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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: A Critique of Pagels 
26th-Apr-2006 02:06 am
Saints and Spiritual Masters
Here is a particularly zesty academic critique of Elaine Pagels' usual gushing for things Gnostic, as recently once again surfaced in the silly stuff printed about the so-called "Gospel of Judas." When a fellow student here first mentioned the news story to me, I immediately began supplying the names of the scholars who would be quoted for the article and the general comments that they made: this stuff has gotten that predictable in that it's merely contemporary church politics being thinly passed off as scholarship for the uneducated. Embarrassing, sure, but hardly unique to our discipline. This particular article, though, displays a little more punch than one usually sees in a news story of the sort, but naturally, that's why it's not in the AP news service. Still, it was too amusing to not include.


The Forum: The Pagels Imposture

by Father Paul Mankowski, SJ
special to CWNews.com

Apr. 24 (CWNews.com) - Two weeks ago, at the height of the Gospel of Judas mania, a Google News search of "Elaine Pagels" plus "expert" scored 157 hits; she was the media's prime go-to person for a scholarly read on the import of the Coptic manuscript. Pagels was most often cited in stories such as the following from the NYT:

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton who specializes in studies of the Gnostics, said in a statement, "These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse -- and fascinating -- the early Christian movement really was."

I am going to demonstrate that Professor Pagels's media reputation as a scholar is undeserved, her reputation as an expert in Gnosticism still less so. The case for the prosecution will require some careful reading. Those who want to follow along with the sources at their elbow should find a copy of Pagels's 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels (NY: Random House). Those who have some Latin and a library handy may want the Sources Chrétiennes edition of Irenaeus' Adversus Haereses (ed. Rousseau & Doutreleau, Paris: Cerf, 1974, 1982) and can bookmark page 278 of Vol. 211 and page 154 of Vol. 294.* Others can get most of the gist from the translation available in Vol. 1 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), with a finger in pages 380 and 439. OK, to work.

Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels is in large measure a polemic against St. Irenaeus (approx. 130-202 AD), Bishop of Lyons and a Father of the Church, and is aimed in particular against the defense of ecclesial orthodoxy offered by Irenaeus in his work Against Heresies -- which was written in Greek but which survives, for the most part, in an ancient Latin translation.

In a chapter called "One God, One Bishop," Pagels is concerned to show that the doctrine of monotheism and the hierarchical structuring of the Church were mutually reinforcing ploys designed to consolidate ecclesiastical power and eliminate diversity -- specifically, the diversity that Pagels finds in the Gnostics whom Irenaeus was at pains to refute. Pagels claims that Valentinian Christians (disciples of the Gnostic Valentinus) "followed a practice which insured the equality of all participants" and put the bishop Irenaeus in a double-bind situation by ignoring his orders. Says Pagels (page 43: brackets, ellipsis, and emphasis are Pagels's):

What Irenaeus found most galling of all was that, instead of repenting or even openly defying the bishop, they responded to his protests with diabolically clever theological arguments:

They call [us] "unspiritual," "common," and "ecclesiastic." ... Because we do not accept their monstrous allegations, they say that we go on living in the hebdomad [the lower regions], as if we could not lift our minds to the things on high, nor understand the things that are above.

Pagels's quotation of Irenaeus is tagged by an endnote reference which, on page 162, reads "Ibid. [Irenaeus AH], Quotation conflated from 3.15.2 and 2.16.4." To put it mildly, an interesting method of citation. Let's look at the sources.

The first part of Pagels's quote comes from Book III, Chapter 15 of Against Heresies, where Irenaeus is arguing for the genuineness of the whole of the New Testament, here against the Valentinians:

Hi enim ad multitudinem propter eos qui sunt ab Ecclesia, quos communes et ecclesiasticos ipsi dicunt, inferunt sermones, per quos capiunt simpliciores et illiciunt eos, simulantes nostrum tractatum, uti saepius audiant. [They give speeches to the crowd about those from the Church, whom they call "common" and "ecclesiastic," through which they entrap the simple and entice them, counterfeiting our teaching, that they might listen to them more often.]

From this sentence Pagels takes only the words communes et ecclesiasticos ipsi dicunt, omitting the larger context. Note that the "[us]" which Pagels inserts in her quotation refers not, as her context requires, to bishops, but to all the Catholic faithful: those who belong to the Church. After the ellipsis, her quote resumes midway through a sentence found in Book II, Chapter 16. In this chapter, Irenaeus is primarily concerned neither with the authenticity of Scripture nor with the Valentinians, but with the doctrine of creation propounded by another Gnostic heresiarch named Basilides. Once more, let's examine the text:

Etenim hoc quod imputant nobis qui sunt a Valentino, in ea quae deorsum Ebdomade dicentes nos remanere, quasi non adtollentes in altum mentem neque quae sursum sunt sentientes, quoniam portentiloquium ipsorum non recipimus, hoc idem ipsum qui a Basilide sunt his imputant. [For that which the followers of Valentinus impute to us -- claiming that we remain in the lower Hebdomad, as if we could not lift our minds on high or perceive the things that are above, since we reject their own extravagant discourses -- this very thing the followers of Basilides impute to them.]

We note that the last phrase is omitted and the order of the preceding clauses reversed to disguise the non sequitur -- and for a very good reason: Irenaeus actually says that the same allegations made against the orthodox by the Valentinians are made against the Valentinians by their fellow Gnostics, the disciples of Basilides, and that's an embarrassment to Pagels's notion of the Gnostic-Catholic divide. To recapitulate: Pagels has carpentered a non-existent quotation, putatively from an ancient source, by silent suppression of relevant context, silent omission of troublesome words, and a mid-sentence shift of 34 chapters backwards through the cited text, so as deliberately to pervert the meaning of the original. While her endnote calls the quote "conflated," the word doesn't fit even as a euphemism: what we have is not conflation but creation.

Re-reading Pagels's putative quotation, you may have noticed that the word "unspiritual" corresponds to nothing in the Latin. It too was supplied by Pagels's imagination. The reason for the interpolation will be plain from the comment that immediately follows (page 44 in The Gnostic Gospels). Remember that she wants to argue that Irenaeus was interested in authority and the Valentinians in the life of the spirit:

Irenaeus was outraged at their claim that they, being spiritual, were released from the ethical restraints that he, as a mere servant of the demiurge, ignorantly sought to foist upon them.

Put simply, Irenaeus did not write what Prof. Pagels wished he would have written, so she made good the defect by silently changing the text. Creativity, when applied to one's sources, is not a compliment. She is a very naughty historian.

Or she would be, were she judged by the conventional canons of scholarship. At the post-graduate institute where I teach, and at any university with which I am familiar, for a professor or a grad student intentionally to falsify a source is a career-ending offense. Among professional scholars, witness tampering is no joke: once the charge is proven, the miscreant is dismissed from the guild and not re-admitted.

The Gnostic Gospels, like those portions of Pagels's later work with which I am familiar, is chock-full of tendentious readings and instances where counter-evidence is suppressed. The example of "creativity" here discussed may fairly be called a representative specimen of her methodology, and was singled out not because it's the worst example of its kind but because it's among the most unambiguous. No one who consults the source texts could give Pagels a pass, and that means she forfeits the claim to reliability as a scholar. Attractive as her ideological sympathies may be to many persons -- including many academics -- she does not deserve to be ranked with serious textual scholars like Claremont's James Robinson, and her testimony on the accuracy of inventions such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code cannot be solicited without irony.

I am not calling for academic sanctions but, more simply, for clarification. Pagels should be billed accurately -- not as an expert on Gnosticism or Coptic Christianity but as what she is: a lady novelist. Her oeuvre is that of fiction -- in fact, historical romance. Had New York Times reporters sought Barbara Cartland's views on discoveries in Merovingian religion or paleography, most of us would find it odd, but we'd expect them to make it plain that was romance, not history, in which she had the right to an opinion.

Paul Mankowski, S.J.
Pontifical Biblical Institute
April 23, 2006

*Also available with facing German translation in Fontes Christiani 8/2 (ed. Norbert Brox, Freiburg: Herder, 1997). The benchmark critical edition remains that of W. Wigan Harvey, Sancti Irenaei Libri Quinque Adversus Haereses, Cambridge, 1857. The pertinent passages may be found in Vol. 1, page 306, and Vol. 2, pages 79f.; they display no significant textual differences from the edition of Rousseau & Doutreleau, or indeed from Migne (PG 7, pp. 760, 918).

(Deleted comment)
26th-Apr-2006 07:58 am (UTC)
Bart's was the second name I recited, after Pagels as the inevitable first quotation sought for by the media. These stories are like Mad Libs for the specialist: you've gotten so used to seeing the formulaic way these reporters write them, that it's embarrassing. Is it the same in your field? I love how the formula for showing that your reporting is "balanced" is to discover who the "left" and "right" fringe scholars are, and to give them each a sentence. Thus the reader knows that your options are the pulled-it-out-of-my-ass insights of Da Vinci Code fiction or the most unnuanced readings of biblical literalists. Only Left and Right fundamentalisms are the viable options.

My students this Fall semester are going to be so screwed up for life when I reveal to them that there are more than two positions to take on everything in life, and that reality doesn't come in a "one ideology is always right and the other always wrong" package.
(Deleted comment)
26th-Apr-2006 08:37 am (UTC)
I'm going to be a little bit fanatic on the subject early on, in order to try to get my students past it. Maybe that constant reinforcement that you mention can be used: if I can get my students sensitized to the phenomenon, every time they encounter it can be used to help them take pleasure in "seeing through" it. It's an appeal to pride, which of course can be dangerous, and I certainly don't want to just teach them "the next prejudice down the line." But as you point out, it is absolutely galling to see even institutions like the Times use "liberal" or "conservative" as though these words explain something, while really they have all the depth of calling someone "poohole."

People think that when you have can attach either label to something or someone, you've offered "analysis," whereas the reality is that you've probably just confounded any possible understanding – and patted yourself on the bat for it. I'll likely forbid the use of the words as descriptors: I try to do that myself, in my head even, and find that it can be hard going, I'm so conditioned for it....
26th-Apr-2006 08:38 am (UTC)
*patted yourself on the back
26th-Apr-2006 09:49 am (UTC)
That's seriously dodgy. Why on Earth would she do that? It's stupid and dishonest, and she should loose all respect as an academic for it. It's just not cricket.
26th-Apr-2006 11:07 am (UTC)
You can think of areas of science that are much more politicized than Solar Physics (and lucky for you!). Theology always "suffers," if you will, from people who either want to massage data so as to achieve contemporary effects in the Church (Sociology is a field, for example, that gets corrupted that way all the time) or for people who want to try to "explain away" the Big Question of who Jesus was and what he means. This is why I'm such a hard case about doing history and my historical reasoning very openly, publicly, and clearly: I don't want to massage the data any more "for" Christianity than against it. If it's true, good research will support its truth; if it's not true, then it's in our interest to know that, too.

Like a good little Post-Modern, I have to admit that I – like everyone else – cannot be a perfectly disinterested thinker. But damn if I'm not going to aspire to that for the integrity of the science. Especially when in the popular mind – even in the popular academic mind – Theology's status as a science is reflexively attacked by those who want (there it starts again!) to reduce it to some emotional fantasy and not a serious, methodical inquiry into clear questions and objects like all other sciences, even if this one is distinct by having a (potentially) transcendent object of inquiry.
27th-Apr-2006 01:02 am (UTC)
Ive never been able to stomach Pagels.
28th-Apr-2006 06:29 am (UTC) - PTS
You may want to check out some people from Princeton Theological Seminary rather than the university.
28th-Apr-2006 06:31 am (UTC) - http://www.myspace.com/graftoneliason
1st-May-2006 09:49 pm (UTC) - Elaine Pagels an impostor?
"I am going to demonstrate that Professor Pagels's media reputation as a scholar is undeserved, her reputation as an expert in Gnosticism still less so. The case for the prosecution will require some careful reading."

This article is slander. It is neither a demonstration of Pagels' ineptitude as a scholar, nor is it a careful assessment of her work. Hers is outstanding scholarly work, produced by someone who's considered an expert not merely by the media, but most importantly, by her peers. A lady novelist? Historical romance? What about misogyny?

Jonathan Dube
2nd-May-2006 12:32 am (UTC) - Re: Elaine Pagels an impostor?
Oh, I agree that it is what it is: a popular piece of writing – a newspaper column by one academic waving a flag about another, and hardly constitutes a full academic review of one's work. I don't think I pretended otherwise, and certainly I am aware of the difference.

Of course, it's hardly "misogyny," either, even in the lampooning comments about the character of her writing, unless one considers any rejection of any woman's work to be "misogyny," but in that case the word no longer has any useful meaning. But as to the question of whether her work is considered expert by her peers, well, that's exactly the issue Mankowski is raising. Moving in the circle of her peers, myself, I don't find a great deal of evidence of that kind of regard. Instead, I seem to see more the work of an academic whose popularizations have played well to certain contemporary political and ecclesiastical circles, but not someone whose work is cited very much in the actual academy.
17th-May-2006 11:49 pm (UTC)
The author's main point is demonstably false:

"I am going to demonstrate that Professor Pagels's media reputation as a scholar is undeserved, her reputation as an expert in Gnosticism still less so."

Elaine Pagels is the world's preeminent scholar of Christian gnosticism. She knows the Nag Hammadi Library (the main surviving source of Gnostic texts) inside and out. The reason the press goes to her is becasue she has the credentials and her work has survived the scrutiny of biblical scholars.

She aso writes well, which is why her popular novels are well received.

What peer review publications had Mankowski published in lately?


"Elaine Pagels is a preeminent figure in the theological community whose impressive scholarship has earned her international respect. The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, Pagels was awarded the Rockefeller, Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships in three consecutive years."

"As a young researcher at Barnard College, she changed forever the historical landscape of the Christian religion by exploding the myth of the early Christian Church as a unified movement."

"Her findings were published in the bestselling book, The Gnostic Gospels, an analysis of 52 early Christian manuscripts that were unearthed in Egypt. Known collectively as the Nag Hammadi Library, the manuscripts show the pluralistic nature of the early church and the role of women in the developing Christian movement. As the early church moved toward becoming an orthodox body with a canon, rites and clergy, the Nag Hammadi manuscripts were suppressed and deemed heretical."
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