Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

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  1. Review

    In 1979 Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, published The Gnostic Gospels, an examination of the significance of the 1945 discovery, in Upper Egypt, of the Nag Hammadi Library of writings of the early church, including the Gospel of Thomas. Her book won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award.

    She begins her new book by telling a personal story of facing death. Her son, two and a half years old, had just been diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a fatal disease. While on an early morning run two days later, she stepped into the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City to catch her breath and rest. She had not been in a church for some time, but as she witnessed the worship service in progress, she realized that she was in the midst of a family that knew how to face death. As she continued to visit the church, gaining strength and new energy, she began to wonder, as a historian of religion, how Christianity came to be identified with an "authorized set of beliefs."

    Her research of the history of Christianity in the light of the discovery at Nag Hammadi led her to understand that at the beginning, what attracted outsiders into a local gathering of Christians, "was the presence of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family." Only later in the history of Christianity, did there develop the tendency to identify Christianity with an "authorized set of beliefs – coupled with the conviction that Christian belief alone offers access to God." With the discovery of The Nag Hammadi material, she states, this identity of Christianity as a set of beliefs is being questioned and transforming what we know about early Christianity.

    She begins to demonstrate the transformation by looking at the four Gospels of the New Testament in the perspective of one of the gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Thomas which was written about the same time that Matthew, Mark and Luke were being written. Unlike these three Gospels, however, the Gospel of Thomas contains no narrative but is composed of one hundred and fourteen sayings, attributed to Jesus, one half of which are roughly parallel in the three canonical Gospels. In the prologue, Thomas writes, "These are the secret words of Jesus."

    Since the Gospel of John has been the most influential source for shaping Christian thought about Jesus, Pagels focuses on a comparison between the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas. The two Gospels evidence many similarities, but disagree radically on the issue of where we can find divine truth. The Gospel of John claims that "only by believing in Jesus can we find divine truth," while the Gospel of Thomas claims that divine truth dwells within all persons. In early days of the Christian movement, representatives of these two claims became rivals struggling over the issue. The Gospel of John prevailed and was incorporated into the canon, while the Gospel of Thomas was excluded and considered heretical.

    In two illuminating chapters she investigates how Christians used the Gospel of John, from around 100-200 C.E., to confront the challenges they faced. The basic challenge, she writes, was "How could they strengthen and unify this enormously diverse and widespread movement, so as to survive its enemies?" Irenaeus, the central figure in this theological struggle, understood that to meet this challenge a decision had to be made about the nature of spiritual truth and how it might be discerned. In the end, he became the "principle architect" of the formation of the New Testament canon, which included Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and excluded the writings discovered at Nag Hammadi as heretical. Pagels writes that "the actions he took, developed by his ecclesiastical successors proved decisive for what would become Christianity as we know it – as well as what we would not know of it – for millennia to come."

    Writing out of her own experience in "churches and elsewhere" she writes that she encountered "something compelling, powerful, even terrifying that I could not ignore, and I had come to see, that besides belief, Christianity involves practice – and paths toward transformation." She continues to explore the controversy between the point of view represented by Irenaeus and that represented by the material discovered at Nag Hammadi. Finally, at the Council of Nicaea, called by Constantine, in 325 C.E., the Nicene Creed became the official declaration of belief for the Christian community.

    Pagels concludes her study with the observation that dividing people, into orthodox (correct belief) and heretical (incorrect belief) impoverished both those who remained and those who were expelled. It is her position that while we may be grateful for effort of orthodoxy to help us tell truth from lies, we "must strike out on our own to make a path where existed before." She writes, "What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions – and the communities that sustain them – is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery. Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus’ words, to ‘seek, and you shall find.’"

    Marcus Borg has pointed out that the word believe "did not originally mean believing a set of doctrines or teachings; in both Greek and Latin its roots mean ‘to give one’s heart to.’" One might choose to give one’s consent to the Nicene Creed as a statement of belief while choosing to go beyond belief and give one’s heart to a community of seekers sharing a journey of faith.

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