Gnosticism, Women, and Elaine Pagels

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting upon Women and Gender in Early Christianity.

GnosticsFor today’s reflection, I outline and reflect on Elaine Pagels’ “What Became of God as Mother? Conflicting Images of God in Early Christianity.”[1] In so doing I argue that while Pagels’ approach to the question of the divine feminine remains an important aspect of early Christian thinking, her characterization of the category “gnostic” remains unhelpful for framing the study of these documents.

Pagels begins her article by discussing the uniqueness of the God of Israel and His lack of female consort, along with the tendency for orthodox Christianity to employ masculine name for Yahweh. This view is supported by logion 114 of the Gospel of Thomas, which indicates that “men form the legitimate body of the [early Christian] community, while women will be allowed to participate only insofar as their own identity is denied and assimilated to that of men” (294). In contrast, gnostic Christians described God as a dyadic being, consisting of both masculine and feminine elements and thinking, therefore, of God as both Father and Mother.

Elaine Pagels
Elaine Pagels

Pagels goes on to describe the three general characteristics of divine motherhood among early gnostic thinkers: First, God is essentially indescribably eternal and mystical silence, though imaginatively the Primal Father and the Mother of all things. Second, God as Mother is the Holy Spirit. Pagels’ example here comes from the Gospel of Philip, where an explicitly feminine Hebrew term is used to describe the Spirit as “Mother of many” (Gos Phil 36). Third, certain gnostics characterized the divine Mother as Sophia, Wisdom.

Pagels next turns to an examination of why these writings were rejected by “orthodox” Christians, delineating first gnostic reflections on this very question and then locating a more historically verifiable impetus in the power-challenging claims of certain gnostic writings (Gospel of Mary and Women of Faith) which would have been countered by the “seductive heretics” argument of proto-orthodox writers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. Clement of Alexandria is then investigated as an orthodox Christian who claimed the title of gnostic, although his perspective would ultimately not sway “Roman Christians” who would affirm the Pastoral’s interpretation of Paul and further the rejection of the divine Mother and limit women’s roles in the Church. In the end, Pagels charts a path forward for future work on how patriarchal attitudes were adopted by early Christians.

Coptic Gospel of Thomas
Coptic Gospel of Thomas

There is much of value in this article, which has enjoyed nearly thirty-years of use and served as a motivation for a number of studies concerning women and gender in early Christianity. Perhaps Pagels’ greatest insight comes in her notation of the proto-Orthodox shift away from feminine descriptions of God—including the Holy Spirit—as the canon formed while gnostic groups continued to think with such images. Her location of clashes over authority—such as that between Peter and Mary—play into this conversation, though the historicity of such a divine remains contested. As a general point of pushback, the composition of many gnostic writings has been moved later than Pagels’ affirmation of a 100-150 CE date (contestation about the Gospel of Thomas’ aside). Although much of this may be excused due to the date of Pagels’ own work, certain features of her presentation should have been concerning even thirty years ago. For example, her reference in the Gospel of Philip and what would “later developed as the virgin birth,” taking place in seeming isolation from passages such as Luke 1:34-38 and Ignatius of Antioch’s letters.[2]

The biggest concern with Pagels’ presentation here lies with her conception of why these writings were characterized as gnostic and (eventually) heretical. The general argument of the entire article contends that gnostic writings were excluded for their portrayal of the divine feminine—God as Mother—although Pagels does pause at one point to suggest that gnostic views were not rejected “only because of their positive attitude toward women” (301). But even here, Pagels returns to the division caused by “two very different patterns of sexual attitudes” (301). This effectively one-sided approach neglects the variety of other concerns that lead proto-orthodox Christians to reject Gnosticism. Social (secrecy and limited engagement beyond what other Christians required), authority (competing written sources), theological (understanding and conception of Christ as redeemer and Lord; possibility of other deities), historical (radical rethinking of OT history and theology), and cosmological (different conceptions of the cosmos and how the world was ordered) concerns all played a role that Pagels rejects out of hand in favor of a gendered motivation.

Early Church FathersUltimately, it seems unhelpful to characterize the gnostic corpus as solely—or even primarily—as delineated by their approach to women and gender. This may be a facet (even an important facet) of why early Christian communities steadily pushed back against their gnostic counterparts (and, indeed, seems to be), but Pagel’s advocation of gender the distinguishing aspect of the suitability of a writing or perspective seems overstated. Thus, while her approach to the question of the divine feminine remains an important aspect of early Christian thinking worthy of continued investigation, Pagels’ characterization of the category “gnostic” remains unhelpful for framing the study of these documents today.


[1] Elaine H. Pagels, “What Became of God the Mother? Conflicting Images of God in Early Christianity” Signs 2,2 (1976): 293-303.

[2] See IgnEph 19.1; IgnTral 9.1; and IgnSymr 1.1.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

2 thoughts on “Gnosticism, Women, and Elaine Pagels

  1. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts about this. Still jealous that nothing like this seminar is offered in Australia. But at least I can read the journal articles you cite.

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