Elaine Pagels on the Gnostic Gospels and Why the Catholic Church Causes Pedophilia
For almost 2,000 years, various texts referred to collectively as the Gnostic or Secret Gospels were hidden in caves in Egypt. Fearing that they might undermine church authority, early church leaders destroyed these doctrines. Only in the last century have copies of these texts come to light, and only in the last couple of decades have they been decoded and studied. Dr. Elaine Pagels is the preeminent expert in these gospels, which depict a more mystical understanding of Jesus. Dr. Pagels and I spoke over the phone while she was returning home from giving a lecture in New York City.
You’re coming to Seattle on the 30th for the Seattle Arts & Lectures series.
Yes, very much looking forward to it.
But you don’t have anything new out, so I was wondering—are you just going to give a broad overview of your work?
Well, I am working on a new book, on the book of Revelations. But the host of this talk asked me to talk about the Secret Gospels and my own understanding of the significance of those. I could say that The Gospel of Judas came out quite recently, and that is something I haven’t talked about much, so I’ll probably mention that as well.
Gnostic Gospels is sort of an umbrella term. How would you define the Gnostic Gospels?
Well, you know, that’s kind of a vague term. We call them that because that’s what they were called in the ancient world by some of the people who opposed them. So really, it covers a wide range of sources that are quite different from each other. [The] Secret Gospels just give us a different perspective on the early Christian movement.
Do the Secret Gospels have a right to be taken as seriously as the Bible?
It depends what your interest is. If you’re interested in learning about [what] the Orthodox Church teaches about Jesus, those people would say no. I’m fascinated with this kind of very unlikely movement. It’s bizarre, what happened. What were the different positions and questions about Jesus? It’s such an unlikely story. This man was crucified and killed, and they claimed that he was God’s Messiah even then. It’s very strange, actually. So you wonder, how could a movement like that ever become popular? How could it develop the way it did? And we’ve depended for 2,000 years on a very small sample of sources that were taken up into the tradition, into the New Testament, and we just didn’t know that there were many other sources, or at least we didn’t know what they were because they’d been burned and destroyed. So now we have a much wider shield from which to look at this movement, and I think it changes everything.
[The Secret Gospels] add all kinds of perspectives we haven’t heard about: different views of Jesus, different views of God, different views of the church, different views of who the followers of—and who really understood—him are, and what he said, and what he taught, and so forth. You begin to see that there are many different groups of his followers who have different perspectives on these questions. And you get a sense of a much more complicated, dense, human picture of the movement than you get in the New Testament, which sounds kind of unanimous and simple.
But it’s only when you realize what people were talking about, what they were struggling with, what they were arguing about, that you really see that this was a grounded, human movement. It’s not just something that somebody preached in the halls of Galilee and it got written into a book with gold.
What do they add to the story of Jesus?
You know it’s very hard to know what actually goes back to Jesus. The Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, [and] the Gospel of Philip, make it really clear that Peter and Mary Magdalene were seen as rivals for leadership in the church. That’s something you’d never get out of the Gospels [in the New Testament], because they basically depict Mary Magdalene, as Luke would say, as “one of the women.” She’s not in any way seen as a disciple, but in these other texts she is. And interestingly, all of the Gospels that really like Peter (like the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) treat Mary as a very peripheral figure, demon-possessed woman, one of the women, just kind of a throwaway figure, not important. These other texts like the Gospel of Mary Magdalene picture her as a major disciple. And in the texts that picture her as important, Peter usually comes off quite badly. So you realize that there are these rivalries and challenges in the early movement.
A lot of the Secret Gospels have been taken literally—Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene and things like that—but a lot of scholars believe that they’re metaphorical. Does that shed new light on how we view the traditional Gospels—whether they should be taken literally or as metaphor? Is metaphor maybe the style of writing in general from that time?
Well, I’d say that taking them literally is an odd thing to do anyway because these are texts about faith and they’re about mystery—all of them, really. But the New Testament Gospels are telling narrative stories and accounts that are in kind of a historical form, even though they’re not really histories because they’re more like religious tracts. But the other Gospels, as you say, are much more obviously symbolic, because they tend to be mystical, like Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Philip is seen as a manifestation of divine wisdom or the Holy Spirit, which were imaged in feminine terms. So those are really clear about the metaphorical meaning of these terms.
The Gospel of Thomas has a lot of sayings that sound something like Buddhist sayings. Thomas was said to have gone to India, and we don’t know if he actually did, but I suspect that the Jesus teachings went to India, were taken by people… there were lots of trade routes. And that’s around the same time of the Greco-Roman Buddha in art, that he’s depicted in Greek ways. And you see Greek coins in Egypt and also in India. So there’s a lot of traffic back and forth, and I think that maybe the Gospel of Thomas is a kind of Greco-Buddhist version of the teachings of Jesus. It’s influenced by Buddhism.
I’ve heard that some people believe that the early church was very egalitarian gender-wise because the church was held in the home, underground, and that was the woman’s domain. And yet it seems that they really put an effort on eclipsing Mary Magdalene’s role. Do you think that was intentionally gender-biased? Or was it more like they went with Peter instead of Mary Magdalene?
That sounds like what you heard was the teaching of Elisabeth Fiorenza. Fiorenza is a Roman Catholic. She teaches at Harvard. And she has a mission, to challenge the church’s sexist attitude. So she writes her book In Memory of Her and says in the beginning it was all egalitarian. Jesus was talking to women as often as men, and so on and so forth. Well, it doesn’t hold up too well historically if you look at the sources we have. I mean, it’s a nice idea. I would have liked to think she is right. But most of the sources don’t suggest that. [The Gnostic] Gospels show that whatever happened with Peter and Mary, the Christians in the early movement were hotly contesting the role of women, just as Peter says, “I don’t believe that Jesus said this—what is she doing teaching us? Would he tell things to a woman and not to us?” In the Gospel of Thomas, Peter says to Jesus, “Tell Mary to leave because she is a woman and not worthy of Life.” And this is an attitude you find in a lot of the sources. But if you look at the letters of Paul, you find Paul has a much more egalitarian attitude—in the genuine letters of Paul, although the ones that are the Deutero-Pauline letters have a very negative attitude toward women. Apparently this is one of the most intensely debated issues. But there are many others. For example, what does it mean to say that Jesus was born of a virgin? Did Jesus rise physically from the dead? When you say that Jesus was resurrected, did his body physically get out of the grave? Or does it mean that somehow he’s alive again, but it doesn’t mean that he walked out of the grave? So all of those issues are being contested.
The Secret Gospels seem to shed a lot of light on that, or just the oldest texts that we have of even our own Gospels, ones that either emphasize the resurrection or ones that just leave it at his death, right? Can you kind of draw a line in between those?
Mark ends with the women going to the grave of Jesus and finding that it had been opened and his body wasn’t there. That’s the original ending, which ends 16:8. So they all have some hint about resurrection. But that Gospel doesn’t have actual appearances in it, except in the second ending, which is added later. The Gospel of Thomas and those are all about how one communicates with Jesus as a living presence, as a kind of presence to which one can find access right now. So people have dialogues with Jesus. They don’t have any interest in what kind of body he had or if his body was raised. They usually take that as a metaphor.
Some historians now even challenge that he would’ve been taken off of the cross—I’m thinking of John Dominic Crossan saying that the bodies were left up on the crucifix and that there’s no way that he would have had a burial and that sort of thing. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Yeah. He’s right on that, of course, about the usual practice. Part of the hideous disgrace of crucifixion is that the bodies are left to rot for the dogs beneath the cross. But I don’t think that it’s innately unlikely that if he had a follower who could go to the governor and bribe him that he might be able to get access to the body. I mean that kind of thing seems to me quite plausible. If you have somebody who has an intense following, somebody who’s considered a rebel, but with a strong band of followers, it’s likely that they would try to get the body and give it a burial. So I don’t think that an implausible story. I mean, Crossan is generalizing from what usually happened. But most criminals didn’t have many followers, or anyone rich enough or important enough to bribe the governor. I don’t know if that happened or not, but that seems to be a widely spread tradition, so to me it’s not at all implausible.
You know the Catholic Church is going through a great upheaval right now. Do you have any opinions on that?
Well, yes, I mean I do think that the tradition of celibacy has quite a price. In terms of the understanding of women, the understanding of children. I’ve heard that priests who are pedophiles (and probably other pedophiles) really think that these children are seducing them—5- or 6-year-olds are being seductive! They don’t understand what children are like. So that can be a tremendous cost. But also it’s the maintenance of a very ancient, monarchical system of authority, which is completely at odds with what the rest of us understand how to govern a group of people. And I do think that the more we do research on the history of religion, as you have, the less people are going to find that kind of authority persuasive unless it says something very compelling.
There seems to be a conspicuous lack of Jesus talking about celibacy. Do you think that as we learn more about the history of the church we can apply it to our own times, both in a structural and a spiritual sense?
Sure. The more you look at this history, [you look at] these decisions that were made that people never questioned—like, why these Gospels? Who put those together and why?—and realize that these are all choices made and that this tradition has never been static. It’s always been transforming and moving and changing. If it hadn’t been transforming every generation, it wouldn’t be alive still. And so the more we see that, the more people tend to question claims of unchallengeable authority. And I think that’s a very good thing. The fathers of the early church [claimed] questions make people heretics. And I’m all for questions.