Beginning with the fall semester of 1980 and continuing through the spring semester of 1988, with generous support from the Jewish Chautauqua Society, I had the privilege of teaching a series of courses in the Department of Religious Studies at Connecticut College, in New London.
Not long after I assumed my role as adjunct professor, Eugene Gallagher, the colleague with whom I shared an office, asked if I had read Elaine Pagels’ recently published “The Gnostic Gospels” (1979). When I answered with a simple “No,” he responded with an equally simple “Read it!”
“The Gnostic Gospels” is a groundbreaking book; indeed, Modern Library has ranked it among the 100 best books of the 20th century.
What Pagels labels the Gnostic gospels, technically known as the Nag Hammadi Library, was unearthed by an Egyptian peasant in 1945. These papyrus codices, Coptic translations of the original Greek, are as important to understanding the early development of Christianity as the Dead Sea Scrolls are to understanding the first centuries of post-biblical Judaism.
Pagels, who was in her 30s when she wrote this book, already had “a working command of Greek, Latin, German, Hebrew, French, Italian, and Coptic,” as David Remnick reported in his interview with her, which appeared under the headline “The Devil Problem” in the April 3, 1995, issue of The New Yorker.
Despite her erudition, Pagels writes in a decidedly non-academic, clear and graceful style. She demonstrates how the Gnostic gospels – the Greek gnosis roughly translates to “insight” or “knowledge of the heart” – offer strikingly anti-orthodox alternatives to the canonical Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One of her favorite passages from the “Gospel of Thomas” hints at the quasi-mystical, intensely individualistic flavor of Gnostic writing:
“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.”
In her exploration of the complex diversity of early Christian communities, Pagels turns away from the more commonplace approach to religion as a body of ideas and beliefs, shifting her focus to the ways religion shapes our actions, shapes our lives in the here and now.
As she reminisces in her ninth and most recently published book, “Why Religion?” (2018), Pagels states that after speaking at a women’s conference in the early 1970s at New York’s Barnard College, where she then served as a junior faculty member, she became convinced that “instead of writing primarily about ideas, I’d have to show how ideas are inseparably woven into social codes, and so into behavior.” To take but one of many possible examples, how do entrenched religious ideas affect – often negatively – the treatment of women?
Five or six years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Pagels speak at Providence’s Central Congregational Church about the final and most puzzling book in the New Testament, the subject of her eighth book, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation” (2012). I was impressed by both her intellectual and physical vigor. After her lecture, she responded to questions with authority coupled with a sharp sense of humor. Throughout her presentation, Pagels insisted on using a hand-held microphone; she confessed to being too fidgety to be tethered to a single spot on the stage.
There was nothing in Pagels’ demeanor at the Central Congregational Church to even hint that as a woman in her 40s, she had suffered an almost unimaginable double loss. On April 10, 1987, Mark, her first-born, died of a rare and incurable lung disease at the age of 6½; she and her husband Heinz had lived for almost five years haunted by the knowledge that their son was doomed to an early death. Then, on July 24, 1988, just 15 months later, Heinz, age 49, fell to his death on his descent from the 14,000-foot Pyramid Peak, in Aspen, Colorado, during a family vacation – leaving his wife alone to raise their two adopted children: Sarah, 2½, and David, just 3 months old.
Pagels’ ninth and most recent book, “Why Religion?” well illustrates the truth of the rabbinical dictum that “Words which come from the heart enter the heart.” On one level, the book is a memoir detailing the sometimes toxic feelings of rage, guilt, isolation and helpless despair that have accompanied Pagels’ grief journey from nightmare darkness to some semblance of healing and light.
On an altogether different level, the memoir chronicles the author’s intellectual journey from book to book, from one alternative Christian voice to the next. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Pagels’ dogged pursuit of her academic interests has preserved her mental, emotional and spiritual balance – her very soul.
Over the years, Pagels has come to internalize her husband Heinz’s notion of the chaos, the indifferent randomness of Mother Nature; “Volcanoes erupt because that’s what volcanoes do, regardless of whether anyone in their path is good or evil ....” Nevertheless, recalling the opening lines of a poem by Wallace Stevens, she finds the strength and the courage not only to survive but to affirm life in all of its fullness: “After the final no there comes a yes/And on that yes the future world depends./No was the night. Yes is the present sun.”
Why religion? I would well understand if Pagels had descended into a life of bitterness, isolation, even insanity; but instead, her experience of religion – grounded not in beliefs and ideas, but in the connections she formed in the structures of the living Christian community – has enabled her to conclude her book with the words of the ancient rabbis’ Shehecheyanu prayer, which she freely translates as “Blessed art Thou, Lord God of the Universe, that you have brought us alive to see this day.”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.