Emory Report
August 27, 2007
Volume 60, Number 1

The renowned religion scholar Elaine Pagels will discuss the theological
mystery surrounding
Judas Iscariot on Thursday, Sept. 6, at 7 p.m. Pagel's
lecture is part of a series surrounding the Carlos Museum exhibition "Cradle
of Christianity: Jewish and Christian Treasures from the Holy Land,” to be
held in Glenn Memorial Auditorium. Tickets are free for faculty and staff.

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August 27, 2007
Elaine Pagels decodes tough debates at the heart of Christianity

By carol clark

Was Judas Iscariot a villain who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver? Or was Judas a trusted disciple to the end, acting on the orders of Jesus himself to turn him over to the authorities?

Elaine Pagels has spent decades decoding such complex, ancient theological debates and exploring how they relate to our understanding of Christianity today.

“Some people see this kind of work as an attack on Christianity,” said Pagels, who is Episcopalian. “But I see it as opening up different ways of understanding what being a Christian means.”

Currently the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, Pagels was a young researcher at Barnard College when she published the groundbreaking bestseller “The Gnostic Gospels” in 1979. The analysis of 52 ancient Christian gospels and other writings, unearthed in Egypt in 1945, revealed that the early Christian movement was far more diverse than previously thought, and fraught with politics and lively debate. The manuscripts, collectively known as the Nag Hammadi Library, also showed the prominent role that women played in certain Christian groups, before they were subsequently excluded from governing positions in its emerging hierarchy.

“Many churches today are divided on the question of whether women should be preachers or ministers or bishops,” Pagels said. “We think it’s a modern issue, but it’s actually an issue that was very much alive in the early Christian movement.”

Expanding on questions raised in “The Gnostic Gospels,” Pagels went on to write a stream of popular books, including “Adam, Eve and the Serpent,” “The Origin of Satan” and “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.”

Her latest bestseller is “Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity,” co-authored with fellow scholar Karen King. Published this year, “Reading Judas” analyzes a Christian text from the second century that did not come to light until 2006.

Even after a long career of delving into sensational finds, Pagels said she was surprised to learn that the Gospel of Judas existed. The manuscript, which had been lost for nearly 1,700 years, casts Judas not as a villain, but as the disciple chosen by Jesus for a most difficult mission: to hand Jesus over to the authorities so that he could fulfill his destiny.

“It’s like looking at the moon from the other side,” Pagels said. “You see a completely different possible understanding of the story of Judas. The Gospel of Judas doesn’t necessarily tell us what actually happened, but it tells us what people were talking about and discussing at that time.”

The Gospel of Judas also challenges a premise central to many Christian leaders: that Jesus had to die for the sins of the world. “This text presents a startlingly different view,” said Pagels. “It questions whether God wants people to die in that way. Instead, it suggests that what Jesus was teaching is that it is possible to go into the light of God’s grace after death.”

The emergence of the so-called “secret gospels” has been disturbing and troublesome for some Christians. “For other people it can be good news,” Pagels said. “It allows us to be freer to ask questions. As an historian, I’d say there’s a limit to what we can know. But we can read these gospels and make judgments about their spiritual truth. That’s what Christians have always done.”