BY ROBIN EVANS
Knight Ridder Newspapers
SAN JOSE, Calif. - (KRT) - It was perhaps inevitable that someone would ask Elaine Pagels about "The Da Vinci Code," the bestselling novel about a church conspiracy to keep explosive information about Jesus forever hidden.
She's an expert on the topic, after all, of secret documents and the early church's discomfort with deviations from the party line. While Dan Brown's book topped the fiction lists last year, the Princeton religion professor's latest, "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas," made the bestseller lists in non-fiction.
At one of a series of standing-room-only talks and seminars two weeks ago at Stanford University, her alma mater - attended as much by an admiring public as interested students and academics - she was asked whether she believes Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, as "The Da Vinci Code" posits. It's unlikely, she said, given sayings attributed to him in the Gospel of Thomas, as well as in the New Testament gospels of Luke and Matthew.
"Traditions speak of him as a celibate teacher," she said. "It would seem unlikely that he would say the kinds of things you find in these gospels about the single life and celibacy. They're very strong."
While Pagels was not asked about another media sensation, Mel Gibson's soon-to-be-released movie "The Passion of the Christ," she did touch on the role of Jews in Jesus' death, the film's most controversial element.
The New Testament Gospel of John deflects responsibility for the killing of Jesus onto the Jewish leadership, she said during one of the Stanford seminars, and depicts what's said by Jesus as making obsolete the Jewish tradition that preceded it. "It's part of our history and a very hateful part."
Pagels is not the only scholar to have made a career writing about a bundle of ancient writings called the Nag Hammadi texts. But her fan base moved beyond the confines of academia with the publication of "The Gnostic Gospels" in 1979. That and her other easily accessible books examine first- and second-century gospels deemed heretical by church leaders.
Christian beliefs were codified by the Nicene Creed in the early fourth century at the behest of a young bishop fearful that divisions among Christians might destroy a movement under extreme persecution by Greco-Roman authorities. The creed was based primarily on writings later compiled into the New Testament, which in the third century had acquired equal authority with those of the Old Testament. The so-called gnostic gospels, which espoused the possibility of relationships with God other than through Jesus, which did not require a church structure, were summarily dismissed.
"Beyond Belief" explores why one of those texts, at least, was excluded from the New Testament. Significantly, exclusions may just have saved the Christian movement, Pagels said. "One has to see the enormous complexities. But in the process they threw out a lot of material that's very intriguing and some of it very powerful."
Pagels was a graduate student in the classics and Greek language, history and literature at Stanford in the mid-1960s and early '70s. Now 59, she looks back at being in the right place and time to be afforded a rare opportunity: To study the newly available Nag Hammadi texts. Along with the Dead Sea Scrolls, they are the only existing writings about Jesus's life other than those in the New Testament.
And while the scrolls are commentaries on the Bible gathered and used primarily by a radical group of devout Jews, the Nag Hammadi texts comprise a wide array of writing styles and philosophies. Some are Jewish, some non-Jewish. Some offer instruction in meditation or how to have visions. Others speak of secrets from after death, or provide accounts of first-person experiences with Jesus after the Resurrection.
Unearthed in the mountain caves above Naj Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, the 53 surviving papyrus gospels - the discoverer's family burned some for fuel - were not available to scholars until 1970. Even then, you needed to be able to read Coptic, the liturgical language of Egyptian Christians, and Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written. Pagels learned quickly.
She hasn't read "The Da Vinci Code," she said in an interview, but finds the book and its success interesting because - like the gnostic gospels - "it raises the question: What else didn't we know about Christianity? The answer is a lot."
A comparison of the New Testament and Nag Hammadi gospels shows that conflicting images of God were battling for supremacy in the first three centuries after Jesus' death. Many of the Nag Hammadi writings talked of gnosis, a personal - or intuitive - knowledge of God. Quite a different concept than that endorsed by the early church and what it included in the New Testament.
Pagels often quotes a statement attributed to Jesus in Thomas, as example: `If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
"With Thomas, Jesus is a manifestation of God, and so are you," she explained in an interview. "With John, you have to be saved through Jesus; he's the only begotten son of God. That's part of the central message, that no one else offers access to God. And that is part of the Christian tradition as we know it."
While "The Da Vinci Code" is fiction, its premise draws from themes in the gnostic gospels, one of which is written by Mary Magdalene. Women in these texts get very different treatment than in the New Testament, according to Pagels. They are respected as disciples, apostles, teachers and, in some cases, the heads of churches. The novel asserts that Jesus intended Mary to lead after his death.
Pagels said there is no evidence of that in the gnostic gospels, but in the New Testament Mary is said to be the first disciple he appeared to after his resurrection. She, too, said Jesus could be found within every human being.
Pagels has found it difficult herself to embrace institutional Christianity. "One wants more" than just a bunch of beliefs, she said.
But she found herself finally in a church after her 6-year-old son died of a rare lung disease in 1987. Today, 17 years later, the mother of three stepchildren and two adopted children, she attends Trinity Episcopal in Princeton, where she has found something of the promise of the gnostic gospels.
"It's about shared values. There were Christians for 300 years before there were creeds," she said. "What I love about the Christian tradition is that what matters is how one treats other people."