Book Write-Up: Beyond Belief, by Elaine Pagels

Elaine Pagels.  Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.  New York: Vintage Books, 2003.

Elaine Pagels is a professor of religion at Princeton University.  I have read two of her other books, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent and The Origin of Satan, and found her to be a compelling narrator.

I decided to purchase Beyond Belief in 2011, when I was reading some books by Christian apologist David Marshall.  Marshall was disputing the idea that the so-called Gnostic Gospels were as religiously or historically authoritative as the Gospels in the New Testament.  The so-called Gnostic Gospels are deemed by many scholars to be later than the synoptic Gospels, mainstream New Testament scholars generally do not look to the so-called Gnostic Gospels in attempting to reconstruct historically what Jesus said and did, and scholars who argue that the Gospel of Thomas is later than the synoptic Gospels appeal to possible indications that it drew from the synoptic Gospels.

But I was curious.  I was aware of scholars who made a big deal about the so-called Gnostic Gospels and maintained that there was diversity in early Christianity—-I thought of Elaine Pagels, Karen King, and Bart Ehrman.  I wondered if they seriously believed that Jesus could have been a Gnostic, or Gnostic-like (since the label of Gnosticism itself has come under attack within scholarship, as Pagels acknowledges), and if they held that the so-called Gnostic Gospels were as historically authoritative as the New Testament Gospels.  Well, I read Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, and even he seemed to acknowledge that the Gospels outside of the New Testament were later than the New Testament ones.  Recently, since I found that my review books have not been arriving with haste, I decided finally to read Pagel’s book to get her perspective.

Essentially, Pagels does regard the Gospel of Thomas as later than the synoptic Gospels, but she believes that it came before the Gospel of John in the late first century C.E.  Actually, her contention is that the Gospel of John was responding to the Gospel of Thomas: whereas the Gospel of Thomas encourages people to look within themselves to find God, which they can do because they are made in God’s image, the Gospel of John rejects such an experiential approach and exhorts people to look to Jesus to find God.  Pagels observes that Thomas is portrayed negatively in John’s Gospel, and she notes that Thomas in John’s Gospel even missed out on getting the Holy Spirit when Jesus was giving his disciples the Spirit.  While Pagels does not go into much detail about how John’s portrayal of Thomas constitutes an attack on the Gospel of Thomas’ ideology, she does note one area in which it might: Thomas in John’s Gospel wants to see for himself that Jesus is raised from the dead, and, after Jesus shows himself to Thomas, Jesus praises those who do not have to see to believe.  Thomas in John’s Gospel had an experiential approach to religion, Pagels states, and the Gospel of Thomas also had an experiential approach; John’s Gospel, however, rejects such an approach.

But does the Gospel of Thomas in any way reflect what the historical Jesus was like?  Pagels does not tackle this question head-on, but she raises a variety of considerations.  She expresses some openness to the idea that the Gospel of John reflects eyewitness testimony to Jesus, for she states that “His account shows his familiarity with Judaea and its local Jewish practices, and includes details which suggest that he traveled with Jesus and his other disciples during their last journey to Jerusalem, as he claims to have done” (page 59).  But she also mentions other views. 

Overall, my impression is that Pagels thinks that Christianity has always been diverse, even in the first century.  According to Pagels, Mark’s Gospel seems to portray Jesus as a man who became divine, whereas John and Thomas depict Jesus as already divine and pre-existent (on some level, in the case of the Gospel of Thomas), and Paul refers to an earlier Christian hymn about Jesus’ pre-existence in the form of God (Philippians 2).  The Didache, a Jewish-Christian document that Pagels says predates the gospels of Matthew and Luke by ten years (though she refers in an endnote to scholars who argue differently), presents the Lord’s supper as a ritual of unity among believers, whereas the Gospel of Mark associates it with Jesus’ death.

As far as I could see in reading this book, Pagels does not talk about the historical Jesus that much, for her focus is on the diverse things that early Christianity said about Jesus.  Would not John’s possible status as an eyewitness to Jesus make him historically authoritative about what Jesus said and taught?  I cannot speak for Pagels, but she might respond that, even if John was an eyewitness to Jesus, he had his own interpretation of Jesus’ significance, as did other Christians in the first century.  I don’t know if Pagels would go so far as to say that all we have are interpretations when it comes to Jesus, but she does seem to believe that interpretations are significant.  Consequently, she does not religiously marginalize the Gospel of Thomas but finds it useful to her spiritually, and she does not appear to believe that church fathers were upholding more authoritative Gospels when they affirmed the synoptics (John’s Gospel, according to Pagels, was more controversial) while dismissing other Gospels.  For her, it seems to me, the Gospel of Thomas had something valuable to say, whether or not it reflected the historical Jesus, and she says that both the church and the voices that came to be marginalized suffered when the other voices were silenced.

In Beyond Belief, Pagels attempts to chronicle how the other voices came to be excluded.  She says that Christians were persecuted, certain church fathers sought to unify the church, and they were dismayed by new prophetic voices.  They also believed that the so-called Gnostic Christians were encouraging cliquishness by saying that Christians who followed their teaching had superior understanding to Christians who did not.  After Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, Constantine wanted for Christians to arrive at some unity of belief rather than squabbling amongst themselves.  Although Pagels does not appear to care for the outcome of these events, she does not demonize the church fathers or Constantine, for she is rather sympathetic to the church fathers as they sought to preserve the suffering church, argues that Constantine was more open to diversity than many people realize, and notes some of Constantine’s positive policies, such as the ones that helped the poor.  As a historian and an effective narrator, she seeks to understand the perspectives of historical figures.

Pagels depicts the second century church as persecuted, and I wonder if she would modify that position in light of Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution (see my post about that book here).  Unlike a number of other people (i.e., atheist and Christian apologists), I do not think that Moss was arguing that Christians never suffered at the hands of authorities in the first two centuries, or at least that her arguments necessarily lead in that direction.  Rather, she is saying that the Roman authorities did not specifically single out Christians for persecution, even if they prosecuted Christians for crimes, and that martyrdom stories contain anachronisms and served an ideological purpose.  Still, Pagels does appear to accept the historicity of some of these martyrdom stories, and that is why I wonder if she would modify her position in light of Moss’ arguments.

Another question that was in my mind concerned allegorical interpretation of the Bible.  Pagels says that Irenaeus was against how the so-called Gnostic Christians sought deeper meaning in the Bible and the story of Jesus, which would indicate that he supported a more literal interpretation.  But there were many church fathers who engaged in allegorical interpretation of the Bible.  Would Irenaeus oppose that, or would he say that it was all right, as long as it agreed with a literal interpretation of the story of Jesus (his understanding of orthodoxy)?

Pagels talks about other fascinating topics as well: how some church fathers opposed the new prophets by saying that prophecy ceased, whereas other church fathers did not go that far; so-called Gnostic Christian stances on baptism; and how certain so-called Gnostic Christians responded to the threat of excommunication by saying that they did not even believe in that kind of unloving God.  Moreover, while so-called Gnostic views often strike me as cryptic, there were times when what they were saying seemed wise, or down-to-earth.  I think of the statement that truth comes to us in reference to our readiness to receive it, or Valentinus’ view that Jesus overturning the tables symbolizes Jesus overthrowing things in our lives that inhibit us from being a fit place of habitation for the Holy Spirit.

There are scholars who may disagree with Pagels’ arguments, but I found Beyond Belief to be an enjoyable and informative read.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Book Write-Up: Beyond Belief, by Elaine Pagels

  1. Excellent review James 🙂


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