THE POLITICS OF CHRISTIANITY
(Elaine Pagels:) For those of us who study the beginning of Western civilization, the field has been transformed by several recent discoveries. One of them is the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and to me much more interesting is the discovery made in Upper Egypt, equally accidental, which was the discovery of ancient Christian texts from the beginning of the Christian era. These discoveries are transforming the way we look at Western culture and the history of religion in the West. My work centers on the diversities of the beginning of Western religion and how our perception of that is being transformed through these discoveries.
What was discovered in December, 1945 was a large library of ancient manuscripts which ranged from classical texts to early Christian texts, which transformed the way we see the beginning of the Christian movement. Many people have seen it as monolithic, as if it were a tradition that just keeps accreting and building and basically saying the same thing. We now see that Christianity, like Judaism, like Islam, is enormously diverse in its beginning and could have turned out very differently from what we see now. Some of the most fascinating discoveries in this find include the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of early sayings attributed to Jesus—it starts out with the words "These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke and which the twin Thomas wrote down."
Now we know there was a disciple of Jesus called the twin, and this is a series of secret sayings which are claimed to be transmitted through this disciple, this one favored for secret teaching. The teaching we find in the Gospel of Thomas is very much like some of the teaching in other Christian texts, like the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament. But some of it is radically different. Some of it looks like Buddhism, and may have in fact been influenced by a well-established Buddhist tradition at the time that these texts were first written. There were Buddhist missionaries in Alexandria, coming from Egypt, at the time.
The name Thomas is an Aramaic term for twin. It's just a nickname, really, and the given name of the disciple was Judas. Some people thought it meant that Jesus had a twin brother. But this is a very literal rendering. In fact it's meant to interpret the reader's situation; that is you, the reader, are in effect the twin brother of Jesus. And what you discover through the Gospel of Thomas is that you and Jesus on a deeper level are identical twins.
This is a very different kind of teaching from what you find in orthodoxy. If you read the Gospel of John in the New Testament it will say Jesus is God's son, descended from God Himself, came into the world to save the human race from sin, and the rest of us are damned unless we believe in him.
The Gospel of Thomas has a completely different message, and it looks much more like the origins of Jewish mystical teaching, developed much more than a thousand years later, after this Gospel, in the tradition called Kabala, which simply means tradition. It's esoteric Jewish tradition, which teaches about all beings made in the image of God. That's the kind of teaching you find in this very early Christian text.
But this and many other forms of Christianity were suppressed—by certain Christian leaders—to consolidate an extraordinarily diverse movement, and to attempt to ensure its survival. To understand what happened, we need to recall that being a follower of Jesus—a man executed for treason against Rome—was dangerous, since his followers, during those early centuries, were equally suspect. Thousands were arrested, tortured, and executed for what the Romans called "atheism"—not believing in the gods of Rome—and for treason.
One young Christian, named Irenaeus, having seen his teacher and mentor brought into the public stadium in Antioch, and, to please the crowd, burned alive, and then having seen dozens more of his fellow Christians lynched, arrested, tortured, and killed in public spectacles to celebrate the emperor's birthday, resolved to consolidate the surviving Christians into a single organization worldwide—which he called the "catholic" (that is, "universal") church. To do this, he urged Christians to destroy all the various teachings and "gospels," except those now contained in the New Testament. Now, he declared, all should believe the same thing, and stop asking questions. Instead of many groups of believers, Irenaeus insisted, all true Christians should belong to the "one, holy, universal ("catholic") church."
What was discovered in Egypt includes over fifty of the gospels and writings that he tried to banish and discredit. And it's no accident—and no surprise, when you think about it—that Irenaeus' kind of Christianity—authoritative, simple, hierarchical—is what many Christians, including many politically minded Christians, still declare is the "only true Christianity" today. For with the surprise conversion of Emperor Constantine in the year 312 the situation of Christians transformed from that of an illegal group to becoming the religion of the empire. Constantine apparently found in it a new way of organizing—and justifying—the politics of imperialism.
But now, given these discoveries, we are rewriting the history of Christianity—and the history of western culture as a whole. For traditionally, Christians have thought of the time of Jesus as a kind of mythical time, one that initiates a whole new era of world history (so we date our history from the supposed year of his birth!) Many people have thought that if we could only go back and listen to what Jesus actually said to his disciples, we would find the pure and simple truth that eludes us—the truth that they believe must have been there. And I have colleagues today who claim to have understood exactly what Jesus did preach. Their books show interesting guesses—quite a range of them. John Dominic Crossan sees Jesus as a social critic, and political radical; Geza Vermes sees him as a charismatic rabbi; others see a preacher who believed that the end of the world was coming soon. And each of these views draws upon some early sources.
The problem I have with all these versions of the so called "historical Jesus" is that they each choose certain early sources as their central evidence, and each presents a part of the picture. My own problem with this, as a historian, is that none of the historical evidence actually goes back as far as Jesus—so these various speculations are that, and nothing more. But what we can investigate historically is how the "Jesus movement" began. What the new research shows is that we have a wide range of teaching attributed to Jesus.
What we now see is that what orthodox Christianity teachers taught—that Jesus was somehow God in human form—was by no means what Jesus taught, although some of his earliest followers taught that—the apostle Paul, for example. The New Testament Gospel of John, written about sixty years after Jesus' death, declares that Jesus is God in human form—God descending into the world to save humanity from sin. Those who believe in him, John says, are saved; God condemns all others to eternal torment.
But the discoveries show very different versions of Jesus' message—some coming from our earliest sources. Now we can see that the author of the Gospel of John was writing to refute other, earlier teachings that he regarded as threatening—and wrong—like the teaching found in the Gospel of Thomas. For this gospel, which John discredits by labeling the disciple Thomas as "doubting Thomas," declares that just as Jesus comes from God, so does every person—since everyone is created "in the image of God." Instead of saying that one must believe in Jesus and be saved, Thomas has Jesus urge his disciples to seek for God within themselves—and assures them that everyone can find the divine source from which all beings, and, indeed, everything that exists, comes forth.
This gospel, then, and many others in the same find, suggest a kind of egalitarian, "do it yourself" Christianity, which bishops like Irenaeus decided was antithetical to his project of building a single, authoritative, "catholic church," outside of which, he insisted, "there is no salvation." And after Christianity became the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire, the emperor endorsed the bishops' authority, along with the first official creed—the "Nicene creed," hammered out at a meeting of bishops convened by Constantine—and the books in the New Testament canon as the sole authority for divine truth.
You can see why conservative Christians, to this day, always go back to John's gospel to "prove" that only their religion—and only their version of it—is valid. The Rev. Weldon Gaddy, who heads a coalition of religious groups on Capitol Hill in Washington, told me that conservative Christians, whatever their denomination, from Baptists to Catholics—are always quoting to him from John's Gospel. For example, they love a saying from the fourteenth chapter:"Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through me:" this "proves" that every other religion—and every other form of Christianity—is worthless.
Even today, then, conservative Christians base their convictions on the belief that the Bible is God's word; it is immutable; it is actually what God himself said and what God meant to say. And of course they know exactly what it means. For many of them, there's no need to think about it—much less allow for interpretation—since its meaning is obvious and simple.
That kind of belief rests on the conviction that Christianity has never changed—it is the same simple message that Jesus and all his disciples taught. Anyone who asks them about the other gospels—like the Gospel of Thomas—is likely to be told that these other "so called gospels" (in the words of one conservative New Testament scholar) are simply rubbish: "These were rubbish in the first century; and they are still rubbish" because they are not the "real" gospels—the New Testament gospel. That attitude, of course, begs the question of why certain gospels are in the New Testament and others were declared "heresy" ( the word means "choice"—something that most bishops did not think that members of "their flock" should have).What they endorse is a simple version of Christian truth: Jesus died for your sins; believe in him, and be saved.
The kind of Christianity that pervades the religious right in this country divides the world between the saved and the damned, between God's people and Satan's people, between good and evil. We have all seen how this is played out in our politics. I used to think that President Bush was using this language as a political ploy. I still think he is, but I also think—to my disappointment—that he also believes it. His conviction that he is God's chosen one to "rid the world of evildoers" blinds him to the evil that he—and we, as Americans—are capable of doing. The conviction that we are on the side of good—of God—is, however, an ancient one—enormously powerful.
Christians invoking terms such as "evil-doers" read the bible, as anyone does, selectively. They choose the parts they like and they leave out the parts they don't. In this case the parts they like are the parts about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, that is—and a life for a life. If someone's taken a life, then their life is required. And that's certainly a biblical tenet. Of course, it's from the Old Testament. You don't hear much about forgiveness and turning the other cheek from our President and his administration. The Old Testament is what they choose for this occasion because it suits their purpose.
What I've learned through studying the Gospel of Thomas and the context of the politics of early Christianity, is that anyone who participates in Christian tradition without having learned anything about it—and that's most people who participate in it, because it's not taught in public or private schools for the most part—often think of their traditions as immutable, as if they've just come down from God.
In fact many Muslims think the same way. Last year I was asked to criticize a paper written about traditions about the birth of Jesus in the Koran, and the scholar who wrote it kept saying, I'm not impugning the tradition, I'm saying nothing wrong. And I finally asked a colleague from Israel, why is he saying this? Why is he talking this way in an academic paper? And my colleague said, because he can be killed for saying that Mohammed did not say these words, which are in the Koran.
Similarly, many Jews and many Christians have assumed that their holy scriptures were some kind of immutable truth that descended from heaven in—what, on a tablet? On a scroll? That of course is the story of Sinai. And what this work shows, the work of historians of religion, is that in fact these kinds of texts are accretions that develop over time, they come out of arguments—you can show what those arguments are. You can show how opposite points of view are articulated in the traditions that these Christians think come straight from the mouth of Jesus himself, that in fact what's put in the mouth of Jesus himself are words that come out of debates that occur 60 to 70 years after his death. Now that is interesting, because it makes it impossible to maintain a kind of literalist and simplistic view of revelation. That is really the basis of much Christian teaching, and in fact particularly much of American Christianity in particular.
I now think that Christianity has something to offer for many others, who, like myself, have nevertheless found it compelling. I did not come to this conviction easily, but with a lot of resistance, since I was brought up to believe that religion is obsolete—and is about to wither up and die, because it is no longer needed. As soon as enough people are educated, I was told, no one will need religion anymore; they'll understand that science now gives us adequate understanding of the universe.
That left me wondering, however, what function religion fulfills, and why it appeals to so many people I suspect that it has to do with the human brain; what my late husband Heinz called "the lizard brain." We still dream when we sleep—much as people did thousands and millions of years ago. Our brain associates feelings and images and makes up "story lines" that pervade our unconscious, and powerfully affect our sense of power and meaning. This kind of experience gives rise to religious tradition, and responds to the images, the music, the worship, and the stories we know from ancient traditions. There are artists—like the video artist Bill Viola and, of course, Andres Serrano. Serrano's work is very Catholic and very religious, and he is fascinated with what Christianity taught him about the body. When I saw his work "Piss Christ" that so outraged some members of the Senate, I thought it was gimmicky. But when I talked to Serrano about it and looked at some other pieces that he did, I saw that he wasn't just doing a clever gimmick. He's a person raised Catholic who is working himself out of the perceptions of the body, of the dirtiness of the body that he was taught as a child—both about bodily functions like excretions, but also sexual functions. So he's asking himself the question, how did the church teach me that this was dirty? And therefore he's exploring those traditions, in a very different way. And anyone who studies what I study is doing that as well. So this is an invitation to people who really have nothing to do with Christianity on any practicing level, certainly like myself, to understand how it is that sometimes we're engaged with religious issues and sometimes we are attracted even to religious tradition, whether it's the music, the liturgies, the ancient kinds of worship.
In England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is a scholar in my field. I've read his books and talked about his work. But the Church of England is quite different. In this country there are also quite a few educated Catholics. In the Episcopal Church I think it's wide open. In fact if you look at every American denomination from a sociological point of view now, whether it's Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, you name it—they're tremendously divided, and the split is Conservative/Liberal. The issues on which they're divided particularly are sexual issues, like homosexuality, and abortion. That's where the divide is, and I hope that I am moving people toward more questions about the tradition and less certainty that it's got to be this way, that it can only be one way. That position is not maintainable when you look at it from the historical perspective.
The people who've talked to me who come to it as Jews have been very much interested because it's also destabilizing the notion of what is Christianity, pointing out that it began as a Jewish movement. The teaching of the Gospel of Thomas raises the question of what's Jewish and what's Christian? Now this used to be a simple question. When I was in graduate school Judaism went up to the year 70 and it stopped, with the Romans' destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and the rabbinic movement began. Judaism is basically over and finished, and Christianity begins. This is what was taught at Harvard—in an academic study of religion. No one thinks that way now.
We're looking at very complex questions of the interpenetration of Jewish and Christian groups in the first four centuries. And when does something stop being Jewish and start being Christian? How do you define that? Is it going to be what you believe about Jesus? If it is, these texts make the question much more difficult. Why? Because, the Gospel of Thomas says nothing that a rabbi could not endorse.
Daniel Boyarin at the University of California is suggesting that Judaism did not become defined as Judaism until the fourth century— that is, until there was imperial Christianity. He says this new movement needed something against which to define itself, and what it defined itself against was what it called Judaism. So, he says, Judaism is really a creation of Christianity.
Boyarin is saying that Judaism is created by Christianity, making it the other. After all, Christianity is a kind of Judaism—a heretical Judaism, from a Jewish point of view. When it becomes a dominant religion it relegates the other kinds of Judaism to being suspect—in fact it becomes a criminal offense to convert anyone to Judaism in the fourth century. When the empire becomes Christian in the fourth century, Constantine declared a law that a person could be burned alive for converting someone to Judaism . As one scholar said, in the fourth century, Christian prejudices against Judaism were transformed into law. Thus, Judaism, Boyarin suggests, begins really in the fourth century. Prior to that time they were usually called Jews from the land of Judea. How those terms come into being is a tough question, one that I'm looking at right now.
How did the constructions of the terms of identity that we use today— Jew, Palestinian, Christian—emerge in the 2nd century, in the Roman Empire, when Jerusalem is destroyed by Rome. Then it was called Syriac-Palestine. The term Palestinian comes into being for the people in that land who are not Jews, not identifying as Judeans when Judea is demolished and destroyed.
Our political and religious forms of identity are inextricably involved with one another in these centuries, and it's fascinating. I have recently been looking at how identity is formed. For example, after Yugoslavia fell apart as a political entity, people were asked, "Who are you?" They wouldn't say Yugoslav, they'd say, "I'm a Catholic," or "I'm a Muslim," or "I'm a Jew." They would fall back to these ancient identities, which is very interesting. How did we get those identities?
I find it fascinating that the idea of being a Jew has been so consistent for three thousand years. That's quite an accomplishment. And because of this claim of ethnic separation, an animosity has persisted, one that is very significant and very deep. And this is how the idea of the chosen people arises.
While I was working on my book about Satan I first tried out my ideas in Jerusalem, and I talked to a group of colleagues at the Hebrew University at Tel Aviv about the gospels and the construction of Satan—that is, the beginning of Christian anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism first arose among Jewish groups, the followers of Jesus, that split and turned on their fellow Jews and called them followers of Satan. It wasn't invented by Christians, it was invented by other radical Jewish groups and has always been practiced by radical groups. In fact, I asked a colleague of mine at the institute when I was working on this whether there were any Jews today who talk about Satan—because the mainstream doesn't. He thought for a moment, and he said, "Yes, there are people who say that the founding of Israel is the work of Satan." And I said, "Because other Jews did it?" And he said, "Yes." And later it was a member of that group who assassinated Rabin for betraying his people. When I spoke about this in Jerusalem, one of my fellow scholars said that this idea of children of the devil is simply the other side of our conviction of being chosen. She said this is part of the construct and, of course, it has to do with resentment about that, really flipping it.
When I was in my twenties, there was no religion in my life. Yet I knew that it's a remarkable phenomenon to explore. There are many ways to explore it. You can do that artistically, anthropologically, historically, literarily, musically, archaeologically—there's a great deal of cultural history to explore. And there's a lot about human psychology to explore, too. What people do when they're young is ask, what is this about? Is it a significant part of human life? Is it not? Is it for me or is it not? That's a question worth asking.
In my book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, I began to look at it as an anthropologist would, to look at the creation stories, the story of Adam and Eve not as an alternative to Darwin but as an articulation in a very dense folktale form of the values of ancient Israelite culture.
I was brought up to believe that religion was obsolete, and it was the view of August Compte, an enlightenment view. First there was magic and then there was religion and now there is science, and these are stages of culture, and we are fortunately in the last of these, and we can dispense with the first two.
Many people think that religion does have to do with social values, and the way that groups function. The sociologist, Emile Durkheim, has written about the sociology of religion and that is one of its major functions. Some people even suggest that there are groups of apes and monkey species that move in similar gatherings that may echo certain kinds of religious practice. But it may have a lot to do with social function; that's a very important part of it.
If I were not doing what I'm doing I would like to do science—neurology and cognitive science, in particular—because these fields have to do with perception, and I have a sense that religion has to do with the way we dream. We dream probably rather similarly to the way people dreamed a million years ago, a thousand years ago certainly. We know about people a thousand years ago because they wrote dream books. Religion has to do with some kind of brain function like that which is driven often by hope and fear. And by visual imagination. That is enormously interesting to me.
I've also had a suspicion that religion has to do with sociobiology, that this is part of the way the species organizes, in groups. This has to do with group affiliation and shared values and how they are articulated.
Rather than doing the hard work of looking at religion scientifically in terms of our human biological nature, some scientists are merely anti-religious polemicists. Their writings might lead you to believe that religion is a relic of some ancient superstition—that it's for people who are inadequately scientific. My father would have certainly agreed with them. He was a plant biologist, had converted from the Calvinism of his parents to Darwin, to believe that the bible was basically a bunch of children's stories—I was brought up to think that as well. My father had absolutely no use for religion, thought it was absolute nonsense, basically ridiculed it. It's easy to do that when you have never studied anything about it, when religion is basically a subject that everyone thinks of as something they probably knew about it perhaps as children and basically quit, as children. And therefore their awareness of it stops with that—with children's stories. Or as a kind of fill-in for the gaps in our knowledge. In fact I think it's very important to look at religion perhaps as a function of the human brain, as a manifestation of part of the way we think, and certainly as a very important part of human culture. These are subjects worthy of a great deal of study by neurologists, anthropologists, cultural historians—worth a great deal more than ridicule.
What I'm working on now and what I find I'm passionately thinking about, has to do with the interaction of politics and religion. Certainly it's most relevant in America, as this country was founded, in its beginning at least, with the Puritans and others, who were people who were religiously motivated and saw their migration to this country as a religious act—as the people of Israel coming to the Promised Land—and of course to a land which they claimed was theirs by divine right. They were also defying the King of England and his claims to divine right, which had been worked out in a very complicated way.
What fascinates me are the kinds of claims that are made by religious people for political purposes. When I became distressed and upset with the language that President Bush is using to justify war in Iraq, I was saying, as many other liberal Americans were, "Doesn't he understand about separation of religion and politics? Separation of church and state? This is the American tradition."
Later I realized that that kind of liberal outrage doesn't go deep enough, because the interaction of religion and politics—and President Bush knows this very well, and Saddam Hussein knows this very well, and many other political leaders recognize it—are inextricably and very deeply interconnected, probably because they come from the same emotional source. That is, patriotism is about patria— fatherland, father, country, place, our family, our people—all of those emotions, which are very deep and which are the source which politicians count on for political passion and political conviction—let alone conviction about war—which are deeply connected with religious impulses, and so people have always drawn on that.
I am exploring how religion and politics came to be seen, as we often do see them, as separate spheres. That's the anomaly, not the joining of the two, but the separation. That's what I want to look at. That separation was negotiated particularly by Jews who lived in large agrarian empires of the ancient Near East, like Egypt and Babylonia and Assyria. They lived in those empires and often in many different ways, but without worshiping the gods of those people and maintaining a certain separation from them. The very complex ways they negotiated those distinctions—the way they negotiated their identity as separate from the people of the land, as they liked to call them—become the basis of our political institutions.
Then the Jewish followers of Jesus had adopted many of those traditions, and developed others, partly because unlike other Jews they were of course also persecuted for their convictions. They also negotiated a series of ways of separating themselves from the political requirements and from political loyalty. At the same time they could also support the political authority. They had a whole range of strategies. As Jews did. How they developed those strategies is really deeply part of our heritage. I want to look at America in the light of how these ancient traditions developed and how they're playing themselves out.
I'm finding material that should make us aware that if we aren't quite conscious of the separation of religion and politics—which I hope we learn to be, and are—and vigilant about that, they will probably collapse in on themselves again.
When I was in Russia before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I saw Lenin everywhere. I went to the tomb of Lenin in Red Square, and a Russian boy, about twelve, said to me, "Have you seen his face?" And I realized these are reliquaries. The entire panoply of Russian communism was set up as a religious system. That is what totalitarian systems know very well.
I'm concerned about our country, because one can see how appeals to religion, like those that are currently being made by the religious right, can work in a democracy to subvert all of the values to which they give lip service. It worked brilliantly with the Roman Empire. Beliefs are overrated in Christianity. Religious traditions have to do with a lot more than beliefs.
While the Constitution does protect religious freedom of worship, it's supposed to protect secularism.