"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Pagels Imposture?

If you care enough about the Gospel of Judas, Gnosticism, The DaVinci Code, or any of the recent, widely publicized efforts to establish that early Christianity was very different from what mainstream Christianity has long said it was, you know the name of Elaine Pagels. She is Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and author of several books in the above vein, of which the first was The Gnostic Gospels (1979; 'TGG' for short), still in print after all these years. By now, Pagels is the media's chief go-to person for this whole nest of topics. As a student at Columbia University back in the disco days—for which I am not nostalgic, lest anybody get the wrong idea—I took an introductory course on the New Testament with her just as she was finishing the aforesaid book. Partly for that reason, I believe I have a better understanding of what she's about than most people do. That's why a new attack on her old scholarship so piques my interest and, I believe, should interest anybody equipped to understand what's at issue.

A few days ago, Fr. Paul Mankowski, SJ, of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, published an article for CWN (linked in my title) arguing that in TGG, on an apparently obscure point nonetheless important for her thesis, 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." Her motivation for such a scholarly sin—a sin that would be very serious indeed if Mankowski's analysis is correct—was to help undermine the orthodox theological arguments of St. Irenaeus, the second-century author of Against Heresies, which until now has been our best source of information about Gnosticism and other early-Christian heretical movements. If one can succeed in undermining AH, then the door is wide open for the sort of theology that Pagels has retailed in academia, that Dan Brown has repackaged for the more tabloid-minded, and that heretical pseudo-mystics have preferred since the beginning of Christianity.

Some authors past and present have sought to explain AH's long-unique status by maintaining that the early Church suppressed and destroyed the texts of her opponents, thus forcing us to rely for information about "heresies" on what she says about them. That is nonsense. While we do have very few extant codices of such texts, and many more that are discussed in orthodox works are altogether lost, pretty much the same is true about orthodox Christian literature from the same period. Given that the Church was savagely if intermittently persecuted throughout the Roman Empire until the early fourth century, and given also that much literature of all kinds was totally destroyed with the great library of Alexandria in the fifth century, none of that should surprise. So, somebody who wants to discredit the early Church's criteria for orthodoxy among scholars must take a different tack. That's the tack that Pagels takes.

I find Mankowski's critique all too plausible. And I say so not merely because of its content, which I cannot present any more succinctly than he himself has. I say so because, even as a student in her old class, I found Pagels' whole methodology of argumentation question-begging and overreaching, and I told her so. (Not that she would have any reason to remember me after more than twenty-five years.) Perhaps that's why I only got an A-minus for the course.

Even so, I withhold final judgment until she issues her response. Knowing academics as I do, I doubt she'll deign to issue one unless and until Mankowski presents his argument in a peer-reviewed journal. This is going to be very interesting. If Mankowski is right, we will have taken another important step in discrediting the discreditors of the true Faith.
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