- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

The Episcopal bishop of Virginia has told his churches that he won't censor a talk by a Bible scholar who has said Christianity began as a diverse spiritual movement later oppressed by male bishops.
After complaints about this Saturday's lecture by Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels, an expert on the "gnostic" origins of Christianity, Bishop James Lee said he is not "a censor of unorthodoxy and guarantor of tradition."
The Episcopal Church is not for those who want "dogmatic clarity" on questions of Christian belief, he wrote in the Virginia Episcopalian newspaper.
"Ours is a church more suited for the thinking pilgrim, faithful to the tradition while listening to questions and hearing eruptions of the Spirit's life in the church," he said.
The lecture, part of a "Quest for Meaning" program Saturday at Emmanuel Church in Middleburg, is titled "The Gnostic Gospels: New Views of Jesus and His Message."
Mrs. Pagels became nationally known after her book, "The Gnostic Gospels," came out in 1979. Gnosticism covers a variety of first-century beliefs and mystery religions that cite Jesus and say secret knowledge or experience brings salvation.
"Doctor Pagels is not challenging orthodox religion or going back to gnosticism," said C. Fred Kohler, chairman of the annual forum. "She is an historian."
With her national reputation, Mr. Kohler said, the forum hopes to "attract a wider audience," which according to ticket sales is coming mostly from Northern Virginia.
In her book, Mrs. Pagels argued that gnostics probably wrote the earliest "gospels" about Jesus, and the Bible's authors may have copied gnostic works.
In this view, early Christianity had diverse beliefs until the male bishops oppressed the gnostics and burned their "heretical" writings. A large collection was buried in clay pots in Egypt, however, and discovered in 1945.
Feminist and liberal scholars find in gnostic texts support for female leadership, rejection of authority figures, a free-spirit Jesus and even mystical sex. Gnostics believed, Mrs. Pagels writes, in a spiritual rather than bodily resurrection of Christ and that the human problem was ignorance, not sin.
In recent years, gnostic ideas of salvation have been likened to psychoanalysis or New Age self-help. The gnostic Gospel of Thomas, for example, says: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you."
The 1940s discovery of the gnostic texts in Egypt and in Israel the Dead Sea Scrolls, left behind by an apocalyptic Jewish sect, revolutionized both conservative and liberal Bible scholarship.
The Jesus Seminar, an association of liberal Bible scholars, has put the gnostic Gospel of Thomas alongside the four gospels of the Bible as early Christian teaching.
In his letter, Bishop Lee did not cite the Pagels lecture. "When one of our churches or church schools invites a controversial speaker," he said, "it is not uncommon for me to get a few letters or phone calls with the message, 'Bishop, what are you going to do about this?'"
The Diocese of Virginia is the third largest in the Episcopal Church and has a significant traditional or evangelical membership.
The Episcopal Church often hosts controversial debates on the claims of Christianity.
The Washington National Cathedral, under Episcopalian auspices, has hosted debates that featured Jesus Seminar speakers who said Jesus was more like a sage and political revolutionary.
Episcopal Bishop John Spong has argued at cathedral debates that a supernatural God is obsolete.

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