Pagels Decoded

Father Paul Mankowski, SJ begins his critical account of Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, The Pagels Imposture, with the following precis (I have added the hyperlink to the ANF book and chapter cites of the texts in his citation):

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.

Fr Paul then begins to unfold his argument by first citing what he takes to be an egregious cobbling together of quotes from St Irenaeus:

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.

Fr Paul then goes through the details of the quotes and Pagels’ “conflating of them” (see his argument at the link above) to demonstrate his claim.

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.

Fr Paul concludes:

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.

[H/T Michael Liccione]

2 thoughts on “Pagels Decoded

  1. I heard Elaine Pagels lecture at Arizona State shortly after “The Gnostic Gospels” came out. She struck me as a neo-gnostic: “I know something you don’t know…and that makes me superior to you, but in a benevolently condescending intellectual way…”
    Interesting stuff for sure. Of course precious few people are going to check out her primary resources, thank God for real scholars.

  2. Pagels is indeed a neo-gnostic. I thought her work was woefully dishonest. Her turn of phrase in translation, selective quotation… further, like most academics these days, their entire approach begs the question. You put forth a thesis, use quotations to boster it, and that’s really all the academy requires of you. Nothing of the sense of how the texts were understood in the larger stream of the community.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s