Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Lies and Slander

A few days ago, a comment was posted by a reader who accused me of “lies and slander” because of my completely accurate remarks about deceptive statements by Elaine Pagels. Her works belong to a new category of scholarship that does not have at its heart a desire to learn facts, to research all of the relevant available documents, and try to understand real history. It belongs, rather, to this new kind of scholarship (new as in about 100 years old) that is more akin to a legal brief than to anything truly scientific. Just enough facts are gathered for an advocate to make a case, and all opposing facts are completely overlooked.

The first time I witnessed her ability to distort history was on television several years ago, and what I heard was quite astonishing. She stated her own history of the ancient Church, one in which women had all the authority. This, in itself, is not only a false history, but a demonstration that her mind works along political lines that would have been alien to the ancient Christians. She went on to say that Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote his epistles that placed emphasis on the authority of bishops (more than simple authority was taught by Ignatius), because he wanted to strengthen his own power. Of course, the truth is that Saint Ignatius wrote all of those epistles after his death sentence, as he was being taken by soldiers to Rome where he was to die in the arena, and after he had left behind all of the authority and responsibility that he had in the Church in Antioch to a new bishop, being led away as a prisoner in chains. Whether or not a person like Elaine Pagels wants to agree with the teaching about the epicopal office contained in his letters, he could not have furthered his “power” in any possible way, because he was going to be killed in a very short time, executed as entertainment for a crowd of Roman pagans.

Pagels’ writings about Saint Irenaeus (c.132-202) portray another ancient bishop as a man trying to strengthen his own power, as a rather nasty fellow who suppressed the truth just to amplify his own position. The truth is, every time a bishop held his head up during the days of the Roman persecution, he took his life in his hands. Every time he drew attention to himself he risked death. As Saint Gregory the Great reminds us, early on in Pastoral Care, the bishops of the early centuries were the first in line to be martyred.

How tragic it is that a modern feminist, thinking in worldly terms, ascribes mean motives to great saints who faced the penalty of death every day of their lives. The idea that their service was about power is rather ridiculous, because they had no power in a time when they were living like fugitives, always subject at any moment to someone’s whim to denounce them to the authorities to be killed. Their lives were spent on the altar of sacrifice every day. It was not about power.

Saints Irenaeus of Lyons and Ignatius of Antioch are not here to defend their own reputations. Talk about lies and slander.
By the way, here are the two relevant comments, the first by my detractor, the second my reply:

Jordan Stratford+ said...
Her claim was that she discovered these ancient writings and that the Church has been hiding them away from the world, due to their fear that the Gnostic writings would be discovered, and prove that there were different versions of Christianity from the start. (quoting me)

Dr. Pagels has never claimed to have discovered anything. You are no doubt aware of this. So why say what you know is not true?

She made up a few fictional items to elaborate on genuine history in the process, such as making up entire passages from her own mind and attributing them to one of the Church fathers. (again, quoting me)

While she has been accused of taking some passages out of context to support her thesis, your claim that she "made up a few fictional items" is bearing false witness. Shame on you.And your use of the term scholar in quotes to somehow imply that Dr. Pagels is not one is simply an ad hominem attack - uncharitable and un-Christian.Lies and slander. This is what you preach for the first Sunday after Christmas?
7:06 PM

I replied with the facts, as follows:

Fr. Robert Hart said...
About Pagel’s claim to have discovered suppressed writings, here are her words from Beyond Belief), p.31 ;

"When I entered the Harvard doctoral program, I was astonished to hear from the other students that Professors Helmut Koester and George MacRae, who taught the early history of Christianity, had file cabinets filled with 'gospels' and 'apocrypha' written during the first centuries… When my fellow students and I investigated these sources we found that they revealed diversity within the Christian movement that later, 'official' versions of Christian history had suppressed so effectively that only now in the Harvard graduate school, did we hear about them."

But, the "suppression" she wites about never occurred, and one did not have to explore file cabinets in Harvard to find these Gnostic works. One needed only to read some of the Fathers of the Church, which makes her ignorance until that time (as a Doctoral student) rather puzzling. First I quote Pagels herself, and then a comment by Matthew Gross (I will prvide the link to the full work by Gross).

On page 97 of Beyond Belief, Pagels has simply invented a lie, or fiction if you prefer, which she repeated later in the book (on p. 176):

“But in 367 [AD] Athanasius, the zealous bishop of Alexandria––an admirer of Irenaeus––issued an Easter letter in which he demanded that Egyptian monks destroy all writings, except for those he specifically listed as 'acceptable,' even 'canonical' …But someone––perhaps monks at the monastery of St. Pachomius––gather dozens of the books Athanasius wanted to burn, removed them from the monastery library, sealed them in a heavy, six-foot jar, and intending to hide them, buried them on a nearby hillside near Nag Hammadi.”

Gross says it simply:
“In this section of the chapter, Pagels continues her claim that Irenaeus and later Athanasius acted in an authoritarian manner, demanding that certain writings be destroyed. Pagels evidence for this is Athanasius’ Easter letter of 367. However, Athanasius letter of AD 367 does not contain any demands that any writings be destroyed. It does not address Egyptian monks at all. It does not name any specific writings other than ones that are acceptable or canonical. At this critical point it appears that Pagelian orthodoxy has slipped into the realm of falsehood, of myth, and of speculation in an attempt to bolster its plausibility.”

Gross further writes: "Pagels was forced to mischaracterize the writings of Athanasius and actually resorted at one point to fabricating a quote in order to make her point.”

Here is the Link:

Other such critiques are available, and here is a link to one more:

For now this should keep you busy.

10:31 PM


poetreader said...

So-called "scholars" (and I won't write it without quotes) like Pagels and her defenders are quite skilled in the technique of the 'big lie' -- say something often enough and loudly enough and the fools will come to believe it. The gnostic documents were rejeceted by the Fathers for exactly that reason. Their assertions were fabrications, pure and simple, and transparently so. For these "scholars" to defend them, they find the necessity of loudly producing more fabrications. None of them are worth even listening to.


Anonymous said...

My favourite Pagels story concerns her argument that the so-called 'Gospel of Thomas' is among the gnostic texts that elevates the position of women in the Church, while she completely ignores the bit where Peter asks Jesus what will happen to Mary Magdalene, since as a woman she can't go to Heaven, and Jesus replies to the effect that she'll be transformed into a man when she dies. This is, I think, frequently exposed by Dr Pagels' critics. I remember reading it in a book by Susanne Heine, the professor of protestant theology at the University of Vienna (and therefore someone with whom I am not entirely in agreement), in or before 1990. A commentator on the Ignatius Insight website also took it up a few months ago in the context of the so-called 'Gospel of Judas' (what a fizzer that turned out to be) and the tiresome Da Vinci Code (wish they'd just ignored that).

Query: Was it Dr Pagels on the ghastly National Geographic television program about the Gospel of Judas who said that the canonical Scriptures were 'the basic course' and the gnostic stuff was the advanced material? If that is the case, it seems strange, since the Gospel of Judas had Jesus laughing at the disciples for worshipping the wrong God, and I'd like to know how the basic course can teach the worship of one deity, while the advanced course teaches the worship of another.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I don't know who was on the N Geo special.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

here was an e-mail comment from David Bentley Hart, Phd, author of two books, several articles, and abve all, my brother:


It might be germane to the conversation to point out that, in the academic world (of which, if you don't mind my saying so, I am a somewhat veteran witness), Pagels is often an object of ridicule, but never of respect. Even at Princeton her colleagues hold her in scorn as a silly popularizer who entirely distorts the history she discusses. And it has not gone unnoticed by her students that--for a reputed expert in ancient Gnostic documents--she owns a very small knowledge of either Greek or Coptic. In my year's sojourn at Princeton, I heard many barbed remarks about the quality of her "scholarship" from the faculty of the divinity school; not once did I hear anyone undertake to defend her. Anyway, since she writes about a period I know quite well (the languages pertinent to which, moreover, I can actually read), I feel free to assert that what she really knows about the early Church or the Gnostics could fit quite comfortably on the back of her calling card. I'm surprised anyone would be so silly as to leap into the breach to defend her; she is--and has long been known to be--a charlatan."

Anonymous said...

Dr Pagels was certainly on the N Geo special, along with lots of other people, including a Canadian gentleman from some theological school or other who actually made some sense, after which the camera cut to Dr Pagels saying 'How would he know?' But of the people on it, was she the one who referred to the canonical Scriptures as the 'basic course'? The more I search the dusty recesses of my memory, the more I think she was.

I am myself a failed academic. In my own discipline, I found that various forms of 'theory', including perhaps most notably feminist theory, were becoming both popular and also critically untouchable. Their practitioners were remarkably adept at taking the results of the archival researches (and sometimes also the translations) of other scholars and then cutting and pasting them in order to prove their ideological point, and woebetide anyone who dared to offer public criticism at a conference. Mind you, there was plenty of criticism and not a little ridicule among friends in private, but that has never been sufficient to stop an effective takeover of the academy by lightweight ideologues. Seems it's happened in theology and religion studies as well.

poetreader said...

It's regrettably true. I've found very little 'scholarship' in any of the fields in which I dabble (I don't pretend to be a scholar), later than, say, the '70s, that is anything other than a clumsy attempt to support an ideology. The prevailing opinion seems to be that data exists only to support opinions. That is not scholarship.


Mike L said...

This post bears wide dissemination. Thus see

Albion Land said...

Mike L,

Not quite sure what your message is, but thanks for posting.

Albion Land said...

Sorry, Professore, I didn't realise it was you. I'm still not sure what your message means, but I do appreciate your recognising that we schismatics can still get some things right. I am sure that poor beleaguered Bob will be even more appreciative.

In the meantime, a blessed Christmas and Happy New Year to you.

BTW, keep those links coming!

Albion Land said...

See related post at Sacramentum Vitae:

Roger said...

Because of Dr. Pagels writings, I have wondered about her faith. I would like to ask her what sustains her. She is very famaliar with suffering. She has lost a child and a husband. Has she written anything on her faith journey through this dark valley?