Archive for the ‘Non-Canonical’ Category

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…