|Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 6, Number 16, May 19 to May 25, 2004|
p.5 I knew that Christianity had survived brutal persecution and flourished for generations––even centuries––before Christians formulated what they believed into creeds. The origins of this transition from scattered groups to a unified community have left few traces. Although the apostle Paul, about twenty years after Jesus’ death, stated “the gospel,”…(“that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day”), it may have been more than a hundred years later that some Christians, perhaps in Rome, attempted to consolidate their group against the demands of a fellow Christian named Marcion, whom they regarded as a false teacher, by introducing formal statements of belief into worship.Here Pagels begins the outline of here Pagelian orthodoxy by jettisoning the idea that there was any original “gospel” message, belief in which was essential in order to be a Christian. The mention of Paul is significant, for it is an apt reply to her notion that Christianity does not entail certain beliefs. She implicitly denies that Paul believed that his “gospel” was a creed or a distinguishing marker between those who are Christian and those who were not. However Paul is very clear in Galatians (an actual authentic Pauline letter) that those who preach another Gospel are not of Christ.
Galatians 1:6-9Thus Paul, very early on (as early as AD48) rejected the notion that there could be diversity of belief on critical issues related to the Gospel and derided as “accursed” those who would claim otherwise. As we shall se later, Pagelian orthodoxy wishes to contend that this notion––the notion that Christianity is about beliefs––is a late addition of John and Irenaeus, however, Pagels fails to account for the relatively early Pauline exclusivity.
6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- 7which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
p.18 …other early followers of Jesus…saw the sacred meal in a much stranger––even macabre––way; as eating human flesh and drinking human blood.Noting what she sees as a conflict between these views of the Lord’s supper, Pagels writes as if she knows that the Gospel writers were not interested in accurately portraying what actually happened at the institution of the Lord’s supper. Accordingly, details they include do not necessarily correlate to reality. Their agenda to make Jesus the Passover Lamb superceded Paul’s and the gospel writers’ interest in accurately conveying, or conveying at all, what actually happened. Here are some examples that show Pagels assumption in this regard:
p.20 Mark repeats what some of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem had begun to say.Pagels assumes that the events described in the accounts of the institution of the Lord’s supper never really occurred. This is a central tenet of Pagelian orthodoxy––that Christianity, from very early on, was not concerned with the historicity of its message. For Pagelian orthodoxy, it is not so much that these writers are lying about what happened as they are making up fables to prove a point. However, among other things, this view does not take into account the pains that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John go to in order to connect their narratives to historical events and persons. It is true that the writers each had a theological agenda, however their theological meaning was based on the events, not the other way around.
p.21 We do not know for sure whether Jesus actually said these words.
p.22 Jewish tradition suggested a wealth of associations with sacrifice that Paul, Mark, Matthew and Luke incorporated into various versions of the story. In the process, as we have seen, the sacred meal took on not a single meaning but clusters of meanings that became increasingly rich and complex.
p.22 Mark actually writes the Passover feast into the narrative…
p.23 Luke and Matthew each expand Mark’s version of the story…
p.23 The author of the Gospel of John gives a different chronology for Jesus’ last days, though John, as much as–or even more than–Paul and Luke, nevertheless intends to connect Jesus’ death with Passover.
p.24 Because John believed that Jesus became the Passover lamb, he says that “about noon, on the day of preparing the Passover”–Friday, the time prescribed for preparing the Passover Lamb–Jesus was sentenced to death, tortured, and crucified.
p.25 Yet despite the weirdness of such images–and perhaps because of it–every version of this last supper in the New Testament, whether by Paul, Mark, Matthew, or Luke, interprests it as a kind of death-feast, but one that looks forward in hope.
p.25 Many Christians preferred these powerful images…for later generations chose to include in the New Testament the versions of the story that tell of eating flesh and drinking blood, dying and coming back to life.
p.26 Within decades of his death, then, the story of Jesus became for his followers what the Exodus story had become for may generations of Jews: not simply a narrative of past events but a story through which they could interpret their own struggles, their victories, their sufferings and their hopes.
p.27 Perhaps most often believers experience the shared meal as “communion” with one another and with God; thus when Paul speaks of the “body of Christ,” he often means the collective “body” of believers–the union of all who, he says, were “baptized into one body, Jews or Greeks, slaves and free, and all were made to drink from one spirit.”Apart from the insulting insinuation that those who have no difficulty accepting the ancient Christian creeds have not reflected on “what the creeds mean”, Pagels once again seems to indicate that the apostle Paul did not believe that certain beliefs were critical to participating in communion. She also seems to imply that Paul would disagree with fourth-century creedal formulations such as the Nicene creed. However, we have seen that Paul was very much in agreement with the notion that there could be no communion between those who professed a true gospel and those who do not.
Yet, since the fourth century, most churches have required those who would join such communion to profess a complex set of beliefs about God and Jesus–beliefs formulated by fourth-century bishops into the ancient Christian creeds. Some, of course, have no difficulty doing so. Many others, myself included, have had to reflect on what the creeds mean, as well as on what we believe…
p.29 …those who later enshrined the Gospel of John within the New Testament and denounced Thomas’s gospel as “heresy” decisively shaped–and inevitably limited–what would become Western Christianity.This quote brings up important issues that will be discussed later in this paper, for now, it is worth noting that Pagels seems to imply that there is evidence that “those who enshrined the Gospel of John” knew about “Thomas’s Gospel” (this follows from the fact that they “denounced” it as “heresy”). Pagels does not show here or anywhere in this book evidence that any Christian writer in the first four centuries of the church had direct knowledge of the Gospel of Thomas. Thus, when she indicates that a choice was made between Thomas and the Gospel of John, she fails to alert her readers that there is precious little if any evidence that Thomas was even known by those who chose John. In fact, if Pagels has any proof that anyone denounced “Thomas’s gospel” at all, she fails to produce it.
p.30 Like many people, I regarded John as the most spiritual of the four gospels…At the time, I did not dwell on disturbing undercurrents––That John alternates his assurance of God’s gracious love for those who “believe” with warnings that everyone who “does not believe is condemned already” to eternal death. Nor did I reflect on those scenes in which John says that Jesus spoke of his own people (“the Jews”) as if they were alien to him and the devil’s offspring.Pagels points to a couple of problems here. The first is a genuine disagreement that Pagels has with Christian soteriology––Pagelian orthodoxy believes that there is no exclusive or external path of salvation, and so Pagels takes issue with the biblical notion that faith in an external Jesus is the only path to salvation. The spin Pagels places on this passage however is unfair to the extent that it seems to indicate that one who is condemned already cannot eventually believe and have the judgment against her lifted. It is fair to say that in John, as in the rest of scripture, anyone who turns from unbelief to belief will be saved. The second undercurrent in John that Pagels points out is that Jesus spoke of his own people as if they were the devil’s offspring. This, however, is a blatant misreading of the text and frankly rather dishonest. In the section of John to which Pagels refers, Jesus was calling the Pharisees children of Satan only after they questioned his parentage. He did not refer to “the Jews” as a whole that way as Pagels indicates. So here her criticism of John’s “anti-Semitic Jesus” falls flat.
p.31 When I entered the Harvard doctoral program, I was astonished to hear from the other students that Professors Helmut Koester and George MacRae, who taught the early history of Christianity, had file cabinets filled with “gospels” and “apocrypha” written during the first centuries…These quotes are rather florid, and they bring up a few questions for the discerning reader: Was Pagels, who had been admitted to a PhD program at Harvard, really astonished by the realization that other gospels and apocrypha existed? Hadn’t she familiarized herself with the writings of Irenaeus or Eusebius, both of which contain excerpts from these types of writings, prior to coming to Harvard? Is it really true that there were file cabinets filled with this stuff in Koester and MacRae’s offices? This seems like a bit of an exaggeration given the amount of written material that actually exists from the “first centuries”. In reality, could the extant writings from the first centuries even fill one file cabinet? Is she referring to copies of the earliest sources or the earliest sources themselves? If copies, why did the professors need so many copies that they filled file cabinets? If the earliest sources, what were these writings doing being stored in file cabinets? I know it was 40 years ago, but surely they were not so haphazard with such valuable manuscripts? However Pagels would answer these questions, I think it is clear that she exaggerates in order to mislead her audience into believing there were more of these sources than actually exist.
When my fellow students and I investigated these sources we found that they revealed diversity within the Christian movement that later, “official” versions of Christian history had suppressed so effectively that only now in the Harvard graduate school, did we hear about them.
p.32 I had come to respect the work of “church fathers” such as Irenaeus…who had denounced the secret writings as “an abyss of madness, and blasphemy against Christ.” Therefore I expected these recently discovered texts to be garbled, pretentious, and trivial. Instead I was surprised to find in them unexpected spiritual power…”Jesus said: ‘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.’ The strength of this saying is that it does not tell us what to believe but challenges us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves; and, with a shock of recognition, I realized that this perspective seemed to me self-evidently true.First, Pagels neglects to mention what we noted earlier; that Irenaeus in addition to merely characterizing the writings he refutes, actually quotes from them at length. He does this, among other reasons, because he is confident that his readers can discern the truth on their own. Thus when he describes them as “an abyss of madness, and blasphemy against Christ”, he does so knowing that his readers can verify this for themselves. The Gospel of Thomas, however, was not one of these from which Irenaeus quotes as heretical, and thus, we cannot even be sure that he knew about it.
p.33 Thanks to research taken since [the 1979 publication of the Gnostic Gospels]… what that book attempted to offer as a kind of rough, charcoal sketch of the history of Christianity now can be seen as if under an electron microscope…certain Christian leaders from the second century through the fourth came to reject many other sources of revelation and constructed instead the New Testament gospel canon of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John along with the “canon of truth,” which became the nucleus of the later creeds that have defined Christianity to this day.Pagels here seems to be overstating her case once again. Pagels contends that the difference between the body of knowledge in 1979 when she wrote her Gnostic Gospels book and today can be compared to the difference between a rough charcoal sketch and an electron microscope. It is fair to say that this is a bit of an exaggeration, however, it is encouraging to see that Pagels now realizes that her 1979 book was really only a “rough charcoal sketch”. As for her assertion that we can see what happened in the early church as if under an electron microscope, surely this overstates the level of historical certainty that a historian can have about any past event, much less events that took place around 1900 years ago within the fledgling church. Pagels certainty is further overstated because she is largely deconstructing the official literary sources she does have (sources which contradict her conclusions) for the purposes of forming a new account of “what really happened”.
p.34 To my surprise, having spent many months comparing the Gospel of John with the Gospel of Thomas, which may have been written at about the same time, I have now come to see that John’s gospel was written in the heat of controversy, to defend certain views of Jesus and to oppose others.While Pagels’ statement regarding “the heat of controversy” is perhaps a bit of an overstatement based not on historical record but on historical conjecture, this really should be no revelation at all. The notion that biblical writers, including John, wrote to “defend certain views of Jesus and to oppose others” no doubt is true. In fact, in his gospel, John is very candid about this agenda. He writes,
John 20:31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.So what Pagels confirmed, after “many months” was that John had the very agenda that he stated himself in his gospel. However, this fact seems to be lost on Pagels as she continues with her observation, which she believes undermined the credibility of the gospel of John for its earliest readers. Pagels writes,
p.34 Even its first generation of readers ([AD]90-130) disagreed about whether John was a true gospel or a false one–and whether it should be part of the New Testament. [footnote 10]Pagels once again is evincing the fact that she is overconfident in the reliability of the image of history that her “electron microscope” is giving her. Pagels overstates the case here in a couple of ways. First, she neglects to inform the readers that there is no evidence of a debate during the time period she mentions about whether John should be considered scripture. The historical basis for the “disagreement” that she speculates about is purely an argument from silence. That is to say that the argument for such a disagreement is an argument based on what liberal scholars regard as a dearth of specific literary references to John during the time period Pagels references. Thus, the scholars say “because prominent orthodox writers failed to reference uniquely Johannine passages during the period from 90 to 130, they must have doubted its authenticity as apostolic scripture”. However, even if they are right about this dearth of references (and now there is ample evidence to believe they are wrong), it certainly is not enough historical evidence to infer that there was some sort of disagreement about John. At the very most, it would point to lack of a finality in their judgment of the scriptural and apostolic nature of John.
p.39 As we shall see, John probably knew what the Gospel of Thomas taught–if not its actual text. Many of the teaching in the Gospel of John that differ from those in Matthew and Luke sound much like sayings in the Gospel of Thomas: in fact, what first impressed scholars who compared these two gospels is how similar they are. Both John and Thomas, for example, apparently assume that the reader already knows the basic story Mark and the others tell, and each claims to go beyond that story and reveal what Jesus taught his disciples in private. When for example, John tells us what happened on the night that Judas betrayed Jesus, he inserts into his account nearly five chapters of teaching unique to his gospel–the so-called farewell discourses of John 13 through 18, which consist of intimate dialogue between the disciples and Jesus…Similarly, the Gospel of Thomas, as we noted, claims to offer “secret sayings, which the living Jesus spoke,” and adds that “Didymus Judas Thomas wrote them down.”Pagels implies a couple things in this paragraph, however, first I would like to note that Pagels is unwilling to say that John knew the text of Thomas. This is an important admission for Pagels to make given the impact that is has on her Pagelian orthodox assumptions, namely that John cannot be shown to be writing a direct response to the Gospel of Thomas.
p.62 [John acknowledges Peter’s leadership] But John adds that Jesus reserved for his “beloved disciple” a special, mysterious role that he refused to explain to Peter. When Peter saw that disciple and asked, “Lord what about this man?” Jesus answered only, “If it is my will that he should remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” Such stories may imply that John’s teaching, including the “farewell discourses” which Jesus addressed to the disciples, entrusting “the beloved disciple” to write them down, is superior to Peter’s.First of all, Pagels takes Jesus’ quote to Peter out of context. Here is the passage from which Pagels gets her “evidence”,
John 21:18-24One of the tenets of Pagelian orthodoxy that Pagels expounds in this chapter is her notion that the image of God in scripture was seen as a threat in the early church because it is a concept that affirms the notion that all of humanity is divine. In repeatedly making this assertion, Pagels assumes that this could be the only interpretation of the teaching of Genesis one regarding pre-fall Adam and Eve. She does not consider the fact that this polytheistic view of Genesis fails to account for the uniform monotheism of the Jewish scriptures. In addition she seems to want to say that John would have denied God’s image in man since he denied divinity subsisting within all of humanity.
18Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." 19Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!"
20Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") 21When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?"
22Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." 23Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?"
24This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. In the context, Peter is specifically asking about when John will die, not what role he will play. This should be clear from Jesus’ response which regards when “the disciple whom Jesus loved” would die. (On an ancillary note, it is encouraging to see both that Pagel’s believes that John is “the disciple who Jesus loved”.) Secondly, the farewell discourses were given to all the disciples, not just John, as Pagels implies, and any of the disciples could have chosen to write them down. Nowhere in this passage or in John does it say, as Pagels implies, that Jesus specifically “entrusted” “the disciple whom Jesus loved” to write down the discourse. So we see that, taken in context, nothing that Jesus says to Peter implies that John received any superior or secret teaching.
p.39 …the authors of John and Thomas take Jesus’ private teaching in sharply different directions…[John] believes that Jesus alone brings divine light to a world otherwise sunk into darkness…But certain passages in Thomas’s gospel draw a quite different conclusion: that the divine light Jesus embodied is shared by humanity, since we are all made “in the image of God.” Thus Thomas expresses what would become a central theme in Jewish–and later Christian–mysticism a thousand years later: that the “image of God” is hidden within everyone, although most people remain unaware of its presence.This seems strange. “Thomas” is a polytheist who believes that everyone is divine, taking a traditional Jewish idea about man being created in the image of God and pretending that it means that all men are divine. To say the least, this is a misappropriation of the Jewish notion which by using the traditional terminology for its new idea, seeks to disguise the fact that the idea is not in line with Jewish notions of what it meant to be created in the image of God. If Thomas and Pagels are right, then the author of Genesis, a monotheist writing to support monotheism, actually taught the divinity of all humanity. It should be obvious that this reading of Genesis is, to say the least, implausible, given Jewish monotheism.
What might have been complementary interpretations of God’s presence on earth became, instead, rival ones; for by claiming that Jesus alone embodies the divine light, John challenges Thomas’s claim that this light may be present in everyone.
p.45 We should note that, although I am using here the traditional names, Thomas and John, and the traditional term author, no one knows who actually wrote either gospel.Pagels here identifies another “similarity” between the two gospels––no one knows who actually wrote them. Here Pagels seems to imply that we are equally uncertain about the authorship question as it regards these works. This is an intellectually dishonest assessment, as there is far more evidence regarding the authorship of John by John than there is the authorship of Thomas by Thomas. Indeed, according to Hill, from the external it would be very difficult to prove that Thomas even existed as a literary unit prior to the late second century, as, as far as we know, it is not mentioned or cited in any writings before then. John, on the other hand, as we have noted earlier, has probable citations very early on in the literature. These citations of John are important not only because they are early, but because they presuppose scriptural authority, and thus most likely, apostolic origin. Combining this external evidence with the internal evidence for Johannine authorship, such as the fact that John is the only gospel that both doesn’t mention the disciple John and does mention “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, it is fair to say that the evidence for Johannine authorship of John is far stronger than the evidence for Thomasine authorship of Thomas.
p.70 John tells how the risen Jesus personally appeared to Thomas in order to rebuke him, and brought him to his knees…Thomas, having missed [the meeting where Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on the disciples], is not an apostle, has not received the holy spirit, and lacks the power to forgive sins, which the others received directly form the risen Christ…A week later, the risen Jesus reappears and, in this climactic scene, John’s Jesus rebukes Thomas for lacking faith and tells him to believe “Do not be faithless, but believe.” Finally Thomas, overwhelmed, capitulates and stammers out the confession, “My Lord and my God!”There are a number of errors in this passage. The most glaring one is that Jesus “brought Thomas to his knees”. The text in question, John 20, does not indicate that Thomas was brought to his knees, or that Jesus was stern with Thomas at all. All Jesus did was allow Thomas the evidence, experiential evidence, that he needed in order to believe. It is Thomas who put his fingers in Jesus’ hands and his fist in Jesus’ side. It is Thomas who, far from capitulating under a stern rebuke, simply confesses what his senses of sight and touch have told him. Pagelian orthodoxy wants so badly to see in John a stern, intolerant Christ that it interprets a blessing, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe,” as a curse on and a threat to those who seek experiential verification for their beliefs. Pagels thinks that this marks the end of Thomas’ search for experiential truth, but what Pagels misses is that the end of his quest has only come because Christ gave him the experience that he needed in order to believe.
For John, this scene is the coup de grâce: finally Thomas understands, and Jesus warns the rest of the chastened disciples: “Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” Thus John warns all his readers that they must believe what they cannot verify for themselves–namely, the Gospel message to which he declares himself a witness–or face God’s wrath. John may have felt some satisfaction writing this scene; for here he shows Thomas giving up his search for experiential truth–his “unbelief”–to confess what John sees as the truth of his gospel…
p.75 Orthodox Jews and Christians, of course, have never wholly denied affinity between God and ourselves. But their leaders have tended to discourage or, at least, to circumscribe the process through which people may seek God on their own.Pagelian orthodoxy sees the Church as discouraging and circumscribing believers who want to claim divinity for themselves. This is because Pagels sees the realization that humanity is divine as critical to any individual process of seeking God. However, Pagelian orthodoxy would seem to be short sighted here, as Pagels and the Gospel of Thomas are subject as well to the similar charge of discouraging, and circumscribing any search that is not focused on finding God within one’s self, which is the only true path according to Pagelian orthodoxy.
Acts 17:22-23Notice here that Paul shows that the tenet of Pagelian orthodoxy which claims that Christians do not affirm the “impulse to seek God” is false when Paul himself affirms the impulse to seek God in the “Men of Athens”. Far from stifling this impulse, Paul simply wishes to redirect this impulse so that it may result in actually finding the God who is actually there.
22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:|sc TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
p.77 To understand what happened we need to look at the specific challenges––and dangers––that confronted believers during the critical years around 100 to 200 [AD], and how the architects of Christian tradition dealt with these challenges.It is important to note that this methodology is flawed at the outset because it fails to acknowledge the contributions of Paul and John as well as the other first-century writers of what later became the New Testament towards viewing Christianity as a particular system of beliefs. One of the central claims of Pagelian orthodoxy is that there was no one set of beliefs in early Christianity, however Pagels in defending this notion should at least contend with first-century leaders in the Church, namely Paul, Peter, James, and John who, Pagels accepts, believe otherwise. Instead of doing this, she skips right to the second century, and thus forces the leaders of first-century Christianity to stand mute for her audience.
p.79 …acting like wild-eyed devotees of foreign gods such as Attis and Cybele, possessed by spirits…[practicing] incantations and spells, like magicians … [and following the] barbaric, Oriental customs of the Jews. However, what is strange about Pagels use of Celsus here is that she accepts his charges against the Christians as perfectly credible evidence for diversity in early Christianity. She writes (p.79), “Despite the diverse forms of early Christianity––and perhaps because of them––the movement spread rapidly…” This seems outlandish to say the least. Would Pagels accept that part of the “diversity” in the early church was the practice of incest, cannibalism, and atheism as well? If not, why does she reject some charges but retain the others? Perhaps becuase her Pagelian orthodox beliefs have overshadowed good judgment in this case. Pagels writes,Pagels makes the point later on that Christianity is not primarily about orthodoxy, or the right ideas. She advocates the beauty and the ethic of Christianity, but without narrow ideas about what constitutes Christian Theology. This notion however, seems to be at odds with the reality of first, second, and third century Christian martyrs. After all, if Christian martyrs were not dying for narrowly construed beliefs, why were they dying? If early Christianity really did not have an established “orthodoxy”, why did martyrs like Polycarp go to their deaths offering to teach their executioners “Christian doctrine”? If heterodox ideas were really acceptable in a religion really more about ethics and beauty than belief, why didn’t the Christians save themselves by recanting their narrow exclusivism and embracing the Roman pantheon? Pagelian orthodoxy cannot answer these questions satisfactorily.
p.80 Tertullian boasted to outsiders that “the more we are mown down by you, the more we multiply; the blood of Christians is seed!” Defiant Rhetoric, however, could not solve the problem that he and other Christian leaders faced: How could they strengthen and unify this enormously diverse and widespread movement, so it could survive its enemies?
p.97 Irenaeus decided that stemming this flood of “secret writings” would be an essential first step toward limiting the proliferation of “revelations” that he suspected of being only delusional, or, worse, demonically inspired.In this section of the chapter, Pagels continues her claim that Irenaeus and later Athenasius acted in an authoritarian manner, demanding that certain writings be destroyed. Pagels evidence for this is Athanasius’ Easter letter of 367. However, Athanasius letter of AD 367 does not contain any demands that any writings be destroyed. It does not address Egyptian monks at all. It does not name any specific writings other than ones that are acceptable or canonical. At this critical point it appears that Pagelian orthodoxy has slipped into the realm of falsehood, of myth, and of speculation in an attempt to bolster its plausibility. This is an error that is repeated, and we will examine it further later on in this essay.
Yet the discoveries at Nag Hammadi show how widespread was the attempt “to seek God”––not only among those who wrote such “secret writings” but among the many more who read, copied, and revered them, including the Egyptian monks who treasured them in their monastery library even two hundred years after Irenaeus had denounced them.
But in 367 [AD] Athanasius, the zealous bishop of Alexandria––an admirer of Irenaeus––issued an Easter letter in which he demanded that Egyptian monks destroy all writings, except for those he specifically listed as “acceptable,” even “canonical” …But someone––perhaps monks at the monastery of St. Pachomius––gather dozens of the books Athenasius wanted to burn, removed them from the monastery library, sealed them in a heavy, six-foot jar, and intending to hide them, buried them on a nearby hillside near Nag Hammadi.
p.112 Irenaeus could not, of course, stop people from seeking revelation of divine truth––nor, as we have seen, did he intend to do so…But, from his own time to the present, Irenaeus and his successors among church leaders did strive to compel all believers to subject themselves to the “fourfold gospel” and to what he called apostolic tradition.So Pagels acknowledges that Irenaeus did not want to stop people from seeking, however, she quickly notes that they did strive to “compel” certain guidelines, namely adherence to the four fold gospel witness. Pagels explains why they did this,
p.112 Few New Testament scholars today would agree with Irenaeus; we do not know who actually wrote these gospels, any more than we know who wrote the gospels of Thomas or Mary; all we know is that all of these “gospels” are attributed to disciples of Jesus…[Irenaeus] believed that John alone understood who Jesus really is––God in human form. What God revealed in the extraordinary moment when he “became flesh” trumped any revelations received by mere human beings––even prophets and apostles, let alone the rest of us…Even though Pagels notes that Irenaeus believed in apostolic authorship of the Gospels, she takes pains to criticize him for doing so. Once again here Pagels is being less than forthcoming with her audience. When she says that scholars (with whom she humbly identifies herself four times) do not know who wrote the four Gospels “any more” than they know who wrote Thomas or Mary, she is engaging in a bit of historical sleight-of-hand. While it is true that scholars do not have a videotape record of the composition of any of the four Gospels, the level of historical certainty is much higher for their authorship than for the authorship of Thomas or Mary. In addition, Pagels assumes that the scholars level of certainty today can be compared to the level of certainty that Irenaeus had in his day. This, of course, fails to account for eyewitness testimony and verbal apostolic tradition as well as writings which Irenaeus could have referenced in his day that are no longer available to us today. In addition, Pagels skepticism about apostolic tradition is unwarranted––“what he called” apostolic tradition very probably was apostolic tradition. To reject reliable historical evidence in favor of historical skepticism is not good scholarship. It may make it easier to make the case for the indeterminacy of early church doctrine when, as a skeptic, you accept and embrace all sources as equally unreliable, but this is not scholarship.
p.113 Yet Irenaeus recognized that even banishing all “secret writings” and creating a canon of four gospel accounts could not, by itself, safeguard the Christian movement…he responded by working to construct what he called orthodox (literally, “straight-thinking”) Christianity.
p.115 Now, largely because of the Nag Hammadi discoveries, we can see that, nearly two thousand years ago, many of John’s earliest readers also responded to this gospel in surprising and imaginative ways…I would have to disagree with Pagels’ psychoanalysis of Irenaeus here. His Against Heresies was not written because many people would find his conclusions far from obvious, but because he believed that some had been deceived by false teachers who disguised their true nature. The passage on Ptolemy is not one in which Irenaeus argues over rival interpretations of John 1. Rather, he simply quotes unedited pages of Ptolemy’s commentary (something Pagels herself is hesitant to do). Thus, Irenaeus evinces extreme confidence that once Ptolemy is exposed, he will be rejected. From this perspective, Against Heresies is not so much an “squabble” among “rival theologians” but an exposé of what it is that the Valentinians actually believed. Irenaeus expects his readers to be able to discern the truth of the situation if they can only get a unobstructed view of what Ptolemy believes. Ptolemy and the Valentinians were polytheists who went to great effort to synchronize their preexisting view of the Gnostic deities with John’s gospel, all the while claiming that John meant to teach their view. Irenaeus exposes their commentary to the light of day, and, in this case, leaves the readers to discern the truth themselves––that Ptolemy’s unorthodox and polytheistic view of John 1 does not do justice to the meaning and intent of John 1.
Irenaeus says that the Christian poet and teacher Valentinus, his disciple Ptolemy, and others like them have invented all kinds of myths about what happened “in the beginning,” and even before the beginning of the world…
p.116 …Valentinus and his disciples were among the first…to place these newer “apostolic” writings along with Genesis and the prophets, and to revere the authority of Jesus’ sayings as equal to or even above that of Israel’s Scriptures…
When Irenaeus decided to arm himself against these teachers by reading their commentaries and confronting their authors, he may have known that Heacleaon, whom he calls Valentinus’s “most respected” disciple, had written a famous Commentary on John.
p.117 For what [Irenaeus] did, with remarkable success, was convince Christians that his reading of John’s gospel…was the only correct reading…[Irenaeus] declares that wherever possible, one must discern the obvious meaning; and whenever a certain passage seems ambiguous or difficult, one’s understanding should be guided by those passages whose meaning seems clear.
Heretics, Irenaeus warns…read incoherently, or in conflict with the obvious meaning of the text.
p.127 Of all the instances Irenaeus offers of “evil exegesis,” however, his prime example is part of a commentary on John that asks questions similar to those asked in the Secret Book––what John’s gospel reveals about “the origin of all things.” The author of this commentary, traditionally identified as Ptolemy, says that “John, the disciple of the Lord, wanting to set forth the origin of all things, how the Father brought forth all things,” reveals in his opening lines––although in a way hidden from the casual reader––the original structure of divine being.
After pointing to different interpretations of various texts that Irenaeus may or may not have been aware of (Pagels doesn’t indicate); Pagels here finally offers an example of “evil exegesis” that Irenaeus actually addresses––Ptolemy. However, instead of being as forthcoming as Irenaeus was and quoting Ptolemy’s commentary, she chooses to offer a rather florid summary of Ptolemy.
p.128 …when Valentinus and his disciples read the opening of John’s gospel, they envisioned God, the divine word, and Jesus Christ as, so to speak, waves of divine energy flowing down from above, from the great waterfall to the local creek…
Pagels fails to alert the reader that Ptolemy believed that John, who he calls “the disciple of the Lord”, actually believed and taught the Ptolemaic and Valentinian interpretation of John 1. Thus, narrow Ptolemy following Irenaeus’ narrow view of “alternate readings” believed that his was the only correct interpretation. Pagels also fails to alert the reader that Ptolemy took the text of John 1 to refer not just to “waves of energy” but to personal demigods in the Gnostic pantheon. Thus, for Ptolemy, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; the same was in the beginning with God.” actually refers to three Gnostic gods named “God”, “Beginning”, and “Word”. Starting this way Ptolemy continues what Pagels calls his “exegesis” finding several other Gnostic gods, namely “Anthropos”, “Ecclesia”, “Zoe”, “Charis”, “Monogenes”, and “Alethia”, each taken from certain Greek words (man, church, life, grace, only-begotten, and truth) John used in the first chapter of his gospel. Irenaeus takes issue with the claim that John is teaching this in his chapter by saying, according to Pagels’ paraphrase,
p.128 Had John meant to set forth the primordial structure of divine being, Irenaeus says, he would have made his meaning clear, thus “the fallacy of their interpretation is obvious”…
Pagels, however, believes that Irenaeus is off-base in his criticisms here and sees Ptolemy’s “exegesis” as merely a different, equally valid, interpretation of what John actually was saying in the first chapter of his gospel. She writes,
p.128 Yet Irenaeus undertook his massive, five-volume [Against Heresies] precisely because he knew that many people might find his conclusions far from obvious. Worse, they might well see him and his opponents as rival theologians squabbling about interpretation, rather than as orthodox Christians against heretics…[For Irenaeus] innovation proved that one had abandoned the true gospel.
p.134 Given, then, that Irenaeus acknowledged a wide range of views and practices, at what point did he find “heterodoxy”––which literally means “different opinions”––problematic, and for what reasons?…Pagels points out that these Gnostic teachers believed that there must be a second baptism for Christians. As evidence for this, they pointed to Jesus’ statement that there would be a baptism with the holy spirit and with fire (Pagels fails to inform her readers that this prophecy was explicitly fulfilled at Pentacost in the book of Acts). Pagels believes that this “second baptism” was a divisive force in the early church, and that the resulting division was Irenaeus’ primary grounds for opposing the theology of those groups who advocated the second baptism. Thus, according to Pagelian orthodoxy, it was a desire for power and unity, not truth, that caused Irenaeus to choose what would be considered “orthodox” diversity and what would be considered “heterodox” false-teaching.
p.135 To answer these questions we should recall that Irenaeus was not a theoretically minded Philosopher engaging in theological debate so much as a young man thrust into leadership of the survivors of a group of Christians in Gaul after a violent and bloody persecution… [Remembering the martyrs, Irenaeus] determined to consolidate these scattered believers and provide them the shelter of a community by joining them into the worldwide network Polycarp had envisioned as a “catholic” church…What then did prove divisive?… heresy––and because of the way he characterized it, historians traditionally have identified orthodoxy…with a certain set of beliefs…and heterodoxy…as an opposite set of ideas…
p.136 Yet I now realize that we greatly oversimplify when we accept the traditional identification of orthodoxy and heresy solely in terms of the philosophical and theological content of certain ideas. What especially concerned Irenaeus was the way the activities of these “spiritual teachers” threatened Christian solidarity by offering second baptism to initiate believers into two distinct groups within congregations…
p.144 We could have made all this up out of what had happened in our own lives; but, of course, we did not have to do that, for, as I realized at once, countless other people have already done that…Pagels has repeatedly footnoted sections of Irenaeus Against Heresiesthat make only oblique reference to what she is talking about, but in this case, it is fair to say that she crosses the line and actively misleads her audience. In AH 1.20.1 Irenaeus does not demand that believers destroy anything. Here is AH 1.20.1, in its entirety:
p.145 If spiritual understanding may arise from human experience, doesn’t this mean that it is nothing but human invention––and therefore false? According to Irenaeus, it is heresy to assume that human experience is analogous to divine reality, and to infer that each one of us, by exploring our own experience, may discover intimations of truth about God. So, he says, when Valentinus and his disciples opened John’s gospel and wanted to understand what word means, they reflected on how word functions in human experience.
The fact of the matter is that the historicity of the gospel story has been a central tenet of Christianity from its beginnings to this day. This followed from the Jewish concern for the historicity of their scriptures, which are also part of the Christian scriptures. It is almost laughable to say that whether or not one’s beliefs are tied to actual events in history is unimportant and ancillary to the Christian message, and it ignores a basic fact regarding the nature of 1st century Christianity. The Apostle Paul writes in 1Cor. 15:14 “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Pagels at least acknowledges that Irenaeus believed that the historicity of the Gospel was an essential aspect of the Gospel message. She writes,
p.147 How, then, could Irenaeus safeguard this essential gospel message––upon which he believed salvation depends? As we have seen, when Irenaeus confronted the challenge of the many spiritual teachers, he acted decisively, by demanding that believers destroy all those “innumerable secret and illegitimate writings” [here Pagels footnotes AH 1.20.1] that his opponents were always invoking, and by declaring that, of all versions of the “gospel” circulating among Christians, only four are genuine. In taking these two momentous––and, as it turned out, hugely influential––steps, Irenaeus became a chief architect of what Christians in later generations called the New Testament canon…
p.97 in 367 [AD] Athanasius, the zealous bishop of Alexandria––an admirer of Irenaeus––issued an Easter letter in which he demanded that Egyptian monks destroy all writings, except for those he specifically listed as “acceptable,” even “canonical”…”However, as I said above, the letter that Pagels refers to contains no mention or request that any writings be destroyed, and it does not mention any writings by name other than those listed as “canonical” and “acceptable”. A key tenet of Pagelian orthodoxy is that leaders in the church used authoritarian tactics to achieve their orthodoxy. However, twice now, Pagels has faltered in her attempt to prove this tenet, and fallen into misrepresentation and myth. She seems, at this point, to want to base her faith in Pagelian orthodoxy on something other than historical fact. In this she is, at least, consistent, since another tenet of Pagelian orthodoxy is that historicity does not matter.
p.151 And because Irenaeus’s bold interpretation came virtually to define orthodoxy, those who read John’s gospel today in any language except the Greek original will find that the translations make his conclusion seem obvious––namely, that the man “who dwelt among us” was God incarnate…In making this point, that Irenaeus’ high view of Johannine Christology is obvious in every translation (!) except Greek, she is conceding that if those translations are accurate, than Irenaeus’ reading is probably correct. According to Pagels, Irenaeus decided to make his reading a mark of orthodoxy and closed his “massive” five-volume Against Heresies with a warning evocative of the last chapters of Revelation. Pagels writes,
p.158 We do not know how his contemporaries responded; I would guess that the majority, moved by his concern, rallied around Irenaeus and, rather than risk expulsion, chose the safer shelter of the church community and what Irenaeus insisted was the stable authority of the “catholic” consensus of churches and their clergy.This Pagelian orthodox analysis overestimates the power of Irenaeus of Lyons power and influence in the church. Irenaeus was not the bishop of Rome, but of a city in Gaul. Even if he was the bishop of Rome, the church structure during the time of Irenaeus was not such that he could exclude anyone in another part of Christendom through unilateral action such as excommunication. In fact, this is probably part of the reason that his Against Heresies is so “massive”. If he could have excluded the wolves and protected the sheep through unilateral action, he probably would not have spent the time writing an 800 page work. As it was, he had to be content to write his objections down and convince the other bishops through debate and argument that he was right.
p.170 From that meeting and its aftermath…emerged the Nicene Creed that would effectively clarify and elaborate “the canon of truth,” along with what we call the canon…Together these would help establish what Irenaeus had envisioned––a worldwide communion of “orthodox” Christians joined into one “catholic and apostolic” church…Once again, a central tenet of Pagelian orthodoxy is that the bishops used authoritarian means by which to suppress dissenters and their writings. However we have seen how Pagels herself seems to have had some difficulty finding actual instances in Irenaeus’ and Athanasius’ writings that reflect the accuracy of this tenet. In the following section of her book, this failure apparently resulted, not in Pagels rejection of this tenet of her orthodoxy, but in Pagels fabrication of facts to suit her Pagelian orthodox assumptions. Pagels writes about Athanasius’ Easter Letter once again,
A central tenet of Pagelian orthodoxy is that the powerful in the church exerted their influence over the weak until finally they were able to win Constantine over to their position, at which point he outlawed heresy. The story of Athanasius, however stands as a stark example of how Pagelian orthodoxy is flawed at this point. Athanasius was a young man at the council of Nicea in AD325, where orthodoxy gained a tenuous victory. Pagels relates how for the next 40 years Athanasius first gained his successors seat as the bishop of Alexandria, and then was exiled when the Arians, those who denied Johannine Christology, used the power of the state to exile him and take his seat as bishop. Pagels minimizes this reality and seems to think that the military enforced exiles of the bishop Athanasius were steps in the right direction that were finally reversed when in 361,
p.176 After his third successful rival, having presided as bishop of Alexandria for five years, was lynched in 361, Athanasius succeeded in regaining his position, which he held tenaciously until his death in 373.
Despite such opposition––and perhaps because of it––Athanasius resolved to bring all Egyptian Christians, however diverse, under the supervision of his office.
p.176 In the spring of 367, when Athanasius was in his sixties and more securely established as bishop, he wrote what became his most famous letter. In a world much different than that of Irenaeus, Athanasius included in his annual Easter Letter detailed instructions that would extend and implement the guidelines his predecessor had sketched out nearly two hundred years before…Nowhere in Athanasius’ Easter Letter is there a reference to “cleanse the church” from anything. In fact, this phrase, or any phrase that conveys a similar idea, never occurs in any of Athanasius’ 63 other letters. It is therefore a mystery where Pagels obtained this “quote”, a key quote in bolstering her notion that Athanasius “ordered” the monks at Nag Hammadi to do anything. Apparently Pagels thought this aspect of her belief system was too weak to stand on its own merits, as she was forced to fabricate a quote to support it.
Praising [the canonical books] as “springs of salvation,” he calls upon Christians during this Lenten season to “cleanse the church from every defilement” and to reject “the apocryphal books,”…
It is likely that one or more of the monks who heard his letter read at their monastery near the town of Nag Hammadi decided to defy Athanasius’s order and removed more than fifty books from the monastery library, hid them in a jar to preserve then and buried them near the cliff where Muhammad Ali would find them sixteen hundred years later.
p.183 Furthermore, since Christian tradition teaches that Jesus fully revealed God two thousand years ago, innovators from Francis of Assisi to Martin Luther, from George Fox and John Wesley to contemporary feminist and liberation theologians, often have disguised innovation––sometimes even from themselves––by claiming that they are not introducing anything new but only clarifying what Jesus actually meant all along.This is an insightful observation by Pagels, although I have a feeling that she exempts herself from the force of it. When feminist and liberation theologians appeal to primary sources to show “that they are not introducing anything new but only clarifying” how are they doing anything different that what Pagels is doing in her work here? She apparently thinks that she has transcended this tendency because she claims that Irenaeus got it wrong with his “gospel of truth” and the invention of orthodoxy. However, she is really just doing the same thing claiming that hers is the real tradition, the tradition of polytheism, toleration, and openness. Thus hers is the true teaching of Jesus, “what Jesus actually meant”, according to Pagelian orthodoxy.
p.184 This act of choice––which the term heresy originally meant––leads us back to the problem that orthodoxy was invented to solve: How can we tell truth from lies?... Anyone who has seen foolishness, sentimentality, delusion, and murderous rage disguised as God’s truth knows that there is no easy answer to the problem that the ancients called discernment of spirits. Orthodoxy tends to distrust our capacity to make such discriminations and insists on making them for us. Given the notorious human capacity for self-deception, we can, to an extent, thank the church for this. Many of us, wishing to be spared hard work, gladly accept what tradition teaches…This is an exemplary summary of blind Pagelian orthodoxy. First, Christian orthodoxy was invented and forced. Second, Christian orthodoxy distrusts and undermines the individuals ability to discern the truth. Third, Christian orthodoxy is for those are too lazy to think and reflect on their own. Fourth, the truth is within the individual, who is divine. And fifth, spiritual discovery must make its own path and eschew narrow tradition.
Most of us, sooner or later, find that, at critical points in our lives, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists. What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions…is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery. Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus’ words, to “seek, and you shall find.”