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Renowned scholar of Christianity Elaine Pagels explains how historical study can rescue religion from dogma in an interfaith dialog with Tricycle's Andrew Cooper
Would you say a historical perspective can reinvigorate a religion’s practices and traditions, even as it calls into question many of the claims upon which those practices and traditions rest? Yes, I think it can. Let me give you an example. In the Gospel of John, we often find Jesus declaiming, as though he’s standing in the middle of a room or the middle of a desert and saying, “I am the truth, I am the way, I am the light, I am the water of life.” And it might never occur to you to wonder, Well, whom is he addressing? Why is he saying this over and over? Why is this written this way? And why is this supposed to be an important teaching? But when I began studying the Gospel of Thomas, where very different views are articulated, it became evident that much of this had to do with arguments over how to understand who Jesus was and what to bring out in his teachings.
Much of my work has focused on elements of early Christian tradition that have been discarded, relegated to heresy, or pushed to the margins, largely for institutional reasons. But many of these elements I find spiritually powerful, and so I think there is great value in their recovery. Doing that kind of work entails peeling away prejudices and assumptions, many of which are quite unconscious. Some of these recovered texts, by the way, such as the Gospel of Thomas, sound in many ways a great deal like Buddhist teachings. [see "According to Thomas", on last page]
These arguments about understanding Jesus are tied to the notion of the messiah. In The Origin of Satan, you trace Satan’s evolution from being a minor and vaguely drawn character in the Hebrew Bible to his portrayal in the New Testament as a cosmic principle. Didn’t the notion of the messiah undergo a similar, or at least parallel, transformation? That’s an interesting question. Yes, the idea of the messiah went through many transformations. The Hebrew word mashiah means “anointed one.” The term could refer to priests, who were anointed with oil when they were consecrated. But in the Hebrew Bible, mashiah most often refers to the King of Israel. And that’s what it meant in New Testament times. That’s the sense in which Jesus would have been seen as the messiah: the King of Israel, the king of the Jewish people. He was, in this regard, one among many candidates. Obviously, over time, Christians came to view the idea of the messiah in a very different way.
There is also the question of whether Jesus himself actually said he was the messiah. In the fourteenth chapter of Mark, Jesus is asked, and he accepts the term, but other accounts of the same event say that he didn’t. Whatever the case, the question would have referred to whether he was the King of Israel. No New Testament scholar—or rather, none I know—thinks Jesus ever said he was the Savior of the world, or anything like it.
Whether or not Jesus actually said he was the messiah, the Romans were concerned about him being seen that way. That is why they would have considered Jesus dangerous, and that is most likely why he was crucified. The Romans were brutal in dealing with any threat to their power. When they crucified Jesus, they put up a sign, in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, that said “King of the Jews.” Crucifixion was a very public way of advertising what happens to people who claim to be leaders and stir up rebellion.
So how and why did the messiah become a cosmic principle? How did Jesus go from being a revered teacher and possibly a leader of his people to being the Savior of all humanity? That’s an enormous question! I think that it is a big part of what motivates many of us to study the history of Christianity. In her book From Jesus to Christ, the historian Paula Fredriksen tries to track that exact thing. How did a rabbi from Nazareth, a man with an obscure and humble background, come to be seen as the Savior of the world? It’s astonishing.
Certainly, the teachings of Paul were crucial. Paul called Jesus the Savior of the world, and he translated his convictions about Jesus into terms that Gentiles could understand. Paul portrayed Jesus’ crucifixion as a sacrificial death that atoned for all sin and claimed that those who believed in Jesus could find a place in salvation. My colleague at Princeton John Gager has written several books based on his view, which is shared by others, that Paul saw Jesus’ life and teaching as a divine revelation that would extend the salvation previously enjoyed only by Israel to all the nations, thereby fulfilling prophesies in Isaiah and also God’s promise to Abraham that “In you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” That’s John Gager’s conviction, and it’s a very interesting perspective.