Skip to comments.Gnostics' favorite scholar gets a free pass from critics
Posted on 05/09/2006 4:18:05 PM PDT by Frank Sheed
The Forum: Gnostics' favorite scholar gets a free pass from critics
by Phil Lawler special to CWNews.com
May. 09 (CWNews.com) - Novelist Dan Brown has been rightly criticized for the many outlandish claims advanced as "historical background" for his sensational novel The Da Vinci Code. While Brown poses as a writer who researchs his subject carefully, his critics have exposed him as a novelist who builds his popular appeal on sloppy scholarship, conspiracy theory, and a hyperactive imagination.
Still, the best-selling novelist can call upon a few scholars with impressive academic credentials to support the theories that underlie his book. For instance, in his quest to restore interest in the Gnostic movement, he can rely on the work of Elaine Pagels, a scholar who commands respect among mainstream American intellectuals.
With a Ph.D from Harvard and as the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton, Pagels is widely regarded as an expert on the early years of Christianity, and particularly on the Gnostic movement. Her 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels is now a standard text for those exploring the ancient heresy; it won several prestigious awards, and was named by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best books of the 20th century. Pagels herself was rewarded for her research with a string of lucrative fellowships from the Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and MacArthur foundations. This has been cited regularly, and respectfully, by journalists covering the controversies generated by The Da Vinci Code and, more recently, the public unveiling of an ancient Gnostic document known as the "Gospel of Judas."
If Dan Brown has been the most successful popularizer of Gnostic ideas, during their remarkable revival in the early 21st century, Elaine Pagels has provided the most valuable academic support for the ancient heresy.
So it was no small matter when a professor from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome caught Elaine Pagels in a gross distortion of the historical record: a bit of "creative scholarship" worthy of a passage in Dan Brown's novel.
Not conflation but creation
In a short essay posted here on April 24, Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, demonstrated that Pagels had doctored a quotation from St. Irenaeus, the 2nd-century Bishop of Lyons who answered the Gnostics in his work Against Heresies.
In The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels set out to demonstrate that Irenaeus was the key figure in an effort by the early Catholic bishops to suppress the Gnostic movement, in order to consolidate the power of the hierarchy. In pursuit of that line of argument, she carries a quotation in which Irenaeus voices his resentment about the theological claims of his Gnostic opponents:
They call [us] "unspiritual," "common," and "ecclesiastic." ... Because we do not accept their monstrous allegations, they say that we go on living in the hebdomad [the lower regions], as if we could not lift our minds to the things on high, nor understand the things that are above.
There is one major problem with that quotation, Father Mankowski noticed after consulting the text: St. Irenaeus never made the statement.
True, the individual words cited by Pagels were used by the French bishop. (Or rather he used most of those words. The word "unspiritual" corresponds to nothing in the original; Pagels simply inserted that word, apparently to support her own thesis.) But the two sentences--from which Pagels had pruned a few critical phrases--come from two entirely different parts of Against Heresies, in which St. Irenaeus was writing about two entirely different topics.
Father Mankowski summarizes his own research findings:
Pagels has carpentered a non-existent quotation, putatively from an ancient source, by silent suppression of relevant context, silent omission of troublesome words, and a mid-sentence shift of 34 chapters backwards through the cited text, so as deliberately to pervert the meaning of the original.
In the endnotes to The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels says that the quotation in question was "conflated" from two passages of Against Heresies. She does not bother to add that the two passages were separated by 34 chapters. She does not mention that she added one word of her own, and dropped several words from the original by Irenaeus. Nor does she alert her readers to the fact that her own argument was undermined by Irenaeus, in a phrase she pruned from the second sentence of this artfully constructed quote.
It is curious, if not downright suspicious, that an academic researcher would admit to using a "conflated" quotation. But Father Mankowski refused to accept even the term "conflated" as an accurate indication of what Pagels has done. He argues that "the word doesn't fit even as a euphemism: what we have is not conflation but creation."
American newspaper editors, chastened by recent revelations of fraudulent reporting, would probably discipline a reporter for that sort of creative citation. But in the academic world, sanctions are ordinarily heavier. Father Mankowski observes:
Put simply, Irenaeus did not write what Prof. Pagels wished he would have written, so she made good the defect by silently changing the text. Creativity, when applied to one's sources, is not a compliment. She is a very naughty historian.
Or she would be, were she judged by the conventional canons of scholarship. At the post-graduate institute where I teach, and at any university with which I am familiar, for a professor or a grad student intentionally to falsify a source is a career-ending offense. Among professional scholars, witness tampering is no joke: once the charge is proven, the miscreant is dismissed from the guild and not re-admitted.
When CWN posted Father Mankowski's analysis, I thought the exposure of Pagels' academic mischief was significant enough to deserve mainstream media attention. So I sent a copy of the essay to dozens of reporters, editors, and commentators. Two weeks later, I am still waiting to hear the first echo.
Meanwhile the mainstream media are buzzing with stories about a Harvard undergrad who apparently "borrowed" heavily from other works in her novels, and a business executive who failed to give proper credit for some catchy maxims. So I know that reporters can be interested in stories about improper citations.
Yet unlike popular novelists and corporate cheerleaders, Elaine Pagels has demonstrated the ability to shift public attitudes on serious public issues. She continues, through her teaching post at Princeton, to shape the minds of America's future leaders. Her ideas have consequences. If those ideas are based on fraud, the potential damage done is far greater than any fallout from a cut-and-paste novel or a pilfered set of catchy quotes.
Why hasn't the mainstream media picked up on the Pagels imposture? For that matter why did Father Mankowski bring his startling discovery to CWN, recognizing beforehand that despite the gravity of his charges, mass-market publications would not be interested?
Often conservatives complain that the mainstream media distort the news by presenting stories from a skewed perspective. That complaint is amply justified, but it does not tell the whole story. Distortion can be accomplished by silence as well. The most serious problem is not that you hear so many stories exclusively from a liberal perspective; it's that there are so many stories you never hear at all.
>>>>>>>>>Da Vinci Code Hoax Ping!!!!!!!!!<<<<<<<<<<<<<
"Fake but accurate." Why should we be surprised?
Inspector Reynaud: "Rick, I'm shocked, shocked that there is gambling going on in this establishment!"
Waiter: "Inspector, wait! Here are your winnings!"
There's a reason why Brown's book is considered a work of fiction.
I was having a conversation with a 20-something a few years back and I mentioned Martin Luther. She responded that he was really a charismatic guy and that it was a shame he got shot. I paused and said that I was speaking about THE Martin Luther and not Martin Luther King who was named after him. Then I asked if she had heard of Martin Luther or knew about the Protestant Reformation. She just stared at me blankly and then said something to the effect that she was not very good in current events.
. . . hope you met her slinging fries at MackyD's, and not taking your pulse in a doctor's office . . .
For some people (many? most?), 15 years ago is ancient history.
Just a product of today's gummint schools, I surmise
Your post is chilling! This next generation is just plain frightening.
Fiction captures the times, and Pagels has had influence far beyond academia, because she feeds the hunger of persons deprived of faith in Christianity with a kind of substitute for it. They no longer believe in religious truth, and her "truthiness" to them is good enough. She convinces them that they understand the gnostics when they are incapable of understand Irenaeus. Pagels falsely tells us that the bishop had power to suppress when he actually had no such thing.
Good article. Not mentioned is that Elaine Pagels came out of the "feminist phony scholarship" world that has never, ever been challenged, anymore than the "black phony scholarship" world, which contained black university professors who taught that the Egyptians were secretly sub-Saharan Africans and that the world was divided into the Ice People (whites) and the Sun People (blacks).
In the phony scholarship world, the fundamental assumption is of a parallel history that has been covered up and has been left to the phony scholar alone to reveal.
If you start with the assumption that known history is a cover-up, naturally you're going to produce some bizarre results. But other people in your particular discipline are so intimidated by your PC credentials that they are afraid to challenge you and think it better to quietly ignore your "finds," which were arrived at by, at best, leaps of logic and at worst, intentional manipulation of sources.
Pagels is just doing the same-old same-old "feminist scholarship" routine, which is why nobody even expects her to tell the truth.
*She is a liar doing the work of the Devil, And, YIPEE, some great work by a Jebbie!!!!
She was a history major at Notre Dame
< tin foil hat > . . . maybe the faculty at ND have concealed the existence of the Reformation from their students . . . nah . . . < /tin foil hat >
Seriously, that is frightening. She must be doing "feminist history" or some such bunk.
I was a history major myself . . . but my Scotch Presbyterian grandparents made sure I knew what the Reformation was in my cradle (I may be the only Episcopalian child who ever received a copy of the Westminster Catechism at Confirmation . . . ) They would have a collective Calvinist Cow if they knew we had Gone Over to Rome . ..
a mid-sentence shift of 34 chapters backwards through the cited text
She should be disciplined for this.