BEYOND BELIEF, The Secret Gospel of Thomas, by Elaine Pagels price:£18.99, 189 pages of text with 68 pages of notes, index and appendix containing a text of the Gospel of Thomas adapted by Elaine Pagels and Marvin Meyer.
After reading this book I felt profoundly grateful to Elaine Pagels for having written it. For reading it was an educational and emotional experience. It constructs a very clear and vital picture of the heterogeneous nature of belief in the first century A.D. and of the development of the doctrine of the apostolic succession and the creation of Christian orthodoxy in the second and third centuries A.D. The vitality of the story told in the book springs from her own personal engagement with the issues raised by her scholastic investigation. At the start of the book she explains her position with great clarity and honesty: although she cannot believe in much of Christian doctrine she has found that Christian observance and involvement in the community of her local church has wrought transformation in her particularly in coping with grief and bereavement when faced with the fatal illness of her eighteen month old son. From this agnostic, but participant, standpoint she describes with great sympathy the Gnosticism of the first century A.D. with its emphasis on the mystical search for divinity of Christ which was to be found within each of us. She demonstrates how the three synoptic gospels, written earlier than St.John, were still compatible with the belief common to the Gnostic gospels, and expressed very clearly in the Gospel of Thomas, that man had a twin nature: human and divine.Further she finds indications of doctrinal similarities between the synoptic gospels and the gospel of Thomas. But then came the Gospel of St John,110 years after the birth of Christ, specifically it seems to do battle with Gnosticism. Man was not divine. Jesus` divinity and unity with God was unique and man could only be saved through Jesus Christ, not through looking into himself and finding the divine nature within. It was only in this Gospel that Thomas was held up for ridicule for his lack of faith in the unique divinity of Jesus, and that happened not just once but on three occasions. Though Elaine Pagels mourns the loss of the intuitive and imaginative approach to belief that the Gnostics had, this is not a polemical book. The problems that the Gnostics caused with their multitudinous cults, dreams, revelations and prophecies, are clearly and honestly described. The champion of orthodoxy St.Irenaeus , the bishop of Lyons, is sympathetically portrayed as a humane, brave and witty man. Christianity had a problem that had to be coped with: To withstand the persecution of the pagans the church needed to become both catholic and orthodox. While the excessive variety of belief and practice of the Christian cults had to be reined in , there needed to be a broad enough base for doctrine to enable the adherents of different gospels to remain within the church . To encompass difference while establishing orthodoxy, he created the four gospel canon, comprised of the three synoptic gospels which by and large told the same story, and the Gospel of St. John which provided the theological framework that was to be summarised in the Nicene Creed. St Irenaeus was not so much a theologian, as an organizer who wanted to create a “catholic” church which could protect Christians under its umbrella. He could tolerate different ideas, but he could not abide practices that he thought were divisive, namely the occultic second baptisms and initiations into secret rites of the Gnostics which, he thought, divided the Christian Community, and made the initiate “so elated that he imagines he…has already entered within the fullness of God… and goes strutting around with a superior expression on his face with all the pomposity of a cock” Thus he set out to stamp out Gnosticism by denouncing it as heresy and calling upon monasteries to destroy their libraries of Gnostic writings. In this he seems to have been so successful that were it not for a monastery in upper Egypt at Nag Hammadi which buried its texts in a six foot tall urn, instead of destroying them,we would know very little about the place of Gnosticism in early Christian religion and in the creation of Christian Orthodoxy. The triumph of this book is that her writing is so empathic that the reader has sympathy with all the actors. It should be an inspiration and educational experience as much for the agnostic as for the doctrinally sound. For me St Irenaeus was the hero of the story. The Gospel of Thomas itself, reproduced at the end of the book, was less interesting except maybe verse 114 “Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Mmmm! Ah Well! Elaine Pagels, in a footnote, does offer six works of scholarship by male colleagues to help explain this curious passage.I am not sure that I will get round to reading them, but I firmly recommend this book and will look for more by her. She writes beautifully.