Elaine Pagels: Early Christianity's Martyrdom Debate (Interview)





Princeton University's Elaine Pagels is about the nearest thing there is to a superstar in the realm of Christian history scholarship. It is largely through her work that many understand the early non-Orthodox Christianity that she at one point dubbed (and later un-dubbed, finding the term imprecise) the Gnostic Gospels. She breaks new ground with the debut of Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, her collaboration with Harvard Divinity scholar Karen King about the second-century "Gospel of Judas" that was made public last year.

TIME: You and Karen write that the "Judas" author was angry, particularly at the Christian church's developing cult of martyrdom. You write that he conveyed "the urgency of someone who wants to unmask what he feels is the hideous folly of leaders who encourage people to get themselves killed in this way." Whom might he have meant?"

Pagels: So far as I know, all the so-called "fathers of the church" glorified martyrdom. Ignatius, who wrote in Syria in around 108 AD, speaks passionately about "being ground up by the teeth of wild beasts to become God's wheat," ˜ that is, by martyrdom, he becomes the bread of the Eucharist.

What could have provoked such adamance?

Christians were undergoing terrible persecution at the time. Leaders like Ignatius felt that a willingness to "die for God" was essential for the movement to survive; otherwise, its members could be intimidated, and it might have died out.

Was it a successful strategy?

Yes. We have evidence to that effect. The philosopher Justin wrote that Socrates said that the purpose of philosophy was to prepare us to die bravely, and when Justin saw illiterate Christians facing torture and execution in the public stadium, he became a convert ˜ and later a martyr himself.

And the Judas author objected to this?

He did not suggest that a believer should deny being a Christian, even if the penalty were death. But he challenges leaders who encourage people to "die for God" with what he thought were false promises ˜ huge rewards in heaven, and guaranteed resurrection.

Does this tell us something new?

Before these discoveries, we knew little about Christians who opposed martyrdom ˜ or opposed encouraging it ˜ because the people who challenged the dominant view were ridiculed as cowards and heretics, and their writings didn't survive. The Gospel of Judas shows what intense and painful arguments martyrdom caused among Christians.

Both Catholicism and, to a lesser extent, Protestantism honor martyrdom. And some scholars suggest that Islam picked up the idea from Christians. Is it possible that despite all that, martyrdom isn't really intrinsic to the faith?

Before either Christians or Muslims spoke of martyrdom, Jewish communities celebrated those who were willing to "die for God." After Jesus was crucified by the Romans, those who still remained his followers were suspected of treason against Rome, and leaders were executed. The focus on crucifixion has a lot to do with fact that his followers remained in danger of arrest, torture, and execution themselves. Without that I can't imagine that discussions of his suffering and death would have occupied the central place that they do for many Christians.
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