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72 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Challenging comparison between gnostic and orthodox gospels
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...
Published on 27 May 2006 by J. Mann

versus
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Appeasing orthodoxy
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,...
Published on 25 Oct 2007 by calmly


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72 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Challenging comparison between gnostic and orthodox gospels, 27 May 2006
By 
J. Mann - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Vintage) (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. The primary difference between the two is that in Thomas the truth is found in the world, Jesus is just a teacher of truth, a bringer of enlightenment, but he himself is not the truth. He has found the truth within himself and we too can find the truth within ourselves.

In the gospel of John Jesus is God, he is the Truth, "no one comes to the Father but my me". John therefore represents an exclusivist and hierarchical model of spiritual truth, one which the church developed into the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy. Pagels argues that in the first few centuries Christians held a variety of beliefs about God and Jesus, but when Constantine established the Christian church as the official church of Rome it became necessary to create a hierarchy of ecclesiastical power, and this was achieved through the creation of a single "truth" and therefore the exclusion of those who failed to obey the dogma decided by the orthodox church. This artificial division of believers is most clearly seen in the debates around the creation of the Nicene creed and the books included in the New Testament canon.

The early part of this book is excellent in its comparison between Thomas and John and what this says about the early traditions within Christianity. The book loses focus in the second half where Pagels finds it difficult to keep the complexity of church history in a single narrative, and eventually seems to say "well, you will just have to read some other books to understand what happened".

Nevertheless the overall message of the book is that early Christianity had many powerful and complex traditions that were tragically destroyed when orthodox Christianity attained political power. This is essentially a retelling of the central theme of Pagels' earlier book "The Gnostic Gospels" but from a different perspective; it is an important message and one which creates a powerful and compelling framework in which to read the Gnostic gospels.
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92 of 95 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can you keep a secret?, 21 Oct 2004
By 
Kurt Messick "FrKurt Messick" (London, SW1) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Vintage) (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.
Pagels identifies a conflict between the gospels of John (one of the canonical four, itself a bit on the fringe, given its greater differences with the synoptics than they have with each other) and Thomas. Pagels asserts that both assumed their communities would be familiar with the basic outline of the gospel story a la Mark (most likely the earliest of the canonical gospels), and that both John and Thomas give similar accounts of the private teachings of Jesus. However, the use of these teachings and emphasis differs between Thomas and John - whereas they might have been complementary, they end up being at odds. For example, John argues strongly for the uniqueness of Jesus, as the light of God for all humanity; Thomas, on the other hand, looks at the light in Jesus as being something that all people have and have access to from within themselves. This gives Thomas a gnostic tint.
Pagels likens the message of Thomas to those developed later by mystics, including most recently the writers Tolstoy and another Thomas, Thomas Merton. The kingdom of God is within us, not something that is meant to have a physical definition, either in the past under a messianic warrior-king, nor in the future in some heavenly city descending like a spaceship, but rather, within us.
Pagels develops an interesting speculative biography of the author of the gospel of John, and looks at the images of Thomas presented in John, including the ideas that he was the `doubting' one, and that he missed the gathering of the disciples upon with Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit (the account of Matthew indicates that all the disciples were present; John has Thomas missing). These kinds of images, Pagels suggests, might indicate a sort of rivalry for position. John's gospel was itself questioned during the early church, and his community of Christians existed on the fringe of the wider community. However, John's gospel is a clear and powerful one, and Pagels demonstrates that at many crucial points in the Thomas narrative, pieces are cryptic at best, and not at all definable and discernable. This would not have appealed to certain communities in Christianity, searching for a certain faith.
Pagels traces the development of the acceptance of John over Thomas in the wider context of canonical development - she introduces other non-canonical writings of the time, such as the Secret Book of John, the Secret Book of James, the Prayer of the Apostle Paul, and others. She also traces the thought of major figures such as Polycarp, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. Much of what we have known historically about the different groups labeled heretical have come from the writings of the `orthodox' - Ireneaus, for example, is a primary source of certain heresies through his great, five-volume `Refutation and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge'. However, this is a necessarily biased source of information.
One interesting piece is the exploration of the Gospel of Philip, another of the non-canonical gospels - Philip's gospel divides the church into those who have it right and those who don't, but along different lines than the typical orthodox view. For Philip, the virgin birth and the resurrection are not one-time-only events for Jesus, but rather apply to all of humanity in potential. Anyone `born again' experiences a virgin birth through the power of the spirit; all believers are transformed, and this constitutes a resurrection. Philip makes a distinction between those who pay lip service to being Christian and those who are truly spiritually transformed - this is an idea that will resurface again and again Christian history, too.
Given imperial backing, Pagels argues that it was largely the party with influence at the court and the centre of empire that won the day. Still, even as these documents were no longer copied and held as valid scripture, the ideas they contained would remain undercurrent in Christian thought. Pagels' skillful writing and interesting narrative choice of using her own life as a backdrop to the larger issues of church history make this an interesting and worthwhile text for all.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Appeasing orthodoxy, 25 Oct 2007
This review is from: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Vintage) (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. The level of scholarship of "Beyond Belief" seems high, but Pagels doesn't seem focused in this book. Or she may have been struggling with how (or whether) to integrate the Gnostic perspective into her own Christian identity. In an interview after "Beyond Belief", with regard to the The Gospel of Thomas, Pagels said: "What I now see is that it's not necessarily contrary; it's complementary". By weakening the tension between the Orthodox and Gnostic, Pagels has undercut the power of the Gnostic messages, dragging them into conventional respectability. Perhaps she believes that they can be accepted in that way by mainstream Christians.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Incredible Diversity of Beliefs, 15 Dec 2005
By 
Peter Kenney (Birmingham, Alabama, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Vintage) (Paperback)
Pagels presents a history of the evolution of orthodox Christianity from the first century through the fourth century. She portrays The Secret Gospel of Thomas and other gnostic texts as scriptures championed by certain Christians who were opposed by Iraneus in the second century and later by other Church Fathers. The main difference between the Gnostic Gospels and those of the New Testament canon lies in the former's emphasis on searching for the Divine within ourselves instead of within an exterior God. Although that idea was reinvented in many different forms, not only throughout the history of Christianity but also in other religions such as Buddhism, the proponents of orthodoxy ultimately prevailed at the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.
Pagels applauds in particular the evidence she uncovers of an incredible diversity of beliefs within Christianity during its first three centuries of existence. To me the appreciation of diverse beliefs during that early period is the most important benefit I received from reading BEYOND BELIEF.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not about what it claims to be about, 2 Jan 2008
By 
Philip Jones (Manchester, England) - See all my reviews
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I would reinforce much of what 'calmly' says in her/his review: despite its subtitle, "The secret gospel of Thomas", the bulk of this book is about how the orthodoxy of Irenaeus gained control of the early church.

There are some occasions where the author focuses on Thomas, and in particular the rivalry between the Gospels of John and of Thomas is well portrayed. But a reader who is expecting to find an exhaustive treatment of Thomas - despite the inclusion of the complete text of Thomas as an appendix - will be disappointed.

That same reader will certainly enjoy a well-written encounter with Irenaeus, Valentinus and the many diverse arguments which followed the bursting forth of Christianity into the gentile world; and, in those terms it is a good piece of expository writing which unravels the various influences and movements with great clarity.

I enjoyed reading it. I will probably return to it when I need to refresh my thoughts about the emergence of orthodoxy, the formation of the biblical canon, and the development of the creeds. But that's not what you think you're getting from the title in its present form.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yet again another super book!, 28 Aug 2008
By 
Birmingham Book Reader (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Vintage) (Paperback)
Beyond Belief The Secret Gospel of Thomas is yet again another super book by Elaine Pagels. In this highly readable book the author takes the readers on a jouney to show the important parts of the 'Secret Gospel' and how the mix with traditional understanding. I partticularly like the way the author mixes her own emotions with the story. Making this for me at least a powerful read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Gnostic Gospel Resource, 27 Mar 2013
By 
T. Donoghue - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Vintage) (Paperback)
BEYOND BELIEF provides the reader with an excellent insight into the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. This Gospel of Thomas has been characterised in the Gnostic literature as one of the most important to shed new light on Christianity, and, particularly, the life of Jesus as portrayed in the four Gospels in the Bible's New Testament.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars what happened to Thomas?, 25 July 2011
This review is from: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Vintage) (Paperback)
Pagels as an authority on Gnosticism clearly knows her stuff and describes well the period and the religio-politics that she is covering. However as a book intending to discuss the relationship between the Gospels of Thomas and John, her emphasis is far too much on the latter. The text of Thomas' gospel at the end of the book appears almost as an add-on, an apology for the poor treatment she gives that work. Although clearly in sympathy with Gnosticism, the author seems fixated with Irenaeus, the great opponent of that movement. She spends a lot of time excusing his attitude, despite the degree of intolerance that he helped create within traditional Christianity. Without his influence we might have had a much more compassionate Church, might have avoided the Crusades, the persecution of heretics, the Inquisition, and even today's conflicts in the Middle East and beyond.
A more balanced approach in the body of the book would have made, what is an interesting volume, into a classic study of the clash between differing Christian groupings during the first centuries of the Church and the consequences.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good insight into early Christianity (or Christianities), 30 Oct 2010
By 
Matthew Turner "loyalroyal" (Reading, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Vintage) (Paperback)
Overall I would say that I enjoyed reading this short book. This is the first book book from Pagels I have read and my first delve into Gnostic texts. As such, I found this to be a good introduction to alternative Christianities.

I feel that the book's title is a bit misleading though. The book is not really about the Secret Gospel of Thomas as such, but a brief history of all the differing Christianities, traditions and beliefs which were widespread before the formation of the Catholic Church, as we know it, under Constantine. Thomas does get some analysis, but it is not enough to justify the book's title. Where Thomas is evaluated, it is invariably compared with the canonical Gospel of John. Indeed there is a whole chapter devoted to the similarities and differences between John and Thomas. From what I understand of the book, Pagels is arguing that the author of John wrote his gospel as a response to Thomas, or as a rebuttal to the "Thomas Christians".

The Gospel of John does get extensive treatment in this book, as Pagels sees it as playing a pivotal role in the formation of the fourfold gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and New Testament canon under Athanasius (and the Nicene Creed). This is due to Irenaeus seeing the gospel as the most valid, or inspired, gospel, as it is the only one which recognised Jesus Christ's true identity - as Lord and God, the Word made human. As such, the book diverts from the Gospel of Thomas to Irenaeus's struggle to fight heresy (as he sees it) and set up a catholic, orthodox church - a united church which could overcome persecution from the Roman authorities.

Overall, recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something New under the Sun, 4 Feb 2009
This review is from: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Vintage) (Paperback)
An excellent read where something new can be found under the Sun. The thing I most enjoyed was the new information you had not come across before. Very note worthy so carry a notebook whilst reading it. Most enjoyable.
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Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Vintage)
Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Vintage) by Elaine Pagels (Paperback - May 2004)
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