Elaine Pagels's Beyond Belief

by Mary W. Matthews

Exciting discoveries of ancient religious texts — especially the 52 texts found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 — are prompting religious historians to rethink the standard account of Christian origins. In Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), book cover of Beyond BeliefElaine Pagels reexamines the first three hundred years of Christianity in the light of theologians’ growing suspicions that the fourth gospel of the Bible, commonly known as the Gospel of John, was written to rebut the Gospel of Thomas.

For the first 25 or so years after the Crucifixion, no part of what we now know as the Christian Testament existed. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, written around 55 C.E., is probably the earliest part of the Christian Testament to be set into writing. The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas may have been written as early as 50 C.E.

In the excellent The Four Witnesses: The Rebel, the Rabbi, the Chronicler, and the Mystic (2000), Anglican priest Robin Griffith-Jones describes “the four greatest stories ever told” and the faith communities for which they were written.

In 64 C.E., a great fire devastated Rome. Contrary to popular myth, the Roman Emperor Nero fought the fire heroically — but he had to blame it on someone, and the new, rebel religion was the perfect scapegoat. The Christians in Rome were rounded up, tortured, and killed. The Gospel of Mark, written around this time, makes it clear that Mark’s faith community may have suffered, but there is far worse suffering in store for those who resist the reign of God.

Around Mark’s time, a “sayings gospel” was circulating in Judea, of which no physical copy remains. Roughly ten years after Mark’s gospel was set into writing came Matthew’s (about 75 C.E.), then roughly ten years later, Luke’s (about 85 C.E.). Both Matthew and Luke were based partly on Mark, partly on the sayings gospel Q (the German Quelle means “source”), and to a lesser extent on other sources.

Matthew was a rabbi, steeped in Judaism, who carefully built his gospel so that Jewish hearers would know that Jesus was a true prophet, like Moses, not a fraud. Luke, on the other hand, was more interested in proclaiming the Good News to non-Jews.

The Gospel of John is very different from the first three, and its author(s) probably did not have had access to Mark, Q, Matthew, or Luke. John tells the story of only a few miracles; most of his gospel consists of long, riddling conversations with Jesus, in which it is made clear that Jesus is no ordinary human, but rather God in human form. Probably written between 90 and 120 C.E., John shows a strong influence from what has been called gnosticism. Most Gnostic Christian faith communities thought of goodness as a spark of God’s divine Light and Jesus as a redeemer come to remind humans of their true nature.

As Beyond Belief shows us, in the earliest days of Christianity, no one had an exclusive lock on what was or was not holy scripture. Many people were proclaiming the Good News. The “Pistis Sophia” (literally, “Faith Wisdom”), the Gospels of Philip, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Matthias, Judas, and Bartholomew, the Gospel of Perfection, and “Thunder, Perfect Mind” (in which a feminine personification of God proclaims the truth about God’s love and forgiveness) are just a few of the ancient texts that scholars are beginning to rediscover.

Obviously, not every ancient document is holy scripture. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for example, probably written around the same time the Gospel of John was written, tells us that as a child of about six, Jesus was jostled by a playmate. The child Jesus told his playmate to drop dead, which the unfortunate boy instantly did. When the dead boy’s parents remonstrated with Mary and Joseph, they were stricken blind for their blasphemy. (4:1-5:1)

Moreover, not every religious leader’s teachings are to be trusted, even today — as the followers of Jim Jones and David Koresh might tell you if they could. In the first few centuries after the Crucifixion, many Christian faith communities formed around leaders and scriptures who may have been mistaken, like the author of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

Complicating matters was the fact that followers of Jesus were not merely bucking the Establishment; they were outlaws. Persecution of Christians between 30 and 300 C.E. varied, depending on who was Emperor and what his problems were, but to insist upon practicing Christianity in that period generally meant a good chance of being tortured and killed in any of several gruesome ways — crucifixion, being thrown to the lions, being burned alive at the stake, and being “gladiator fodder” among them.

In the middle of the second century, a bishop of the Graeco-Gaulish (Greek/French) church named Polycarp thought it would be a good idea for Christianity to have what we now would call quality control: That is, wherever in the Roman Empire one might find oneself, one’s local Christian leaders would be proclaiming pretty much the same doctrine as every other Christian leader. St. Vincent of Lerins set this idea into writing almost 300 years later, with his famous, “What is believed by all Christians, everywhere, for all time.”

In the winter of 167 C.E., the Romans arrested St. Polycarp and charged him with “atheism” — because he worshiped none of the Roman gods. The 86-year-old bishop was stripped naked, bound to a stake, and burned alive.

Polycarp’s successor, Irenaeus, witnessed his mentor’s martyrdom. It was Irenaeus who chose most of the books that would later make it into the official list of holy scriptures as the Christian Testament.

Given that the Gospel of Thomas was written before the Gospel of John, and given that many modern scholars believe that the Thomas ought to have been part of the Bible, what happened? Why did Bishop Irenaeus approve of John but not of Thomas?

Partly it’s the Gospel of Thomas itself, a sayings gospel with no narrative. Many of the sayings in Thomas are obscure or off-putting to our modern sensibilities. The scholars who wrote The Five Gospels comment that “It is a wisdom gospel made up of the teachings of a sage . . . moving off in the direction of gnostic speculation.”

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “If they say to you, ‘Where have you come from?’ say to them, ‘We are the chosen of the living God’” (logion 50). Jesus says that God’s Light is within each one of us, “and it shines on the whole earth” (logion 24). In the Gospel of Thomas, everyone is a child of God, and everyone is capable of learning to do what Jesus did.

In the Gospel of John, God’s Light can be found only in Jesus, who is God in human form. The Gospel of John goes out of its way to portray the disciple Thomas as a doubting fool. Thomas misses out on Jesus’s second post-Resurrection appearance to the disciples, and proclaims that he will believe only with concrete evidence. John has the risen Jesus reprove Thomas, saying that true believers don’t need concrete evidence (they just accept John’s word for it). (20:24-29) Thomas is also portrayed as believing that following Jesus is the way of death (11:16). It is pointedly to Thomas that John’s Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6).

Beyond Belief explores Christianity in its earliest centuries, while it was still an outlaw fringe religion struggling to survive persecution. As Pagels shows us, Bishop Irenaeus promoted John as the true gospel, condemning the Gospel of Thomas as “evil,” because Thomas was too egalitarian. John allows Christian doctrine to be kept firmly under the control of the Church by promoting the establishment of a hierarchy: God, Jesus, bishop, priest, deacon, ordinary folks. In other words, Irenaeus’s great achievement was the development of what we now call the canon (this is holy scripture; this isn’t) and the “stabilization” of Christianity during a time of devastating persecution. Quality control.

Beyond Belief makes an excellent precursor to Richard E. Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome (2000). This book is a history of Christianity between about 250 C.E. and about 330 C.E., with its focus on the first Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.

The first Council of Nicea is memorable for having settled the first great controversy of Christianity: Was Jesus God, part of the Holy Trinity, or was he merely like God? The Nicene Creed tells us that the Gospel of John won: Jesus is not merely like God, he is “of one substance” with God. 

With the Nicene Creed, the “Catholic” position had the official stamp of approval of both the Church Establishment and of the Emperor Constantine, who set himself up as the de facto head of the church. There was no salvation outside the Church; the Church alone knew the truth; the truth was found in John’s portrayal of Jesus as the only route to God, not in Thomas’s more egalitarian teachings.

Elaine Pagels is a professor of Christian origins at Princeton University. Winner of the National Book Award for her insightful The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels has devoted her professional life to finding out what Jesus and his teachings meant to his earliest followers. In an interview earlier this summer, Pagels was asked which of all the gospels, whether in the Bible or not, were most necessary to her spiritual life. She chose the gospels of Mark and of Thomas.

Pagels concludes, “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, encouraging us, in Jesus’ words, to ‘seek, and you shall find.’”