ELAINE PAGELS, 3/94
X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
How are the four gospels that we know from the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, chosen from among dozens of other gospels that were known to be circulating in Christian communities in the early centuries of this era?
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Elaine Pagels. She's in ?Herington ?Spare ?Paine professor of religion at Princeton University, author of The Gnostic Gospels and several other distinguished works, and I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Dr.ÝPagels. What was happening in the first few centuries of the church as it was gaining power and made its decisions to reduce the gospels, which at that time numbered over fifty, to a dozen or so?
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, actually to four. Christian communities throughout the world were extremely diverse, for one thing. They were self-contained, many of them, and culturally different from one another. The one in Africa or Spain or Egypt would be quite different from one in Palestine or Gaul, one would assume. But, in the West, what happened, is that, to be a Christian was to belong to an illegal group which was suspect of sedition against the Roman Empire, treason, in short. It was a persecuted sect, it was dangerous to belong to. Leaders of the Church, like Irenaeus in Lyons, were very much concerned about the fact that their people were, first, the target of a public riot and attacked because they didn't believe in the local gods and the population thought they were endangering the rest, and then the Roman emperor, that is, the governor, agreed to arrest and execute as many Christians as confessed they belonged to this movement. So thirty to sixty people that Irenaeus knew when he was nineteen or so were tortured and executed by their neighbors, in these little towns. And executed on the emperor's birthday in fact. And he was sent off by the community to Rome to tell other Christians what had happened. And when he came back, he had the unwelcome honor of being made the bishop. I mean unwelcome because the previous bishop had been one of the first people arrested, of course, he's a target. He had died in prison of torture and exposure. And now they wanted Irenaeus to be the bishop and he felt it was his duty. His concern was to unite all of these various, very diverse groups, as much as he could, all over the world into a single unified organization, for their own protection. To do that, he wanted to exclude any kind of deviant groups who didn't agree with the sort of main leadership, like the bishops like himself. And that simply meant making of , you know, the definition of what it means to be a Christian as simple as possible. That is, to say this, I believe in one god the father almighty, maker or heaven and earth, then you're a Christian. Are you baptized? Do you believe this? Do you use these books? and go to this church? If so, you're a Christian. If not, no matter what you think about or believe, you're not one of us. So he was concerned primarily with the pressures of persecution I think, and trying to organize and consolidate a very heterogeneous community.
MP: We're talking the end of the first century, the beginning of the second century, and of course this term "the century" was gonna come 400Ýyears later.
ELAINE PAGELS: Yes, and most importantly, we know that there was a tremendous amount of Jesus material, so to speak, and I don't know what its value was, 'cause nobody knows whether it's authentic or whether it wasn't, but a great deal of sayings of Jesus and stories about Jesus and anecdotes, dances, poems, all kinds of material. But what I tried to show in the book is that only those resources from these sort of widely scattered traditions which served the purposes of building a social community, and building a specific kind of community, broadly based, were adopted into what came to be called orthodoxy. And materials that were either anti-institutional, or not useful for that process, were banned and, as soon as the Christians later had a Christian emperor and they had police support and power on their side, having these books was regarded as a criminal offense. Becoming a heretic could even be quite dangerous.
MP: How did the gospels that were found in the last hundred years happen to survive? I guess in Egypt.
ELAINE PAGELS: The gospels that you refer to I think are the ones found in upper Egypt, near NajëHammadi, in a small town. They had apparently been part of the monastery library of the oldest monastery in Egypt, which is called the Monastery of Saint ?Bracomia, and monks gathered there and somebody knew that the Archbishop of Alexandria had sent out an order and said "take all those heretical books and burn them." And someone defied the order, took the books and sealed them into a six-foot-high jar, fifty-two different texts that are, that remain, and there may have been many more, and buried them, beside a cliff, and next to the cliff, actually, next to the jar there was also a corpse, which suggests that somebody, probably a slave, who helped dig, was killed and buried there. So somebody wanted to preserve those texts, and succeeded.
MP: In order for our listeners to understand the dichotomy, at least, the dichotomy that we're making between the doctrines that suited the institution in the second century and the large number of the remaining documents, the bulk of the documents, we need to understand gnosticism.
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, gnosticism is a very wide-ranging movement. It gets its name from the word gnosis, which means "those who know." And the people who were called gnostics were Jews and Christians who claimed to have secret knowledge about the divine. The, many of the texts that were discovered speak about discovering the divine within you. And what I, I was fascinated to find these secret gospels. They're quite different from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which were included in the New Testament. What they do is point the reader toward the Self. One of my favorite sayings is from the Gospel of Thomas, where Jesus says, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." But the rest of the Gospel of Thomas is about bringing forth what is within you that you will discover the divine presence within your deep self. It is much closer to, say, Hinduism, or Buddhism, than anything we know in Western religion.
MP: In a sense, it didn't require external help or it might have required tutoring, but it always required a quality that we might today call "born again" or a quality of instantaneous enlightenment?
ELAINE PAGELS: No, not I think either being born again or instantaneous enlightenment, but a willingness to make a sort of spiritual search. At least that's what the Gospel of Thomas says. And what's different about these gospels, I mean, for example, they have different perceptions of Jesus. If you look at the gospels of the New Testament, they all claimóMatthew, Mark, Luke, and Johnóthat Jesus was a very unique being, in the history of the world, that his coming and what happened with him is enormously important, and the salvation of everyone in the world turns on what happened with Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of John says he's the only begotten son of God, and if you believe in him, you're saved, and if you don't believe in him, you're condemned. The gospels that were found have a very different message. Like the Gospel of Thomas says, "If you come to know yourselves, then you will know that it is you who are the children of God, and the kingdom of God will be found within." So, the message here is that every person can discover that he is, so to speak, Jesus's twin brother. This gospel is attributed to Thomas, the twin brother of Jesus. And I think that's meant symbolically, that Thomas is meant to be, you, the reader, discover that you and Jesus at some deep level are identical twins. Now, what makes this anti-social or anti-institutional is that the gospels of the New Testament all say that, if you want to get to God, you had better go to Jesus, and if you want to get to Jesus, you should go to the local church. The gospel of John says, "Whoever does not go through Jesus will be damned," something like that. These other gospels suggest that you can go to yourself and find God's way. And therefore there's no church that would ever endorse these gospels, I don't think. Except, they have remarkable mystical teachings in them, and marvelous material, if you like this kind of material, which I do very much.
MP: Well, we've got the four gospels, and the bulk of the gospels. The bulk of the gospels treat Mary of Magdalim differently.
ELAINE PAGELS: Yes. I mean let me go back to that previous thing, and that gets into exactly what you're asking, give you an example. I was thinking, if you drive down, in many parts of the country, you see billboards that say "Jesus says, 'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through Me.'" This is from the Gospel of John, of course. And then if you look at the bottom of the billboard, it'll say First Baptist Church of Whatever, or whatever, First Something Church. And the point is that the uniqueness of Jesus requires you to go to Jesus and to this church. But if you look at the Gospel of Thomas, it speaks very differently, about going to the Self. The disciples asked Jesus, "What way should we go?" And he says, "The way that you find, go that way. The place that you reach, stand there." And I thought, you know you'd never find that on a billboard. 'Cause who would pay for it? It doesn't serve the interest of any community or any church or any group. In these gospels, you do find Mary Magdalene among other disciples, as one of the chosen ones who has sort of deeper understanding of Jesus's secret message. She appears in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, for example, in that role, and in also many other gospels.
MP: She takes on a different role among the four surviving gospels, for any obvious reasons?
ELAINE PAGELS: Actually, she doesn't particularly. In the gospels of the New Testament, she is a follower of Jesus, from whom he exorcised seven devils. Many people later identified her with a prostitute who appears in the gospels, but that identification is never made in the gospels themselves, that's medieval tradition. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, it's very clear that, a question that's being asked is, "Can Mary become a teacher? Does she have the right to be a teacher, about Jesus?" And the Gospel of Mary suggests that Jesus loved her more than the other disciples and gave her secret knowledge that he didn't give the rest, and therefore he authorized her to be a teacher. But the other disciples are furious at the suggestion, or some of them, Peter is, particularly, and argues that she is simply making up the things she says and has no divine authorization whatsoever. And, it's clear that Gospel of Mary, part of the point, is to state that this believer herself has revelations of Christ which are unique, and has a right to teach. In the gospels of the New Testament, no woman first of all can be a disciple, they don't really count, none of them can be teachers, they always remain "the women," and that is very much congruent with the social structure of the second-century Christian churches, which allowed no woman to take any position of teaching or authority, of that kind.
MP: This is Social Thought, I'm Michael Phillips, and our guest today is Elaine Pagels. She is ?Harrington ?Spear ?Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, author of The Gnostic Gospels and numerous other distinguished works. I want to ask you about the Resurrection, which also seems to have a different, it's treated differently in the majority of the gospels compared to the four surviving ones.
ELAINE PAGELS: In the gospels of the New Testament, the claim is made that Jesus rose once from the dead, bodily, and disappeared, and certain people witnessed this remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-universe event, shall we say. And the orthodox churches, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, bases the claim of pope, the present pope, his claim to primacy as a Christian in that he is the authorized successor of the first witness of the Resurrection, namely, Peter. So that unique, once-in-a-universe kind of event, the claim that it is such an event, guarantees that only a very small group of people can claim to have actually been there, if you see what I mean. The Gospel of Philip is another gospel that was found in NajëHammadi and it ridicules this idea as the faith of fools. It says the Resurrection is a moment of transformation of existence. The Resurrection is moving from death to spiritual life. It's very much like some Buddhist teachings, talking about moving toward the moment of enlightenment, and the understanding of reality. They do not deny the possibility or even the reality of life after death. What they don't believe in is bodily life after, after bodily death. But, that point of view is one that the majority of Christians rejected because it didn't endorse the structure, which became, for example, the papacy in the Roman Catholic Church, and became the sort of dominating groups in many other churches.
MP: I want to ask you about your work on Satan. We're talking about a slightly earlier period when we start looking at Satan. Who are we dealing with at that point? And where are the notions of Satan?
ELAINE PAGELS: I was startled to realize that Satan does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, at all. At least not in the form that later Western Christendom comes to know him, as a kind of leader of an army of angels who are hostile to God. The idea of a split universe, with a battle going on up there between God and another supernatural who opposes him, has nothing at all to do with orthodox Judaism, it never has. It's not in the Bible. What you find are a few mentions, Hebrew storytellers will talk about a figure called ?Hasatan, which means "the opposer" or "the antagonist" or something like that, or "the blocker," he gets in your way, the Greek word diabolus means "someone who throws something at you," sort of obstructs your way. And there are characters, like in the story of Job, the Satan suggests to God that he throw something at Job, such as disaster, you know, the death of all of his children and the loss of all of his wealth, and so forth. So he certainly gets in Job's way. And he is a kind of adversarial person. But essentially the Satan is an angel, as he is in the book of Job He's one of the heavenly court. He has a job like the angel of death, which many people don't appreciate. But nevertheless, it is God's work to do, so to speak, at least as the Bible tells these stories. What happens in the period right before the formation of Christianity is an enormous proliferation of different kinds of stories, of angels who fell, of good angels who became bad angels, sort of en masse, they usually fell in a group, and they did something wrong. There are different stories of what they did. In Genesis, there's a story that the sons of God, which is a name for the angels, the ?binayalohim, were attracted to human women, and desired them, and seduced them, and then produced children with them which were sort of monsters, hybrid children that were half angel and half human, and these were giants in the earth, this is in GenesisÝ6 if you want to look it up. So, there were stories about those fallen angels and other people took a passage from Isaiah which talked about one of God's commanders of the angelic army, who rebelled against the commander-in-chief and was thrown out of Heaven, the Son of the Day-Star, and this is where you get the story of Lucifer, which means, of course, in Latin the light-bearer. In Greek, ?luciferos, light-bearer, the star who falls. What I discovered is that those stories of fallen angels are never part of orthodox Judaism. They're only present in Jewish groups that are rebelling against the majority of other Jews, for various reasons. In groups that say the majority of other Jews are completely fallen away from God, apostate, those are the groups that start telling you about fallen angel. And the correlation between the split in Heaven and the split within Israel is very clear. So I started by realizing that Satan is a sectarian perception, so to speak. It's sectarians who are interested in this figure, as a way of accounting for, if you ask the question, How could an angel become one of God's enemies? it's like asking, How could one of us become one of them? How could one of the sons of God, a member of Israel, become anti-God? So, these are, Satan is never used as a figure for an outsider, in these stories. He's never an Egyptian, he's never a Babylonian, he's never anyone out there. Those people are described as monsters and animals by the prophets and by the scriptures. But, beings which are characterized as satanic and diabolic are your neighbors, your associates, whom you despise as being somehow not really part of our people any more. The prime examples of this in the first century are two groups, one is the Essenes, who were the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and from whom we now know a great deal about this remarkable and radical Jewish sect, who turned against the rest of the Jewish community. The other great example is the followers of Jesus, who are also Jewish sectarians from this point of view, who turned against the rest of Jews and said they were apostate, they hadn't recognized God's Messiah. And, in both of these radical groups, the Essenes and the followers of Jesus, the figure of Satan is of utmost importance, right at the center. They're all about cosmic war. The Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, to use the Essenes' phrase, but it's also one that the Gospel of Matthew uses. So, what I'm trying to show is the way that this language becomes part of these groups, how it corresponds to their experience in a split community, and how it becomes a way of characterizing insiders who have become outsiders, and deep separation within a community. What happens, very, consequentially, in our history, is that when the followers of Jesus failed to convert many Jews to their movement, by the end of the year 100, they have had a great success converting Greeks, Asians, Egyptians, Africans, Romans, you name it. Almost any people, but not many, not many orthodox Jews. Then they claim that they are the new Israel, as you know if you know anything, all, [laughing some], anyone who knows about Christianity knows that Christians claims to be God's people, in a way replacing the people of Israel. And then this, what becomes sort of intra-group conflict language, talking about Satan, becomes fuel for the fires of anti-Semitism later, Christian anti-Semitism. So this becomes a very powerful and a rather deadly part of our history.
MP: Can we also look at your work on Adam and Eve? and its relationship to these developments?
ELAINE PAGELS: Yes, the book on Adam and Eve and the serpent started when my husband and I were in the southern Sudan, and we were visiting there, our host at that time was a Dinka tribesman, who was telling us about the Dinka, his people, and how their creation stories were related to what they, how they marry, how they work, how they understand social life, disease, death, everything. And I was thinking about the Adam-and-Eve story. I found in Khartoum and old copy of Time magazine and it was kind of rarity, so I was very happy to find it. And it was, it contained some responses to an issue of Time magazine, the previous issue, on bisexuality in America. What struck me as interesting were the letters to the editor. About four out of six of them were about Adam and Eve, and what God had intended in the beginning and what was natural and what was right and so forth. So, they were basically invoking the story, Adam and Eve, to talk about appropriate kinds of sexual behavior. And I, it struck me very clearly how much we are like the Dinka, going back to the creation story to validate important social issues, that is, issues when, which people found troubling, they would just go back to the old story and find, ya know, how the world should be. In many ways, attitudes about sexuality, attitudes about work, attitudes about deathóthey're all in the story, and it's just as practical, of course, as the Dinka creation story. So I decided to pretend that I was an anthropologist of our culture, and look at how that story came into Western culture, as it did in the origins of the Christian movement. It came into Greek and Roman society, very foreign to Greek and Roman society, with very foreign attitudes that were articulated in that story. And, well, many things are involved in that. One of them is that, is the sexual attitudes that were implicit in the telling of that story which suggest that the heterosexual, marital relationships are what God intended. That's clearly depicted in the story. And that was a powerful part of the Christian movement, and its impact on sort of Roman and Greek cultural attitudes when it emerged. So I was interested in how people came to accept this rather rigorous moral attitude, the really hostility to sexuality that's very much part of Christianity, altogether, the early Christian movement certainly. I'm talking about the first century. And, I was, so I was interested in patterns of sexual attitudes and how we got them, and how they came to seem so much part of the universe. Of course, that's what creation stories do for you, they tell you that our cultural attitudes are indeed embedded in the universe and that's why they feel so natural. And, there's another important element I discovered there, which is that, in the ancient Near East, if you asked where the gods were, or where you could see the gods, or how you could see the gods, the answer was simple, you would look at the emperor. If you were in Egypt, you would look at the pharaoh, and you would understand that he resembles and dresses like the god Ra, who's the sun-god. If you were in Babylonia, you would look at the king's palace, who dresses and acts in the place of the god Marduk, who was also the sun-god. And so, what you see there is that the gods are manifest on earth in the form of the rulers. What the story of GenesisÝ1 andÝ2 says, is that god is manifest on earth in human form, in the form of human beings. In the image of God, he created him; in the image of God, he created them, that is, the male and the female. So, here you have a message that God's presence or image is manifested in every person. And in the ancient Near East, that probably meant to many Israelites that any one of us is just as good as your pharaoh, or just as good as your emperor. And it was, besides being a religious statement, a political statement and a social statement. Often from people who were highly marginal in those great Middle Eastern empires. When it came into the Roman world, it was great news, to the slaves, for examples, who were not legally people. But for this movement to say, through its Hebrew myth, "you are made in the image of God," means that you have an innate kind of human dignity and quality, which is, as the Founding Fathers said, inalienable, and they thought it was self-evident that all men, as they said, are created equal. Of course it's not self-evident at all, I don't think. They thought it was self-evident because they had been brought up in Christian culture, and they were so familiar with this idea, that the image of God is manifested in every person. But, what I'm trying to say is that that's a revolutionary message in a culture that's three-quarters slave. And I think that's one reason that this movement was so highly successful, particularly among people like slaves and women and others who had little or no political power.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Professor Pagels. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, our guest was Elaine Pagels. She's ?Harrington ?Spear ?Paine professor of religion at Princeton University, author of The Gnostic Gospels from Random House in 1979 and numerous other works, as well as some in progress.