Deepens and refreshes our view of early Christianity while casting a disturbing light on the evolution of the attitudes passed down to us.
In first century Jerusalem there was conflict between the pagan Rome and Jewish culture and religion. There were also a struggles between Jews that had an accommodative posture toward Rome (led mostly by the upper classes and Priests that had the most to lose) and those, mostly more conservative and rural, that resisted Roman influence. In modern terms, Jesus was a resistance leader.
Pagels argues the conflict was partly due to Jesus' interpretation of Genesis. In Genesis 1:28, the basis for marriage was procreation - and by Jewish law, marriage without children was grounds for divorce. Christ turned the law upside down. When asked what the grounds for divorce were, his answer, in Matthew 19:4-6, is that there are none. "This answer shocked his Jewish listeners and, as Matthew tells it, pleased no one".
After the crucifixion, but long before the Reformation, two groups competed for the heart and soul of Christianity - the orthodox and Gnostics. The same Scriptural texts supported radically different viewpoints. Orthodox Christians read Genesis as "history with a moral" - and their viewpoint was "a proclamation of moral freedom". Pagels implies this led to the development of the rights of man, democracy and equality under the law. Gnostics believed that Genesis was a "myth with a meaning". They argued that Genesis could not be read literally because it didn't make sense. There were two different creation texts which didn't agree (Genesis 1:26, 27 and 2:7); they questioned if Adam and Eve could hear God's footsteps (Genesis 3:8) and wonder why God an omniscient God would ask "where are you?" (Genesis 3:9). They looked for a deeper meaning to scripture.
For four centuries orthodox and Gnostic waged a philosophical battle for the heart of Christianity. Orthodoxy won, and only now, nearly sixteen hundred years later, are some of the early arguments and texts being reexamined, after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945 and the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. This well written, probing, thought provoking book is a part of a reexamination of the development of religious thought.
Does humankind live in a world that has fallen due to one man's (Adam's) sin? Or is the world good (sex included) as God designed it to be from the beginning? How did people come to believe that celibacy was superior to sex (i.e., the in-built natural sex drive)?
Pagels answers these and other questions in this remarkable book. A must read for anyone concerned about the origins of the various positions of historic Christianity regarding human sexuality.