Sunday, June 18, 2006

ELAINE PAGELS is doing a three-part lecture series on The Da Vinci Code in Portland. She is quoted with this interesting positive take on the book:
"What is compelling about Brown's work of fiction, and part of what may be worrying Catholic and evangelical leaders, is not the book's many falsehoods," Pagels told the San Jose Mercury News this spring.

"What has kept Brown on the best-seller list for years and inspired a movie is, instead, what is true -- that some views of Christian history were buried for centuries because leaders of the early Catholic Church wanted to present one view of Jesus' life: theirs."
I suspect there is a certain amount of slanting or misunderstanding of the first lecture, since Pagels is made to appear something of a Gnostic herself:
Pagels and others have come to interpret the Nag Hammadi texts as "advanced-level teaching" that Jesus communicated to a select group of disciples.

"In the Gospel of Thomas, there's a passage that says 'these are the secret words of Jesus,' things he said privately," said the scholar, who threads her speeches with examples from the gnostic gospels as well as Luke, John, Matthew and Mark.
I don't know of anyone who actually thinks that the Gospel of Thomas has secret teachings delivered to select discipes, although that's what it claims. Much of the material, after all, overlaps with the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Some scholars do think that the basic work goes back to the first century, and perhaps somewhat more scholars (but still by no means all) think that, whatever its date, it contains Jesus traditions that were transmitted independently of the Synoptics.

Finally, here is her view (at least as the reporter understood it) on early orthodox Christianity:
Irenaeus and Athanasius declared all other gospels to be heresy -- a Greek word that means choice. "That is something the leaders did not think people should have," the scholar said wryly.

Irenaeus deemed the gnostic authors "evil interpreters" and ordered their works to be found and destroyed.

"It took 200 years to get rid of them," Pagels said, a campaign finally concluded when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and church leaders had "police power behind them."

But the monks of St. Pachomius escaped the religious dragnet. They gathered the forbidden, leather-bound gospels, put them in a clay vessel and buried them in the hills.

For centuries, Christians believed the sanitized versions of Jesus's teachings.

"When I went to graduate school, I had this fantasy of early Christianity, what really happened back then, as the Golden Age, unified, simple and pure," Pagels said. "A kind of play Bibleland."

The author, who speaks and writes with respect for both history and faith, said she can understand why Irenaeus and Athanasius did what they did.

"They were facing brutal persecution," she said. "I'm grateful that they preserved Christianity."

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