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Catholic World News News Feature

Gnostics' favorite scholar gets a free pass from critics May 09, 2006

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.

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