Review: Beyond Belief pt IV

4) Flawed Recreations of History

Perhaps the greatest difficulty is that she simply misconstrues history. She paints the entire era of 2nd and 3rd Century Christianity in an inaccurate way.

She describes gnostic beliefs in ways that might seem attractive to contemporary spiritual seekers but leaves out central 2nd Century gnostic tenets that might be deemed 'unattractive.' She paints gnostics in the vein of free-loving, undogmatic, New-Agers, but she fails to communicate that the gnosticism of the day viewed the material world as evil. They disdained the creation and everything with it, food, sex, and pleasure were to be eschewed; the physical world was not a place of beauty, but rather a prison.

The same is true of orthodoxy. She portrays the orthodox Christian community as primarily seeking political power, or at least political autonomy. It is this undergirding force that she claims led early Christians to embrace 'orthodoxy' and its attendant creeds in the first place. Christians were not orthodox until it became politically expedient to do so. This is simply a failure to understand the political situation of the day, or the political, social, and economic ramifications of orthodoxy in that situation.

It seems as though Pagels is unaware of the enormous disfavor the early Christians faced for their beliefs. Orthodoxy was far from political expediency, it was actually political suicide! Strike that, it wasn't political suicide, it was actual suicide! To proclaim an orthodox faith was to court martyrdom. Certainly this was more or less true depending on the Emperor and the local governor in question, but it was largely a reality until 313 AD, 150 years after Irenaus' arguments against the gnostics.

The opposite is true of the gnostic communities. Rome simply didn't care about the wellspring of new spiritualities, or even the proclamation of the name Jesus (even a Jesus executed by Romans). So long as those who practiced this new faith were willing to proclaim "Caesar is Lord," and give worship to his name, the Romans were quite pluralistic. The gnostic communities were not the ones facing persecution, nor even political pressure.

Whatever pressure gnostics faced from orthodox Christians was pressure from those without power. You would hardly call a group being persecuted a seat of cultural or political power. When men like Irenaeus spoke their words it cannot be viewed as persecution of others, rather their words were born out of a need to clarify what exactly was true about Jesus, and what exactly needed to be held to in the face of their own persecution.

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