317 of 330 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2003
Elaine Pagels is not a minister and not a theologian. She is an historian of religion at Princeton, whose ouvre since grad school at Harvard has been the "gnostic gospels," in particular the cache of texts and fragments found in a jar in Nag Hamadi Egypt in 1945. The jar had been buried somewhere around 360 A.D., most likely to preserve for the future a body of works that had been banned as heretical by the then-emergent orthodox Christian Church.
Needless to say, defenders of orthodoxy have been less than thrilled by the prospect of having to defend themselves against what they must have believed was, quite literally, a dead letter. The sharp tones of offended orthodoxy are evident in many of the reviews of this book found on this site, but that's really their problem, not Pagels's. If you are seeking after a glimmer and a hint of an alternative Christian path, an alternative to what Catholicism and its spin-offs offer, this might be a good place to start.
As an historian, Pagels takes a bold and risky step when she begins her book with a personal narrative of a parent's anguish at the prospective death of a child. It was this anxiety and anguish that led her into a church not as an academic analyst, but a customer, as it were. Still, she could not suspend her scholarly curiosity as the process of a faith reaffirmed unfolded.
Some reviewers have made the outrageous charge that Pagels is anti-Christian. Having just put down the book, I find this charge ludicrous. It would be true only if "Christian" is defined as someone who accepts without question a particular interpretation of a particular text with no possibility of there being anything else ever.
In any event, Pagels's personal journey takes up only a couple of pages of a good-sized work, the thrust of which is an examination of why the organized church selected a few of the many texts available as the sole authoritative texts for what would become the New Testamant.
Most of this paring down, it turns out, was the work of one man, Iraneous, Bishop of Lyons, in the early second century. A survivor of widespread anti-Christian purges, Iraneous's mission was to try to unify the scattered Christian communities of the Mediterranian basin. Presumably, the idea was that there would be strength in numbers, and more particularly there would be more strength among the Christians if their tendency to argue with eachother and form splinter movements were curtailed. To this end it would be greatly advantageous if the authorities on which they based their disagreements were narrowed to a few--hence the need to select what amounted to a "best of" album of early Christian writings.
From a doctrinal standpoint, Iraneous selected the Book of John as the most important of the gospels, and placed it first in front of Mathew, Mark and Luke. Iraneus's belief in the authority of John, and the take on Jesus it encompasses, has been the basis of orthodox belief ever since. Most particularly, it is the idea found in John--and no where else in the Bible--Jesus the man was none other than God Himself. With Jesus as the sole earthly instance of the divine, access to the divine can be had only through faith in Jesus, and by extention, the church that holds that view.
It is this core belief that became embodied in the Nicean creed and all subsequent Chrisitan orthodoxy, but as Pagels points out, it was certainly not the view of the majority of Christians who were contemporary with Iraneus.
Most clearly in opposition to the Jesus-is-God view (a view that both traditional Jews and many if not most early Christians would have found blasphemous) was the so-called book of Thomas. Thomas purports to lay out sayings of Jesus, sayings that taken together stand for the idea that Jesus was an exemplar of God, but not God Himself. Moreover, the individual can access the divine through deep reflection and Christian community rituals. Unspoken here is the critical question: So who needs an organized church?
True, in many of Pagels's quotes from Iraneus,the man comes across as a pompous prig who purports to speak for the common man. He also seems to have had a tough time seeing women who had had spiritual awakenings through gnostic ceremonies as anything other than "that stupid woman" etc. He also justifies his choice of there being only four "true" gospels on the basis of there being only four winds. Quid est demonstrandum. However, Pagels also reveals him to be a man of extraordinary bravery, patience and tenacity. That the hideous sufferings inflicted on the early Chritians by the Romans would, a few generations later, be inflicted on "heretic" Christians by orthodox Christians can not be laid at Iraneus's door. That kind of viciousness flows from orthodoxy itself, not the things that people are orthodox about.
What I found somewhat disappointing was not that Pagels tends to hang Iraneous with his own words so much as her failure to hang him high enough. More particularly, I wanted to read a lot more about Thomas (or at least, what's in Thomas), and the book would have benefitted greatly from having the whole Thomas work included as an appendix. Instead, she kind of meanders off in her lucid and erudite way into discussions with progressively less punch, as informative as they are.
While Pagels suggests that it was doctrine alone that kept Thomas out of the New Testament--particularly the idea of finding the divine within--I think there was a rather more obvious reason. The other gospels are narratives of the life of Jesus--Thomas is simply a group of sayings with no story, no structure, no life of Jesus to tell to the converts. As such, it could only serve to raise uncomfortable questions, the last thing the early church founders wanted.
I was also disappointed that Prof. Pagels did not put more time into the question of John's historicity. Although Iraneus believed that John was written by Jesus' actual disciple John, I think a good case can be made that John's author lived at least a generation later. Yet Pagels never picked up that particular gauntlet.
In sum, I'd give this book a B+ on the scale of fulfilling the promise of the jacket copy. It earns an A for what it has done to refresh me on my own spiritual journey.
523 of 559 people found the following review helpful
on May 27, 2003
First, a disclaimer: Elaine Pagels ranks very close to the top of my list of favorite authors. I have always found her work enlightening, interesting, well-researched, and readable.
Now, the squawk: The title of "Beyond Belief" leads the reader to expect an exegesis of the Gospel of Thomas. Although the Gospel of Thomas is mentioned from time to time, this book is about something else entirely. To the extent that it interprets any Gospel at all, the book interprets the Gospeal of John. The thrust of the book, particularly in its second half, concerns the ascendancy of the Gospel of John, as supported by church fathers such as Iraneaus and Athanasius. At the same time, it talks about the suppression of alternative or non-canonical writings, including but hardly limited to the Gospel of Thomas. Moreover, Dr. Pagels discusses at some length, the doctrinal squabbles between the orthodox movement chracterized by Iraneaus and the more liberal gnostic movement, characterized by Valentinus.
The book is interesting and provides a sketchy introduction to the panoply of gospels extant in the early church. It is well worth reading. Like any quality scholarly work, it invites the reader to further research. With voluminous footnotes and a seemingly comprehensive bibliography it points the reader to library shelves and, most likely, to interlibrary loans for further essential reading.
The book, however, talks a whole lot less about the Gospel of Thomas than the title would have us believe. I advise the reader first to read the Gospel of Thomas itself. Then read the Gospel of John. Then, and only then, read this book to find out about the Ascendancy of John, and look elsewhere for a full interpretation of Thomas.
131 of 142 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2003
Elaine Pagels is an exceptionally engaging writer with a talent for locating and explaining hidden wisdom. She wrote an earlier book, "The Gnostic Gospels: A New Account of the Origins of Christianity," that brilliantly summarized the ancient and rambling Nag Hammadi texts, which describe the teachings of Jesus as captured by early Christian writers. In "Beyond Belief," a title that addresses the audience she wishes to reach, Pagels examines more closely these ancient texts and how they compare to the four gospels. She focus on the "Gospel of Thomas" (90 ce) comparing it to the Gospel of John (100 ce) and current christian beliefs about the teachings of Jesus.
"Beyond Belief" is intensely interesting to the right audience. It is part gospel analysis, which she translates from ancient Greek, part early Christian history and part personal story meant to provide context in understanding the beauty of modern Christianity. One audience for this book is those seeking to understand factually what Jesus taught and what happened to Christianity in the early centuries following his death (30 ce) and how the Gospel of Thomas can shed light on that understanding.
But another audience, the one for whom this book will resonate most deeply, are readers with an intuitive grasp of "transcendence" and the teachings of Jesus that verify the union that can be experienced between God and man. This is what Saint John of the Cross referred to when he wrote "All and Nothing." ("Here I stand alone transcending all knowledge"). Pagels points out that this experience is taught by Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas and expressed in the Vedic literature of India. ("I am That"). It is found in the writings from many religious traditions. One Catholic University scholar has compared the description of the higher states of consciousness from the Upanishads to the rooms described by Saint Theresa of Avila in her "Interior Castle"(Seven states of consciousness; seven rooms in the castle).
There is no doubt that saints the world over have written of union with God. The Christian tradition is no exception (read Alan Watts, "The Supreme Identity."): "It seemed to me, as if [my soul] was wholly and altogether passed into its God, to make but one and the same thing with Him; even as a little drop of water, cast into the sea, receives the qualities of the sea. Oh, union of unity, demanded of God by Jesus Christ for men and merited by him!" -Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon. Or "Blessedness consists primarily in the fact that the soul sees God in herself. Only in God's knowledge does she become wholly still. Therefore it is in Oneness that God is found and they who would find God must themselves become One." And the famous "My eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love." -Meister Eckhart.
I wonder sometimes how we got from these sublime expressions to the crap that is dispensed by our Churches. Nobody explains this better than Pagels. She attempts to explain why, if the experience of union with God is universal, it is not prominently recognized in the four gospels and most Christian teaching.
The problem, Pagels explains as she accounts for the development of early church othodoxy, is that the apostles and the early Christian writers built Church teaching upon revelation and visions. "Without visions and revelations, the Christian movement would not have begun. But who can tell the holy spirit when to stop?..."And when so many people--some of them rivals and even antagonists--all claim to to be divinely inspired, who knows who has the spirit and who does not? She claims that Irenaeus, the promoter of the four gospels, and only those four, was confronted not by "a lack of spiritual revelation but an overwhelming surplus. 'How' he asked 'can we tell the difference between the word of God and mere human words?'" It is in this climate the first attempt to unify Christian believers began.
Hericlitus, the great Greek philosopher, said "All is One." If you recognize the wisdom of this ancient expression and you understand that, consciousness, the source of thought, is divine and that the inner experience of Jesus is available to all, you will enjoy this book. Jesus says in Thomas "I am all: From me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.". Or in the words of the Vedas "I am That, Thou art That, All this is That."
Understanding the Transcendent may be the key to appreciating this book. I had been practicing meditation for only about seven years when I discovered Pagels' first book over twenty years ago. The Gospel of Thomas and these gnostic writings from the earliest christians resonated immediately for I could validate it by my experience. Pagels quotes the gospel of Mary Magdalene, "The Son of Man is within you."
In the end, the orthodox view, the Church view, prevailed and the Gnostic writings were suppressed. Perhaps for this reason Hericlitus had another saying for which he was known: "People who follow religions are like cattle."
36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
When asked what book provided you with the basis of your faith and beliefs, I imagine many people would say it's the Bible. When asked how the Bible you are reading came to be, I'd imagine that most people wouldn't have the faintest idea, but merely launch into a talk about "faith". Pagels attempts to trace the history of the formation of the Bible in her well researched and meticulously notated book "Beyond Beliefs", and does a fantastic job.
Author of the book "Gnostic Gospels", Pagels revists the Secret Gospel of Thomas as a method to describe the historical background into the formation of the Bible as we see today. She starts her tome with a largely personal story about her ailing son and how church called her to help her through this crisis time. She launches into an intriguing comparison of the Gospels of John and Thomas, and how the four gospels came to be "the chosen ones", all because of a Lyons bishop named Irenaeus.
The main character of her story is this Irenaeus, who comes across as well intentioned, if not tolerant, of other gosepls floating around during the fourth century. Due to splintering all over of "Christians" based on their own personal beliefs and interpretations of Jesus' life, Irenaus sets out to streamline the Christian faith and have a general set upon bundle of agreements to work from. This job is none-to-easy as different sects have different thoughts.
At first, Irenaeus could be the type of historical figure somewhat villified by denouncing other gospels as heretical and removing them from public consideration. However, Pagels strives to show us all sides of the bishop, and emphasizes that despite his preference towards Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, he was sympathic and tolerant of a variety of religious expressions. He just felt it important to have a basis from which all Christian thought arises, thus leading to the Nicene Creed, among others.
Pagels work is engrossing and mesmerizing. Anyone with a taste for history and religion will eat up this book for breakfast. Her writing is thorough and understandable. Sometimes, professors, as they write from their ivory towers, forget their audiences, Pagels strives for understandability and clarity. She is approachable and engrossing in her writing.
I fear some people, whose faith is rigid and based not on questioning it, will find this book unbelievable. They might think how dare anyone question the early Christian church and the eventual work known as the Bible. However, this book only adds to the deeper dimensions of our faith. By learning more about where the Bible as we know it comes from, we gain an appreication for the work as a sense of what it is; a purposefully planned document designed to shape faith. The fact that there are other gospels out there, whether or not they are true. is not a threat to my beliefs, but only adds and enhances what I believe. Let me be the judge, after reading them, what I believe. Pagels suggests that people for themselves are empowered to find the light within. For some, that's heresy, for others, salvation.
I highly recommend "Beyond Belief" as an important text to support your faith, and to make it fly.
45 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2005
As a Christian, I found this book very challenging - it was one of those books where you read a few pages, then have to put it down and think for a while about what you have just read. After finishing, I was interested in what others thought about it, so came to Amazon as I often do to check the reader reviews. I quickly noticed two things:
- Many of these reviews are the longest and most in-depth I've ever read - demonstrating the passions this book brings out in people.
- Some of the reviews are obviously from people who did not actually read "Beyond Belief", or who only skimmed it.
Agree or disagree with Ms. Pagels' analysis of the gnostic gospels, and how they potentially impact modern Christianity, "Beyond Belief" is very well researched, foot-noted profusely and cross-references several other works. Any claims about 'poor research' and 'assumptions' made by Ms. Pagels are easily blown away by anyone who actually reads the book. Is she right about her assertions - who am I to say? But she certainly has done her homework, and it is unfair to characterize the book as shoddy or haphazard.
As has been mentioned by other reviewers, one of the core arguments in this book is about the canonical Gospel of John vs the gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Pagels presents her view on this debate. What I found interesting was her presentation of the two gospels - they are very much ALIKE in many, many ways. In fact, John is much more akin to Thomas than to the other three gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. So WHY was John included as the fourth 'pillar' of the NT gospels, and Thomas was ignored, repressed and even deemed heresy? Pagels' presentation of this key decision by early Christians is fascinating and thought-provoking.
But this book is not so much about the gnostic "Gospel of Thomas" as it is about the struggle of early Christianity, and the process that lead to the decisions that shape Christian faith to this day. Pagel's review of the history of the early Church and the development of what we today call the "New Testament" is in-and-of-itself worthwhile. Given the current climate where 'religious folks' are too often almost totally uninformed about the history of Christianity, and where a minimal "Sunday School" familiarity with the Bible has replaced real, serious study, it is an amazing testament to the strength of Christ's message that this book is so popular, even with the controversy it generates.
For Christians of all 'ecumenical stripes' - I say this is a must-read. The early Christians REALLY had to struggle to ensure the survival of their faith, and while many of us are familiar with the struggle against Nero's Rome and other forces that tried to destroy Christianity from the outside, too few of us are familiar with the internal struggle that Pagels presents here. The gnostic 'gospels' - like that of Thomas - were a casualty of that internal struggle. Pagels feels this was highly unfortunate, claiming there is a lot to be learned about Jesus from gnostic writings. Others feel the exclusion of the gnostic writings was a good move by the early church, or perhaps even 'an act of God' [thought this presents the interesting question of God's role in the 'miraculous' survival of these writings in a jar of clay in the desert - to be discovered almost 2000 years later!!]
Regardless of your personal view, after reading this book you will undoubtedly know more about the history of Christianity, the multiple ways in which early Christians viewed Christ, and how we got to be where we are today [whether by the hand of God or man.] As a Christian, I felt this made "Beyond Belief" worthy of praise, and well worth the read.
71 of 81 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2003
This new volume by Princeton's Elaine Pagels, who did much to both legitimize and popularize Gnostic religious studies with her groundbreaking The Gnostic Gospels (1979), has been for many the most hotly anticipated book in its area this decade--and it doesn't disappoint. While essentially a long essay (it's actually five seperate ones, previously published but revised for accessability), weighing in at just 183 double-spaced pages (sans the copious and as-always expertly researched notes section), the book manages to cover the essentials of canonical Christian history, elucidate the importance of the (in)famous Gospel of Thomas and its relation to the canonical Gospel According to John (and other New Testament works) in a lucid and readable presentation that includes the author's own personal experience and reasons for going beyond the traditional "canon" for study.
These are, in fact, separate essays which can be read exclusive of each other: the first two deal explicitly with Thomas and the others with other Nag Hammadi sources as well (The Gospel of Truth, The Gospel of Phillip, The Gospel of Mary (Magdeline), The Acts of John, The Round Dance of the Cross), etc. Pagels provides an excellent overview of the early history of Christianity and the formation of its canon, though a less comprehensive, but even more "readable" one than *Hidden Gospels*. Pagels sees the primacy of the "orthodox" in essentially political terms, centering the second-century Gallic bishop Irenaeus (fl. 190) as its most influentual figure. The drawback with the collected essays-as-book method is that the subtitle is somewhat deceptive and she repeats herself, as it were, some seventeen times, often word-for-word: too frequently for a two-sitting read that is presented as a new book. In her transitions, added for book publication, the seams show.
Still, the volume is a brilliant and engaging addition to the work that has made Pagels one of, if not the most important and accessable religious historian of her generation; and if you just read one book on religion published this year, for the sake of God, let it be this one.
75 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 2003
Elaine Pagels has written another provocative and interesting book with this book, her latest of four I have read. It's about the well known gospel of John vs the little known gospel of Thomas. Thomas' gospel speaks to a form of belief that is much more personal than the traditional New Testament that is mainly based on the gospel of John. The book also refers back to the author's prior book on Gnosticism. Gnosticism gave a higher place in theology to knowledge, and held that it should at least share the same pew with belief. I not only recommend "Beyond Belief", I recommend all of Elaine Pagels' books. And, if you are interested in the unending contest between knowledge and belief --- reason vs revelation --- that has been going on almost forever, I also recommend the easy-to-understand book by Remick called "West Point: Character Leadership Education...Thomas Jefferson" which deals with that subject for the purpose of understanding America in an outside world that has really little understanding of America other than what they see from TV, movies, and multi-national corporations.
43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2003
This book is an excellent follow-on to Pagels' earlier work, "The Gnostic Gospels"; it's based on many of the same texts, but incorporates insights from the extensive scholarly work done on the Nag Hammadi texts since the first book was written. To me, the points that stood out were: (1) The earlier 3 Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell essentially the same story; the inclusion of John as the fourth canonical Gospel put a different spin on "Who was Jesus?", and caused later commentators and readers to view the other 3 Gospels through that lens. (2) The Gospels of John and Thomas are contemporaneous and express two differing views of Christian thought and behavior; for various reasons (many of them political), John was chosen as the "official" view and Thomas was suppressed. (3) The idea that Christianity should have a single, "orthodox" set of beliefs and practices was a defensive response to persecution; in the beginning, Christianity was far more loosely organized and diverse than the "official" history makes it out to be. I felt that Pagels argued her points well, supported them with ample scholarly evidence, and aired differing views as well as her own, so I found the book an impressive piece of work. (It's a pity that it has become a sort of Rorschach test for reviewers -- many of the reviews I've read seem to be about the book that the reviewer THINKS that Pagels wrote, rather than the one she actually wrote!)
65 of 75 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 2003
I met Dr. Elaine Pagels when she was a professor at Barnard College, in the mid-seventies, when Dr. John Cantwell Kiley and I made a trip together to New York City. We had each read her (then) new book, The Gnostic Gospels. She was one of the group of scholars who translated the Nag Hammadi scrolls, found in the Egyptian desert in 1945, and so we met her in her office for a brief discussion.
Dr. Pagels is a serious, recognized scholar of early Christianity and its literature and history, and she now teaches at Princeton.
This book describes the early schisms between what was to become the orthodox Catholic (universal) Christian church and the ones called the "Gnostics". The main difference between them is the position of the gospel attributed to John, and that (Gnostic gospel) attributed to Thomas. John's version claimed that Jesus (the Greek name of the Jewish teacher named Yeshua, or Joshua) was identical with God--literally, God descended to earth in the form of a man--which both Jews and most early Christians would have considered blasphemy, and Thomas' version, which implied that any person could experience God directly, essentially without the need of a priest, bishop, or pope to intervene in the process--a view abhorrent to the organized church which had established such a hierarchy, and in later centuries thrived by selling dispensations and maintaining power over the multitude through tithes and threats of excommunication.
The actual "canon" of the scriptures, declaring some to be inspired by God and discarding others as heretical was decided at the Council of Nicaea, where scholars empowered by the Christian Emperor Constantine, whose wish it was to settle the differences between the many Christian sects, and create one orthodoxy for everyone, made the fateful decision. As a result, the Gnostic writings were declared heretical, and ordered destroyed. It was nearly successful: for hundreds of years, virtually the only evidence of their existence was the animosity in writings of non-Gnostic writers attacking them--until 1945 when a clay jar full of scrolls was found, well-preserved, in the Nag Hammadi desert of Egypt by an Egyptian shepherd.
The word gnosis translates to a deeper wisdom, or knowledge of a spiritual truth previously accepted by faith alone, and described the acceptance by the Gnostics of the premise that man needs no intermediary to have the experience of union with God. This has been the stance of many Hindu Vedas (scriptures), specifically the Advaita Vedanta, and the most advanced Hebrews and followers of Islam, for centuries. The Hindu saying, "Tat tvam asi" translates to "Thou art That," and elsewhere clearly states that the individual soul is not different than the soul of God. The Advaita Vedanta (the last of the Vedas) claims that there is only one soul in existence, which plays all of the parts in the universal dance.
Johannes "Meister" Eckhardt, a Catholic priest, was preaching much the same message, and for his heresy was summoned to Rome for punishment. Fortunately, perhaps, for him, he died on the way. Throughout human history there have been many who have had the experience, which many call "enlightenment," of coming to acknowledge that they are one with God. One such, of course, was Siddhartha of Gautama, better known as the Buddha. In more recent times, in the United States, we were blessed with a man named Alan Watts. One of his books is called, The Book: The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.
I recommend all of his writings to you.
This book contains not only the translation of the Gospel of Thomas from the coptic (ancient Egyptian) but, perhaps most important, the scholarly, enlightened commentary upon it by Dr. Pagels. If you have an interest in this subject matter, it is indispensable to your library.
Joseph (Joe) Pierre
author of The Road to Damascus: Our Journey Through Eternity
and other books
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
I have only recently learned of the existence of the "secret" Gospels. My first questions about them were, "What do these secret Gospels say?" and "Why are these secret Gospels not included in the bible?". Elaine Pagels' primary focus is on the Gospel of St. Thomas. Because Thomas is often labeled as "Doubting Thomas" or the apostle of the weakest faith, I thought Pagels' focus was an interesting choice.
While the book itself gives little of the actual text written by Thomas, differences between the Gospel of Thomas and the others are highlighted. The main source of comparison for Thomas is the Gospel of John. Of the four Gospels of which most people are familiar, John is the most controversial because his differs form the other three on many levels. The author's discussion expands into the choice of the four Gospels and the reasoning behind this choice. Very few people are actually aware of how the Gospels and New Testament were developed.
Pagels also looks briefly at other secret Gospels including the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. I appreciate that the author went throught the process by which these books were rediscovered.
Many Christians find these alternative Gospels to be heresy because of there differences to the canon Gospels. I find this book to be a great explanation behind the divergence in Christianity. It was enlightening to see Jesus in new ways. Differing forms of Christianity developed from the differing missionaries who ventured to different lands. The fact that what in most cases are small differences can lead all Christians back to the basics of the faith is a beautiful reflection of the faith. God, Jesus, or the Chirstian faith is not able to be categorized into boxes as many sects of Chirstian faith would have you believe. The book is merely encouragement to those who endeavour to, in the words of Jesus, "seek and you shall find!"