Answering Elaine Pagels

Silly Season Church Government
Ad Hominem Attack The Big Three
Modified Monotheism Bowdlerization
The Few and the Many The Vatican
Women's Lib Spin Doctoring
Ignatius the God-bearer

  • “These writings tell countless stories about the risen Christ -- the spiritual being whom Jesus represented -- a figure who fascinated them far more than the merely human Jesus, the obscure rabbi from Nazareth.”
  • (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' p. 15).

Silly Season

Elaine Pagels' 'The Gnostic Gospels' constitutes the sum total of what many people know, or think they know, about gnosticism. This book, with its mixture of the silly and the shrewish, has defined the terms of the discussion of gnosticism since its first publication, to the public's loss. No slave to objectivity, Ms. Pagels idealizes gnosticism, ascribing to this compound of paganism with Christianity characteristics it never actually had, to sharpen the contrast with the hated but triumphant Christianity. The guiding framework is that gnosticism must be good, or how else can Christianity be evil? It is from trusting to Ms. Pagels' interpretations that, for example, gullible author Dan Brown came away convinced the gnostic gospels present a very human, accessible Christ. The cure, messy but effective, for Ms. Pagels' ivy-league sanctioned brand of 'scholarship' is for the reader to wade fearlessly into the swamp of gnostic literature, dodging the crocodiles and the purple people-eaters, and ask, 'is this what she says it is, or something quite different?'

Ms. Pagels breathlessly contrasts the gnostics' seeking after post-resurrection encounters with the living Jesus with the stodgy orthodox preference for witness recollections of the historical Jesus:

  • “Yet these gnostic writers do not dismiss visions as fantasies or hallucinations. They respect -- even revere -- such experiences...What interested these gnostics far more than past evens attributed to the 'historical Jesus' was the possibility of encountering the risen Christ in the present.”
  • (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels, p. 120).

  • "Peter, apparently representing the orthodox position, looks to past events, suspicious of those who 'see the Lord' in visions: Mary, representing the gnostic, claims to experience his continuing presence...But the contrast with the orthodox view is striking. Here, Jesus does not appear in the ordinary human form the disciples recognize..."
  • (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' pp. 13-16).

...blissfully unaware the orthodox New Testament includes a vision of the post-resurrection living Jesus, who did not appear in His familiar form: the Book of Revelation. This author's unique combination of clueless confusion with malice toward the orthodox will be encountered again.

Church Government

In the early church era, bishops were elected by the clergy and laity of the place, at Rome and elsewhere. These were contested elections, with multiple candidates vying for the position:

  • “ABOUT the same time it happened that another event took place at Milan well worthy of being recorded. On the death of Auxentius, who had been ordained bishop of that church by the Arians, the people again were disturbed respecting the election of a successor; for as some proposed one person, and others favored another, the city was full of contention and uproar. In this state of things the governor of the province, Ambrose by name, who was also of consular dignity, dreading some catastrophe from the popular excitement, ran into the church in order to quell the disturbance. As he arrived there and the people became quiet, he repressed the irrational fury of the multitude by a long and appropriate address, by urging such motives as they felt to be right, and all present suddenly came to an unanimous agreement, crying out ‘that Ambrose was worthy of the bishopric,’ and demanding his ordination: ‘for by that means only,’ it was alleged, ‘would the peace of the church be secured, and all be reunited in the same faith and judgment.’.”
  • (Socrates Scholasticus, Church History, Book IV, Chapter 30).

  • "ABOUT this period Liberius died, and Damasus succeeded to the see of Rome. A deacon named Ursicius, who had obtained some votes in his favor, but could not endure the defeat, therefore caused himself to be clandestinely ordained by some bishops of little note, and endeavored to create a division among the people and to hold a separate church. He succeeded in effecting this division, and some of the people respected him as bishop, while the rest adhered to Damasus."
  • (Sozomen, Church History, Book VI, Chapter 23).

  • "The city of Caesarea was in an uproar about the election of a bishop; for one had just departed, and another must be found, amidst heated partisanship not easily to be soothed. For the city was naturally exposed to party spirit, owing to the fervor of its faith, and the rivalry was increased by the illustrious position of the see. Such was the state of affairs; several Bishops had arrived to consecrate the Bishop; the populace was divided into several parties, each with its own candidate, as is usual in such cases, owing to the influences of private friendship or devotion to God; but at last the whole people came to an agreement..."
  • (Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 18.33).

  • "Thus, and for these reasons, by the vote of the whole people, not in the evil fashion which has since prevailed, nor by means of bloodshed and oppression, but in an apostolic and spiritual manner, he is led up to the throne of Saint Mark, to succeed him in piety, no less than in office..."
  • (Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 21.8).

Thriceholy Radio

This practice of electing the leader of the congregation should not be surprising, because the synagogue had done the same thing:

  • “All the rulers of the Synagogue were duly examined as to their knowledge, and ordained to the office. They formed the local Sanhedrin or tribunal. But their election depended on the choice of the congregation; and absence of pride, as also gentleness and humility, are mentioned as special qualifications.”
  • (Alfred Edersheim, 'The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,' Book III, The Ascent, Chapter X, The Synagogue at Nazareth, [2105] .

Roman Catholic historians freely admit the Bishop of Rome was originally chosen by the suffrage of the clergy and laity of Rome:

"Originally, the pope was chosen in a public meeting of the clergy and laity of Rome...Gradually, with the growth of the importance of the cardinals as advisers to the Holy See, their role in the election expanded. But it was not until 1059 that Pope Nicolas II decreed that in the future only the cardinals would participate." (The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1965, 'Sacred College of Cardinals').

The later system of election by the College of Cardinals was instituted during the dark ages. It is sometimes described as a reform, but the change from democracy to oligarchy is a giant leap backwards, not a reform. Since the people elected the bishops, the bishops cannot have ruled over the people in the overbearing manner this author imagines, and would not do so until the dark ages. The U.S. Constitution provides for a strong executive, yet the American people do not feel themselves oppressed, because they elect the person who wields the power of the Presidency. So did the early church.

Ms. Pagels is aware that Christians in the early centuries elected their bishops: "The majority of Roman Christians respected Callistus as a teacher and martyr, endorsed his policies, and elected him bishop." (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels, p. 108). But she hears people talk about the 'monarchical' bishop emerging the in second century of the Christian era. She imagines this means the bishops were turning tyrant: "In many churches the bishop was emerging, for the first time, as a 'monarch' (literally, 'sole ruler'). Increasingly, he claimed the power to act as disciplinarian and judge over those he called 'the laity.'" (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' p. 40). What it means is that, for the first time, it was understood there was to be one bishop in each city. In the New Testament, the offices of 'elder' and 'bishop' are not differentiated. In time these offices came to be elaborated into a hierarchy. This development was unfortunate; the church should have retained its primitive and apostolic ordinances. But it does not bear the meaning she puts upon it. And is it really so shocking that the bishop called the people 'the laity,' given that 'laos' in Greek means 'people?'

Bible Testimony Paul and Timothy
Quench Not Elections
Cyprian Synagogue
Ecclesia The Theory
Bad Government French Revolution

Ad Hominem Attack

The early church polemicists who rebut gnosticism explain exactly what their problem is with this material: it is polytheistic, and it blasphemes the God of Israel. No one who reads the Nag Hammadi Library can clear the gnostics of this charge. Some of the treatises in the library are openly pagan. The people who created this literature were open to pagan polytheism in a way no Bible-believer can be.

Ms. Pagels is deeply moved by Isis-worship:

"Even more remarkable is the gnostic poem called the 'Thunder, Perfect Mind.' This text contains a revelation spoken by a feminine power: 'I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore, and the holy one.'" (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' p. 55)

'Thunder, Perfect Mind' is a poem in praise of the pagan goddess Isis, "the one whose image is great in Egypt" (The Nag Hammadi Library, p. 299). If these people want to worship the mother goddess Isis, who is stopping them? Why must they vandalize Christianity instead?

Ms. Pagels, finding the relative merits of monotheism vs. polytheism a toss-up, does not believe the early Christian writers were any more distressed by paganism than she is. She looks behind their arguments, which seem convincing enough to those who believe the Bible, to find their hidden motives. She discovers they are not enthusiasts for monotheism and the God of Israel, as they would like you to believe; in reality they only want to amass all power to the Bishop of Rome.

Ignoring these authors' arguments while impugning their character in this venomous way is an ad hominem argument. From a fallacious argument, no conclusion follows; and the ad hominem attack is a fallacious argument. It is just the same as if this author had said nothing.

Hypatia's Bookshelf

The Big Three

The big three writers in the early church who addressed gnosticism, and whose works survive, are Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus. The first is a bishop in communion with Rome. The second, Tertullian, was in communion with Rome for as long it was possible to be in communion with that church and also with the Montanists. Once the Roman bishop condemned the Montanists, he ceased to be in fellowship with the Roman church. Montanism was a charismatic movement that attracted the same kind of criticism as does Benny Hinn in the present day. Critics accused the Montanists of false prophecy, financial irregularities, and promoting the cult of personality. Tertullian has been called 'the First Protestant,' though it might be more accurate to call him 'the First Pentecostal.'

Ms. Pagels breathlessly tells us that, "The Montanists, a radical prophetic circle, honored two women, Prisca and Maximilla, as founders of the movement. Our evidence, then, clearly indicates a correlation between religious theory and social practice." (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' p. 60). She gushes over the Montanists the next paragraph after attacking Tertullian, without mentioning that he belonged to this movement. Ms. Pagels had advised her readers that women "were strictly forbidden to [prophesy] in the orthodox church" ('The Gnostic Gospels,' p. 59), which is no doubt the reason the Montanists were condemned...or not. History is no doubt much easier when you are allowed to make things up as you go along. Later she deals with the implosion of her main thesis by pretending it was "at the end of his [Tertullian's] life, when his own intense fervor impelled him to break with the orthodox community..." (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels, p. 109). Tertullian didn't break with anyone; the church at Rome broke with him. At first offering peace to the Montanists, whom Tertullian early supported, the bishop of Rome later denounced them. He did not leave the church, the church left him, nor was it anywhere near "the end of his life." Tertullian, one of the big Three, manifestly was not motivated to condemn gnosticism as heresy by any agenda to enhance the power of Rome.

Hippolytus of RomeNeither was Hippolytus. Hippolytus was an anti-pope who accused the then-bishop of Rome, Callistus, who is recognized in the Roman Catholic line of succession, of heresy. If Hippolytus' representation of Callistus' expressed opinions are accurate, then Callistus believed what the modern-day 'Oneness' Pentecostals believe. Ms. Pagels deals with his refusal to conform to her thesis by her customary shrewish character assassination. She does not withdraw the thesis, though it is patently untrue.

It remains conceivable that Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, wished to enhance the power of the bishop of Rome, as Ms. Pagels alleges. But if this were his aim, then why did he not welcome the bishop of Rome's effort to standardize Easter observance? It must have made the pagans giggle, to notice that the Christians could not even agree amongst themselves on their own principal holiday. But Irenaeus chided the bishop of Rome and remind him of his predecessor Anicetus, who was obliged to take a live and let live attitude with the martyr Polycarp:

"For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance... inasmuch as these things had been always [so] observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep [the observance in his way], for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters who preceded him." (Irenaeus, Fragment 3)

If Irenaeus' motivation were what this person claims, if his only point in contending against the gnostics was to bolster the power of the bishop of Rome, then why did he not even side with the bishop of Rome in this dispute? This was a great opportunity missed, if his aim was anything like what Ms. Pagels ascribes to him. Neither is it possible to imagine why the other two heavy-weights of the Big Three would wish to magnify the power of the bishop of Rome. Did they want to hear it hollered even louder that they, and the folks sitting on the pew to their left and to their right, were heretics?

Thus Ms. Pagels' thesis rebuts itself. Ms. Pagels alleges that, when the early Christian apologists condemned the gnostics as the polytheists they were, and sang the praises of monotheism instead, they were not motivated by a liking for monotheism and a dislike for polytheism as the honest reader may suppose. Rather, they wished to amass all power to the bishop of Rome. It is difficult to avoid the impression that she wrote the first, polemic, section of her book in blissful unawareness that Tertullian and Hippolytus are counted by Rome as, respectively, a heretic and a schismatic. Once she was informed of this, she should have dropped her thesis, as rebutted. Instead she pretends that they changed!

Were these men ever interested in elevating the bishop of Rome to dictatorship over the church? They must have been clairvoyant to envision a state of affairs which did not exist in their lifetimes and would not exist for some centuries thereafter! And when it finally did happen and the bishop of Rome declared himself ruler over all the church, it split the church right down the middle, with the east, who rejected the claim, ceasing to be in fellowship with the west, who accepted the claim!

According to Ms. Pagels, these writers only pretended to care about monotheism; what they really cared about was directing all power toward the bishop of Rome. The gnostics, after all, cannot be rehabilitated if monotheism is important. She claims, in short, that these men subordinated doctrine to an agenda of building up the bishop of Rome. But when two of these men differed on doctrine with the bishop of Rome, they felt no hesitancy in breaking with him, as she herself admits. Is it not apparent that her thesis falls? If these authors truly felt, as she claims, that the power of the bishop of Rome was more important than doctrine, how could they have themselves broken with the bishop of Rome on doctrinal grounds?

Readers less interested in 1970's lefty politics and more interested in what these men believed may enjoy reading:

Five Books
 Against Marcion 

Modified Monotheism

Ms. Pagels does not see what all the fuss was about concerning the theology of Valentinus. She points out that "The theme of the oneness of God dominates the opening section of the Tripartite Tractate, a Valentinan treatise from Nag Hammadi which describes the origin of all being." (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels, p. 31). Since plainly this little tiny "modification of monotheism" (p. 33) was no big deal, the early church writers were patently trying to kick up a big fuss about nothing to cover sneaking in the Trojan Horse of papal supremacy.

How many gods are counted by the author of the Tripartite Tractate? An infinite number:

  • “For this reason, they are minds of minds, which are found to be words of words, elders of elders, degrees of degrees, which are exalted above one another. Each one of those who give glory has his place and his exaltation and his dwelling and his rest, which consists of the glory which he brings forth. All those who glorify the Father have their begetting eternally,-- they beget in the act of assisting one another -- since the emanations are limitless and immeasurable and since there is no envy on the part of the Father toward those who came forth from him in regard to their begetting something equal or similar to him, since he is the one who exists in the Totalities, begetting and revealing himself. Whomever he wishes, he makes into a father, of whom he in fact is Father, and a god, of whom he in fact is God, and he makes them the Totalities, whose entirety he is.”
  • (The Tripartite Tractate, 1.5, pp. 69-70, The Nag Hammadi Library).

"Limitless" gods makes one nostalgic for the twelve Capitoline gods, who at least you could count on your fingers, plus two toes. As far back as Homer's Iliad, Zeus was the 'father of gods and men,' though in classic Greek mythology, he is no creator god. As time progressed the pagan pantheons became more hierarchical. Pagan theologians were willing to consider the chief god's pre-eminence as not just a function of the command structure, but ontological; one god was unbegotten, as in the Tripartite Tractate. There were still lots and lots of begotten gods: congregations of gods, clouds of gods, conventions of gods, congresses of gods, colleges of gods, constellations of gods, as in the Tripartite Tractate. Nor does the author of the Tripartite Tractate deny the title 'father' to these lesser luminaries. The translator reserves his capital F for the big daddy god, not for his numerous offspring.

Christians can appreciate this development in pagan theology as a convergence toward monotheism. Though pagan theology was travelling in that direction, however, it never did arrive at the destination of Biblical monotheism, which is not one big god plus lots of little gods, but only one:

"That you may know and believe Me,
And understand that I am He.
Before Me there was no God formed,
Nor shall there be after Me." (Isaiah 43:10).

Ms. Pagels is wonderfully impressed that the author of the Tripartite Tractate calls the first god he enumerates 'Father.' Isn't that practically monotheism? One can only imagine how much more impressed she would be by the teacher Irenaeus describes, who called the four gods making up his first foursome "Monotes, and Henotes, and Monas, and Hen" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 11.3): Unity, Oneness, Unit, and One. What can such a teacher be but a monotheist? Who else but a monotheist would care enough to name his first four gods variants of the words 'one' and 'unit'? Hmmm...except count on your fingers or toes. Four gods is three too many.

As far as Ms. Pagels is concerned, it is just fine to cram the pantheon with gods, provided One is pre-eminent over all the others and is called 'Father.' No Christian can agree. This "modification of monotheism" is pagan polytheism.


People who rely on Ms. Pagels and her colleagues for their impressions of gnosticism end up looking very foolish, like the unfortunate Dan Brown who penned the best-selling novel 'The Da Vinci Code.' The dispute between the church and the gnostics centered around monotheism: the gnostics were pagan polytheists, and blasphemy: the gnostics mocked their creator rather than revere him. Ms. Pagels would prefer the controversy to revolve around different issues, namely, those issues on which the gnostics happen to agree with the 'liberal' main-line churches of the 1970's and '80's:

  • “1. Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from its creator: God is wholly other. But some of the gnostics who wrote these gospels contradict this: self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.
  • 2. Second, the 'living Jesus' of these texts speaks of illusion and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament.
  • 3. Third, orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is Lord and Son of God in a unique way: he remains forever distinct form the rest of humanity whom he came to save. Yet the gnostic Gospel of Thomas relates...'Jesus said, " I am not your master...He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am...'”
  • (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' p. x).

These points require some clarification in the interests of honesty. While the gnostics do believe that "the self and the divine are identical," this is not so for everyone:

"I should stress that not everyone has the means to escape. That is because not everyone has a spark of the divine within them: Only some of us do. The other people are the creations of the inferior god of this world. They, like other creatures here (dogs, turtles, mosquitos, and so on), will die and that will be the end of their story. But some of us are trapped divinities. And we need to learn how to return to our heavenly home." (Bart Ehrman, 'Christianity Turned on its Head,' pp. 86-87, The Gospel of Judas, National Geographic Society).

For that matter, they differed widely about who Jesus was and thus to what station He returned. They do not all agree with Ms. Pagels that He is, or ever will be, just like her noteworthy self. The second point is true without qualification.

Every religious sect likes to think it has a history. Nor is this the first time a particular sect has taken over the academy; in the nineteenth century the Unitarians, though a small minority within the church, wrote the book on the 'historical' Jesus:

Ernest Renan
The Life of Jesus

This 'Jesus' of the Unitarians was not so much historical, however, as Unitarian. Though almost all of the early sources which mention Jesus report that He claimed to be God, the 'historical' Jesus could not so claim. Why not? A copy-cat followed him who repeated the claim: Simon the Samaritan. Simon himself had a copy-cat, Menander! But the Unitarians are shocked by the very idea, which they consider to be sacrilege. So the 'historical' Jesus never made the claim, though history reports that he did.

The Unitarians have gone on to other things; nowadays if you walk into a Unitarian Universalist church, you are more likely to meet a Buddhist or a Wiccan than someone calling himself a Christian. The 'liberal' main-line churches are closing down, but before the last remaining member turns out the lights and walks out the door, Ms. Pagels endeavors to accomplish something similar. By emphasizing those elements the gnostics had in common with the 'liberal' Christians of the 1970's and '80's, this odd little development that killed off the main-line churches gains a history, albeit only by moving to center stage teachings that are peripheral to gnostic theology. Like the liberals, the gnostics believed in a 'spiritual' resurrection. They did not believe any dead man ever got up and walked out of any empty tomb:

"And so far are they from being able to raise the dead, as the Lord raised them, and the apostles did by means of prayer, and as has been frequently done in the brotherhood on account of some necessity...that they do not even believe this can be possibly be done, [and hold] that the resurrection from the dead is simply an acquaintance with that truth which they proclaim." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 31.2)

While these secondary issues are well worth discussing, and there are indeed points upon which the gnostics agree with modern-day 'liberal' Christians and New-Agers, these issues are not the main point of contention. The main point is that the gnostics did not believe, as the Bible teaches, that there is only one God, the Creator. This is what bothered Irenaeus and the other anti-gnostic polemicists: "Impious indeed, beyond all impiety, are these men, who assert that the Maker of heaven and earth, the only God Almighty, besides whom there is no God, was produced by means of a defect, which itself sprang from another defect, so that, according to them, He was the product of the third defect." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 16.3).

People who rely upon Ms. Pagels' representation of the conflict end up swallowing camels and straining at gnats. The gnostics were pagan polytheists who could not be accepted by a church which learned monotheism at the feet of Jesus and the apostles. In elaborating a polytheistic pantheon, they were following the example of the great majority of people in that time and place. They were conforming their religion to their culture. Yet their polytheism has to be soft-pedalled at every turn by their modern defenders, softened into a 'New Age' quest for the sacred. Why soft-pedal it, when the irremediable conflict between monotheism and polytheism is at the heart of the controversy?

The endless elaboration of the pantheon which is at the heart of gnosticism tires and confuses the modern seeker. So the contemporary gnostic boosters, like Ms. Pagels and Bart Ehrman, assure their readers that these bulging pantheons are naught by myth and metaphor. Those ancient authors who traced them out in such loving and microscopic detail, and counted up, to the very last one, 365 gods, or 360, according to whatever astrological or astronomic variable seemed significant, did not actually expect any of that stuff to be taken seriously. So they tell us. How do they know?

The classic Greek myths took form long before Ptolemaic astronomy had been discovered. Thus that vast edifice, with its seven heavens, was untenanted with gods. The gnostics stepped into the breach, populating each inflection point with gods, as well as elevator attendant gods to allow movement from level to level. These worthies manned toll-booths:

"But I saw in the fourth heaven according to class -- I saw the angels resembling gods, the angels bringing a soul out of the land of the dead. They placed it at the gate of the fourth heaven. And the angels were whipping it. The soul spoke, saying, 'What sin was it that I committed in the world?' The toll-collector who dwells in the fourth heaven replied, saying, 'It was not right to commit all those lawless deeds that are in the world of the dead.'" (The Apocalypse of Paul, p. 268, The Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited by James M. Robinson).

The gnostics armed their followers with all manner of nifty code-words and secret hand-shakes so they could get by these gods in their toll-booths.

Marcus, so greatly admired by Ms. Pagels, constructed a pantheon based on the Greek alphabet! Irenaeus thought this was silly; the Greeks could almost remember who had given them their alphabet, Cadmus. So how could the universe have been constructed along lines of an alphabet invented late in time by Cadmus? But there is no reason, other than cultural chauvinism, to think these people didn't take what they were doing seriously. We can't.

The Few and the Many

The earliest gnostics themselves often made it clear they did not expect their doctrines to appeal to a wide public:

"The multitude, however, cannot understand these matters, but only one out of a thousand, or two out of ten is not at all fitting to speak openly of their mysteries, but right to keep them secret by preserving silence." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 24.6.)
"Jesus said, 'I shall choose you, one from a thousand and two from ten thousand, and they will stand as a single one.'" (Gospel of Thomas, 23).

Yet in spite of their own accounting, the modern-day gnostic boosters continually promote their claims and magnify their number. When 'scholars' find it necessary to confute their own sources, their readers should hold onto their wallets.

It is depressingly normal in this type of literature for the claims of the gnostics to be elevated beyond what they actually are claiming in their own names. For example, Bart Ehrman tells us,

"There was an enormous range of opinion in the early church: lots of different groups represented lots of different perspectives, they all had sacred books supporting their views, they all saw their views as stemming from Jesus and his closest followers, and they all insisted that since they were right, the other groups were wrong." (Bart D. Ehrman, 'The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot,' p. 178).

Notice that Dr. Ehrman is claiming, in a book about the Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, that "ALL" "saw their views as stemming from Jesus and his closest followers" [plural]. Did "ALL" really see it that way? No, the book about which he is writing, the Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, very frankly and freely confesses that the twelve apostles taught those they encountered to serve the God of Israel:

"Jesus said to them, 'Those you have seen receiving the offerings at the altar -- that is who you are. That is the god you serve, and you are those twelve men you have seen. The cattle you have seen brought for sacrifice are the many people you lead astray before that altar.'" (The Gospel of Judas, National Geographic Society, p. 27).

In other words, precisely what the church claims: that its doctrine was handed on to it by the twelve apostles (minus Judas the thirteenth),-- is precisely what is admitted here. The modern gnostic boosters, like a defense attorney who can't get his teen-aged hoodlum client to stop making damaging admissions to the TV cameras, can't get the gnostics they've taken under their wing to stop admitting things they shouldn't.

The Vatican

Ms. Pagels breathlessly relates the news that, when people converted to gnosticism, they ceased to listen to the Christian bishop!:

"Gnosis offers nothing less than a theological justification for refusing to obey the bishops and priests! The initiate now sees them as the 'rulers and powers' who rule on earth in the demiurge's name." (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' p. 38).

It is certainly true that when people change their religion, the theological authorities to whom they give heed are very likely to change in the bargain. This is news? A change in gods does indeed imply a change in religion. Whom will you serve: the God of Israel, or 'Unity-Oneness-Unit-One,' severally and all together? When the newly converted gnostics stopped serving the God of Israel, believing instead the power-hungry, money-grubbing cult leaders who demoted the Creator to the 'demiurge,' they entered into new ecclesiastical structures.

And even more wondrous to relate, if they had become Buddhists, they would have passed beyond the authority of the bishops, or if they had taken up the worship and service of Isis, they would have become subject to the priests of Isis, or if they had taken to frequenting the temple of Vesta, the Vestal Virgins could have ordered them around! Not only that, if the people of the present day become Roman Catholics, they have to listen to the Vatican! And if they convert to Mormonism, they start listening to the news from Salt Lake City. The reader is at a loss whether to laugh or to cry.

Ms. Pagels knows and cares what political power is. Ms. Pagels is a bit at a loss what people are talking about when they talk about 'God.' She perks up, though, and blushes a bit when her New Age friends suggest such talk is actually all about her. She does not understand why anyone would want to limit the quantity of such an excellent thing as God is reputed to be. All this quibbling about the God-census is quite lost on her. Therefore those early Christians who, talking about God, explained that there was only One and that He created all there is, surely did not actually care about what they were saying, right? They only cared about political power, because they were people much like Ms. Pagels, right? Thank goodness, no!

Women's Lib

As noted, Ms. Pagels subordinates theology to politics, and assumes everyone else does too. She evaluates the various religions of the world according to their conformance, or lack thereof, with women's lib, her political touchstone. She assumes that, because she does this, the early Christian bishops must have done the same thing: that they preferred monotheism over polytheism in the belief that it enhanced their political power.

Ms. Pagels assumes that a pantheon stocked with goddesses as well as gods, as all pagan pantheons are, would lead to a lower world with greater opportunities for women. There is no empirical evidence that this is so. The Hindu pantheon is crammed with goddesses. Yet which earthly women enjoy greater opportunities: women in India or in the United States, most of whose inhabitants identify themselves as Christians?:

"The ancient Manu Dharma Shastra (Laws of Manu) describes the three states of obedience for women. . . .'In the married state the wife is wholly subject to her husband whom she should revere as a god.' . . .Ironically, goddess worship has not appreciably helped the plight of women throughout India, nor has the rise of female political leaders." (Come Let Us Reason, editors William Lane Craig and Paul Copan, Kindle location 6117).

Nevertheless Ms. Pagels is greatly impressed with a hymn to the pagan goddess Isis which made it into the Nag Hammadi library, 'Thunder, Perfect Mind.' The pagan Romans were devoted to Aphrodite, imagining themselves to be descended from this non-entity:

"And last of all the  Romans, when they had subdued all Sicily, surpassed all people who had preceded them in the honours they paid to her [Erycinian Aphroditę]. And it was with good reason that they did so, for since they traced back their ancestry to her and for this reason were successful in their undertakings, they were but requiting her who was the cause of their aggrandisement with such expressions of gratitude and honours as they owed to her. The consuls and praetors, for instance, who visit the island and all Romans who sojourn there clothed with any authority, whenever they come to Eryx, embellish the sanctuary with magnificent sacrifices and honours, and laying aside the austerity of their authority, they enter into sports and have conversation with women in a spirit of great gaiety, believing that only in this way will they make their presence there pleasing to the goddess. Indeed the Roman senate has so zealously concerned itself with the honours of the goddess that it has decreed that the seventeen cities of Sicily which are most faithful to Rome shall pay a tax in gold to Aphroditę, and that two hundred soldiers shall serve as a guard of her shrine."

(Siculus, Diodorus. Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 32) (Kindle Locations 6432-6440).)

Has any student of Roman law ever noticed that this great devotion to the goddess led to respect for the civil and economic rights of women? Of course not! The inanity of this whole procedure boggles the mind. We are to trade the truth for goddess-worship, under the premise that goddess-worship leads to secular improvement in the status of women. But goddess-worship leads only to Hell, producing on the way none of the benefits these people imagine.

Ms. Pagels is so attached to the fixed idea that the gnostics were progressive on women's rights that she is willing to wish away considerable evidence that they were not, including misogynistic statements like,

"Simon Peter said to them, 'Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life.'
"Jesus said, 'Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven.'" (Gospel of Thomas, 114).

This demeaning thought, that women must become men to be saved, does not distress Ms. Pagels. There is a vast amount of material that she must ignore: "...their fathers who are the ones who gave them life, each one being a copy of each one of the faces, which are forms of maleness, since they are not from the illness which is femaleness, but are from this one who already has left behind the sickness." (The Tripartite Tractate, Part 1, 9, p. 83, The Nag Hammadi Library). The "illness which is femaleness"?

"Flee from the madness and the bondage of femaleness and choose for yourselves the salvation of maleness." (Zostrianos, p. 430, The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, editor).
"The Lord said, 'Pray in the place where there is no woman.'
"Matthew said, '"Pray in the place where there is [no woman]," he tells us, meaning, "Destroy the works of womanhood..."'" (The Dialogue of the Savior, p. 254, The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, editor).
"And do not become female, lest you give birth to evil and (its) brothers: jealousy and division, anger and wrath, fear and a divided heart, and empty, non-existent desire." (The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, p. 369, The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, editor).

But she is fully up to task. Nor does it distress her that the entire gnostic system derives from a 'blame the woman' scenario. Like a female driver who runs off the road and must be rescued by an assortment of male cops along with her husband, the goddess Sophia started this whole multi-vehicle pile-up which became the world by leaving her proper realm and seeking to rise above her station.

"But there rushed forth in advance of the rest that Aeon who was much the latest of them... namely Sophia, and suffered passion apart from the embrace of her consort...This passion, they say, consisted in a desire to search into the nature of the Father; for she wished, according to them, to comprehend his greatness.....They say that she, having engaged in an impossible and impracticable attempt, brought forth an amorphous substance, such as her female nature enabled her to produce. When she looked upon it, her first feeling was one of grief, on account of the imperfection of its generation..." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 2-3).

Simon the Samaritan was a copy-cat who made many of the same claims as Jesus of Nazareth, but with a twist. He travelled about with a prostitute he had redeemed. This rescue mission was necessitated by her fall from her exalted position, a disaster which had resulted inadvertently in the creation of the world:

"He [Simon] had the hardihood to call himself the Supreme Virtue, that is, the Supreme God; and moreover, (to assert) that the universe had been originated by his angels; that he had descended in quest of an erring daemon, which was Wisdom..." (Anonymous Latin Treatise Against All Heresies, Chapter 1).

To the gnostic mind, the creation of the world was not a good thing, in spite of all its beauty. The sooner it is extinguished the better, along with the many human beings who are at home here. One of the most repugnant features of this hideous religion is this ingratitude and lack of appreciation. These lofty self-appointed critics of God's handiwork turn thumbs down; they are not impressed. And what started it all? The departure of a goddess named Wisdom, or Sophia, who left her proper station, and ended up an earthly prostitute who required rescue. The Gospel of Thomas reflects this concept:

"Jesus said, 'Whoever knows the father and the mother will be called the child of a whore.'" (Gospel of Thomas 105).

In this weird religion, since Sophia ended up as a prostitute, and it was her fall which started the ball rolling on the creation of the lower world (the demiurge is variously described as her son or an abortion resulting from an attempted parthenogenic birth), a human being is in fact "the child of a whore." If anyone can figure out how this theology, which revolves around an errant and incompetent goddess who required a human rescue mission to get out of a brothel, elevates women, please speak up! If a lady theologian had made up a story about a male god who fell from heaven, and ended up having to be rescued from a bar-room by a female redeemer figure, who would think she made up this story to give honor to men?

Long-suffering Bishop Irenaeus is indignant about the way the gnostics talk about their "mother," Sophia: "...first of all, they will act impiously against their Mother..." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 7.4). The fact is, Christians don't talk this way about their mother or about anybody else: "And in this way the defect of femaleness appeared." (Eugnostos the Blessed, p. 236, The Nag Hammadi Library). 'Eugnostos the Blessed' is admittedly a pagan treatise, but it is copied word-for-word into a Christian gnostic treatise, 'The Sophia of Jesus Christ,' which in and of itself explains a lot. Where does gnosticism come from? It's baptized paganism. It only got wet, no doubt adding to the copious flow of Sophia's tears, perspiration, and other bodily fluids. It didn't get better.

Is there any actual historical evidence that Christianity was imposed, by men, upon the women of the ancient world? Was this all a colossal act of gender violence, disguised with sweet words? The actual evidence, while sparse, suggests any imposition worked the other way. Emperor Julian the Apostate sent a [male] governor to Antioch with instructions to re-impose paganism, but he reported back that his efforts were frustrated by the very same women Christianity was designed, so they say, to oppress:

"When the men are out of doors they obey your best advice, and come to the altars; but when they get home their minds undergo a change; they are wrought upon by the tears and entreaties of their wives, and they come no more to the altars of the gods."
(Julian the Apostate's governor of Antioch, quoted in 'History of the Christian Church from its Origin to the Present Time,' by William Maxwell Blackburn, p. 119; also 'Saint John Chrysostom, His Life and Times, a Sketch of the Church and the Empire in the Fourth Century,' by William Richard Wood Stephens, pp. 41-42).

The Emperor Julian the Apostate himself complained that the women, whom, they say, he sought to liberate, were not working with him:

". . .it befits the city, I think, to offer both private and public sacrifice. But as it is, every one of you allows his wife to carry everything out of his house to the Galilaeans, and when your wives feed the poor at your expense they inspire a great admiration for godlessness in those who are in need of such bounty -- and of such sort are, I think, the great majority of mankind, -- while as for yourselves you think that you are doing nothing out of the way when in the first place you are careless of the honors due to the gods, and not one of those in need goes near the temples -- for there is nothing there, I think, to feed them with -- and yet when any one of you gives a birthday feast he provides a dinner and a breakfast without stint and welcomes his friends to a costly table. . ." (Julian the Apostate, The Misopogon, i.e. The Beard-Hater, Chapter 26).

Notice that Julian's diagnosis of the problem is that the men, who have no principled objection to temple worship, are failing to control their wives. Patricius was failing to control Monica, Secundus was failing to control Anthusa, Gregory was failing to control Nonna. Women happily filled the pews of the early church, blissfully unaware it was all a plot to subjugate them. Those atheists who go by the evidence,— and certainly there is nothing in atheism which flatly forbids following such a procedure,— might be more likely to suggest that Christianity was a plot by women to impose upon their men behavior-patterns more to their liking than existing pagan mores, than to indulge in the contrary fantasy. Yet modern academic scholarship is so unyoked to evidence that even persons not obviously female, like Bart Ehrman, get to claim the high moral ground of victimhood based on these unfounded accusations:

Bart Ehrman

The ancient Roman empire did not afford women equal civil rights with men. This legal structure was in no way founded upon Christianity. The gospel did not come into a world which was legally a blank slate awaiting definition. The Christian church was not in all cases an enthusiastic cheer-leader for these legal practices; see, for instance, the gospel leavening in Gregory of Nazianzus' condemnation of man-made laws which enshrined a 'double standard':

"Chastity, in respect of which I see that the majority of men are ill-disposed, and that their laws are unequal and irregular. For what was the reason why they restrained the woman, but indulged the man, and that a woman who practices evil against her husband’s bed is an adulteress, and the penalties of the law for this are very severe; but if the husband commits fornication against his wife, he has no account to give? I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve this custom. They who made the Law were men, and therefore their legislation is hard on women, since they have placed children also under the authority of their fathers, while leaving the weaker sex uncared for. God doth not so; but saith Honor thy father and thy mother, which is the first commandment with promise; that it may be well with thee; and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.  . .See the equality of the legislation. There is one Maker of man and woman; one debt is owed by children to both their parents." (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 37, On the Words of the Gospel, Matthew 19:1, Chapter 6).

Jerome perceived a similar flaw in the laws of Caesar:

"The laws of Caesar are different, it is true, from the laws of Christ: Papinianus commands one thing; our own Paul another. Earthly laws give a free rein to the unchastity of men, merely condemning seduction and adultery; lust is allowed to range unrestrained among brothels and slave girls, as if the guilt were constituted by the rank of the person assailed and not by the purpose of the assailant. But with us Christians what is unlawful for women is equally unlawful for men, and as both serve the same God both are bound by the same obligations." (Jerome, Letter 77, to Oceanus, 3).

These modern authors' assumption that paganism was friendly to women is founded upon thin air. The Christian author Lactantius contrasted pagan philosophy, which sought to teach only a few select men, with the church, which opened its doors and its storehouse of divine wisdom to all, including women and slaves:

"That greatest imitator of Plato among our writers thought that philosophy was not for the multitude, because none but learned men could attain to it. “Philosophy,” says Cicero, “is contented with a few judges, of its own accord designedly avoiding the multitude.” It is not therefore wisdom, if it avoids the concourse of men; since, if wisdom is given to man, it is given to all without any distinction, so that there is no one at all who cannot acquire it. But they so embrace virtue, which is given to the human race, that they alone of all appear to wish to enjoy that which is a public good; being as envious as if they should wish to bind or tear out the eyes of others that they may not see the sun. For what else is it to deny wisdom to men, than to take away from their minds the true and divine light? But if the nature of man is capable of wisdom, it was befitting that both workmen, and country people, and women, and all, in short, who bear the human form, should be taught to be wise; and that the people should be brought together from every language, and condition, and sex, and age. Therefore it is a very strong argument that philosophy neither tends to wisdom, nor is of itself wisdom, that its mystery is only made known by the beard and cloak of the philosophers. . .Lastly, they never taught any women to study philosophy, except Themiste only, within the whole memory of man; nor slaves, except Phaedo only, who is said, when living in oppressive slavery, to have been ransomed and taught by Cebes." (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book Three, Chapter 25, ECF 0.07, pp. 195-196).

The modern academic assumption that Christianity was a social revolution intended to subjugate women has no historical foundation. It would be accurate to say that paganism is far more congenial to homosexuality that Christianity, but, while it was an oddity of 1970's Women's Lib to confuse the two issues, that's another story. Gnosticism is a religion for the elite, for the learned, indeed for the literati. The Gospel of Thomas promises salvation to astute interpreters, "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death." This is not a gospel call to the masses: "This puts salvation on a whole different footing than what we find in either the authentic parables or the aphorisms of Jesus. Salvation is a matter of what you know and how well you understand these secret sayings. Furthermore, since salvation is dependent on an individual's ability to interpret these sayings, we are dealing with self-salvation, and presumably salvation for the literate or even the learned. It is not a surprise that some scholars find this vision of salvation appealing." (Ben Witherington III, What Have They Done with Jesus? p. 28). It should be realized that, in a world in which women's literacy rates lagged, as in antiquity, she is actually consigning the majority of women to perish, as unthinking, soulless brutes,— which is gnostic lostness,— because they cannot have been part of the literary elite which is the targeted demographic for the gnostic religion.


Spin Doctoring

The crux of the early Christian apologists' case against the gnostics is that they were polytheists. Is this accusation unfair, or do the gnostics, in their literature, never cease to mock the very texts which teach monotheism? The gnostics hear the God of Israel proclaim Himself the only God...and they snicker:

  • “Now the archon who is weak has three names. The fist name is Yaltabaoth, the second is Saklas, and the third is Samael. And he is impious in his arrogance which is in him. For he said, 'I am God and there is no other God beside me,' for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come.”
  • (The Apocryphon of John, p. 111, The Nag Hammadi Library).

  • "Their chief is blind; because of his power and his ignorance and his arrogance he said, with his power, 'It is I who am God; there is none apart from me.'
  • "When he said this, he sinned against the entirety. And this speech got up to incorruptibility; then there was a voice that came forth from incorruptibility, saying, 'You are mistaken, Samael' - which is, 'god of the blind.'"
  • (The Hypostasis of the Archons, p.162, The Nag Hammadi Library).

  • "For the Archon was a laughingstock because he said, 'I am God, and there is none greater than I. I alone am the Father, the Lord, and there is no other beside me. I am a jealous God, who brings the sins of the fathers upon the children for three and four generations.' As if he had become stronger than I and my brothers!'"
  • (The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, pp.368-369, the Nag Hammadi Library).

  • "He said, 'It is I who am God, and there is no other one that exists apart from me.' And when he said this, he sinned against all the immortal beings who give answer. And they laid it to his charge.
  • Then when Pistis saw the impiety of the chief ruler she was filled with anger. She was invisible. She said, 'You are mistaken, Samael,' that is, 'blind god.'" (On the Origin of the World, p. 175, The Nag Hammadi Library).

Is it not apparent to any Christian that there is a problem with Ms. Pagels' 'modified monotheism'? There is no more basic disagreement possible in theology than over the God count: how many gods are there? The Bible count, astonishing as it may be to some folks, is One:

Only One God

 Only One God

Yet despite this foundational disagreement between the gnostics and the Christians, there is the constant pretense in Ms. Pagels' writing that the dispute is really about some secondary issue, or indeed about no issue at all but only the bishops' lust for power. Ms. Pagels constantly minimizes the grounds of dispute, alleging of the gnostics: "Dividing from the majority over such issues as the value of martyrdom..." (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels, p. 107):

"...gnostics often disagreed with the majority on such specific issues as those we have explored so far -- the organization of authority, the participation of women, martyrdom..." (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' p. 121).

It goes without saying that the pagan polytheist gnostics did not have the kind of problem with their pagan polytheist neighbors as did the Christians. Since they believed in many gods, what was the problem with offering a pinch of incense to the local one? Quite possibly they had a text in the Nag Hammadi Library praising him.

The elephant in the living room is monotheism.

Ignatius the God-bearer

The hatchet job Ms. Pagels does on this early martyr centers around remolding him in her image. According to Ms. Pagels, Ignatius subordinated his theological opinions to his political agenda in much the same way as she does. Just as she is willing to misrepresent gnosticism, soft-pedalling its polytheistic excesses, in the belief that so doing advances equality between men and women, so she believes Ignatius went willingly to his death in the belief that so doing would aggrandize more power to the bishops. Just as politics trumps the service of God in her world view, so it does in his, she claims:

"But the distinction between religion and politics, so familiar to us in the twentieth century, was utterly alien to Ignatius' self-understanding. For him, as for his contemporaries, pagan and Christian alike, religious convictions necessarily involved political relationships -- and vice verse. Ironically, Ignatius himself shared this view with the Roman official who condemned him to death...For Ignatius, as for Roman pagans, politics and religion formed an inseparable unity." (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' p. 36).

Inasmuch as Roman pagan politics centered around this-worldly aspirations, this information does not so much help us to understand Ignatius as it is projection on Ms. Pagels' part. Ignatius' concerns are not the this-worldly concerns which fueled either pagan Roman politics or politics today:

"Neither the ends of the earth nor the kingdoms of this age are of any use to me. It is better for me to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth." (Ignatius, To the Romans, 6, p. 104, 'The Apostolic Fathers,' J.B. Lightfoot, J. R. Harmer, Michael W. Holmes).
"The Work is not a matter of persuasive rhetoric; rather, Christianity is greatest when it is hated by the world. (Ignatius, To the Romans, 3, p. 103, 'The Apostolic Fathers,' J.B. Lightfoot, J. R. Harmer, Michael W. Holmes).

As far as Ms. Pagels is concerned, all that other-worldly stuff is flim-flam concealing his real agenda.

In truth, understanding Ignatius can be a struggle even for Christians. Though the Lord forbade us to deny Him before men, He does not command us to force the issue. If the issue could have been finessed by a judicious application of 'campaign contributions,' why not do that? Ignatius was indignant at the docetic heresy, yet he lacked the skills to confront that heresy as would the later apologists. Instead he urged the church to cluster around the bishop like frightened campers around their camp counsellor, on a dark night when they think they hear a bear in the woods. But what if their bishop is a heretic, as many have been, even bishops of Rome: Callistus, Liberius, Honorius? He seems to have seen his own martyrdom as a pantomime way to discredit this vicious heresy. If people saw with their own eyes a contemporary dying a tortured death in imitation of Christ, how could they still deny the exemplar he was imitating?

It is just shameful that these boosters, who are no objective 'scholars,' have managed to revive gnosticism: an elitist religion whose arrogant practitioners despise God, their fellow man, and the universe, by this level of misrepresentation. They soft-pedal all those features which centuries of monotheism have conditioned us to mistrust, like the bulging gnostic pantheons, pretending that these are intended as no more than myth and metaphor. They assign virtues to this religion which are largely fictitious, such as an ambition to bring about equality between men and women:

"Gnostic Christians often take the principle of equality between men and women into the social and political structures of their communities." (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' p. 66).

Is there any actual evidence that "Gnostic Christians" "often" do any such thing? No, there is scanty evidence that some heretical groups, especially the Carpocratians, allowed women to serve in leadership positions. Beyond that there is nothing but a self-reinforcing circular argument. She assumes people who number goddesses as well as gods in their pantheons must be in favor of equality between men and women, although most of the pagans, in spite of worshipping goddesses, were in favor of no such thing. She rejoices that a female goddess, 'Sophia,' ranks higher in the gnostic pantheon than does the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, without concern that it was Sophia's inadequacies and derelictions that started the whole gnostic calamity. The gnostics did, in fact, trace all the trouble in the world to a woman.

No one, however obtuse, can fail to notice when the gnostics disrespect the living God:

"And then a voice -- of the Cosmocrator -- came to the angels: 'I am God and there is no other beside me.' But I laughed joyfully when I examined his empty glory." (The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, p. 364, The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, editor).

So then if they despise Jehovah, they must honor and adore Sophia? Then why do they have nothing good to say about her? The trouble is, Ms. Pagels does not understand when she is being insulted:

"But because of your unbelief I shall speak again. First of all concerning [the deficiency] of the aeons, this [is] the deficiency, when the disobedience and the foolishness of the mother appeared without the commandment of the majesty of the Father." (The Letter of Peter to Philip, p. 435, The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, editor).

The theological issue about which Ignatius either pretended to care in order to amass power to the bishops, or actually did care as do Christians today, is docetism:

On and On

Readers who wish to sample Ms. Pagels' breathless oracular baby-talk without actually paying money for the privilege may enjoy visiting this link:

The Book of Revelation

The reader will find here the usual sneers: "What do you make of Revelation? Here, there are no ideas. There's not a shred of socially redeeming ethical teaching, just fantastic visions of monsters, whores, angels battling demons." . . .combined with the usual lunges at appropriation: "John regarded himself as a Jew who had found the Messiah. And would have been shocked to learn that his future readers regarded him as a Christian." (i.e., 'this belongs to us, not them.') If these people had a few more IQ points, it might occur to them that if this material is really all as bad as they claim, then it will not be necessary to appropriate it for themselves. Rather, leave it to its rightful owners:

As to content, it is the usual wish fulfillment. Ms. Pagels is drawn to universalism. Consequently, the gnostics must have been universalists. In her vision, the gnostics were talking about "the presence of the divine in everyone, potentially. But that's completely not what the church chose." From the start she has been peddling the idea that the gnostics are whatever you want them to be, and because most people find gnostic literature unreadable, there is a market for her namby-pamby reinvention of gnosticism. In reality they divided humanity in categories: pneumatic, psychic and material; not everyone nurtured a spark of deity in his breast, only the elect:

". . .Jesus' teachings were said to be preserved only among the elect, only, that is, among those who had the divine spark within them and so were able to receive the gnosis requisite for salvation. In the typical Gnostic anthropology, such persons were called 'pneumatics' ('spiritual'). All others were understood to be either 'psychic' ('animal') or 'hylic' ('material'). The latter were creations of the world's 'Demiurge' pure and simple, and had no possibility for existence beyond this world." (Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 122-123).

Salvation came in recognizing you were one of the few. For the favored group (the pneumatics), salvation was just a matter of discovering what you were. For the others, well, they are just in the wrong ontological category, sorry, nothing salvageable here. This is at the opposite pole from universalism, but never mind. Ms. Pagels reassures an audience member who wonders why, while literature such as the Book of Revelation teaches that "it's a good idea to torture Jews and heretics and atheists," believers don't generally do that, and she reassures him with, "Maybe they just don't have the power." Vintage stuff, with all the usual ingredients: bowdlerizing gnosticism, demonizing Christians.

For a prior generation's efforts at retailing gnosticism, check out Madame Blavatsky. She wins the award for sincerity, inasmuch as Ms. Pagels, for all her efforts to position gnosticism as the humane alternative to Christianity, does not actually believe this schlock herself, whereas the earnest Ms. Blavatsky sold herself first, before selling it to others:

It is difficult to find an author who is both gnostic and popular. As noted, popular author Dan Brown likes the gnostics, but only because he has them confused with the Unitarians. Margaret Barker, who is not even a nominal monotheist, quotes gnostic sources with favor and is popular with Mormons, perhaps she can 'sell' this ungainly and ill-favored commodity:

Jesus Seminar