On Elaine Pagels and The Gnostic Gospels

The Swain points us to a good article on Elaine Pagels and her book, The Gnostic Gospels. I read The Gnostic Gospels as part of my coursework as one of our main introductions to Gnosticism. However, we also read a number of primary texts and other secondary literature which quickly led us to the conclusions outlined in the article.

The book is clear and accessible and for that reason is often used as an introduction to Gnosticism. And, if one is not a Scripture scholar, this may be the only perspective that you’ll get on the topic. For that reason I think this article is an important one for people who work around issues of late antiquity and the early medieval period and who do not focus on religion. The most accessible work is a skewed one.

I see three major take-aways here:

  1. There’s no substitute for reading primary sources. I know there are a lot of them, but only engaging them yourself can you get a sense of the landscape and therefore what various secondary sources are either eliding or ignoring.
  2. For the interdisciplinary, we can never read all the primary sources let alone the secondary. So we have to know our core primary sources and the important secondary sources on them and speak up about these to our colleagues. Furthermore, when doing work outside of our core—ask around about the sources you’re using or are planning to use!
  3. Our frameworks and models are are always our own—for good and ill. That is, Pagels’ reconstruction of gnosticism is coming out of her perspective and worldview. That’s not good or bad—that’s inevitable. What I believe we who do models and frameworks to reconstruct past movements and cultures must do is be self-aware about where and how our worldview is influencing our perspective on our sources. Sometimes our experiences will add fresh insights to how things fit together; at others they’ll skew things. The more rooted we in our in our primary sources, and weigh our models against the evidence we have, the better off we’ll be. As Albert Schweitzer so wisely warned at the beginning of the last century in his Quest for the Historical Jesus: if your reconstruction of Jesus (or your author/person/culture/movement…) looks, sounds, and acts like you it’s time to think again…
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6 comments so far

  1. B. Hawk on

    Excellent thoughts. I’ve never read Pagel’s book, only around it, nor have I ever had the chance to delve into the Gnostic like I want to (and should, for my fields of interest). I do like your observation about interdisciplinarity needing primary sources as core, though.

    Also, your observation about our frameworks are all too true. This is the key to scholarship, I think: to delve into the primary sources, to reconstruct from what the past has left us, not from what we may place back upon them.

  2. derekolsen on

    Thanks, B. Hawk. Part of my difficulty as an interdisciplinary scholar is trying to figure out which texts are my primary core… In one sense I’ve got it easy; since my PhD is in New Testament, I’ve got a neat little set of circumscribed texts right there. However when you add in the relevant texts from the Jewish and Greco-Roman backgrounds, then go into patristics and the medieval period, that’s quite an explosion of possible core texts!

    I figure that you’ve got to draw arbitrary lines somewhere, and as long as they’re arbitrary they ought to be around something you like, so when I move out of my NT texts, I tend to go with western monastic texts and teachers: Gregory the Great, John Cassian, Benedict, Ælfric, etc.

  3. swain on

    Thanks for the mention! Re: Pagels, yes, I agree she reconstructs Gnosticism out of her own world view, as we all reconstruct the past out of our worldviews. True enough. I’ve always felt though that she goes further than the norm however in that reconstruction, hence my 20+ year reservations about ever recommending the book. Her work before that point was pretty solid, a great deal of her work subsequent to the book seemed to me to simply rehash her “popular” book. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, nonetheless it was heartening to find Chilton agreeing with me and to have that affirmation after all these years. I really did think I was the only one who found that book wanting.

  4. derekolsen on

    No—you’re definitely not the only one.

  5. Mark Wilson on

    Perhaps the ultimate discredit of Elaine Pagels is she makes her days at Barnard look like she was an undergraduate research assistant (in her forties?!), rather than a full professor. Women hide their age, she blatantly lies about it, and about everything else. This woman is an abject phoney. She hides ignorance and bluster behind supposed academic superiority. The ultimate proof of what is so wrong with today’s government-funded entitlement-based academia.

  6. derekolsen on

    Hmmm… While that may be true, Mark—and I’m no position to judge if it is—I’d rather refute the issues with her scholarship by direct citation of methodological and factual errors rather than ad hominem attacks.


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