Editor's Choice

Thomas purports that Jesus was an exemplar of God, but not God Himself



"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." "

Seekers Welcome Here, October 28, 2003
By Robert J. Hard (Norwalk, CT United States)

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.




An illuminating study of Christian history and Gnosticism,
November 15, 2003
By Joseph H Pierre"Joe Pierre" (Salem, OR USA)

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


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