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Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas Paperback – Unabridged, 21 Jan 2005

4.3 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Pan; 1 edition (21 Jan. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330431978
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330431972
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 19.7 x 1.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,441,648 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

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, --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


"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"

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Format: Paperback
In "The Gnostic Gospels", although Pagels stated early Christianity had needed orthodoxy in order to survive, she lent an energetic voice to the Gnostics. But here, in "Beyond Belief", that voice is much weaker.

Indeed, for a book subtitled "The Secret Gospel of Thomas", there is surprisingly not all that much about the Gospel of Thomas. When it is discussed, it is often in a comparison with the Gospel of John, such that the John receives a fair share of attention. Irenaeus seems to get more attention that either, so "Beyond Belief" could just as well have been titled "The Impact of Irenaeus". In this book, Pagels doesn't venture much "beyond belief."

Pagels' writing in "Beyond Belief" often tends to be tedious or muddled. "The Gnostic Gospels" had been sharp and compelling. Its ~200 pages seemed to carry 500 pages worth of information. To the contrary, "Beyond Belief"'s ~200 pages feels like it could have been done in 100 pages. It definitely reads like a draft that is missing one or more rewrites. Perhaps to produce another work of the caliber of "The Gnostic Gospels" is too much to expect.

"The Gnostic Gospels" benefitted in that Pagels came across primarily as a historian. The powerful impact of that work derives from the history and historical texts she presented. But in "Beyond Belief", Pagels opens at the Church of Heavenly Rest in New York, presenting herself primarily as a (rather orthodox) Christian. She presents Iranaeus with such care as to seem to champion him, then in the final couple pages of the book makes a mild plea to let people strike out some on their own.

As she demonstratated with "The Gnostic Gospels", Pagels is capable of substantially better. She had gone through a very difficult time.
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Format: Paperback
The traditional orthodox response to the Gnostic gospels, or indeed those gospels that failed to be included in the Bible, is that there is a clear qualitative difference between the two groups of writings.

Gnostic gospels for example typically:

- introduce a special disciple who Jesus favoured above the others and to whom he imparted secret teachings

- promotes teachings different to the orthodox gospels

- has stories and sayings not found in the orthodox gospels

- changes stories and sayings found in the orthodox gospels

- portrays a different Jesus to that found in the orthodox gospels

What Elaine Pagels points out is that all these points characterise the gospel of John.

- there is the "disciple who Jesus loved" who clearly is favoured by Jesus

- prompts the idea of Jesus being God, which is not found in the other gospels

- stories such as Lazarus and the turning of water in wine are not found in the synoptic gospels

- there is no last supper in the gospel of John, the attack on the money changers in the temple happens at the start of Jesus' ministry etc

- the character of Jesus in the gospel of John is very different to that in the synoptic gospels - his manner of speech, his attitude to the Jews, the very idea of who he is.

Pagels therefore shows that in terms of style the Gnostic gospels are not so far from the Bible after all, if we draw our comparisons with the gospel of John rather than Matthew, Mark and Luke. She argues that the gospels of Thomas and John show remarkable similarities, and that John may well have been written as an "answer" to Thomas.
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Format: Paperback
Elaine Pagels is perhaps best known for her text, `The Gnostic Gospels' first published in 1979, in which she explores the different alternative gospel and scriptural writings used by (or at least known to) the Gnostic sects of Christians and proto-Christians in the early years of the common era. In this book, `Beyond Belief', she returns to this subject by focusing more intensely upon the Secret Gospel of Thomas, one of the many gospel texts floating around the ancient Christian world, prior to the time the canon of scripture was more-or-less solidified.
She begins with a remarkably personal tale, her idea of faith and the power of God in the face of her own son's problem - he had been diagnosed with a fatal disease, one that is required painful and risky procedures with little hope of success. Where does faith come from in a time like this? Where does faith go?
Her first chapter talks about the power of the community, and she traces a history of early initiation rites and community-forging events (including the martyrdom of many). Pagels then relates these back to her own experiences, tracing a connection between then and now. The controversies the early church faced - the participation in communal feasts that were misunderstood, the renunciation of the world in dramatic ways, coupled with a care for persons in unique and egalitarian ways - these are not always the issues faced today. However, Pagels shows how these issues served to form what we hold today as normative Christianity. She also sets the stage for a look at the diversity of practice and belief - prior to the formation of the canons and creeds, there were more points of difference in the Christian world - texts such as the Secret Gospel of Thomas is one such.
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