Biblical scholar explains ‘lost gospels’

Friday, April 6, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:03 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Elaine Pagels, a prominent Biblical scholar, spoke to a crowd of more than 150 people in MU’s Reynold’s Alumni Center on Thursday night. She discussed her latest book, “Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity,” and explained how the Bible’s bad guy brought the good news.

She argues that the Gospel of Judas is unique among the Gnostic Gospels, telling the story not just of Jesus and his death, but of the politics, censorship and debate surrounding the early Christian movement.

“It tells us more about followers of Jesus in the generations after his death,” Pagels said. “How they were making sense of the events of what we call the Holy Week.”

Pagels became an authority on Christian history when her first book, “The Gnostic Gospels” — so called for their “lost gospel” namesakes — was published in 1979. As a graduate student at Harvard, she studied 52 early Christian manuscripts that were discovered in the town of Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.

Speaking just before the Easter weekend, Pagels explained how the gospels illustrate debate among early Christians about the meaning of Christ’s death, Resurrection and the worth of Christian martyrdom.

Although Pagels’ work focuses on the early days of Christianity and gospels that were left out of the Biblical canon, she does not think these “lost gospels” should be added to the canon.

“I think the canon was meant to be books you read in church,” Pagels said. “But I don’t think these belong in the trash, either.”

Nate Desrosiers, an assistant professor of religious studies at MU, uses Pagels’ book in his classes.

“She pushes questions in interesting ways,” he said. “The ways that get students to probe the questions themselves.”

Pagels’ lecture was organized by MU’s Center for the Literary Arts; it was the last of the semester. She is the first religious studies author that the center has brought to MU.

Pagels drew a diverse crowd that included not only scholars, but students and members of the community.

Cody Smith, a sophomore at MU, heard about the lecture after seeing Pagels’ books displayed in the MU bookstore. He said he was already a fan of Pagels’ book, “The Origin of Satan.”

“This is just in my spare time,” he said. “I thought I needed to come out.”

After the discussion, the question and answer session had to be cut short, despite nearly a dozen audience members still wanting to question Pagels, who is widely regarded as a top scholar in her field.

Chris Mezines, who waited around during the after-lecture reception, said, “I feel like I could ask her a thousand questions.”

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