Top critical review
11 people found this helpful
on March 2, 2004
BEYOND BELIEF compares the Gospel of John with the Gospel of St. Thomas found among a cache of texts near Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt in 1945. Pagels suggests that both were written about the same time, about sixty years after Jesus's death. John emphasizes belief in Jesus Christ as god (something that is not implicit in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke); Jesus is a supreme being, separate from man and if we are to be saved we must believe in him. Thomas, on the other hand, argues that God's light shines within and that we should seek to know God through our own, divinely given capacity.
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.