Elaine Pagels Criticism - Essay

B. Cobbey Crisler (review date 3 December 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gnostic 'Books'," in The Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1979, p. B6.

[In the following review, Crisler describes The Gnostic Gospels as a lucid history of the Gnostic movement.]

The shattering of two ancient jars, one in December, 1945, near Nag Hammadi in Egypt and the other, almost a year later, in a Dead Sea cave, still reverberates in the alcoves of Biblical scholarship.

Although the extraordinary manuscript discoveries in the Dead Sea area have been widely examined, published, and commented upon (with certain notable exceptions), the "gnostic" library found hidden in the Nag Hammadi jar remained "for eyes only", (except for the "Gospel of Thomas") among scholarly initiates until the end of 1977. Then the 52 tractates in 13 codices appeared in a full facsimile edition and a simultaneous English edition, both under the general supervision and editorship of James M. Robinson, director of the Institute of Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont Graduate School in California. Said Professor Robinson at the time. "The floodgates have just opened."

Random House is in the sluiceway early with this book by Elaine Pagels, a member of Professor Robinson's translation team. As a book, it is the logical and inevitable outcome of her close association with the Nag Hammadi material. She writes for the layman, which is refreshing and she does so lucidly, which is a challenge, especially when "gnosticism" was regarded by its own adherents to be for the initiated only.

But as a title The Gnostic Gospels is inappropriate and was probably an editorial choice—the word "gospel" has market appeal. Certainly there is no indication in the introduction or in the text that the author ever intended to isolate the so called "gospels" of truth,...

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Raymond E. Brown (review date 20 January 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Christians Who Lost Out," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 85, January 20, 1980, pp. 3, 33.

[Below, Brown offers a negative assessment of The Gnostic Gospels.]

Some 30 years ago, there were two discoveries in the Middle East that have great, even if indirect significance for our knowledge of early Christianity. In 1945, Coptic codices (books) were found at Nag Hammadi, near the Nile, about 300 miles south of Cairo; in 1947, scrolls, mostly Hebrew and Aramaic, were found at Qumran, near the Dead Sea.

These parallel discoveries reflect curiously parallel histories. The Egyptian codices, in fourth-century A.D. script, contain 52 works...

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Hyam Maccoby (review date June 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Counter-Church," in Commentary, Vol. 69, No. 6, June, 1980, pp. 86-88.

[In the following review, Maccoby argues that while The Gnostic Gospels provides the lay reader with an introduction to gnosticism, it is flawed in several crucial areas.]

Gnosticism, an esoteric movement in ancient religion, has achieved surprising topicality. It may even be regarded as the form of religion most congenial to the modern world. Certain popular sects (such as Scientology) are really modern versions of gnosticism, with their description of earth as a lost, evil planet, containing trapped seeds of divinity, to be redeemed only by intervention of saviors from outer space....

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Kathleen McVey (essay date January 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gnosticism, Feminism, and Elaine Pagels," in Theology Today, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, January, 1981, pp. 498-501.

[In the following essay, McVey explores issues of feminism in Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels.]

A collection of Coptic documents discovered at Nag Hammadi (Chenoboskion) in Egypt in 1945 has shed important light on early Christianity by increasing our understanding of gnosticism. Gnosticism existed in pagan, Jewish, and Christian forms and was a major competitor with orthodox Christianity during the second century A.D. Christian gnosticism, a complex and varied movement, is nevertheless theologically distinct from Orthodox Christianity because it...

(The entire section is 1480 words.)

Robin Lane Fox (review date 21 August 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sweet Are the Uses of Original Sin," in The New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1988, pp. 15-6.

[In the review below, Fox states that Adam, Eve, and the Serpent contains the best elements of Pagels' writing, but contends that Pagels' arguments are not always plausible.]

The Bible begins with two accounts of the creation, written by different authors at different times. We do not know their dates, but the likeliest guesses are the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. We do know that they were later combined by a third person, the patron saint of relaxed editors. The two stories contradicted each other and each said the bare minimum. The editor did his...

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Thomas D'Evelyn (review date 14 September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Politics in Paradise—the Genesis of 'Original Sin'," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 80, No. 203, September 14, 1988, p. 18.

[In the following review, D'Evelyn finds Adam, Eve, and the Serpent an "elegant, well-argued discussion of a bold thesis."]

Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is an elegant, well-argued discussion of a bold thesis. To cover so much ground—four centuries of the Christian era—in such brief scope (under 200 pages), Elaine Pagels looks at a variety of interpretations of a key biblical text: the first three chapters of Genesis, the creation stories.

Long known to be from two different sources, these...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

Judith Ochshorn (review date April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Triumph of Pessimism," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, No. 7, April, 1989, pp. 21-2.

[In the review below, Ochshorn considers Adam, Eve, and the Serpent a fascinating account but finds some of Pagels's arguments troubling.]

Elaine Pagels' new book [Adam, Eve, and the Serpent] describes, in rich historical detail, "how certain ideas—in particular, ideas concerning sexuality, moral freedom, and human value—took their definitive form during the first four centuries as interpretations of the Genesis creation stories, and how they have continued to affect our culture and everyone in it, Christian or not, ever since."


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James Finn Cotter (review date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pagels's Paradise Lost," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLII, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 165-70.

[In the review below, Cotter argues that while Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is well-written and persuasive, it contains misleading and inaccurate areas.]

In the epilogue of her new book [Adam, Eve, and the Serpent], Elaine Pagels tells us that, dissatisfied with contemporary Christianity, she turned to the earliest Christians for answers. She assumed that in that era, when the movement was pristine and primitive, things were simpler and purer. She found the opposite to be true: the movement was diversified, divided by controversy, and complex.


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Henry Chadwick (review date 21 March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Paths of Heresy," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4017, March 21, 1990, p. 309.

[In the following review of The Gnostic Gospels, Chadwick discusses Pagels's efforts to address modern problems in Christianity by considering the early church.]

In December 1945, an Egyptian peasant made, with his mattock, an archaeological find that has coe to generate a substantial industry among students of early Christianity and of its pagan environment of high mysticism, low magic, and religious syncretism. The find consisted of a cache of Coptic codices buried in the second half of the fourth century a few miles from Nag Hammadi, containing fifty-two texts most...

(The entire section is 1767 words.)

Leslie Houlden (review date 18 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Prince of Darkness," in New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, pp. 9-10.

[In the following review of The Origin of Satan, Houlden states that while Pagels's arguments are single-minded and do not always have documentary support, she has written a compelling book that connects the concerns of the early church with contemporary issues.]

Satan, Elaine Pagels says, has a much more tenacious grip on the world than many people suppose; his power over the human imagination has grown for 22 centuries, and in the West even people who deny his existence, or who have no religion at all, live in a culture in which he is a large presence This demon will not...

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Mary Gordon (review date 26 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bedeviling Satan," in The Nation, Vol. 260, No. 25, June 26, 1995, pp. 931-33.

[In the review below, Gordon concludes that The Origin of Satan is informative but fails to address some of the questions it raises.]

Satan may not exist, but there are excellent reasons to invent him. He is called onstage whenever behavior pases our understanding of the limits of the human. To say that something is diabolical means it is inexplicable in ordinary terms. It ruptures the line of measurable cause and effect, or its sheer scope and efficiency seem untraceable. This kind of attribution can be seen as a failure of imagination or a type of species compassion. When...

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John P. Meier (review date 9 July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Our Old Enemy," in Washington Post Book World, July 9, 1995, p. 2.

[In the following review, Meier argues that while some of Pagels's assertions are questionable, The Origin of Satan reveals Pagels's skill at clearly and concisely developing new theories out of pre-existing facts.]

Although she has written scholarly works, Elaine Pagels, a professor at Princeton, is perhaps best known as a gifted popularizer. In this example [The Origin of Satan], she traces how the idea of Satan as a cosmic power opposed to God developed in early Judaism and Christianity. Pagels is interested in the "social" implications of Satan, i.e., how he was exploited to...

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Rockwell Gray (review date 30 July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Social History of Satan," in Chicago Tribune Books, July 30, 1995, pp. 6-7.

[In the review below, Gray writes that Pagels's efforts in The Origin of Satan to link early Christian ideas to the present are hampered by her failure to include cultural history and psychology in her analysis.]

In what she terms the social history of Satan, Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, finds the roots of the need to demonize one's enemies. The practice of explaining adversity or conflict by reference to demons reaches back, Pagels notes, into Old Testament history. But she argues [in The Origin of Satan] that it entered a radical...

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Norman Cohn (review date 21 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Le Diable au Coeur," in The New York Review, Vol. XLII, No. 14, September 21, 1995, pp. 18-20.

[In the review below, Cohn calls The Origin of Satan an important, original, and adventurous work.]

Whereas in the nineteenth century Satan seldom attracted the attention of serious historians—Gustave Roskoff's two-volume Geschichte des Teufels (1869) stands almost alone—of late he has done so repeatedly, and to excellent effect. The collection of essays published in 1948 under the auspices of the French Carmelites, and entitled simply Satan, heralded what became in the 1970s and 1980s a flood of scholarly studies. The five-hundred-page...

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Mary Troychak (review date September-October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Origin of Satan, in The Bloomsbury Review, September-October, 1995, p. 23.

[In the review below, Troychak discusses how events in Pagels's life motivated her to explore the dark side of Christianity.]

Five hundred years ago, Elaine Pagels would have been burned at the stake. She has read the sacred texts of Christianity and become fascinated with the devil. She expresses doubt that Jesus was actually crucified by Jews. She contends that the New Testament gospels—which millions of Christians believe to be the actual word of God set down by his apostles—are polemical tracts written generations later to strengthen the fledgling church...

(The entire section is 838 words.)