Elaine Pagels’ Search for Christ the Mystic
The “muscular” Christ is back. He’s tough on his enemies and his word is absolute. But is that who Christ really was? Barry Boyce talks with Elaine Pagels, the leading authority on Christianity’s suppressed gospels.
Dogma sets in when you stop asking questions. Elaine Pagels never stops asking questions. With six books under her belt—including several bestsellers—a MacArthur Prize, a National Book Circle Critics Award, a National Book Award, and a recent New York Times Magazine photo shoot portraying her home life, Pagels is as close to a celebrity as an historian of ancient Christianity can get. She is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton, ensconced behind leaded windows in an office lined with ceiling-high bookshelves in a brick and stone building covered in ivy with roots as thick as your arm. She could dust off an interviewer in a New Jersey minute with an erudite, polished, pat response to any question. Instead, she chooses to turn the tables, asking you what you believe and why, and does it matter.
Knocking on her office door, I am humbled and expectant. Having read a healthy dose of her writing, and been impressed by it, I have the strange sense one gets of having met an author without having any idea what they are really like. The door opens slightly and a woman with a cell phone in one hand and books and papers cradled in her other arm greets me. “I am not Dr. Pagels,” she says.
The woman explains that Pagels had taken ill with bronchitis a few days earlier and was canceling appointments. She hands me the cell phone and a small, scratchy voice apologizes but says that after a trip to the doctor and a chance to revive, she will see me at her home. I go to her house in the afternoon, expecting to grab a few comments and let her get back to bed. But when we begin to talk, she is in full swing within minutes. Even on a bad day, she shows not the least sign of being bored or matter-of-fact about the topic that has been her special province for over twenty-five years.
It is also clear that she is a teacher, not a lecturer: she wants to address the issues fresh, and before long she wants to know the whys and the wherefores of the questions themselves—and of the questioner. Her method is dialogue. And for her whole career, she has been conducting a dialogue with Christianity: question, response, discovery, next question.
Pagels was just two years old and living near Stanford University in California when a discovery was made on a remote hill in Egypt that would eventually lead her on a slow, steady search for the genuine spirit of Christianity. In 1945, near the small town of Nag Hammadi, a peasant named Muhammad Ali al-Samman accidentally dug up a three-foot-high earthenware jug on the side of a desert hill while harvesting fertilizer. Fearing that it might contain a jinn yet hoping for buried treasure, he smashed the jug and revealed thirteen papyrus books bound in leather—secreted there by ancient monks to protect them from a rash of reactionary book burnings.
Although Muhammad Ali’s mother burned much of this find that evening as kindling, fifty-two sacred texts survived. But in a twist, they quickly fell into the hands of religious bounty hunters. Once scholars were finally able to get hold of the Nag Hammadi texts—Coptic translations from the original Greek—they were astonished to find a version of the teachings of Christ that differed radically from the canonical gospels that have formed the basis of Christianity for almost two thousand years. These texts are sometimes confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls (found several years later near Jericho), but while the Scrolls opened a window on ancient Judaism, they had nothing to do with Jesus. The Nag Hammadi texts were all about Jesus, and the Jesus they revealed sounded more like a mystic than a preacher.
Pagels stumbled into her relationship with Jesus as a thirteen-year-old contrarian mildly rebelling against a scientist father who believed religion to be an obsolete phase of human history. She sought the energetic kind of faith that would appeal to a young teenager and joined an evangelical church. There, she later wrote, she found “the assurance of belonging to the right group, the true ‘flock’ that alone belonged to God.”
As for many of us, the death of important people in Pagels’ life has several times occasioned significant changes and realizations. In this case, a friend of hers died in a car accident; she sought solace in her congregation, but found they stopped short of admitting her friend into the kingdom of heaven. He was Jewish and not born again. They refused to discuss the matter and Pagels left the church.
In college, Pagels studied classical Greek in order to read the New Testament in the original. Eventually, she would add six more languages to her arsenal, but Greek opened the way, not only to Christianity but to the pagan spirituality reflected in the epics, poems and plays of ancient Greece. These broadened her notion of what “spiritual” might mean, and the worldviews of ancient peoples became an ongoing part of her investigations. Meanwhile, for Pagels, reading the gospels in the Greek was like reading a mystery novel. “I experienced the gospels in a new way,” she has written, “often turning the pages to see what happened next, as if I had never read them before.”
After graduation, she went on to study dance at the Martha Graham School. She is compact and lithe and moves with grace, and it is easy to see how dance could have been a career for her. Modern dance still interests her, as does video artist Bill Viola’s work, which also expresses the unseen through movement. (An epigram from Viola opens her latest book: “There is an invisible world out there, and we are living in it.”) But in the end, dance turned out to be just a stopping-off point in the middle of a longer journey. She went back to school, took a master’s degree in Greek, and returned to study of the gospels, hoping to find out “what it was about Christianity that I had found so compelling and at the same time so frustrating.”
Harvard, like Princeton and the other early centers of higher education in America, was founded by clergy to educate clergy. Scholars at the Harvard Divinity School and the Harvard department of religion (which has virtually the same faculty as the divinity school) have been dissecting and interpreting the word of God for nearly 400 years. Step by step Pagels’ search had led her from a born-again church in California to the Ivy League and the source of the most sophisticated theology of the day. When she entered the doctoral program at Harvard in 1965, she hoped to find in early Christianity a pure form, untainted by all the modern variations and uncertainties. As she recounted to David Remnick in a 1995 New Yorker profile, she told one of her teachers, Krister Stendahl, that she had come to find “the essence of Christianity.” He gave her a long look and retorted, “What makes you think it has an essence?”
Her idea of early Christianity was blown apart further when she made her own discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, in the file cabinets of professors at Harvard. In these texts—ranging, in her words, from “secret gospels, poems, and quasi-philosophic descriptions of the origin of the universe, to myths, magic, and instructions for mystical practice”—she discovered a version of Jesus that was Zen-like, imaginative and poetic. One of her favorite exhortations, from the Gospel of Thomas, illustrates this new and different savior:
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.”
Some of the more mystical pieces of the Nag Hammadi puzzle treated Christ’s resurrection as seemingly metaphorical, occurring outside of our temporal realm, and they portrayed God in androgynous terms, or as a yin-yang-like duality: God the father–mother. Some of them sang the praises of a divine mother. One such poem, “Thunder, Perfect Mind,” contains a revelation uttered by a feminine power:
I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore, and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am (the mother) and the daughter… I am she whose wedding is great, and I have not taken a husband… I am knowledge and ignorance… I am godless, and I am one whose God is great.
These texts were likely composed at the same time as the works that were gathered together to make the New Testament, a generation or so after the death of Christ. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are attributed to apostles of Christ, but it is widely agreed that they were written long after their deaths. In fact, the early years of the Christian movement were a prolific time for gospel writers and teachers, and there was no agreed-upon text that represented the “word of the Lord.” That would change.
When the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313, the faith was becoming more than a Jewish splinter sect. As it became more mainstream, a powerful orthodox establishment was deciding what was and was not truly Christian. The kinds of texts found hidden at Nag Hammadi were destroyed in great numbers. The only way that Biblical scholars knew that such teachings and texts existed was through a few surviving fragments and by reading denunciations of them composed by those who proclaimed them heretical. Until the jar was found in Egypt.
The Nag Hammadi texts are understood to be the work of teachers who professed to hold esoteric teachings of Christ. Such teachers have come to be called “gnostics,” from the Greek word gnosis, which connotes a kind of direct, intuitive knowledge, as opposed to analytical knowledge or belief based on faith. Many people who have taken an interest in the gnostics, such as Carl Jung, regard it as somewhat inevitable that orthodox movements would suppress teachings about such esoteric experiences, because they are so far beyond the control of an institution.
In 1961, UNESCO began an effort to have the gnostic works found at Nag Hammadi made available in a photographic edition for scholars. It would take until 1977 for the complete edition to be published. Long before that, however, James Robinson, the director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, knowing how impatient people were to study these works, privately circulated copies to selected scholars.
It was through such mimeographed copies that Pagels first came into contact with the gnostic scriptures. She studied Coptic in order to gain first-hand access to their content, and in 1970 she completed her doctoral thesis on the gnostic-orthodox controversy. Thereafter, she published two scholarly books on how the pillars of the New Testament, John and Paul, could be understood from a gnostic point of view.
By now a star student of the gnostic oeuvre, she was privileged in 1975 to be admitted to the small room at the Coptic Museum in Cairo that held the original texts. Even looking at them through plexiglass, she found them far more arresting than the facsimiles she had been working with. She poured over the golden brown papyri until she began to genuinely enter their world, in some sense touching on the experience of gnosis that inspired those who originally composed and used the texts.
As Pagels wrote in 1979 in her first book for a popular audience, The Gnostic Gospels, a few of Christ’s disciples, “following his instructions, kept secret Jesus’ esoteric teachings: this they taught only in private, to certain persons who had proven themselves to be spiritually mature, and who therefore qualified for ‘initiation into gnosis’—that is, into secret knowledge.” Pagels summed up their place in the Christian world in the last chapter, where she posited that, for the gnostics, knowledge of God was self-knowledge. By contrast, she said, “…orthodox Christians insisted that humanity needs a way beyond its own power—a divinely given way—to approach God.” Some of the gnostics, however, turned the creation story on its head, like the author of this passage from the Gospel of Philip:
…God created humanity; [but now human beings] create God. That is the way it is in the world—human beings make gods, and worship their creation. It would be appropriate for the gods to worship human beings!
Clearly, the gnostic works have a provocative ring about them that alone would make them a fascinating field of study. But their strange beauty was not a sufficient reason for Pagels to celebrate them in . She thought they might have an important role as something much more than antique religious curiosities. They could become meaningful for modern practitioners of Christianity, or of other disciplines for that matter. She also thought it extremely important to be on the lookout for the ancient sources of modern attitudes and behavior and what might have been missed all those years ago.
“I don’t expect that these books will be added to the New Testament,” she told me when we talked. “But the existence of the gnostic works forces you to address where they fit into Christian experience and tradition. They put the canon in its place, so to speak, which is a very specific historical place and time, when standardization made sense as a way to create an organized, ‘catholic’ church. Today, many people are wearing the boundaries of their particular church tradition more lightly, so the central place of the creed and the canon becomes less important for them. They, and I, find the experiential quality of the gnostic works compelling.”
She also feels it is quite likely that a more contemplative, meditative aspect to the tradition may have been sidelined in the headlong rush to create a mainstream faith. The monks who worked with the gnostic works were most likely deeply contemplative. “I have visited Cistercian monks,” she told me, “who are very much taken with some of the gnostic works, because they find a spiritual depth there that reclaims some of their tradition. Having spent several years in contemplative prayer themselves, they instantly recognize the experiences being described.”
Pagels also muses about the place the phenomenal world is given in the traditional understanding of Genesis and feels that a less self-centered, more cosmic, even magical, view of creation may have been lost. She recalls to me that in the Hebrew creation story, “God creates Adam and gives him dominion over the world and control over everything.” Then, she goes on to say, “There’s no sense that he is a part of the process. He has nothing to do with the animals or the birds, except that he has control over them and over this earth. There’s no continuum at all.
“This is antithetical to the Babylonian view that the forces of the universe we worship—the sun, the moon, the stars—are the forces on which we depend for survival. This is a very different perception, and it’s one that was excluded very early on from the Judeo-Christian worldview. Yet, I find Jesus saying in the Gospel of Thomas, ‘I am all things. All things come forth from me. All things return to me. Split the piece of wood and I am there. Lift up a rock and you will find me.’ This differs sharply from the orthodox, anthropomorphic view that God is human-like, not pervading the animate and inanimate world, the stars, the stones, the trees and so forth.”
Understandably, many scholars and theologians have been drawn to the gnostic works and produced detailed and splendid scholarship to illuminate them. But in Pagels’ hands, the esoteric, abstruse and just plain weird became compelling and personal. Because her investigations began as a personal and not dispassionate search, it drew in the lay reader and made The Gnostic Gospels an award-winning bestseller. Of course, as the Da Vinci Code has shown, write something that jumbles up the Christian verities and the world will beat a path to your door, but what has made Pagels’ work unique is that her scholarly discipline is so acute that she never strays into titillation and special pleading. That way lies the end of questioning, and Pagels’ quest is all about asking the next question.
After The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels continued to look for the sources of modern attitudes derived from the Christian tradition and to examine how well they reflected the attitudes of Jesus and his followers. In Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, marriage, family, procreation and celibacy were put under the microscope. She looked at “how Christians have read the story of Adam and Eve and often projected themselves into it.” The repudiation of sexuality and womanhood that has been read into the story begins with St. Augustine, who saw the Garden of Eden story as a morality play about human depravity and original sinfulness. In fact, many early Christians regarded it as a tale about human freedom. To bite the apple may not have been such a bad thing. When I spoke with her about it, Pagels talked about how Satan wriggled his way into the story. “When I began to read the Hebrew Bible,” she said, “I realized that later Christians had read Satan into the Garden of Eden. They say that Satan was tempting Adam and Eve. Actually, it was just a snake there—a clever snake, a special snake who talks—but it’s not Satan.”
In the nearly ten years between her two popular books, Pagels and her husband, physicist Heinz Pagels, had a son, Mark, and adopted a daughter, Sarah. They shared a good life. Her career offered her some of the most rewarding work possible and she had come a long way from the slightly wet-behind-the-ears seeker who entered graduate school at Harvard. But life would change. As she was finishing Adam, Eve, and the Serpent in the spring of 1987, Mark Pagels died of a respiratory condition at age six. Crestfallen and deeply grieving, Pagels and her husband nonetheless went on with their work and they adopted a second son, David.
In the summer of 1988, the family traveled to Aspen, Colorado, where in addition to working on complexity theory at the Center for Physics, Heinz could indulge his passion for climbing. One day, he and a colleague took off for a hike up Pyramid Peak. At one point, he needed to make a little bunny-hop of a couple of feet—a simple maneuver—but when he landed, his ankle, weak from childhood polio, gave out. He slid off the ledge and plunged two thousand feet to his death.
Again heartbroken, now widowed, with two small children to raise, Elaine Pagels had plenty to think about. In her next book, The Origin of Satan, she delved further into the roots of the belief systems that drive Western culture, spirituality and even politics. She did something more than that, though. She opened the book by describing how the grief that attended the loss of her husband made her realize that she was “living in the presence of an invisible being.” It caused her, she wrote, “to reflect on the ways that various religious traditions give shape to the invisible world, and how our imaginative perceptions of what is invisible relate to the ways we respond to the people around us, to events, and to the natural world.”
At that point, the personal nature of Pagels’ work became explicit; she not only laid out the arguments, but she (however briefly) opened her heart to the reader. It was as if the Method actor stepped out of the role for a moment and revealed the motivation that made it real and meaningful. For a moment, the professor looked up from the book and gave you a look of genuine human vulnerability.
As we talk about this period in the living room of her home in a very green neighborhood a few blocks from Einstein’s lair, The Institute for Advanced Studies, it’s apparent that “invisibility”—her way of talking about the memory of her late husband—is still present for her. She has since remarried and embarked on another life. In the kitchen, though, you can hear the clattering of the two children she shared with Heinz, now in their late teens.
“When I wrote the book on Satan,” she says, “it was like I was dealing with a cultural reflex. Who is responsible for bad things? Who are we to blame? This death, whose fault is it? Is it his fault or is it my fault? He would have said in his very open-hearted way that he had nothing to do with it. It had to do with the forces of the universe. It was fine with him, but it was not fine with me. I was devastated.
“As I got further into the research for the book,” she continues, “I was shocked that, to my great regret, I had overlooked the dark side to Christianity, the side that represses its own violence and capacity for violence. It’s the side that claims to be doing the right thing and therefore what it does is justified because it is God’s work. The way violence has been used in the name of Christianity has often been ignored. It is a very insidious and powerful form of evil in Christianity. The way it informs Christian anti-Judaism is much more visible to me now than it was before.
“At the time, I was also very concerned about war between Christians and Muslims. Each sees the other in the same way: ‘We are God’s people and you are not.’ That implacable conviction that you are on God’s side is very dangerous.”
In The Origin of Satan, Pagels said that she was interested in how Satan became an external spirit, “in open rebellion against God,” and how “in his frustrated rage he mirrors aspects of our own confrontations with otherness.” She was pointing out that our relationship with other can often rest on blaming the other. In her living room, she warmed to this topic and you could see how the sparks fly when her mind seizes on an idea. But it is always a controlled burn, with the fuel supplied by carefully collected evidence. She said, “I was surprised to realize that there was no definitive sense of God battling some rebellious spiritual power until about the sixth century.”
When I pointed out to her that Buddhism, a nontheistic tradition, contains forces of temptation and evil—such as Mara or Rudra—that abide in the same invisible realm that she spoke of, and that Buddha did battle with such forces, she countered, “It seems very important to me to see that what we call the power of Satan, the forces of evil, violence and so forth, are within each one of us. While I was working on the book, I asked myself, ‘Suppose we remove this model of Satan fighting against God, then how do we take seriously the presence of violence and evil in the world?’
“This led me to the Gospel of Philip, which says that one of the first things you need to know about is the root of evil within yourself. It can grow in us and take us over and blind us, but when we become aware of the root of evil, which is expressed in anger, lust and other impulses, and see that we are acting out of those impulses, the awareness transforms the evil. We can talk about evil in the world at large if we start right here and see that we all have the root of evil. It unites us all. But we so often hear talk about ‘destroying the evil-doers,’ which would mean destroying us all. The externalized Satan perpetuates the view that there are doers of good and doers of evil. And in that view, the evil-doers are not us.”
When you read the book, the passion that Pagels brought to the Satan problem jumps off the page. Although she maintained her gadfly-like neutrality as a Socratic Christian—“I’m just asking questions here”—the book was slightly more polemical. It had rhetorical force. She seemed to be gaining momentum.
Her next book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, which came out late last year, was almost ten years in the making. (“Writing, for me, is an arduous process,” she admits.) It was even more forceful and personal than the Satan book and quickly became a bestseller.
It would be hard for a title to capture the essence of a book’s thesis so succinctly as Beyond Belief. And it would be hard for a book to be better timed. While Pagels’ book depicted a Jesus who taught that we are all sons and daughters of God, Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, presented a Jesus drawn in the starkest terms possible. It might have been subtitled “Believe It or Else.” It was the antithesis of what Pagels is about.
One of the keys to the success of Pagels’ books is that she keeps them short, which may explain why they take so long to write. They are under 200 pages (but supported by about 60 pages of back-matter), so while the content may require some heavy lifting, it’s not an exhausting workout. In Beyond Belief, she begins in a conversational tone to describe the experience of finding solace in the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York and its congregation, during the period of her son’s struggle with respiratory disease and his eventual death—and many times after. It’s an engaging prologue that leads to her thesis statement: “…what matters in religious experience involves much more than what we believe (or what we do not believe).” And once more there comes a question: “What is it about Christian tradition that we love—and what is it that we cannot love?”
She has chosen her words carefully. She is not talking about Christ or even Christian practitioners per se. She is talking about the tradition. To express the spirit of Christian tradition that could be a salve for her grief, she turns to Tertullian, a second-century Christian spokesman, who said, “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our practice of lovingkindness: ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!’” But she also makes clear that the early Christians were a multifarious lot. “Various groups,” she writes, “interpreted baptism in quite different ways; and those who ate bread and drank wine together to celebrate ‘the Lord’s supper’ often could not confine the meaning of their worship to any single interpretation.”
As the movement evolved, however, from a criminally prosecuted cult into a state-sanctioned religion, it attracted powerful codifiers. One of the most influential—and the villain of the piece in Pagels’ reckoning—was Irenaeus, a second-century bishop who felt that multiplicity only represented confusion and heresy. He helped to establish what would become the canon, the New Testament, accepted the world over as the exclusive repository of the word of the Lord. It was Irenaeus and his successors who defined Christians as those who accepted a creed. At its heart that creed contained a simple formula: you must accept that Jesus Christ is the son of God and he is the only way to salvation.
Pagels contrasts this viewpoint, as expressed most powerfully in the Gospel of John, with what is expressed in the Gospel of Thomas: “John says that we can experience God only through the divine light embodied in Jesus. But passages in Thomas’ 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,’ which is hidden within everyone, although most people remain unaware of its presence.”
Pagels acknowledges that this notion sounds akin to buddhanature and she, like others, has speculated that the known exchanges between the Far and the Near East may have resulted in an importation of certain beliefs—or the same universal understanding may have arisen independently.
Given these great similarities, I asked her what, then, appeals to her about the Christian version of these teachings of innate enlightenment. “I guess I fell in love with some of these texts,” she replied. “I love working on the Gospel of Thomas and the others, partly for the same reasons that many of us would like to explore the Buddhist teachings, which open different ranges of intuition, experience and perception than Western religions have traditionally done. The gnostic texts open up different ranges of experience and I find them intuitively very wonderful. I also like the fact that they do that in the language and with the cast of characters that are so familiar from Christianity.”
In the final chapter of Beyond Belief, Pagels tells us that when she no longer believed everything she thought she was supposed to believe as a Christian—an experience that clearly resonates with that of many of her readers—she came to see that “besides belief, Christianity involves practice—and paths toward transformation.” When I ask her to say more, she talks about the Insight Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg’s book Faith. “Salzberg presents faith as a dynamic, evolving relationship, not as dogmatic belief,” she says. “I am not saying that we don’t need belief. We need all kinds of beliefs, but I am talking about going beyond them as well. There is a story about the Tibetan yogi Milarepa. After he’s been sitting in a cave for three years, turning green from drinking nettle broth, his teacher comes to him and asks, ‘What have you learned?’ That’s wonderful. When I go to my own Episcopal church and people are being confirmed as Christians, nobody asks them that question. They ask them to say the creed: “I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…”
What is next for Pagels? She mentions that she has thought about how “the conviction that I love in the Gospel of Thomas could be converted into social and political thought. Human societies have often merged religion and politics and that is certainly worth exploring.” She finds it interesting that experiments have shown that one part of the brain is activated when a person sees the candidate they support on television and another when they see the one they oppose.
“It’s almost like football teams,” she says. “It’s an ‘our guy’ or ‘those terrible people’ thing that seems very hard to avoid.” When it comes to the divide between the powerful movement of literalist Christianity and more liberal Christianity, not to mention the esoteric variety she continues to unearth, Pagels thinks this kind of split and the vehemence it arouses are a cause for concern. But she is heartened by the fact that many people continue to seek dialogue and exploration and try to learn about their own and others’ traditions. For her part, she is not pitting one side against another. She just wants all sides included.
She has other ideas for a next book. “I have been thinking” she said, “about a topic very familiar to Buddhists: the interpretation of suffering. At the beginning of his film, Mel Gibson put the quote, ‘By the strikes we are healed,’ meaning that the suffering of Christ heals our wounds because it is vicarious suffering for our sins. The idea of punishment for human sin has set up a resonance in our culture that leads to many problems, and it is a reaction against it that takes many people toward Buddhism and other forms of spirituality. But when you look at the Nag Hammadi texts, you find that a much broader range of approaches to suffering was explored and available and those can be opened up as a kind of resource for us.”
She went on to say that the Buddhist view that all life is marked by suffering—or her late husband’s view that events, good or bad, occur simply because of the forces of the universe at play—is in clear opposition to the notion that things happen because you deserve them. I asked where karma might fit in, at which point she began to delve into various questions with me, one after the other (Is karma like punishment? Is it getting caught up in reactive states about our karma that brings further karma? How does karma relate to the forces of the universe that seem to rule our lives?) until it was time to leave. As I left, I was grateful. I felt the kind of lift I used to feel from a tremendously engaging college class—thinking about things in new ways and making associations never made before—yet she thanked me for initiating our dialogue about karma, and as she went into the kitchen to be with her children, I could almost hear her asking herself, “What have you learned?”