Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

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Beyond Belief

The Secret Gospel Of Thomas

Elaine Pagels

Random House ($24.95)

by H. E. Everding

As the biblical scholar Marcus Borg has said, "You can believe all the right things, and still be a jerk." In a sense, that's what Elaine Pagels experienced when after her son's near fatal illness she sought solace from a form of Christianity that represented faith as ascent to doctrines. In Beyond Belief she intersperses this kind of personal experience with her work as a historian of religion. She already knew about the varieties of early Christianity that flourished despite persecution in the fourth century C.E. She also knew that there is more to religious experience of the Sacred than what persons believe or do not believe. The question that drives this work is: "What is it about Christian tradition that we love--and what is it that we cannot love?"

The theology and fate of the "secret Gospel of Thomas" provides Pagels's case study. She interprets Thomas as promoting an egalitarian theology that all persons can come to know God "through one's own, divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God." Thomas in Aramaic means "twin" as does Thomas' second name in Greek "Didymus"; thus Thomas in effect invites readers to acknowledge their own potential to be a "twin" of the "living Jesus." Pagels contrasts this theology with that of the canonized Gospel of John, which she interprets as promoting a doctrinaire theology that only those who believe in Jesus as the revealer of God can inherit eternal life or be counted as a legitimate member of the community. In castigating the figure of Thomas, the Gospel of John, Pagels argues, was in fact written to debunk the Gospel of Thomas in the first century C.E.

Although this "debunking" process is a bit rigid--The Gospel of John can be nuanced with a much "softer" reading than in Pagels's dichotomizing approach--it drives the bulk of Beyond Belief. Pagels focuses on "how certain Christian leaders from the second century through the fourth came to reject many other sources of revelation and construct instead the New Testament canon . . . along with the 'canon of truth,' which became the nucleus of the later creeds that have defined Christianity to this day." She provides an elegant interpretation of Irenaeus and other church fathers in the second century C.E. who forged a hard line orthodoxy against gnostics and new forms of prophecy, and shows how the hard line was enforced in the fourth century C.E. through the political processes that formulated the doctrinal "canon of truth," which Pagels labels "the triumph of John." Eventually, the formulation of creed and canon solidify Irenaeus' view that "it is a heresy to assume that human experience is analogous to divine reality, and to infer that each one of us, by exploring our own experience, may discover intimations of truth about God."

What about Pagels's personal quest? "What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions--and the communities that sustain them--is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery. Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus's words, 'to seek, and you shall find.'"

Beyond Belief lacks an appendix with a translation of the Gospel of Thomas, though one is available in Bart D. Ehrman's Lost Scriptures: Books The Did Not Make It Into The New Testament, recently released by Oxford University Press. Anyone interested in exploring the wealth of excluded early Christian writings and the issues Pagels discusses will find worthwhile, incisive analyses of these in a companion volume by Ehrman titled Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, also from Oxford. All three books provide a provocative look at the traditions at work in the New Testament.

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