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I entered seminary in 1983, three years after Professor Pagels published her research. I encountered her Gnostic Gospels first at American Baptist Seminary of the West, where I was taking New Testament from William Herzog, and then again at Church Divinity School of the Pacific where I was taking a course on Patristics from Professor Lyman. I cannot recall the book making a big impression on me. In 1990 I left for the European History department at the University of Chicago and never looked back.
When a few weeks back a priest from our parish, Father Michael Hiller, put Professor Elaine Pagels together in my mind with Professor Heinz Pagels, I realized that I had to read the Gnostic Gospels again.
I loved it. And I realized how much I had absorbed without know it. Those who know me also know that I have a visceral response to apophatic knowledge of the divine. It really makes me nauseous. Not among Buddhists or Hindu or Jews, but specifically among Christians. Because, for me, the mystery is revealed. It is the Cross. That’s the whole point. Its absolute foolishness. God has adopted, had always adopted, from the beginning and before the beginning had adopted — the body. A disembodied encounter with God is an oxymoron. It may be many good things. But it is definitely not Christian.
But . . .
The body is a social and cultural and historical artifact. It does not bear its meaning on its surface. And that’s what makes Professor Pagels’ research so terribly interesting. Because, with most of you, I ALSO bristle at the pseudo-Pauline defenses of slavery, misogyny, patriarchy, and empire — all of the surface forms that Gnostics resisted and the orthodox lustily embraced. Bodies are socially and historically specific. The body embraced by the Roman Catholics was male and hierarchical. The astral body embraced by the Gnostics was often gender fluid and egalitarian.
Which means that, like most of you, I have cast myself in the delightful role of a rabbi who, happily, must interpret texts. (Incidentally, don’t bewail this role. Don’t rue it. Here are these texts. Midrash. Midrash. Midrash.)
My own center of gravity is First Corinthians, chapters 1 and 2. (Go read them.) There is a mystery here. The Gnostics are right. But it is a mystery different from the one they teach, even though the boundaries between Paul’s communities and the Gnostic communities in 64 CE were highly fluid. For Paul and his communities the mystery was that God, real God, not second or third-tier God, would become flesh. No. The real mystery, for Paul, was that the real God, the highest God, the Creator — no, before the Creator — the Absolute — would die. There. Not metaphorically. Not mystically. Really die. God. The end. That is the foolishness of the cross.
Well. That would explain why the Crucified God has attracted every miscreant across the empire.
Now. Obviously. This is terrible news for James and Peter. And this terrible news is littered across Paul’s authentic letters. OMG.