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Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas Hardcover – May 6, 2003

4.0 out of 5 stars 294 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Shortly after Elaine Pagels’ two-and-half-year-old son was diagnosed with a rare lung disease, the religion professor found herself drawn to a Christian church again for the first time in many years. In Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas Pagels, best know for her National Book Award-winning The Gnostic Gospels, wrestles with her own faith as she struggles to understand when--and why--Christianity became associated almost exclusively with the ideas codified in the fourth-century Nicene Creed and in the canonical texts of the New Testament. In her exploration, she uncovers the richness and diversity of Christian philosophy that has only become available since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts.

At the center of Beyond Belief is what Pagels identifies as a textual battle between The Gospel of Thomas (rediscovered in Egypt in 1945) and The Gospel of John. While these gospels have many superficial similarities, Pagels demonstrates that John, unlike Thomas, declares that Jesus is equivalent to "God the Father" as identified in the Old Testament. Thomas, in contrast, shares with other supposed secret teachings a belief that Jesus is not God but, rather, is a teacher who seeks to uncover the divine light in all human beings. Pagels then shows how the Gospel of John was used by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon and others to define orthodoxy during the second and third centuries. The secret teachings were literally driven underground, disappearing until the Twentieth Century. As Pagels argues this process "not only impoverished the churches that remained but also impoverished those [Irenaeus] expelled."

Beyond Belief offers a profound framework with which to examine Christian history and contemporary Christian faith, and Pagels renders her scholarship in a highly readable narrative. The one deficiency in Pagels’ examination of Thomas, if there is one, is that she never fully returns in the end to her own struggles with religion that so poignantly open the book. How has the mysticism of the Gnostic Gospels affected her? While she hints that she and others have found new pathways to faith through Thomas, the impact of Pagels’ work on contemporary Christianity may not be understood for years to come. --Patrick O’Kelley

From Publishers Weekly

In this majestic new book, Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels) ranges panoramically over the history of early Christianity, demonstrating the religion's initial tremendous diversity and its narrowing to include only certain texts supporting certain beliefs. At the center of her book is the conflict between the gospels of John and Thomas. Reading these gospels closely, she shows that Thomas offered readers a message of spiritual enlightenment. Rather than promoting Jesus as the only light of the world, Thomas taught individuals that "there is a light within each person, and it lights up the whole universe. If it does not shine, there is darkness." As she eloquently and provocatively argues, the author of John wrote his gospel as a refutation of Thomas, portraying the disciple Thomas as a fool when he doubts Jesus, and Jesus as the only true light of the world. Pagels goes on to demonstrate that the early Christian writer Irenaeus promoted John as the true gospel while he excluded Thomas, and a host of other early gospels, from the list of those texts that he considered authoritative. His list became the basis for the New Testament canon when it was fixed in 357. Pagels suggests that we recover Thomas as a way of embracing the glorious diversity of religious tradition. As she elegantly contends, religion is not merely an assent to a set of beliefs, but a rich, multifaceted fabric of teachings and experiences that connect us with the divine. Exhilarating reading, Pagels's book offers a model of careful and thoughtful scholarship in the lively and exciting prose of a good mystery writer.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (May 6, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375501568
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375501562
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1.2 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (294 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #99,410 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robert J. Hard on October 28, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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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.
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