Elaine Pagels—famous for her promotion of Gnostic Christianity—was interviewed by David Ian Miller for the April 2, 2007 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. Pagels was discussing the Gospel of Judas. Miller asked her if this gospel would change the way people observe Easter. Pagels answered in the affirmative. She wrongly asserted that Luke and John give different portrayals of Jesus’ resurrection body (one spiritual, one physical), and then went on to say the following:
And what was important to the authors of Luke and John was not to decide between those stories—the important thing is that we know in some sense that he is alive. That the resurrection happened. And that is affirmed. But one thing we can see in these other texts [such as the Gospel of Judas] is that you don’t have to take the resurrection literally to take it seriously. One can speak about Jesus alive after his death with conviction without necessarily meaning that his physical body got out of the grave.
Yes, we could speak of Jesus being alive after His death without meaning His body got out of the grave, but we could not call it a resurrection. Resurrection, like apple, refers to something specific. It does not refer to any sort of life after death, but in the words of N.T. Wright, life after life after death. In the ancient world the word was always bound up with the return to a bodily existence after a disembodied existence following death. We are not free to redefine words to our own fancy, no matter how much Pagels might wish to do so. If Pagels wants to believe in a spiritual ascension she is free to do so, but she is not free to call it a resurrection, nor is she free to say that those who believe such a thing have satisfied the Biblical requirement to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. You can’t evacuate a term of its meaning, and then assert that any content one might choose in its place satisfies the meaning of the word.
If resurrection can mean whatever one wants it to mean, then why is it important that we affirm it? And what are we even affirming? How about I postulate that Jesus’ resurrection means He survived death only in the memory of His followers? Is that an affirmation of His resurrection? Hardly. “Resurrection” means something.
A spiritual resurrection of Jesus makes no sense. It could not explain the rise of Christianity. If Jesus’ spirit merely survived death, there would be nothing extraordinary about Him. Other people experience the same. What made Jesus extraordinary was that His physical body came back to life, and was subsequently glorified. That is what the early church preached, and that is why Christianity was so scandalous. No pagan would have had a problem with a disembodied spirit ascending to heaven, but they had a big problem with a man returning from the dead, never to taste of death again.
But that’s all icing on the cake. My real focus is on her statement that we can take the Biblical texts seriously without taking them literally. While this is a nice sounding catchphrase that is popular in liberal Christianity, what exactly does this mean, and how does it play itself out in the real world? If the context makes it clear that a text is figurative in nature, then we are taking the text seriously when we understand it in a figurative sense. But when the context gives us every reason to believe the author is presenting something as historical fact, we are not taking the text seriously if we assign it a figurative meaning. When it comes to the gospels, we have every reason to believe that the events recorded are intended as genuine historical events. As such, it is impossible to take them seriously all the while denying their historicity.
Is Pagels prepared to treat other purported historical accounts in this fashion? Can she deny the historicity of slave trade in the early Americas while taking the texts that tell us about this horrendous practice seriously? Of course not! So why treat the Bible any differently? She is free to argue that while the gospels present themselves as genuine history, they are not historical events, but she is not free to deny their historicity all the while claiming to take the texts seriously. It is highly disingenuous.