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Elaine Pagels Extended Interview

Author and historian Elaine Pagels

Read more excerpts from Mary Alice Williams’s interview with Princeton historian Elaine Pagels, author of BEYOND BELIEF: THE SECRET GOSPEL OF THOMAS (Random House):

Q: What is the Gospel of Thomas?

A: The Gospel of Thomas claims to be the secret sayings of Jesus. There are 114 of them, so it says many things, but the central message is that Jesus is the one who reveals the divine light that brought the universe into being, and that you and I also reveal that light.

That image is in every tradition — Buddhist, Christian, Jewish. But most Christian tradition speaks of Jesus as the divine light incarnate in the universe, and the rest of us [as] in darkness, needing to be enlightened from him alone.

Q: What do you think this quote from the Gospel of Thomas says to us: “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”?

A: That’s a remarkable saying. It was because of that that I first wrote THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS. I took that psychologically. I took it to mean you bring forth what is potential within you. Or, if you suppress what is potential, this is damaging to the personality. I think that’s true enough, as artists know, [as] anyone creative knows. But now I understand it’s also a spiritual statement. It’s about bringing forth what is within you. It’s not just your natural potential, but it’s that we are created in the image of God and, therefore, we have this divine energy that can be accessed or suppressed.

Q: How did Gnostics view Jesus?

A: I don’t think there’s a single way to answer that, and I’m not sure that I would even call the Gospel of Thomas “Gnostic” anymore. But the way they see Jesus is as a person who manifests the divine and who shows others how to find access to that source within themselves.

Q: He was more guide than God?

A: Yes. Perhaps more like a Buddhist kind of teaching — that he is a man, but he is an enlightened one. He’s not a god and you, too, can become enlightened in that way.

Q: How are the Gnostic Gospels different from the Synoptic Gospels?

A: We use the word “synoptic” to talk about Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and it really means “seeing together,” because they all have a similar perspective. Matthew and Luke — whoever wrote those Gospels — used Mark as a focus and as a basic story. So all of them have a lot in common.

What we call the Gnostic Gospels are a range of other Gospels, some of them recently discovered and previously unknown but probably very ancient. We simply had never known them. They weren’t part of the New Testament. What’s different about the Gospel of Thomas is that, instead of focusing entirely on who Jesus is and the wonderful works of Jesus, it focuses on how you and I can find the kingdom of God, or life in the presence of God.

Q: What is the argument between the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas?

A: The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus as the “light of the world,” the divine one who comes into the world to rescue the human race from sin and darkness, and says if you believe in him, you can be saved; you can have everlasting life. If you don’t believe in him, you go to everlasting death.

The Gospel of Thomas, on the other hand, speaks of Jesus as the divine light that comes from heaven, but says “and you, too, have access to that divine source within yourself,” even apart from Jesus.

What we now realize — and more clearly than ever because of the newly discovered Gospels — is that, instead of one tradition about Jesus, there were in the early Christian movement ranges of traditions about Jesus, several traditions, and they were associated with different disciples. So you would have the gospel according to Matthew, who taught some of the teachings of Jesus, and the gospel according to John, which taught others, [and] the gospel according to Thomas.

When we look at Thomas and John together, we see that they have a lot in common. They used the same kind of language. But I can now see that John was written to say, “Well, yes, Thomas almost gets it right but misses the main point,” which for John is that you must believe in Jesus in order to be saved and that he alone offers the only access.

Q: What is the historical background on this?

A: Everybody who wants to study the beginning of Christianity usually has the same motivation that I had. It was totally typical: if we go back to the beginning, we’ll find what really happened, the original, the perfect, golden nugget. We’ll find the words of Jesus.

What we actually find when we go back there is that the earliest evidence is very diverse. That’s not the story we were told as Christians, because the Christian church chose to simplify it and give us a single version of the story and cut out, therefore, the kind of diversity that we can now see.

Q: Was it political?

A: It was certainly political. It was also religious. Those were not separate.

Q: Was Thomas’s talking about each of us being seekers of God a difficult concept to organize an orthodox institution around?

A: Yes. If you’re going to have a church that says, as one of the primary church leaders, Irenaeus, did, “Outside the church there is no salvation,” there are certain things you might not want Jesus to have said, if he said them. For example: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.” That might suggest you don’t need a church, or a priest, or an institution.

Q: Why was it important that an institution be established?

A: People who study the way religions develop have shown that if you have a charismatic teacher and you don’t have an institution develop around that teacher within about a generation to transmit succession within the group, the movement just dies. So the survival of Christianity in the way that we know it probably depends on the development of institutions.

Q: If all of the Gospels that were found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi had been part of our Christian heritage, what would have changed?

A: It would have been harder to maintain the idea of a single, authoritative, doctrinal teaching. You could say, “These are the basic teachings of the church, and beyond that you can explore this, or this, or this.” But what the church has often said is, “These are the authoritative teachings, and that’s it.”

Q: Are we impoverished because of that?

A: I think very much so, because the openness to discovery, the openness to different interpretations, which you do find in the early communities, was, in some cases, limited.

Q: Suppressed?

A: Deliberately suppressed, because the question of whose authority rules the church became of enormous importance in the fourth century, when the church became powerful and politically established and wealthy. And ruling the church was a matter of enormous prestige and power. Politics and religion are quite inseparable in this respect. If you have a strong religious conviction, it may well have political implications.

Q: And if the Gnostic Gospels had not been suppressed?

A: I think [Christianity] could’ve been much more open in its scope. What these Gospels offer, in fact, you find in some Eastern Orthodox churches — a great deal of openness to revelation, to understanding the speculation. You find it also in Pentecostal churches — the conviction that you can be inspired by the Holy Spirit. You find this in many churches. But it’s not part of official teaching very often. So yes, I think it could’ve been very much more open-ended. But one would have sacrificed the claim to a kind of sacrosanct authority that certain Christian leaders have always liked to claim.

At the time, I think it was absolutely essential for the survival of the movement, because it was so much threatened by persecution and by complete scattering. It was necessary at that time, probably, to consolidate the church and try to make a simple message accessible and universal.

Q: Say more about the story of the discovery of the Gnostic texts.

A: A library of ancient Christian texts was found quite by accident when a villager in upper Egypt, Mohammad Ali al-Samman, went out of his village with his brothers to dig for birdlime to fertilize their crops. As they were digging near an ancient cliff, they found a six-foot jar, and in it were 13 books that were bound in tooled gazelle leather. What he discovered in these were over 50 ancient, early Christian texts and Gospels. It was an astonishing discovery, and it’s completely changed the way we understand the history of Christianity. The texts were written originally in Greek, like all of the early Christian writings, [including] the New Testament. But they were found translated from Greek into Coptic, an ancient African language. We have to read Coptic and understand the Greek to try to read these texts.

Q: You say John says Jesus was the “son of God.” Didn’t they all say that?

A: All of the Gospels talk about Jesus as the “son of God.” When I was growing up, I thought that meant some kind of divine, unique, special being unlike anyone else. When you study it historically, you see that this term “son of God” would be used for a king. So David, the king of Israel, was the “son of God.” Or, the king of Egypt could be the son of the god Ra. That’s just the way you talked about a king. Often the language about “son of God” is a language about kingly prerogative.

But what the Gospels don’t all say is that Jesus is some kind of very different being. That’s what we often think — he’s the son of God, and we’re mere humans. The Gospel of John says, “He is not a human being like you and me. He began in heaven. He originated with God himself, and he became incarnate in a human body in which he dwelt.” So he wasn’t a human. In Paul’s words, “He came in human form.” But that doesn’t mean he was a human as you and I are.

Of course, anyone who knows Christian theology will say, “Well, that’s wrong. Jesus is truly human and truly divine.” That becomes the orthodox teaching — that Jesus is, in fact, truly human and truly divine. But that is quite different from what you see in the Gospel of John. If you just read John alone and you don’t read all [the Gospels] as a collage the way we usually do, as if they all meant the same thing, it’s as though Jesus is a being of light that comes into the world and speaks as if he were God walking on earth. That’s what makes his speech so offensive and so strange in the Gospel of John: “Before Abraham was, I am.” People pick up rocks to throw at him because they think he’s making himself God — which, in fact, he is. And the author of John will say, “Well, yes. But, you see, of course he was.”

Q: Had the church gone with Thomas’s version, would the church be radically different? Would it have existed at all?

A: The Christian church at the time the New Testament was shaped, at the time these Gospels were being considered, was under enormous pressure of persecution. It was, perhaps, in danger of being completely annihilated through the persecution and the execution of its members. That kind of church under siege needed a tremendous amount of close organization, and that was given to the church by the leaders who chose the Gospels that we have in the New Testament. It might have worked [with the Gospel of Thomas] had we had a number of Gospels the way we do now. I think it might’ve worked very well. But all we know is what really happened, and that is that some of the leaders said, “No, we don’t want anything that invites speculation, anything that invites creative imagination, anything that invites inspiration. We just want to have a clear message and a clear community. We want to know who’s in and who’s out.”

Q: What about those who might say that you have given John short shrift?

A: When I began to realize that the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas were part of an intense conversation or argument in the early Christian movement between different groups of followers of Jesus, each trying to understand the teachings and interpret them, I focused on the difference. However, I [also] talk about the enormous range of ways the Gospel of John can be interpreted. You think about the many poets, like St. John of the Cross in Catholic tradition or T. S. Eliot in Anglican tradition, who love the Gospel of John, [and] the many theologians who’ve interpreted it. The Gospel of John is very rich, as its tradition shows.

We also know there were people in the second and third century who could read all those Gospels together and find them completely congenial.

Q: You were raised in a family that was religiously nonobservant, and you joined an evangelical church for a while. Did that have a major impact on how you see religion?

A: Well, certainly. I think that most of us who study religion do so because we have some engagement in the matter, obviously. Why would we devote our life [to] studying this? I find some of these texts, as well as some of the texts of the New Testament, enormously spiritually powerful.

The kind of churches that I went to as a child — liberal Christian churches — don’t have the kind of intensity and power that many evangelical churches do. When I encountered that, I realized there was something very powerful about the Christian tradition. One feels that also in Catholic churches and many other churches — all kinds of churches. And when I realized that, I thought, “I was brought up to think that Christianity would just become obsolete. Why is it that here we are in the twenty-first century, and religion is enormously alive and well?”

Q: The more orthodox religion is, the more it grows?

A: In some cases, I think that’s true, because it has the intensity that it may lack if you start adding too many things. However, many people who are engaged in evangelical Christianity have thought, “Well, if you’re not an evangelical, what relevance could your faith possibly have when you’re in need, when you’re in distress, when you’re really up against it one way or the other?” And yet, there are many of us for whom that kind of search is still an essential part of our lives.

Q: You begin your new book by describing how you walked into the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City after learning that your son had been diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension.

A: I went into that church not actually intending to go to a service. I found I was enormously moved by the worship, by the music, by the congregation assembled. And I realized there is much that I love about Christian tradition — and much that I needed about Christian tradition.

What I also realized was that it wasn’t primarily about a set of beliefs: “Do I believe in this and that and the other thing?” It was the congregation gathered together for worship, it was the music, it was the common values, it was what was felt and experienced and shared in that worship. It’s not that I say beliefs don’t matter — by no means; but they were not the focus. For many Christians, [beliefs] have been right in the center: If people say, “Are you a Christian?” and you then say, “What do you mean by that?” the usual follow-up question is, “Well, do you believe that Jesus is the son of God?” or “Do you believe that such and such?”

Q: What does religion have to say in times of grief?

A: In times of grief, speaking for myself, one can’t hear about belief very much, I think. In times of grief, people often go to churches. They go for the worship. They go for the funeral. They go for a way to cope with the unimaginable. We don’t have many ways to do that. People most often go back to those powerful, simple, enormously compelling means of dealing with grief.

Q: You buried the two loves of your life, your son and your husband, within 15 months of each other. What did religion offer you?

A: It offered a very slender thread of a way to survive and to continue to hope. In times of grief, it’s hard to hear what is being said about beliefs or about heaven or any of that. But one can find a path in that, nevertheless.

Q: And communion with other people?

A: Absolutely. That’s, perhaps, the most important thing. What one can find in a time of grief has a lot to do with the sharing with other people, and also, I think, importantly, with a sense of a spiritual dimension in our lives.

Q: What happened to your faith after the deaths of your husband and your son?

A: It’s hard to talk about that. It depends what you mean, I guess, by “faith.” One somehow has to go on and find a way to hope again. I found in that church, in the people gathered there, in various ways, some solace and some help. Of course, also with friends and others; it wasn’t the only way, but it was an important way.

Of course you get angry. How can you not get angry? I don’t think I subscribed to the theory of a morally ordered universe. My late husband was an elementary particle physicist who worked on chaos theory. I didn’t think of the universe as morally ordered in some obvious sense. But there is a basic assumption [you] make about the world and about the way things happen. And those assumptions do get shattered in times like that. One can think, “Well, I’ve been doing pretty well, and things should turn out well.” When we do that and things turn out horrendously, our impulse, because of our tradition, is to blame ourselves. After all, if you read the book of Genesis, it says people who do good things receive good things. And people who do bad things have terrible things happen. So it’s usual, when people have catastrophes happen, for them to say, “Why is this happening to me?” as if that were some kind of anomaly in the universe. I don’t think it is. That is the way things happen in the universe. But it certainly would have shattered any kind of conventional faith.

Q: You’re so careful not to say “I.”

A: Well — yes.

Q: It didn’t shatter your conventional faith?

A: I didn’t have one. I guess I didn’t have a conventional kind of belief in all of these things. But it clarified for me that belief was not the primary issue. Long before those things happened, when I had my original family intact, I was working on THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS and I realized that conventional views of Christian faith that I’d heard when I was growing up were simply made up long after the fact. If I had had a conventional kind of faith, I wouldn’t have been studying the beginnings of Christianity, because people who do that are doing it because they need to explore what they mean by “faith.” I had been doing that for a long time already, so there wasn’t that kind of belief structure to fall apart. However, my world did fall apart. It was absolutely devastating. It’s a kind of maelstrom.

Q: Did the community of the faithful, as it were, help you through it?

A: They certainly did, and many people outside the church, as well. But the sense of a spiritual dimension was something essential for me.

Q: Why? Because it gives you hope in a time of fear?

A: I think so. Not fear so much as just devastation. [It gives you] some kind of hope — yes.

Q: Tell me about your life now.

A: I felt that my world had been completely shattered and devastated, as it was. My late husband and I had adopted two children, one of whom was three months old at the time. The other was two-and-a half. I couldn’t ever imagine having a life again. And I find it amazing, 15 years later, to be remarried to somebody who had also been widowed and suffered a devastating loss and to have three more children included in our family, his wonderful sons. Both of us learned how to go on. Both of us learned that we could remember the ones that we loved very much, still, and also include new families and new joy in our lives.

Q: You have said, “When you go through terrible tragedy, you have a choice. You can either live as a victim or a hero.”

A: I don’t feel much like a hero. I just think anyone who can survive it is about as heroic as you get.

Q: Did the Gospel of Thomas always resonate with you?

A: From the time I began to read the Gospel of Thomas, I was expecting it to be abominable, blasphemous heresy. That’s what I was told. One of my teachers said to me recently, “We just thought the Gospel of Thomas was weird.” So when I started to read it, I expected to find it to be weird. In fact, I find it very moving and spiritually resonant.

I also thought that it would be contrary to the gospels of the New Testament. What I now see is that it’s not necessarily contrary, it’s complementary. And it can open up new vistas on that tradition.

Q: Do we know from these texts whether women played a much larger role in Christianity than one would think?

A: In the Gospel of Mary, for example, Mary Magdalene appears not as a prostitute but as a disciple — not only a disciple, but a special disciple who was entrusted with particularly deep understandings of the teachings of Jesus, as the Gospel of Thomas suggests about Thomas. In some of these other Gospels, we find women in very different positions, with very different kinds of respect — as disciples, as apostles, as teachers — than you find in the Gospels of the New Testament.

Q: In fact, some of the early Christian churches were led by women?

A: Yes, many of them were. But women were not allowed positions of formal authority after the second century in orthodox churches.

Q: What would have been the effect if we had looked at Jesus in the way Thomas did?

A: If the Gospel of Thomas had survived within the tradition, we would have had just simply a greater range of understandings of Jesus. One could see him as a sacrifice for sin. One could see him as a teacher of righteousness, a teacher of love for the other and love for God. And one could also see him as a manifestation of what is potential in everyone.

Q: Did the early church fathers suppress information in order to tailor an orthodox institution in their own narrow, patriarchal way?

A: That is certainly a possible interpretation of it. I think there was much more at stake. I would say that in the early Christian movement, many different groups claimed to have the best possible understanding of Jesus. And one of those groups which was widely consolidated and widely spread prevailed over the others. You can give it that kind of very negative read, and some of us may agree about that. But they were, from their point of view, trying to salvage the church as they saw it.

Q: Why was the church afraid of the Gnostic Gospels?

A: The people who disliked these other Gospels included leaders such as Bishop Athanasius, who was very much concerned about establishing his authority over all the monks in Egypt.

Q: And who ordered them burned?

A: Right. These books were treasured in one of the oldest monasteries in Egypt by monks who saw them as guides to spiritual development. There are monks today who see them that way, as well. But the bishop, who wanted authority consolidated in himself, told them, “Get rid of all those books. You don’t need all those books. All you need are the ones that I will mention now.” He mentions a list, which is our first list of the 27 books of the New Testament. He told them, “Get rid of your library, and just keep these.”

Q: Do you think that belief in Jesus as God has been overemphasized in Christianity?

A: I think it has. Christianity as we know it is almost defined as belief in Jesus as God. What we lose when we see it that way [are] many other perspectives. The Gospel of Mark doesn’t picture Jesus as God. The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t picture Jesus as God. Matthew pictures Jesus as a rabbi, as a new Moses who teaches the divine Torah — “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.” In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to people, “Do not call me good. There’s only one who is good, and that is God.” The Gospel of Matthew does not suggest that Jesus is in any way God. It is a much more traditionally Jewish book which speaks about love of God and love of the neighbor as the essential devotion of any person.

Q: Why do you think your books resonate so with the public? Why is a book about religion on the best-seller list?

A: For many people the sense of a spiritual dimension in our lives is really essential, but it’s a kind of unspoken need in many people who have left Christianity behind, or left whatever religious tradition with which they grew up behind, because they think of it as childish, as delusional, as sentimental. They don’t acknowledge that this, in fact, is a very deep part of our nature. They also are taught that you can’t think about religion, that there’s something antireligious in exploring, in thinking, in discussing — as though that were somehow an act of faithlessness. This book [BEYOND BELIEF] and this kind of work are an invitation to explore it from many different perspectives.

Q: Can you doubt or even reject certain canonical teachings and still be religious?

A: It seems to me that if we think that to be a participant in a Christian church you have to believe a whole set of teachings, say, in the creed, before you can even participate in worship, this is a great loss. If one has to swallow the whole tradition as taught by this person or that person, one can often find it completely indigestible. What many people do is simply leave it all behind, instead of doing what Christians have always done in every denomination, which is choose what they find they have the most affinity with and what speaks to their deepest understanding, leaving aside other things.

Christians have been taught, you’re not supposed to pick and choose. Picking and choosing is called “heresy.” The word “heresy” means “choice.” And heresy — that is, choosing — has been considered a terrible thing for Christians to do. I don’t agree with that, as you can tell.

Q: Do most people want a rigid set of beliefs to cling to?

A: I don’t think it’s necessary. Most people think that if you’re talking about religion, you are talking about what you believe. It’s not all about what you believe. It’s about what values we share. It’s about what commitments we have to the sacredness of life, for example. There’s much else that’s wider and deeper in this tradition than a particular set of beliefs on which Christians in different denominations would disagree.

Q: Some say that you smack of New Age religiosity.

A: People have said that this sounds like a New Age kind of teaching, and that I find kind of humorous. I mean, if 2,000 years is “new,” then I suppose it is.

Q: You’ve said that spiritual exploration takes many forms. What do you mean by that?

A: Look at Christian tradition today that extends from Pentecostal, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Serbian, Coptic, Ethiopic churches — churches all over the world of every kind. There’s a huge range of them. It’s often been the tradition of various churches to say, “This is the only true church, and all the others are heretics.” Do we still believe that?

Q: What about the notion that the Holy Spirit guided the selection of the Gospels, and so it’s right?

A: I was taught that the religious understanding of the history of Christianity is that the Holy Spirit guides the church, and that’s why it follows the “true” path. That may work for people who are staying within a theological framework. I couldn’t help asking the question, “But what actually happened on a human level?” And there I find that, besides the Holy Spirit, there is a great deal of political, social, and religious controversy that is unacknowledged unless you begin to look at the historical picture in a more realistic way.

Q: Do the Christian creeds exclude mysticism?

A: The creeds do not explicitly exclude mysticism, but mystics within Christian tradition have to walk very carefully to say, “Yes, I may have a relationship with God, but I am a miserable human, and God, of course, is a divine being.” You read how Teresa of Avila abases herself — or any of the mystics — because they want to avoid what is heresy. Heresy in Christian tradition, and also in some Jewish and Muslim traditions, has to do with speaking of yourself and God as if they were on some kind of continuum, instead of opposites. And yet, that is the language that mystics have instinctively spoken. That is the language you find in the Gospel of Thomas.

Q: BEYOND BELIEF, the title of your book — what does that mean?

A: To me, it meant that there is a great deal in Christian tradition which goes beyond the simple question of what you believe and what you don’t believe. There’s worship, there is community, there are shared values, there’s spiritual discovery.

Q: You’ve said that demonization is one of the plagues of religious tradition.

A: When I was working on a book on Satan, I realized that there are very dark and potentially evil sides to religious tradition, including Christian tradition. In the tradition that I know best, demonizing other people and claiming that they are “agents of the devil” has, in the history of Christianity, allowed for terrible violence in the name of religion, in the name of God’s truth. That, of course, is not exclusive to Christianity.

Q: Should Christianity be understood as a set system of beliefs or an ongoing search for the spiritual? And are they mutually exclusive?

A: I think one can see both. Certainly there are sets of beliefs that are part of any religious tradition. Is that all? Well, one can say, “No, that’s not all.” There is also spiritual inquiry. In the early Christian movement, these seemed to be completely compatible. It’s only in the third and fourth century that some leaders of the church tried to separate the two and say, “No. You must take these beliefs and no more exploration.” They’ve always been compatible for many people within Christian tradition. For saints of the church, it’s always been understood that you don’t simply stop with certain beliefs, but you keep on exploring. And that exploration can lead to new discoveries.

Q: How do people usually react to your work?

A: The response to this kind of work is usually very visceral and powerful. It’s often deep, and it’s been overwhelmingly positive. There are people who are genuinely outraged and shaken by this kind of exploration, either because it’s unfamiliar or because they think it’s faithless or antithetical and damaging to God’s truth. I’m not one of those people.

Q: What attracted you to studying and teaching religion?

A: I just realized that there was something very powerful about Christian tradition, about religious tradition, and I wanted to understand something about how it moves us so much, how it becomes so compelling, why it is still an enormously powerful force in our lives.

Q: You try very hard not to personalize any of this and not to use words like “suppress.”

A: I’m trying not to use polemical language. After I wrote THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS, I realized that the perspective was particularly Protestant. It was rooting for the underdog — in this case the heretics — against the authorities in the church and the bishops and the hierarchy. Now I realize that’s a little oversimplified. To write history well, one has to be on both sides of a controversy. You could write the history of the Civil War, but if you’re only on one side, it’s not going to be a very powerful story. In this work, I’m really trying to engage the controversy as fully as I can.

Q: It’s interesting that the victor always writes the history. And in this case, for 1,600 years the vanquished were hidden.

A: That’s right. And for 1,600 years, the books were gone, so we were told that heretics say blasphemous and terrible things, but we never knew what they said. This is really our first opportunity to look at a whole library of writings that were called “heretical” and see the enormous range and diversity of what Christians were doing in the first few centuries. We are rewriting the history of Christianity.