuals, and many mystics, often find this annoying, insulting, even frightening. This is not only a truth of history but also appears to bear on the motivation for the project in Pagels' books. I understand that Pagels did not enjoy The Passion of the Christ, or that she even found it offensive. Yet the movie simply expressed a very, very traditional Christian and especially Catholic appreciation for the suffering of Christ, as itself the means of Christian salvation, with Jesus taking our sins upon himself. The Gnostics would not have been amused either.

But this is the problem. Religion in history has rarely been a safe, happy, feel-good business. Successful historical religions tend to be demanding and rather frightening, very much like the Tetragrammatonic Deity, judgmental, jealous, and erratic, whom the Gnostics so disliked and belittled in the Old Testament. But he has something that "the depth" lacked:  personality. This is how the Greek philosophers helped kill off their own religion -- they drained the gods of humanity, on the principle that this was imperfection. While Christianity indeed demanded perfection of us, it did so with an awareness that perfection cannot be humanly achieved, which is why so much of the ritual mechanism of Christianity addressed repentance, forgiveness, and expiation, while the role of Jesus in suffering for our sins became doctrinally so important. Gnosticism, perhaps in producing its own Cathari, doesn't seem to have worried much about sin. While this is appealing to modern non-judgmental relativism, it joins its modern counterpart in a kind of apotheosis of moral folly. Here, indeed, we find the genuine depth of traditional Christianity, a far more challenging and realistic view of life and human nature than Gnostic self-realization could offer.

Finally, if traditional Christianity overcame Gnosticism because of its intrinsic religious appeal, we still might ask why traditional Christianity ended up with priests, bishops, and an organized Church, while ʾIslâm and rabbinical Judaism didn't have those things. This question has a couple of parts. The first part is why Christianity had priests at all. ʾIslâm doesn't, and Judaism doesn't anymore. In ancient religions the role of priests was less to tend to believers than to tend to the god. The gods lived in their temples, and priests served them in many ways that servants might serve a living master. Dealing with people, in the name of the god, was secondary, even if an obvious function. This was still pretty much the function of the priests of Israel, whose job was making sacrifices and otherwise tending to the sanctuary in the Temple, even if there was no representation of a deity there that needed to be washed, dressed, or carried around like pagan gods. When Judaism lost the Temple, it lost the reason for an active priesthood -- though the word "priest," kôhên, survives as a surname, "Cohen." ʾIslâm simply never had anything of the sort -- though the Kaʿaba in Mecca comes the closest.

Now, in terms of its institutions, Christian churches are more like synagogues or mosques than like pagan temples or the Temple in Jerusalem. There is no room where the god lives. Thus, words for "church" in most languages are derived from the Greek word ekklêsía, which just meant "assembly." It is the congregation, not the building, that counts. However, Orthodox and Catholic churches do have something comparable to the pagan temples:  Jesus makes a physical appearance, because of the miracle of the Mass and the Eucharist. It is the job of the priest to perform the miracle that transforms the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Their job is thus indeed to tend to the physical presence of the deity, but this is a temporary presence, as the bread and now the wine (which in Catholicism formerly was consumed only by the priests) are conveyed to the congregation. Critics of Christianity can be seen nearly hopping up and down with glee that they can attribute ritual cannibalism to Christianity.

However, there doesn't seem to have been any ritual cannibalism in the traditional religions of the Mediterranean world (unless consuming wine was the equivalent of consuming Dionysus). What Christianity resembles in this practice are the Hellenistic mystery religions. The mystery religions involved initiation into secret rites, often involving a traditional Greek or Roman god -- like the Eleusinian Mysteries, with the goddess Demeter -- or the importation of non-Roman deities, like Isis, the Magna Mater, or Mithras. The central iconic event of Mithraism, Mithras slaying a bull, is pictured at right (from a Mithraeum in the Alban Hills outside Rome).

Even Christian writers accused Mithrism of stealing or imitating rituals from Christianity (though Christians then take over the birthday of Mithras, December 25th). In Christianity itself, baptism was the initiation, but there were no secret rites. So what was the Mystery? Initiates share in something that it at once public, the Host produced by the Mass, and at the same time something secret and mysterious, Communion with Christ through the consumption of the Host.

In a remarkable way this accomplishes something that is characteristic of the mystery religions and unique to the teaching of Christianity. Its power with those accustomed to the traditional religions ought not to be to underestimated. But it commonly is not only underestimated but actually ignored (as in Pagels, who, as best I can recall, never mentions it), if not ridiculed or disparaged. Protestants, Jews, and Muslims have no reason to view the Eucharist with anything other than distaste -- a comical act of fraudulent magic, serving no function but to empower priestly, cynical exploiters of people's gullibility.

To people raised on Eleusis, Dionysus, Isis, and Mithras, however, there is going to be no knee-jerk anti-clericalism or suspicion of mysterious rites. All this made Christianity something that should not be at all surprising:  a Roman religion -- a Roman religion that ironically incorporates aspects of traditional Mystery Religions and Judaism, aspects that are unrelated to each other and both, significantly, missing from Gnosticism. At the same time, the Eucharist was never regarded as the means of salvation. The only ritual act that Catholicism ever regarded as essential to salvation was baptism. Beyond that, belief and repentance did the job. An unconfessed, unabsolved, and unshriven person nevertheless could achieve salvation through genuine repentance in articulo mortis, at the moment of death. So all the priestcraft mainly served to address sin, and priests were not allowed to charge for sacraments (the sin of Simony).

So Christianity had priests for reasons that would mean nothing to Protestants, Jews, Muslims, or, for that matter, Gnostics, but that were weighty enough in their time and place -- though they were also not absolutely necessary, except for baptism, in terms of the Church's own doctrine. Pagels doesn't consider the role of the Eurcharist in the religion because, I suspect, it is simply off the radar, while the political explanation for the failure of Gnosticism prevented the question from arising at all. The next part of the organizational question, however, is why we end up with the hierarchy from bishops to popes. Well, bishops were local Church leaders, but there wasn't much of a hierarchy beyond that until Christianity became a legal religion. Even then, there was no higher office, except for the general recognition of the importance of the Patriarchs -- of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. The Bishop of Rome, the Pope, was recognized by the others as the primus inter pares, first among equals, but this gave him no doctrinal or organization authority over the Church as a whole. Doctrine was decided by Councils that were called by the Emperors.

The overall organizational and doctrinal unity of the Church, therefore, was effected by the Emperors. The Church thus took on the coloring of the Roman Empire. At the same time, the leaders of the Church did not want to be absorbed into the State. The Church remained distinct from the Roman government, and Churchmen, like St. Ambrose, reserved the right to rebuke and correct the Emperors themselves. As the power of the Emperors withdrew to the east with the remains of the Empire, the Popes found themselves on their own, and they began to dream dreams of their own authority. The Papacy, in the power vacuum of Mediaeval Italy, then grew into its own kind of Imperial institution.

Nothing like that ever happened in ʾIslâm because the only institution of the religion, the Caliphate, was itself a political authority. The doctrinal authority of the Caliphate may have been limited, but there was no doubt that the Caliph was the leader of ʾIslâm, the ʾAmîr al-Muʾminîn, the "Commander of the Faithful." A religious hierarchy independent of this was neither necessary nor allowed. Religious authorities, the ʿulamâʾ ("knowers," the "learned," sing. ʿâlim), were either private individuals, writing their own opinions on Islamic Law, or actual judges, quḍâh (sing. qâḍî). This lack of distinction between religion and politics still has serious and dangerous consequences in modern ʾIslâm. That Christianity developed independently of the Roman state, but then itself developed an institutional existence in imitation of the state, made it possible for the religion to maintain its independence, to challenge the state, and ultimately to be separated from the state in modern conceptions of religious freedom.

This was all for the better. It is not obvious that Gnosticism, without a confrontational attitude and tending towards syncretism, would have accomplished anything of the sort. Gnosticism can be revived now because the state has been purged of religious authority, but this was not accomplished by the old religions, under which the Roman Emperor was the Pontifex Maximus, the supreme priest, or by ʾIslâm. Instead, Church was separated from the state at first because the Church fought to make itself distinct and independent of the state. This made political authority something different from religious authority, which in the end allowed the separation of the two. Gnosticism was not the sort of thing to wage such a fight. Indeed, if Gnosticism involved an elite of Cathari, these might have expected to hold political as well as religious authority, not the least because the Kingdom of Heaven would not be an afterlife attained by resurrection but something achieved right now (perhaps like Calvin's Geneva or Puritan Massachusetts -- not to mention Khomeini's Iran).

So it is possible to argue that orthodox Christianity not only was more appealing as religion than Gnosticism, but that the institutional peculiarities of orthodox Christianity not only were due to distinctive internal and external features characteristic of the Roman world, but that historically this worked out for the better. Either way, Elaine Pagels did not get to the heart of the matter and was misdirected about the genuine lessons from the history of Gnosticism. Liberal society, although something now more conformable to Gnosticism, nevertheless is the historical heritage, not of Gnosticism, but of the orthodoxy that defeated it, not by force, but in the marketplace of religious ideas.

Faith, Works, and Knowledge

The Passion of the Christ: A Response to Critics, 2004


Philosophy of Religion

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