[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.
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 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.
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.
Interestingly a problem that early 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.
After reading The Gospel of Thomas I discovered that have things in common with Buddhism.
"...how 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 choice....as 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.
A fun and easily read romp.