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The Gospel Truth

Church fathers cried heresy and banned their works from the Bible. But the contrarian disciples offer a new take on Christianity, and scholar Elaine Pagels wants their voices heard.

Photo: Brian Smith

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By Diane Rogers

There was forbidden fruit in the Harvard graduate school filing cabinets: unorthodox gospels, apocrypha and secret writings that contained sayings and rituals attributed to Jesus.

“Our professors would say, ‘Well, how about [studying] the Gospel of Truth?’ And we’d say, ‘What’s that?’”

“Well, it’s an ancient gospel.”

“How ancient?”

“We don’t know.”

“Where does it come from?”

“We don’t know that, either.”

“Who wrote it?”

“Well, it’s heretical.”

That did it.

Hints of heresy lit a spark in the young doctoral student and launched Elaine Pagels on a lifelong study of Greek, Latin, Coptic, Hebrew, French, Italian and German. All in an effort to read ancient Christian works that had been banned from the canon that became the Bible, and scholarly commentaries on them.

Their discovery in Upper Egypt in 1945 added a new dimension to religious studies. “We’ve looked at the same material over and over, for a couple of thousand years, and we didn’t really have any new way to engage it,” Pagels, ’64, MA ’65, says about the 27 books that were ordained as the New Testament in the fourth century. “This new material offers us perspectives from which we had never seen a movement before. The Gospel of Thomas is not only an intrinsically fascinating collection, and very provocative, but it’s a way into the history of Christianity that had never been available.”

Bringing arcane first-century texts alive for a 21st-century reading public could be a daunting exercise, but Pagels is up to the challenge. After all, the Princeton professor of religion won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Gnostic Gospels, a slim 1979 volume that turned obscure religious writings into the stuff of popular culture.

In her new book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003), Pagels focuses on one of 52 so-called heretical works. Published last May, Beyond Belief spent more than three months on the New York Times bestseller list and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. On one recent afternoon Pagels fielded calls for interviews from both National Public Radio and ABC News, and the months-long buzz has even caught the attention of her 15-year-old son, David. “He told his friends I was like Eminem,” Pagels says, grimacing. “Well, let’s hope not.”

A historian of religion who specializes in what scholars call late antiquity, or the first few centuries of the Common Era, Pagels has written widely about early Christianity. In The Origin of Satan (1996) she looked at Christian and Jewish concepts of evil, and in Adam, Eve and the Serpent (1988) she explored the creation myth and the development of sexual attitudes in the Christian West. Pagels taught at Columbia University and Barnard College in the 1970s and received, in three consecutive years, Rockefeller, Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships.

Since 1982, Pagels has been the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton. A poster on her office door is a reminder of the stage she shared last spring with Nobel Prize-winning author and faculty colleague Toni Morrison, when they appeared with Anonymous 4, a women’s singing group that performed an ancient Coptic poem. Two of Pagels’s watercolor paintings hang on one wall, and a gym bag and balled-up socks are tossed in one corner, awaiting her next yoga class.

Pagels grew up on the Farm, where her father, William McKinley Hiesey, taught plant biology. At St. Michael’s Alley coffee house in Palo Alto, the 16-year-old first spotted the handsome physics graduate student she would marry years later, Heinz Pagels, PhD ’65. She majored in history and earned a master’s degree in classics at Stanford, then danced briefly with the Martha Graham Company in New York City before enrolling in religious studies at Harvard graduate school.

“Elaine has made her mark and gained her fame as someone who has mastered making popularly accessible a lot of good, critical scholarship, which has reshaped how we understand early Christianity,” says Robert Gregg, Stanford professor of religious studies and former dean for religious life. “She has sparked interest in a heretofore fairly obscure period of history.” What makes Pagels’s scholarship singularly engaging, Gregg adds, is the way in which her personal life has crossed paths with her academic pursuits. “She has been perfectly willing to let those two things intersect, and to reflect about them.”

Pagels comes to her evolving interpretations of ancient texts by way of a difficult personal journey. Raised in a “nominally Protestant” family, she did the rebellious teen bit when she was 14 by joining an evangelical Christian church. But when church members told her that a close friend of hers who’d been killed in a car accident was eternally damned because he was Jewish and not “born again,” Pagels abandoned that faith and did not attend any church on a regular basis for years.

Then, on a Sunday morning in February 1982, she walked into the vaulted stone vestibule of the Episcopalian Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan. Her infant son, Mark, had just been diagnosed with a fatal lung disease, and she needed—something. The harmonies of the choir instantly filled a void, but when the congregation started reciting their creed, Pagels writes in Beyond Belief, it “sounded strange to me, like barely intelligible signals from the surface, heard at the bottom of the sea.”

Five years later, Mark died. And 15 months after that, Heinz Pagels was killed in a hiking accident near their summer home in Aspen, Colo. “It was unbearable,” she says about that period. “A lot of people think you get religious when you grieve, but I wasn’t one of them. In my experience, it just didn’t make any sense.”

Given the depth of her despair, the book that emerged from her study of the Gospel of Thomas was particularly “beautiful,” says Marvin Meyer, a professor of religious studies at Chapman University. “As a friend, observing from the outside, it seemed to me that she was going through some of the most acute grief one can go through,” he says. “I read Beyond Belief as autobiography, not just scholarship. She’s talking about her own spirituality and her own life and her own passing through the valley of the shadow of death—and coming through it to achieve a new kind of life, to raise her children and to be with her new husband. I would anticipate that she has been able to touch the lives and hearts of many people with those kinds of reflections.”

Unable to believe all that the Episcopal Church espoused, Pagels asked herself, “Why not just leave Christianity—and religion—behind, as so many others had done?” However, she writes in Beyond Belief, “I sometimes encountered, in churches and elsewhere—in the presence of a venerable Buddhist monk, in the cantor’s singing at a bar mitzvah, and on mountain hikes—something compelling, powerful, even terrifying that I could not ignore, and I had come to see that, besides belief, Christianity involves practice—and paths toward transformation.”

Over time, as Pagels reflected on churchgoing and “the presence of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family,” her academic questioning took a similar tack and she delved into the widely diverse traditions and forms of worship of the first few centuries of Christianity. At a time when some of the earliest Christians were being torn apart by wild beasts in Rome’s public arenas, others continued to contribute money to help orphans, took food to prisoners in jail and bought coffins to bury the poor and criminals. They all called themselves Christians and were united in what Pagels calls “this new morality”—yet they worshipped in many different ways and adhered to no set creed. As believers in “gnosis,” or spiritual understanding, the so-called Gnostics depended on their own visions and spiritual experiences to guide them, rather than following a heralded messiah.

How does she know? From reading the Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Secret Book of John, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Peter and—her favorite—the Gospel of Thomas. For centuries, all that was known about these so-called Gnostic gospels came from their detractors, the fourth-century bishops who had denounced them as heretical works in the process of formalizing the beliefs of the Nicene Creed and ordaining the biblical canon. In fact, the archbishop of Alexandria had sent an Easter letter to far-flung churches in 367, demanding that they “get rid of those illegitimate, secret books,” Pagels says. “But somebody from the monastery took them from the library and buried them, in order to preserve them.”

Historians believe that monks from the St. Pachomius monastery, near the present-day village of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, saved the fragmentary, fourth-century papyrus texts that are known as the Gnostic gospels. Bound in tooled gazelle leather, the 52 manuscripts were buried in a 6-foot-tall clay jar that wasn’t discovered until 1945, by a farmer digging for fertilizer nitrates. The writings were turned over to the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and teams of scholars from Canada, Germany, Scandinavia and the United States have worked together to decipher the poems, prayers and sayings that were translated from the original Greek into Coptic, an African language that transposes hieroglyphics into an alphabetical mode. “They look like golden tobacco leaves inscribed with black ink,” Pagels says about the manuscripts that she first saw in Egypt in 1974, preserved between sheets of Plexiglas. “The texts are quite beautiful.”

Pagels says the Gnostic gospels had acquired a long-standing bad name among scholars of the early church, thanks to a five-volume polemic by the bishop who was the primary architect of the biblical canon. “We expected them to be blasphemous and peculiar, and maybe garbled and ridiculous,” she says. “So it has taken a long time to break out of the mindset that says, ‘This is all heresy, it’s really terrible,’ and be able to say, ‘Wait a minute, what are we actually looking at here?’ ”

In fact, she says, the Gnostic gospels share many affinities with the gospels of the New Testament—but with notable exceptions. The author of the Gospel of Philip, for example, was denounced by church fathers for suggesting that the virgin birth was not simply something that had happened once to Jesus, but that it could happen to anyone who was baptized. Philip also was excoriated for arguing that the resurrection Jesus experienced was a paradigm for what could happen to anyone who underwent a spiritual transformation.

Over the past eight years, as Pagels dug into closer readings of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and compared it with the New Testament Gospel of John, she came to a startling conclusion. “I was frankly shocked when it occurred to me that perhaps the Gospel of John was written in response to the kind of teaching you have in Thomas,” she says. “It was a completely new perception, and I was stunned.”

John fervently opposed what the Gospel of Thomas teaches: that all humanity has direct access to God because, according to the Book of Genesis, everyone is created “in the image and likeness of God.” In John’s Gospel, by contrast, the only way to know the divine being is through Jesus, who, he asserts, is God in human form. What’s more, while the authors of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke allude to Thomas as simply one of “the 12” disciples, John presents the image of a “doubting Thomas.”

Why? To undermine the credibility of the Gnostic gospel? Those are the kinds of questions Pagels poses to students in a seminar she teaches about the first four centuries titled The Christian Revolution. A radical viewpoint underlies her softly voiced comments, and she wants the voices of the heretics to be heard. A brisk lecturer, she keeps students flipping from I Corinthians to the Gospel of Matthew to the Acts of Paul, prodding them to read passages aloud and to scour the verses for meaning.

Where do the Gospel writers contradict one another? she wants to know. Could the so-called heretics of the Gnostic texts have been genuine Christians who simply represented the diversity of beliefs that flourished in the early years of the Christian movement? Do these texts vindicate a broad diversity of Christian beliefs today? “Students will say, ‘Well, these [writings] aren’t in the Bible, so does this qualify what we think about biblical truth?’” Pagels notes. “I think, yes, it may—and not everybody welcomes that conclusion.”

Princeton religion professor John Gager notes that “one of the things that sets Elaine’s study apart—and it has been a kind of curse for her—is that she has been able to communicate to readers some sense of what it must have felt like to be those people.” He says that Pagels has “a certain degree of sympathy, a certain embracing of the creative contrarian spirit of these texts, and the curse is that this led many people to suppose that she was a Gnostic believer herself.” Members of contemporary Gnostic congregations have been known to follow her from session to session at annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.

Is Pagels a modern-day Gnostic? She lets a few seconds pass as she considers the question. “Well, I think it’s quite possible to be, if by ‘Gnostic’ you mean a quality of awareness, which is what the word originally meant.” She pauses again. “But for many people, Gnostic means a kind of heretical, dualistic, nihilistic [thinking], and I don’t think they are that.” Because the language and the characters of the Bible are so familiar to her, Pagels adds, she identifies as Christian—“but I wouldn’t say I identify only with that.”

Half a mile down the street from Pagels’s Princeton office, the stone tower of Trinity Church watches in Gothic reverence over a manicured lawn that is stippled with orange and yellow leaves on a bright fall morning. She and her children, Sarah, 17, and David, and her husband, Kent Greenawalt, a professor at Columbia Law School, worship at the Episcopal parish, and she is frequently an invited speaker at the church’s educational outreach events. “Elaine is very honest about her own faith journey, and very open about her doubts and certainties, and she’s often autobiographical,” says the Rev. Leslie Smith. “She clearly challenges a congregation that’s fairly progressive, on issues like the early church’s repression of women’s participation.”

In her classroom, Pagels asks questions that echo the challenges her professors used to throw at her. “We have students who come from every kind of perspective, and in the university we’re inviting them to look at the Gnostic gospels from an historical point of view,” she says. “What are the purposes for which they were written? How do we understand the relationship between Jewish tradition and these texts, and how they emerge?”

And, significantly, “How does a different movement come to be formed?” That, Pagels says after decades of translating and interpreting the Gnostic gospels, “is not at all obvious.”

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