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 winner 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 centre 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 20th 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 O'Kelley, Amazon.com
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"Pagels has accomplished a very rare thing, an examination of early religious writings that is a good read, accessible, and at times even dramatic and poignant." --"The Columbus Dispatch
"This remarkable book will stir and provoke thought. It offers rewards to any reader concerned with the promise and power of faith, and the hunger for spiritual discovery." --"The Christian Science Monitor"
"Lucid . . . a spiritual as well as an intellectual exercise. . . . [Pagels] seems to rejoice that in the earliest years of Christianity there existed these strange, dissident doctrines." --Frank Kermode, "The New York Times Book Review
""With the winning combination of sound scholarship, deep insight and a crystal clear prose style . . . ["Beyond Belief"] portrays the rich and beautiful heritage that was lost when champions of religious orthodoxy turned on many of their fellow Christians and declared them 'heretics'." --"Los Angeles Times"
"Brilliantly lucid, elegantly written . . . [Pagels'] book is so readable you can't put it down." -- "Providence Journal-Bulletin
"Just as topical today as it was nearly two thousand years ago. . . . Pagels is great at pulling together the details that allow us to understand not only what people were arguing about but why."" -San Jose Mercury News"
"Majestic. . . . Exhilarating reading, Pagel's book offers a model of careful and thoughtful scholarship in the lively and exciting prose of a mystery writer." -"Publishers Weekly"
"This luminous and accessible history of early Christian thought offers profound and crucial insights on the nature of God, revelation, and what we mean by religious truth." -Karen Armstong
"As relevantas today's front page." -"The Washington Post Book World"