Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

  • Elaine Pagels
  • Jan 1, 2005
  • Series: Volume 8 - 2005

Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. Pap. $13.00 ISBN 0-375-70316-0.

A quick glance at this book when it first was released a year and a half ago convinced me that it would not prove nearly as significant as the author's award-winning work, The Gnostic Gospels, first published in 1979. How wrong I was! In part, based on the enormous worldwide interest in Dan Brown's novel, The DaVinci Code, Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, has produced another national bestseller, widely discussed in secular and religious circles alike. Unfortunately, while based on serious scholarship (unlike Brown's work), Pagel's results are almost as skewed and misleading as The DaVinci Code is to those who believe Brown's claim to have worked with historical facts!

Pagels begins with some autobiographical reflections about how hard it was to continue with traditional Christian belief after the death of a young son to a rare, terminal illness. Yet, after awhile, she found herself still drawn to the beauty of liturgical worship, the mysticism of a number of religions that believed in the possibility of intimate union with the divine, and the fellowship and orthopraxy (but not orthodoxy) of like-minded "Christians." These experiences, coinciding with her historical studies of the diversity of what called itself Christianity in the early centuries of the movement, led to her fascination with the Gnostic documents discovered after World War II at Nag Hammadi in Egypt and the portrayal of Jesus' and his teachings found therein.

As in her earlier work, Beyond Belief commends the form of religion found in the syncretistic amalgamation of ancient Gnosticism and early Christianity that proliferated in the second through fourth centuries of the Common Era. She believes that prior to the formulation of the Nicene Creed in 325 C.E. no "common statement of beliefs" was agreed upon among Christians (p. 6). This, of course, simply ignores the third-century Apostles' Creed, which Nicea expanded, which in turn was a revision of the second-century Old Roman Creed, which in turn was a collation of doctrines taken line-by-line from the first-century New Testament, which in turn, especially in its epistles, contains numerous passages that scholars have identified as most probably creedal, predating even the apostolic authors, as compendia of widely-affirmed Christian truth, especially beliefs about Jesus (see e.g. Phil. 2:6-11, Col. 1:15-20, 1 Pet. 2:21-25)!

The subtitle of the book suggests that Pagels' primary focus will be on the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, the one document from Nag Hammadi that actually contains a number of sayings attributed to Jesus roughly parallel to ones found in the canonical Gospels. In fact, only the second out of five chapters in the book deals with Thomas at all. Here Pagels argues that the Gospel of John was written directly to refute the theology of Thomas. But since John can hardly be dated later than the end of the first century or the very beginning of the second, she argues that Thomas must be earlier still. There is no doubt that Pagels has successfully demonstrated the mutually contradictory teaching of the two documents at numerous points, employing remarkably similar language and imagery, but this hardly proves her thesis. Thomas could be directly attempting to refute John, Thomas could be responding to oral tradition similar to that on which John relied, or John could be responding to oral tradition similar to that on which Thomas relied. Given that no textual evidence supports a date for Thomas earlier than the mid-second century, and given that numerous of the 114 largely unrelated sayings ascribed to Jesus that comprise the "Gospel" of Thomas parallel not only John but Matthew, Mark and Luke, including distinctively redactional material in each of the Synoptics, it is virtually certain (despite numerous scholarly denials) that Thomas knew and modified the written forms of all four canonical narratives. It may well be the case that earlier forms of Gnostic-like thought were beginning to influence the churches in and around Ephesus to which John wrote, so that some of his unique features (as over against the Synoptics) do deal with refuting proto-Gnosticism. This has actually been a common and plausible scholarly suggestion. But to argue that John intended to refute the specific document pseudonymously attributed to Thomas inverts all probable lines of historical cause and effect.

The rest of Pagels' book leaves Thomas behind and moves on to unfold her understanding of the triumph of what became known as orthodox Christianity. Chapter three deals primarily with late second-century developments, particularly those surrounding the writings of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in France. Without a doubt, Irenaeus exaggerates the uniformity of prior Christian belief and uses implausible as well as plausible arguments for accepting only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as fully accurate and authoritative Gospels. But in lobbying for equally serious consideration of third- and fourth-century works (though she provides no discussion of the insurmountable problems these datings create), such as the Gospels of Philip and of Mary (Magdalene), Pagels' arguments boil down to nothing more than her personal preference for the apparent mysticism and pantheism that Gnosticism at times promoted. Resonating with the ideas that humans can at least in part transcend the Creator/creature distinction and meld with the divine, that we all have some spark of divinity within us just waiting to be fanned into flame, she commends these later writings and excoriates Irenaeus for libeling them as "evil exegesis." Never mind that we have no evidence that even the communities who produced these works ever promoted their canonization!

Chapter four is entitled "The Canon of Truth and the Triumph of John." Again the title misleads. The chapter is not about this Gospel's triumph but about the triumph of a more literal interpretation of the Fourth Gospel versus the more mystical and allegorical approaches to it of second-century (particularly Valentinian) Gnosticism and beyond. She believes that what particularly disturbed emerging "orthodoxy" was the elitism of the Gnostics and their insistence on a second baptism so that run-of-the-mill believers might experience more significant spiritual transformation. But because she likes the idea of the latter, its censure in other circles disgusts her. Once again, while there is no doubt that much more than mere doctrinal differences came into play in the struggle between "orthodoxy" and "heresy," she plays down far too much the centrality of those doctrinal differences in the debate. And yet she implicitly concedes this in references to the incompatibility between her Gnostic-like beliefs and traditional Christianity, most notably with respect to Christology.

Finally, Pagels turns to the effects of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and the emerging Roman Catholic Church in the fourth century C.E. After retracing Irenaeus' "evil" censorship and Tertullian's labeling of sects like the Montanists as heretical (mistakenly thinking it was women in leadership rather than theological contradictions with apostolic teachings that was the root problem), she turns to the complete about-face that began in Christendom when it was no longer a persecuted minority but the legal religion of the empire that began to persecute others. While not as dogmatic as some in seeing the developments at Nicea and with Athanasius in the fourth-century as purely political in nature, she still never gives the side that sees a fundamental theological dimension to them a fair hearing. In lobbying for a restoration of religious tradition that plays down the separation between the human and the divine, she ignores a huge body of Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic tradition and practice that Protestant Christians today, too, are recovering, that focus on intimacy with God through a variety of spiritual disciplines and forms of worship. Instead, she would rather opt for Jewish or Buddhist practices (whether or not mainstream within those religions) that certainly appear to violate the fundamental distinction between creator and creature which Paul in Romans 1:18-32 stresses is the very heart of idolatry. She seems categorically to reject any formal doctrinal system, without recognizing that everyone who has ever lived has functioned with some ideological boundaries (which, in principle, could be articulated and written down) to set off what they will and will not believe about ultimate matters. The question is not whether anyone truly lives "beyond belief" but what the boundaries are that they choose for what they deem to be acceptable beliefs.

After acknowledgments and endnotes, Pagels prints an English translation of the Gospel of Thomas that adapts Marvin Meyer's work in consultation with the "Scholars' Version" produced by the Jesus Seminar. It is presented as an appendix without comment, except for a footnote on the extremely chauvinistic, final logion 114, which concludes, "For every female who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven." The note reads, "The words female and male are not to be taken literally (as if they referred to woman and man) but rather as characterizing respectively what is human and what is divine" (p. 242). But of course! When original Christianity does not suit one's taste, prefer a later deviation from it and try to argue that it was original instead. When a document from that later deviation turns out not to support feminism (and, in fact, Gnosticism overall was regularly less feminist than the New Testament writers, a point that called into serious question parts of Pagels' earlier, celebrated work), then reinterpret it. After all, allegorical interpretation is superior to literal interpretation. But then why not interpret the other 113 sayings of Thomas allegorically, despite the fact that Thomas uniformly removes all traces of allegory from those sayings he reproduces that have even partial parallels in the canonical Gospels? Answer: because it is only the literal interpretation of Thomas that leads to the form of self-worship that Pagels prefers.

That a work like this can become as popular as it has and seem to so many as credible as it does is a testimony to the (a) widespread biblical illiteracy of our day, (b) the widespread historical illiteracy of our day, (c) the truth of Augustine's dictum that there is a God-shaped vacuum in every human heart that can be filled by only him so people still long for spirituality even in our highly scientific age, (d) the truth of the biblical doctrine of human depravity that leads so many to try to fill that vacuum by almost every form of religion except the one that can truly fill it, not least because of the "intolerable" exclusivity of that religion (but what drowning person ever complains that only one rescuer came to save her?—she's just happy that there is one), and (e) the truth of Christianity itself, since no other religion suffers from so much historical revisionism and downright attack, as if it actually contained the power to transform lives but in ways that threatens one's autonomy. The same scholars (and laypeople) who require traditional Christianity to pass through stringent historical and philosophical criteria of truth that no other religious option comes even close to satisfying turn around and believe the most historically flimsy of alternatives. Whatever else this is, it is scarcely the "sound scholarship" that the Los Angeles Times quote on the front of Pagel's book leads the unknowing to believe it is.

Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
January 2005