Beyond belief : the secret Gospel of Thomas

by Elaine H. Pagels

Paper Book, 2003




New York : Random House, c2003.


[This book] explores how Christianity began by tracing its earliest texts, including the secret Gospel of Thomas, rediscovered in Egypt in 1945 ... [The author explores] historical and archeological sources to investigate what Jesus and his teachings meant to his followers before the invention of Christianity as we know it ... [She] compares such sources as Thomas' gospel ... with the canonic texts to show how Christian leaders chose to include some gospels and exclude others from the collections we have come to know as the New Testament. To stabilize the emerging Christian church in times of devastating persecution, the church fathers constructed the canon, creed, and hierarchy--and, in the process, suppressed many of its spiritual resources.-Dust jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member DubiousDisciple
Pagels is a recognized scholar of religion, and the author of The Gnostic Gospels, among others. This book might be her best.

Don't buy this expecting a dull, scholarly exposition on the Gospel of Thomas. It's hardly that. It's sort of an unobtrusive evangelism for unorthodox Christianity, a plea
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for the kind of "religious truth" that can never hide behind a stale set of doctrine.

Pagels bares her soul in this book, and her passion for spirituality, religion and Christianity shines. The result is inspirational. This is the book that turned me on to Pagels' scholarship, and I've felt a distant kinship ever since. It's really less about the Gospel of Thomas and more about diversity and meaning within the early Christian movement. John's Gospel actually gets as much attention as the Gospel of Thomas. While John hints of gnostic influence, it also finds itself in direct opposition to Thomas on many topics, such as the divinity of Christ. Pagels embraces this diversity of ideas, and spends a great deal of time discussing how the canon of acceptable scripture grew.

I love engaging, thought-provoking books, and Pagels never disappoints.
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LibraryThing member davidpwithun
To be blunt, this was far and away the worst book I've yet read (and I've read quite a few) on early Christianity. Pagels does everything in her power to portray St. Irenaeus of Lyons, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, and the other great Church Fathers in as bad a light as possible, even lying,
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twisting the truth, and covering up facts. At the same time she slanders the Fathers of the Church, she equally attempts to redeem the Gnostics, portraying them as "spiritual seekers" and innocent victims of the institutional Church. Along the way in the book, Pagels tells us a bit of her own story, her own rejection of the institutional Church for what she views as a more "spiritual" form of Christianity. The rest of the book seems little more than a pale attempt to justify her own choice. I recommend keeping as far away from this book as possible if one wants to study early Christian history.
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LibraryThing member ncnsstnt
The subtitle of this book is quite misleading. The book only very briefly touches on The Gospel of Thomas. Instead, Pagels spends a great deal of time discussing the differences between the Gospel of John and the synoptic Gospels - as well as providing evidence that John was, in fact, written in
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large part as a refutation of the Gospel of Thomas and other "gnostic" Christian interpretations that abounded in the early history of the church. She also spends a large amount of time on Irenaeus and his impact on the formation of the "Canon of Truth" (what later became the New Testament). This, to me, was the most fascinating aspect of the book. You can tell that Pagels is not impartial and occasionally will dip into a slightly disapproving tone when she talks about Irenaeus' actions, but she promptly rescues herself and will provide a plausible defense for his actions. The fact that she feels the need to defend his actions, though, should be indicative of her stance.Pagels does a nice job blending primary sources with her easy to follow narrative and the text is full of end notes - in fact, the last 50 pages or so are given to these notes. This would be a great book to start with for those interested in learning more about the early history of the Christian movement. I will definitely be reading more Pagels and using her end notes to find more material.
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LibraryThing member greeniezona
This book had been on my wishlist for a while, as I've always been interested in the "disappeared" books of the Bible. (Well, always... at least as long as I knew such things existed, anyway!) So, when perusing the religion section of the Mecosta library, this title jumped out at me. (Additionally,
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the rest of their religion section is rather un-challenging, conventional mainstream to right wing Christianity.)

So, I broke my long standing rule to not check out library books (due to my extended history of large library fines) and picked it up. It was immediately fascinating and I found myself reading it at every spare moment. I do have to say, however, that the subtitle is a bit misleading. This book is more about how the Gospels came to be the Gospels and how the others, the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary, etc., came to be forgotten. There is some particular focus on Thomas, but really only a small portion of that gospel makes it into the book.

But that's okay, because what was most interesting to me was the church history and how the issues the church is dealing with today are the same issues it's been dealing with since the dawn of Christianity -- who belongs and who doesn't, what beliefs are approved of and which aren't, and what's to be done about those we disagree with. Linked to that is how certain interpretations of texts came to be thought of as essential to Christian faith -- even those that were at one time highly controversial and aren't necessarily explicitly stated in the texts themselves -- most notably the idea that Jesus = God.

Highly recommended to all those who question.
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LibraryThing member joshuaadams
A good read but not as good as I had expected after reading Pagel's _Origin_of_Satan_. I was disappointed that only one chapter deals with the Gospel of Thomas in relation to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The rest of the book is mainly a discussion on how the Gospel of John came to be regarded as
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the central piece of New Testament scripture.
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LibraryThing member
I enjoyed it alot, especially the first two chapters, which were incredibly inspiring. The second half of the book was too obviously watered-down scholarly work.
LibraryThing member wordygirl39
Though my friends with advanced degrees in theology from Ivy League Universities tend to scoff at Pagels' "for the people" theories, I love her. I would never have explored the Gnostic Gospels if not for her first encouragement, and The Gospel of Thomas, one of the most complete and beautiful of
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the non-canonical fragments, is here discovered and rendered modern.
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LibraryThing member ablueidol
Explores the relationship between the gospel of John and Thomas and the reasons why the one was sanctioned and the other banned. In doing so explores the politics of the early church and the tensions of the need for a stable orthodoxy and continual revelation.

Interestingly a problem that early
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Friends faced that suggests a different solution to that of early Christians. Friends agreed that the bible was the first call but if the 'spirit' goes beyond what the bible says then its tested first with friends and then the world. An example of this is how Quakers came to challenge slavery. This meant that friends were able to contain their mystics but at the price of a rigid order for the first centuries before various splits in the 19th century.

The book gives a more positive view of why the catholic tradition grew as a response to the fractioning of the Christian community. But mentions in passing that only 50% of the then Christian church was catholic when it became in affect the state church of the Roman empire.

So yes official catholic/orthodox Christianity became the dominant force that it did because it suppressed a whole range of other voices including pagan ones. And then only allowed religious creation within those confines even today.

Today as Christianity fades away from being the state religion and regains its earliest roots will it regain its vigour and flower into unexpected directions or fade?

In the end an interesting essay defending or at least explaining the views of the emerging "catholic" fraction but which other accounts need to be read to get a more complete picture of the cultural politics of the time.
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LibraryThing member bordercollie
This scholarly explanation of the creation of the Christian canon (which entailed omitting many first-hand accounts of Jesus's life, most notably that of Thomas), gives me greater appreciation of Buddhism.
LibraryThing member John
Beyond Belief is the sort of book that should be read by those who believe that the bible, as currently constructed, is the immutable word of God, rather than an artifact that emerged as much from interpretive and institutional struggles in the early history of the church, as it did from any
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divinely inspired gospels. This is particularly true when the formation of the institution of the church required the intimidation of other believers and the destruction of their texts. Pagels notes that her focus in the book is:

" certain Christian leaders from the second century through the fourth came to reject many other sources of revelation and constructed instead the New Testament gospel canon of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John along with the ‘canon of truth' which became the nucleus of the later creeds that have defined Christianity to today."

Principal among those other sources is the gospel of Thomas, part of the gnostic gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, thanks to the efforts of some unknown persons who defied the order to destroy all non-sanctioned texts.

Pagels argues that:

"What John opposed...includes that which the Gospel of Thomas teaches–that God's light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially at least, in everyone. Thomas's gospel encourages the hearer not so much to believe in Jesus, as John requires, as to seek to know God through one's own, divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God. For Christians in later generations, the Gospel of John helped provide a foundation for a unified church, which Thomas, with its emphasis on each person's search for God, did not." (emphasis in the original)

The Gospel of Thomas teaches that recognizing one's affinity with God is the key to the kingdom of God, and in this and other sayings and approaches, it is remarkably similar to some of the core teachings of Buddhism. But this is not a good foundations for the machinery of an institution: if people can come to God on their own, what need do they have for priests and hierarchy and orthodoxy? This was the nightmare of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, and leader of an important Christian group in provincial Gaul in the second century. He championed the gospel of John as the basis for orthodoxy and fought long and hard to establish what became known as the canon of truth: that God the Father is also the Creator who "made all things through his word" (John 1:3), and the word became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Irenaeus's dream of a united church took a huge step forward with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 313, and his calling together of bishops from churches throughout the empire to meet at Nicea in 325, to work out a standard formulation of the Christian faith.

"From that meeting and its aftermath, during the tumultuous decades that followed, emerged the Nicene Creed that would effectively clarify and elaborate the ‘canon of truth', along with what we call the canon–the list of twenty-seven writings which would become the New Testament. Together these would help establish what Irenaeus had envisioned–a worldwide communion of ‘orthodox' Christians joined into one ‘catholic and apostolic' church."

Pagels does a good job of sketching the internecine struggles that took place in the first four centuries of Christianity where the interpretation of scripture became a central feature in a much larger political struggle. Once the canon was defined, anything that deviated from it, and from the interpretations given by the hierarchy, was heresy. Thus, the intolerance that the church demonstrated bloodily through many subsequent centuries, against Christians and non-Christians alike, was part of its birth.

"The framework of the canon, creed, and ecclesiastical hierarchy that Irenaeus and others began to forge in the crucible of persecution and that his successors...worked to construct after Constantine's conversion now gained enormous appeal. The ‘universal' church could invite potential converts to join an assembly that not only claimed to possess certain truth and to offer eternal salvation but had also become socially acceptable, even politically advantageous."

Two other interesting points: the word "heresy" originally meant an act of many early Christians did with their own approaches to worship and to Christ, but it took on a much more sinister connotation in the hands of the orthodox church. Also, the miracle of the virgin birth, which many will still swear by, is a mistranslation from the original Hebrew, through Greek. The original meaning was "a young woman shall conceive and bear a son".

An excellent and thought-provoking book.
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LibraryThing member SLuce
Good read. More learning on my part as I don't know much about the history of the bible.
LibraryThing member Marjorie
I have read this book several times. I will probably read it again. I have cross referenced it with some similar books.
LibraryThing member neilgodfrey
This is more reflections and discussions of Elaine Pagels own personal spirituality, described as being in synch with the basic messages of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, than it is an academic textual study of the gospel itself. A disappointing read for someone who was looking for fresh insights
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into early Christian literature on its own terms.
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LibraryThing member darwin.8u
An interesting perspective on the relationship between the recently popularized idea of the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and the canonical Gospel of John. Not as strong as The Gnostic Gospels, but still interestingj. Because of Pagel's skill as a communicator, she quickly dominates whatever area of
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Christian history she explores.
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LibraryThing member jddunn
This book looks into the political and intellectual battles that decided what the New Testament canon would turn out to be, and in particular, focuses on the might-have-beens had the more egalitarian and individualistic views expressed in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas been used as the foundation
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of Christian thought instead of the more authoritarian and mystical approach of John.
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LibraryThing member kencf0618
A bit thin, as it's more about the John than Thomas. The subtitle was the publisher's idea, and the title itself has a double meaning.
LibraryThing member storybook2
This premise is as old as the hills. One more ivy leagurer out there looking for his/her own religion. Fine, but leave ours alone. Its been around for 2,000 - alot longer than this book will ever endure.
LibraryThing member Brasidas
This is not my favorite Elaine Pagels book. Though interesting, I found it unfocused and lacking a unifying theme. No single thought or idea pulls the whole together as in, say, THE ORIGIN OF SATAN or THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS. I did not find that, except for chapter 2, there was even much discussion of
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The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Though the title and cover suggests that this is the raison d'etre of the book. Lots about Irenaeus, a major figure in the standardization of dogma, which was later writ in stone at the Niceas (325). And some very interesting materials on Emperor Constantine. I had not known, for example, that his support of the early church had so pervaded the everyday administration of his empire. In addition to sponsoring the conference at Niceas, he ruled the empire from the perspective of a Christian, making numerous edicts favorable to the church over the years. The book is worth reading for it's filled with interesting bits, but it does not hold together as a cohesive work. Having said that I will admit that I adore the work of Elaine Pagels and look forward to future works. As for the preceding entry, I must confess I find it rather astonishing. BEYOND BELIEF has very little to do with Ms. Pagels own religious search. That was not the reason it was written. It is religious scholarship of a very high order and its utmost goal is truth.
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LibraryThing member MarioSantamaria
The Gospel of Thomas is one of the most interesting and Elaine Pagels helps to understand it and its concepts against the canonical gospels.

After reading The Gospel of Thomas I discovered that have things in common with Buddhism.
LibraryThing member nmele
The title, or maybe it's only the subtitle of this book is misleading, since Pagels' subject is to examine how a diversity of Christian communities with differing practices and sacred writings became a unified whole. Most of the history of the first centuries of Christianity I have read assume what
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is today the orthodox consensus was in place from the earliest days of Christianity, making any history by default a tale of how divergent teachings arose and were suppressed. Pagels takes a different approach, starting with the reality of diverse communities of Christians and showing something of the way a majority held version of Christianity prevailed and then suppressed competing interpretations of the life and teaching of Jesus. This is intended for a popular readership and it is fascinating.
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LibraryThing member wickenden
Pagels here describes the differences between the Gospel of Thomas, a gnostic text and the gospel of John, an orthodox text. She puts forth that John is written to combat certain heresies identified by the orthodox bishop Iraneus (or his predecessor, I can't remember right now) -- specifically the
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heresies in thomas: that God is in us and we are in God.

A fun and easily read romp.
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LibraryThing member sholt2001
While this book assumes a basic familiarity with the Gospel of John from the King James Bible, it is a valuable read for anyone interested in the origins of Christianity as a religious movement. It includes an analysis of the political climate that led to the adoption of certain gospels and
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rejection of others, as well as an analysis of John and Thomas to illustrate how they serve as opposite ends of a spectrum and thus were pitted against each other in the battle for supremacy in the church. The full text of the Gospel of Thomas is included. A very enlightening read that may challenge religious beliefs, but in ways that will serve to make them better informed.
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LibraryThing member JRobinW
This was an excellent history of how our scriptures were compiled. In truth, I only give it 3 stars because the title was a misdirect for me. Had hoped the book focused on Thomas.



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