Critique of Pagels

See here for an excellent, if entirely too short, critique of Elaine Pagels’ gnosticism racket.

It’s unfortunate that such work as Pagels’ passes for scholarship these days, but with Biblical Studies in such generally shoddy shape, it’s hardly surprising. Mankowski’s critique could easily be extended throughout her Gnostic Gospels, along with her confused and nearly unreadable Adam, Eve and the Serpent, the only two of her works which I’ve forced myself to suffer through. Both are wandering and unfocused, full of paragraphs being the results of numerous derailed trains of thought, peppered with outright misrepresentation of both orthodox and gnostic texts. Mankowski describes her efforts well, here:

I am not calling for academic sanctions but, more simply, for clarification. Pagels should be billed accurately—not as an expert on Gnosticism or Coptic Christianity but as what she is: a lady novelist. Her oeuvre is that of fiction—in fact, historical romance. Had New York Times reporters sought Barbara Cartland’s views on discoveries in Merovingian religion or paleography, most of us would find it odd, but we’d expect them to make it plain that was romance, not history, in which she had the right to an opinion.


10 Replies to “Critique of Pagels”

  1. I very much agree. So many of the talking heads on those programs are of such a quality, though, that it’s a real problem, educationally. It’s the nature of the media, to seek out sensationalist angles on any story, as we know. The gullible public, no matter how educated in their own fields, however, accept the statements of such “scholars” as definitive, thinking that they fairly represent a quality of scholarship representative of what would be the case if experts in their own fields were interviewed. When such folks hear that these talking heads are more akin to their own fringe “scholars,” they’re rightly horrified that such drivel would be spread abroad as valid.

    Perhaps the most encouraging aspect about Dan Brown’s vile DaVinci Code is that rebuttal to it is considered by the press to merit attention. If only that attention could be held as the rebuttal was directed to numerous other oddball ideas….

  2. I respect Pagels. Detractors should identify any factual errors. How can anyone really know whether John or Thomas is more Godlike?

  3. Well, James, your comment only shows that you need more training in the issues at hand, historically, philologically, and theologically. Her work is rife with factual errors, as it relies on very particular conceptions and presuppositions (by no means objective) concerning the history of early Christianity originating in the anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic circles of liberal German Protestant theologians of the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries (including the work of various sympathizers with the Nazis). In addition, her own particular spin on these ideas is a further problem, taking her readers along a path of relativism and anachronism to a very, very modernist late-twentieth century liberal Episcopalian conclusion (not surprisingly unlike Pagels!), but one that bears no resemblance to any ancient religious group whatsover, and certainly not the Christian world in its first centuries. But as with Spong’s ridiculous writings, who has the time to detail how wrong they are? When built on a wrong foundation out of garbage artfully arranged to appeal to a certain segment of society’s long-held prejudices against Christianity, and so consistently and thoroughly corrupt that it would take longer to describe than there is any worth in the project, it is obviously a useless endeavour, certainly as the “true believers” will receive no correction to the contrary and those who know anything about the subject are content simply to dismiss it!

    Your asking “How can anyone really know whether John or Thomas is more Godlike?” belies the degree to which Pagels’ (et alia!) confections have had an effect on the reading public. You have equated (apparently) the canonical Gospel of John with the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, as though these books are of the same historical value in reflecting the situation of the earliest years of Christianity. (And/or you are taking the two books as equally accurate representations of the beliefs of the Apostles John and Thomas!) Those who would simplistically place Coptic GThom in the first century are not only wrong, but are spectacularly wrong through their imposition of other concerns, or through a simple misunderstanding (or deliberate misrepresentation!) of the work of scholarship relating to these writings known under the name “Gospel of Thomas.” The most that can reasonably said is that if GThom did not utilize the canonical Gospels (which is, in fact, more likely than not), it utilized an early collection of Jesus sayings that may have dated as early as the first century, the text of Coptic GThom as it is preserved has been reworked by a Gnosticizing group and the form of its text dates not too long before the surviving copy among the Nag Hammadi codices, that is, to the fourth century. It’s more common these days to describe GThom as a work that originated in the mid-second century in Greek, utilized the canonical Gospels (as there is only partisan supposition to the contrary), and later experienced a very complicated textual history, particularly with the addition of the Coptic translation. In either case, its historical value for earliest Apostolic Christianity is nil.

  4. Just as a matter of curiosity, I’m wondering what the people who disagree with Pagels base their conclusions on. I see the disagreement, but no factual evidence to back up these opposing views. I mean, I’ve been searching for a definitive explanation of the evolution of Christianity for years, and Pagels research seems as reasonable as anything else I’ve seen or heard to date. Can anyone who wasn’t there (and possibly many of those who were) really state anything that is not ultimately conjecture?

  5. Long ago, people near and dear to me gave me _Gnostic Gospels_ to set me straight (I am an orthodox confessional Protestant). I was profoundly unimpressed with her then, and I remain so.

    She gets all excited about the possibility that Thomas might have been the “twin brother of Jesus”. But, doesn’t she realize that Didymos is Greek for “twin”, as “Toma” is the Aramaic for the same word? All this meant was that somewhere, Thomas had a twin. Not Jesus. Just someone.

    Her positing that the Nag Hammadi texts were hidden by Coptic monks trying to protect them from the persecuting hand of Athanasius flunks Ecclesiastical History 101. Athanasius’ 4th century enemies were Arians and homoiousians, not 2d century Gnostics, and he was more often than not on the receiving end of persecution by Constantine’s homoiousian successors.

    I weep for the state of religious studies.

  6. I’m struck by the animus against Pagels in these posts. Clearly she has touched a nerve among the orthodox. The main response seems to be to declare oneself a greater authority in these matters than she is — and to ridicule her as a “talking head” spouting “drivel”. Hardly a convincing retort.

  7. I have read the Gnostic Gospels years ago and was unconvinced. I have seen Elaine Pagels speak on TV documentaries numerous times, being portrayed as an expert in her field. I agree with Kevin Edgecomb that to point out and correct all of Pagel’s errors and inaccuracies would be a daunting task. I will address one of them.

    In one documentary, she spoke of early orthodox Christianity being formed by Paul and his associates who had won a clash of theology between the Pauline camp and the Jerusalem camp. Paul’s side overwhelmed the opposition and got to write the New Testament to the exclusion of the Jerusalem Christians. This is not a original idea. It has been around for about a century, formulated by others who were no friends of orthodox Christianity either. It ignores that three of the Gospels were written by Christians of the Jerusalem church, and only one, Luke, by an associate of Paul. Of the epistles, after Paul’s letters, all were written by Jerusalem Christians.

    The problem is, there was no such rift between Paul and Jerusalem. There are no primary source documents from the First Century that even hint at such a possibility. The fact is that Paul was very respectful of the elders in Jerusalem and traveled there to get approval for his ministry to the Gentiles when he had opposed some Jewish Christians who were Pharisees, who insisted that Gentiles first had to convert to Judaism and be circumcised before becoming Christian. Peter and James, the leaders of the Jerusalem elders, agreed with Paul that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised. Also, at the end of his second and third missionary journeys, Paul travelled to Jerusalem to bring the donations he had collected in Asia, Macedonia, and Greece from the churches there to support the beleaguered church in Judea, and spent time with the Jerusalem Christians. This does not indicate a rift of any kind.

    If anyone might object to this explanation as coming from the orthodox Bible, then the onus is on them to produce convincing primary source evidence from that time to support the idea that it was any different.

    Brezina above states that those who object to Pagels present no factual evidence to support their cases. Apparently he has not read very many rebuttals of Pagels’ works, or failed to understand these factual evidence presented in them. He might start with The Historical Jesus, by Gary Habermas, who addresses Pagels’ ideas and those of a number of others who have their own revisionist versions of Christian history.

    Brezina also states that he has spent years searching for the definitive explanation for the evolution of Christianity, and that Pagels comes as close as anyone so far. That presupposes that Christianity “evolved” in any way, as if it morphed from generation to generation into anything remarkably different. Granted, the practice of Christianity changes as the cultures that have embraced it change. All one has to do is read some of the authoritative histories available to study how this has occurred, but the core theology and teachings of Christianity has remained the same since the First Century. Those wanting to study bona fide Christian history should read volumes like A World History of Christianity, Adrian Hastings, ed., Introduction to the History of Christianity, Tim Dowley, ed., The Story of Christianity, by Justo Gonzalez, or Christianity, the First Three Thousand Years, by Dairmaid MacCulloch.

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