The case of Elaine Pagels – academic fraud or just a (perceived) heretic?


[quote=“roosbugg, post:21, topic:5845, full:true”]
[/quote]There is a disagreement as to if Elaine Pagels presents, in her popular literary works, an unbiased account of projected “early Christianity” (the contention being her placing of various Gnostic sects as in competition with an alleged “Piscine” or “Pauline” sect(s) at a very early stage in the historical development of Christianity).

It began in relation to this:[quote=“cjmacie, post:33, topic:5804”]
Excellent coverage of the progression and evolution of the writing of the gospels, with respect to all available historical sources, and the further evolution of Christian writings and movements through the next couple of centuries is found in the books of Elaine Pagels.
[/quote]And I felt that this was relevant to those interested in engaged in EBT studies (my flimsy excuse, admittedly, for justifying this as relevant to the forum), as I am of this persuasion, ultimately, on the matter:[quote=“Coemgenu, post:63, topic:5804”]
I apologize if it was altogether too condescending in tone to Pagels, as I understand you are her acquaintance, but the relevancy here to EBT studies is very tangible. Elaine Pagels argues, as I see it, others are free to disagree and question what I have presented in the Pagels subdiscussion and I will respond (but via PM is best), that “the historical Buddha taught Bodhisattvayāna”
[/quote]Much of the rest was me in the process of trying to justify my statements as discreetly as possible. Admittedly, the Mankowski article’s (as well as my own) treatment of Elaine Pagels was not the best, although I can stand by the fact that I was being honest, if perhaps not retrospectively tactful.

I apologize if anyone has had any negativity enter their experience viewing this forum on account of my participation in this exchange.

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It doesn’t necessarily make him less of a scholar, but this is why I enjoy looking at the backgrounds and other writings of scholars or authors, as this history can illuminate the potential agendas or biases that a writer might have. I note that Fr. Mankowski wrote a scathing article on priests, and the priest sexual abuse scandals of recent years ( . Echoing his references to Wm. Shakespeare in the “Pill” essay, I wonder if he doth protest too much on the subject of priestly sexual behavior. Aside from wrongly conflating homosexuality with pedophilia, he offers no protocols or solutions, only a diagnosis without a prescription to what was and is a widespread criminal crisis. He travels and lectures in Catholic circles frequently, yet I see no evidence that he has called out the sequestration and country club treatment that the Jesuit and Holy Cross orders provided to priest sex offenders (one, a notorious former Provost at my former undergrad university, enjoyed a cushy retirement and grand funeral ). To me, Mankwoski’s scholarship is heavily influenced by his biases in favor of protecting the Church.

I will apologise in advance for my own biases at work in the above. I was quite fortunately not pulled into this horrific circle of priest abuse while I was a young man, but some of my peers were. If the Church had intervened, pursued and helped prosecute these offenders with the same vigor that Fr. Makowski goes after Prof. Pagels, much suffering could have been avoided and some measure of justice meted out. Mankowski is all bark and no bite in the case of the priest sex abuse scandals, even sharing the billing in a 1990 religious publication:

by Paul V. Mankowski

by James T. Burtchaell

But, I hope in this post I don’t sound too unfair or malicious.


Well, let’s try putting these charges of fraud in some context, shall we?

If a single individual promotes a mountain of absurdities and impostures, we don’t think much of that individual. But if a group of men promotes a mountain of absurdities and impostures, and calls it “Our Faith”, and surrounds their intellectual dog’s breakfast with colorful vestments, marble carvings, bombastic organ music and incense, some might be inclined to give it more leeway.

But really, there is no difference. I know it is impolite to mention these realities. But the Catholic Church (along with the hierarchies and dignitaries of most other Christian denominations) is a veritable army of frauds, traditionally hawking an anti-intellectual and unscientific “faith” to the ignorant and gullible in order to keep them terrified and obedient, and subordinated to patriarchal social control. They earn a living though the sale of a dubious snake-oil cure to the incurable disease of mortality.

So here comes Elaine Pagels, attempting to ask challenging questions about the unfortunately very obscure and evidence-short history of the early Christian Church, and posing some admittedly speculative answers about what might have happened. The Guardians of the Faith are not amused.

On the other hand, Elaine Pagels has never, as far as I know, claimed that she could keep people out of hell by “forgiving their sins”, or turn some bread into the body of the son of God, or advance the fortunes of people’s dead relatives by offering special prayers about souls in Purgatory.

So who are the greater frauds? You be the judge.

[quote=“DKervick, post:24, topic:5845”]
But really, there is no difference. I know it is impolite to mention these realities. But the Catholic Church (along with the hierarchies and dignitaries of most other Christian denominations) is a veritable army of frauds, traditionally hawking an anti-intellectual and unscientific “faith” to the ignorant and gullible in order to keep them terrified and obedient, and subordinated to patriarchal social control.
[/quote]This just seems like an ax to grind? More of this “the Catholic Church held us back for hundreds of years” nonsense.

You don’t have to “like” Catholics to understand source theories of the Bible, which Pagels dramatically misrepresents in order to push an untenable and unhistorical reading of Gnosticisim within history.[quote=“AnagarikaMichael, post:23, topic:5845”]
Echoing his references to Wm. Shakespeare in the “Pill” essay, I wonder if he doth protest too much on the subject of priestly sexual behavior.
[/quote]Perhaps Mankowski is a pedophile and perhaps that effects his ability to be informed by much more likely models (such as the documentary hypothesis, the supplementary hypothesis, and the fragmentary hypothesis, the three dominant mainstream models which do not have much room for great sweeping Gnostic cosmologies of cosmic emanations in the simple and down to earth monotheistic Jewish teaching of the historical Jesus. That Jesus taught Gnosticism not only has no evidence behind it, it completely jettisons all of the major work spent on establishing a chronology of Christ and early Christian texts by both secular scholars and scholars like Mankowski), but now we just seem to be entering counter-defamation territory? I am very sorry that Mankowski does not offer solutions to the problem of sexual abuse.

I do want to be clear that I did not allude that he is or was a pedophile. Mankowski may well be properly celibate and strict about his own behaviors. I wanted to be careful not to suggest any pejoratives, but only that his essay on sexual behaviors of priests was never backed up by any action on his part to address the problem. Fr. Burtchaells’s predatory criminal acts against innocent young men on campus were well known by 1980, and yet he continued to share celebrity and a stage with other priest/scholars like Mankowski. I just find it incredible that Mankowski could be so vocal, literate and animated on the issue of priest sexual abuse, but be then silently complicit (a co-conspirator, in a sense) in enabling it, even if unintentionally. If I am defaming Mankowski, it is only that I find him to be a hypocrite. I see that there is hypocrisy in priests that preach holy asceticism, as Mankowski does, and yet blithely share a stage with a known sex offender. I am sorry for the coarse language, but there it is. My last words on this subject…I’ve probably said too much .

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[quote=“AnagarikaMichael, post:26, topic:5845, full:true”]

I do want to be clear that I did not allude that he is or was a pedophile.[/quote]I see, I must be misunderstanding the allusion to “methinks the lady doth protest too much”.

My claim is that many Catholic Church doctrines (and orthodox Christian doctrines in general) are, if taken literally, wildly implausible at least and palpable nonsense more often, and that the intellectual and pastoral systems that have been erected to defend these doctrines, and the institutions that guard those systems and their trained experts, are thus systematic frauds. There is no doubt that the institutional Catholic Church also promoted a lot of beneficial things during its centuries of ascendancy, including universities, literacy, charities, inspiring imaginative literature, and a universalizing moral framework that attempted to keep the grotesque violence and plunderings of Europe’s “nobles” within reasonable bounds. Whether the whole institutional ensemble did more to advance civilization or hold it back during that time is a complex historical question about which I have no settled opinion. Even a systematic fraud could be beneficial, in principle, if the only historically available alternatives were worse. I guess you could call my perspective an ax to grind, in that I have strong antipathy toward the propagation of ignorance, even if some benefits can be traced to the institutional system that propagates that ignorance.

But by all means, scholars should attempt to derive as accurate an understanding as is possible about the historical origins of the Christian churches and systems of Christian doctrine. So I have no problems with people criticizing Pagels’s scholarly claims. Nevertheless, one might have expected a bit more meekness and courtesy from a follower of the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount, and from an ordained member of an institution that, in addition to its good works, is also responsible for the deposition of mountains of intellectual trash on our cultural history and for several campaigns of murder and torture directed against the dangerous wielders of critical intelligence who from time to time put a spade in that mountain. The disdainful characterization of Pagels as a historical romance novelist suggests the presence of the all-to-familiar expression of the patriarchal urge to squelch imaginative little ladies disrupting the shabby and pompous institutional authority of an extremely hierarchical church, and affronting its (very imperfectly) celibate army of male doctrinal soldiers.

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[quote=“sujato, post:16, topic:5845”]
Surely this is a normal feature of dialectic? You have to present a spectrum of views, and do so in a persuasive way, otherwise the reader has no idea why the facts or arguments that you adduce actually matter.
[/quote]I guess the central issue that I have is the presentation of various tantalizing historical tidbits, all of them things moderns love to hear, followed by this “but of course there is absolutely no evidence” caveat.

I can’t help but be skeptical of this strategy, as it reminds me of Ancient Aliens documentaries and other assorted areas of pop culture: “the pyramids might have been built by lasers, there isn’t any evidence either way!” And therein lies the fundamental issue that people take with Pagels’ work. She does not go out and say “Gnosticism is the original teaching of the historical Jesus”, but she leaves the door open, and, IMO, invites readers through it with “hints”.

She reminds me of a far more popularly successful version of a scholar whose paper I once read (I will find the citation) that argued that the “Primordial Buddha” of the Tiāntāi, Tendai, & Nichiren schools, who appears in the 16th varga of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, is substantiated in the EBTs (the āgamāḥ in particular).

Perhaps I have been too critical in following this line of inquiry. If such is the case my apologies.

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But surely this is over the top. Ancient aliens conspiracies are sheer nonsense. To suggest that, say, there may be Buddhist influence on Gnostic ideas is a completely different order of idea.

We are talking about cultures that had deep and manifold ties for centuries, and which even share some common language; both Ashokan edicts and Gospels may be written in Greek, for example. It is perfectly rational and expected that such cultures should share some ideas.

That there is an affinity of ideas is beyond doubt; I noticed it even just checking the Gospel of Thomas yesterday. That there is some kind of historical influence from Buddhist to Christian texts is, in my opinion likely; I think three specific Gospel parables were sourced from Buddhist texts. That there is a stronger influence on Gnostic texts is a reasonable hypothesis. It may or may not be supported by evidence, but it deserves a fair hearing.


I guess the most controversial speculations in this area are those about what the historical Jesus believed, not merely those about what ideas might have filtered into the early Christian communities from other sources, including possibly Indic sources, in the first few centuries after Jesus.

My understanding is that Pagels, in her more recent work, has disclaimed any attempt to identify the teachings of the historical Jesus, and is more interested in the diversity of opinions to be found in early Christian communities, whatever their ultimate source.

I think it is also worth noting that the scholarship on the dating and interpretation of the Nag Hammadi texts, and other non-canonical and apocryphal Christian or quasi-Christian texts from these early periods, seems to have advanced quite a bit since Pagels first entered the field. Pagels’s views seem to have evolved along with her field.

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Dear Banthe, which ones?

The walking on water, the widow’s two coins, and the loaves and fishes. The first seems to be sourced ultimately from the first chapter of the Vinaya Khandhaka. The latter two are not in the EBTs, but they are found in the Lalitavistara, a very popular life of the Buddha. These are not just similar stories; there are enough parallels of details to make a good case that the actual texts were the source, either directly or indirectly.


The Lalitavitara is thought to be 3rd century CE. So, isn’t it possible that in that case, the influence went the other way?

I think it is interesting that both traditions have important parables about mustard seeds. But the lessons seem so different that it is hard to imagine much direct influence either way.

Some weeks ago I decided to try to understand the origins of the christianity I grew up with (and that I let go of some 50 years ago), so I acquired “A new History of Early Christianity” by Charles Freeman. I have not progressed much into it yet. Anyone have read it? Is Mr Freeman a reliable source?

Anyway this thread has already been a good source for me to confirm that christianity is a made-up religion not the so-called god “revealed” religion that I was taught it was; god having “written” the gospels!.

Thank you cjmacie, Coemgenu and DKervick and others for your contributions.


That’s too late. Maybe the received text as we have it is so late, but it’s clearly based on a tradition of lives of the Buddha that goes back much earlier. I haven’t looked into this for a long time, but my understanding is that the stories were likely to have been in circulation before Christ. According to the intro from the recent translation:

Previous scholarship on The Play in Full (mostly published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) devoted much time to determining the text’s potential sources and their respective time periods, although without much success. For example, while the first critical publications argued that the verse sections of the text represent a more ancient origin than the parts written in prose, that theory had largely been dismissed by the beginning of the twentieth century (Winternitz 1927). Although this topic clearly deserves further study, it is interesting to note that hardly any new research on this sūtra has been published during the last sixty years. As such the only thing we can currently say concerning the sources and origin of The Play in Full is that it was based on several early and, for the most part, unidentified sources that belong to the very early days of the Buddhist tradition.


[quote=“cjmacie, post:1, topic:5845”]
The core issue…[/quote]

In MN 26 & elsewhere, is the following verse, which may help distinguish views such as Mankowski vs Pagels.

Then Brahma Sahampati, having known with his own awareness the line of thinking in my awareness, thought: ‘The world is lost! The world is destroyed! The mind of the Tathagata, the Arahant, the Rightly Self-awakened One inclines to dwelling at ease, not to teaching the Dhamma!’ Then, just as a strong man might extend his flexed arm or flex his extended arm, Brahma Sahampati disappeared from the Brahma-world and reappeared in front of me. Arranging his upper robe over one shoulder, he knelt down with his right knee on the ground, saluted me with his hands before his heart, and said to me: ‘Lord, let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma! Let the One-Well-Gone teach the Dhamma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma.’

What do we think or believe Brahma Sahampati was here? A disembodied spirit abiding in a heavenly cloud or merely a human with psychic powers?


There is quite an extensive list of biblical parallelisms at the end of Paul Carus’s Gospel of the Buddha (pp. 260-8), though with no judgments offered as to whether this is due to influence or coincidence. It’s best to look at the scanned pdf edition at as the online text editions of Carus’s work are imperfectly OCD’d.

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[quote=“sujato, post:30, topic:5845”]
That there is a stronger influence on Gnostic texts is a reasonable hypothesis.
[/quote]Many have pointed out the eerie similarity that Gnostic cosmologies and teachings have with contemporaneous Indian “Buddhism” (which would be, rather than “Buddhism” as we know it as a “religion”, a syncretic and seamless blend of Hindu-Vajrayāna practices, along with what attention to EBTs was paid at the time (unlikely to be much)). The cosmic world-cycles, emanating deities (the Gnostic Pleroma reminds me very much of the Five Dhyani Buddhas and their complex interweaving bodhisattva emanations, or the Primordial Buddha Mahāvairocana (dharmakāya), who emanates Śākyamuni (nirmāṇakāya) & Amitābha (saṃbhogakāya), all of these similarities are very salient, I agree). However these cosmologies and practices are believed, in mainstream scholarship inasmuch as I am aware, to originate in Judaism and Hellenistic Jewish esotericism (very compelling scholarship that is more on the fringes argues that Elephantine Jews encountering Christianity may have imported pre-existing, sect-specific paradigms not shared with all Judaisms of the time in Jesus’s milieu. The Elephantine Jews were a very unique population of Jews living at the time in Elephantine, more in the bubble:

[details=The Elephantine Jews, Jewish (Heterodox) Polytheism, and tentative connections to Gnosticism drawn in recent times]They practiced a radically divergent, and very likely polytheistic, form of ancient Israelite religion. The polytheism of these heterodox Jews was probably (and here is where we enter into parallel speculation alongside Pagels) informed by other complex polytheisms of the time, such as assorted west-and-central African, Egyptian, Greek, and very possibly Indian influences, and the relation here to the complex emanating pseudo-monotheistic pseudo-henotheism (the pantheon of Pleroma, Sophia & other Aeons, Archons, etc) is not hard to see, IMO, although it is hard to substantiate on any kind of ground. This is the same kind of speculation Pagels engages in, and I find no problem with it so long as it is exhaustively caveated as speculation. I just my chief problem is that I don’t find enough of that in Pagels work.

To further substantiate some information on the heterodox Elephantine Jews (there is a wikipedia article on some of what is preserved of their textual tradition in addition to this summary): They had their own parallel Temple to YHWH outside of Israel (not in the Holy Land, what this meant about how they interpreted “the Promised Land” is very interesting!) in Elephantine. To present an idea as to how “far removed” this parallel development of Judaism was from what was practiced in Judea at the time: they still worshipped ʔăšērâ ('Ashérah) the divine consort of Yahweh, whom they called Anatyahu, to give an idea of how odd it is to have Jews still worshipping 'Ashérah, the mainstream worship of 'Ashérah dates from a time when (ancient) Israelite religion was almost completely indistinguishable from general Near Eastern polytheism. 'Ashérah is the Akkadian Ašratum, the Hittite as Asertus, she is the Ugaritic goddess 'Aṭirat, rabat ʾAṭirat yammi, “she who treads on the sea”.

In this Ugaritic form, another divine title highly associated with her was qaniyatu ʾilhm (the creatrix of the elohim (Ugaritic: ilhm, “gods”)), the Egyptian goddess Qetesh/Qudshu (reconstructed as: qātiša, parallel to the Aramaic qaddish and Hebrew qâdôwsh (“holy” in English Judaism and Christianity)) is likely a borrowing of this figure into local Egyptian pantheons of worship.

This is not believed by most anthropologists to be the kind of Judaism practiced in 1st century Palestine.[/details]

I suppose it is possible that the historical character of Jesus could have entertained some of these esoteric cosmologies, but then one would have to account for the decidedly _non-_Gnostic bodies of literature, orthodox (like the Pauline Epistles) and potentially heterodox (such as the Gospel of Thomas, which isn’t generally considered, afaik, a Gnostic text) which are more or less proven to constitute the earliest layer of literary attestations of teachings of Jesus Christ.