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Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas Paperback – May 4, 2004
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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 OKelley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Parts of BEYOND BELIEF are quite compelling, such as Pagel's portrayal of early Christians living by the Golden Rule, even during the plague when they stayed with their fellow Christians while everyone else ran away to save themselves. Non-believers saw this and wanted to be part of this compassionate religion. Most of the book, however, deals with how the New Testament came about. Pagel gives most of the credit to early church father Irenaeus who emphasized the Gospel of John and put it above Matthew, Mark, and Luke although it was written later. Pagels argues that the Gospel of John may have been a response to the Gospel of Thomas, since it is the only one that shows St. Thomas doubting Christ when he appeared to the Apostles after rising from the dead.
A later chapter deals with Christianity after Constantine's conversion when he called together catholic bishops to form the Nicene Creed, during which time many of Irenaeus ideas were given an official stamp. A later bishop, Athanasius, called for the destruction of "apocryphal" texts and it was most likely then that St. Thomas's gospel was hidden at Nag Hammadi. Athanasius wanted right thinking among his subjects and warned against something called "epinoia," or spiritual intuition, "a deceptive, all-too human capacity to think subjectively, according to one's preconceptions."
If you're expecting a thorough analysis of the Gospel of St. Thomas, you won't find it here (although Pagels does refer the reader to other scholars who discuss it extensively). You will, however, find the entire text in an appendix. Some of it is quite enigmatic, especially saying 114 in which Peter asks Jesus to make Mary Magdalen leave since "females are not worthy of life." Jesus promises to make her male "for every female who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven." Much of St. Thomas's Gospel is every bit as enigmatic.
A brief summary of this book is as follows: Early church was described as a meeting place for people seeking miracles; healing the sick, driving out demons, and raising the dead. To join the church, one had to repudiate family and their values. When Justin Martyr was baptized in 140 A.D., in Rome, he described his experience as walking on to the spiritual side, away from bad habits. In 4th century, when Emperor Constantine became a Christian, he decriminalized Christianism and convened a meeting of church leaders to cull a common statement of beliefs and early traditions to define Christianism as a faith.
The author notes that Paul, John and Luke connect Jesus with Passover. According to them, Jesus blesses the bread and wine and instructed them to eat in remembrance of him; just as Passover recalls how God delivered Israel through Moses. John gives a different chronology, according to him the last meal occurs before the feast of Passover. His version of last supper is different from that of Paul, Mark, Matthew, and Luke in that Jesus did not perform the rituals of Holy sacrament in which he washes the feet of his disciples. According to him Jesus was arrested on Thursday and brought to trial on the following day, at about noon, on the day of preparing the Passover lamb. Jesus was sentenced to death, tortured and crucified. In this narrative, John draws a parallel with sacrificial lamb. After crucifixion, the Roman soldiers don't break the bones assuming Jesus is dead. Therefore, according to John, Jesus is the living bread that comes down from heaven and whoever eats this bread and drink his blood lives forever (John 19:36, 6:35-60). Paul strengthen this claim by proclaiming that whenever you eat his bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death, until he comes (I Corinthians 11:26). This was a highly contested debate among the rest of the apostles and Christians of that time. The key concepts of John were simple; God = Word of God = Jesus Christ. "All things were made through him and without him nothing was made (John 1:3). God manifests himself in and through this world as Jesus. These were powerful messages.
Irenaeus observed that Gnostic gospels were delusional and demonically inspired. He argued that John understood Jesus more than any other apostles and welded John with well liked Matthew and Luke. Irenaeus anticipated wrong interpretation of canonized gospels that may lead to a theology that he did not envision, so he created orthodox apostolic Christianity. After about 200 years, when Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria in 367 C.E., believed Irenaeus and ordered to destroy all gospels except the canonized texts.
Irenaeus wrote the basic architectures of Christianity and instructed his congregation to keep only those revelations that defined an orthodox movement. He foresaw a strong faith of the future with a canon of truth and apostolic tradition that transformed into the very early versions of New Testament. Irenaeus observed Matthew tracing Jesus' family back to King David; Luke emphasizing Jesus' role as a priest; and Mark referring Jesus as a prophet. For Irenaeus these three fall short of calling Jesus as God, but John has no hesitancy in doing so. Irenaeus determined that John is "more elevated" than the other three apostles since they missed something that John understood. Irenaeus goes further in his five volume refutation of heretics and Jews as someone who killed the Lord of Christian faith. Emperor Constantine translated Christian prejudice against Jews into legal precedence. He forbade Jews from entering Jerusalem. He also forbade Jews accepting Christians becoming Jewish converts, conversely any Jew preventing another Jew converting to be a Christian will be condemned to die. To strengthen the church, he convened a meeting of all bishops of various Christian groups at Nicaea to formulate a standard for belief and practices of the church. Apostle John, bishop Irenaeus and Emperor Constantine are responsible for the Christianism to be a powerful religion of modern times.
Irenaeus, Libros Quinque Adverses Hearses, edited by W.W. Harvey (Cambridge, 1851)
Irenaeus, the "Canon of truth and the gospel of John: making a difference through hermeneutics and ritual' In Vigiliae Christianae 56.4 (2002), 339-371.
1. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation
2. The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels
3. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts Complete in One Volume
4. The Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas: Meditations on the Mystical Teachings
5. Codex Sinaiticus
6. Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy
7. On the Apostolic Preaching
8. Against Heresies
9. Interpreting the Gospel of John (Guides to New Testament Exegesis)
10. Early Christianity (Classical Foundations)