I am at the American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta. Every year one of my favorite panels is the one in which the recipient of the Martin Marty Public Understanding of Religion award is interviewed. In prior years I have enjoyed attending interviews of Robert Wuthnow, Huston Smith, Robert Bellah, and James Cone (regrettably I have not been there to see many other important interviews).This year’s recipient is Elaine Pagels of Princeton University for her historical work on the Gnostic Gospels, the Gospel of St. Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, and much other work advancing our understanding of the diversity of views held among the early Christians. The interview, conducted by Karen King of Harvard University, her co-author on the Gospel of Judas book, explored many issues including Pagels’ family background, her reasons for getting into this area, the content of her views on these writings, and her vision of the public role and responsibilities of scholars.
I observed that one could think that the Biblical canon might have been selected by a combination of many factors including power politics and intellectual arguments (these factors are explored by a number of books on offer from Harper One as a cursory examination of their display at the meeting shows) and still believe that the selection was divinely inspired; one might think that the selection was not divinely inspired (but still be a Christian – as she clearly is); or one could be agnostic. I expected her to say that she fell in the second category. But she replied that as a historian, she took no position. Nonetheless, as a human being, I think she has to take the second position. It is not just her sympathy for those labeled as heretics in general. It is clear from her book on the Gospel of Thomas that she favors that book over the Gospel of John in material respects. Moreover, her discussion of the Book of Revelation leads me to believe that she thinks that its inclusion in the canon was ill advised.
Nonetheless, even for those who believe in the canon her work is not just historically important (it is surely that); it is religiously important because it reveals the rhetorical context in which the books in the canon arise which can assist in their interpretation. On the other hand, one could believe as a Christian that the books in the New Testament canon were not inspired, but written by Jews doing their best to make sense of the life of Jesus and the meaning of, and how to live a, human life. If the selection of the books in the canon was not divinely inspired, Christians have an even greater stake in making sense of the excluded books.