October 8, 2003: Reading Room

Photo: The Gospel of Thomas, argues Elaine Pagels, focuses on spiritual struggle. (Jerry Bauer)

Beyond Belief
Elaine Pagels explores an outlawed gospel

It might seem surprising that a book about the early Christian movement would make the New York Times bestseller list. But religion professor Elaine Pagels’s Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, which, at press time, had been on the list for three months since its publication by Random House last May, may have hit a chord with people who feel drawn to Christianity even though they no longer accept the official doctrines of their churches. Pagels argues that there’s more to being a Christian than professing a certain set of beliefs — including, for example, Jesus’ bodily resurrection and Mary’s virginity. “I think what Christianity turned into is a long, complex, theological statement of beliefs,” she says.

The Gospel of Thomas — an early Christian text written around 90 to 100 c.e. that was deemed heretical by church leaders of the first centuries, buried in a jar in Egypt along with other early texts in the fourth century, and dug up by a peasant in 1945 — isn’t focused on beliefs, she says. Instead, Thomas’s gospel, a collection of Jesus’ sayings focused on meditative practices, teaches that every individual shares the same divine light as Jesus, and calls on people to engage in an internal struggle to find access to God within themselves so that they can become like Jesus.

That message, argues Pagels, contrasts with the teachings of the Gospel of John — one of the four canonical gospels of the New Testament, and the one through which, she says, most Christians read the other three gospels, of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. John teaches that Jesus alone embodies the divine light, that people are sinful and have no “innate capacity to know God,” and that they must believe in Jesus to be saved, Pagels writes.

The Gospel of John, she argues, was written to refute the Gospel of Thomas. “Much of what we call orthodox Christianity was perhaps formed in response to the Gospel of Thomas or that kind of teaching,” says Pagels, who wrote The Gnostic Gospels in 1979.

During the second century, church leaders were trying to consolidate Christians and starting to decide which gospels were authentic revelations, writes Pagels. Including the confusing sayings of the Gospel of Thomas in the official canon would not have helped unite the Christian movement, she says. The leaders probably feared that the teachings in Thomas “would invite too much diversity,” and could have been “threatening to a church that is ecclesiastically structured because it suggests that you don’t need a church; you don’t need a priest as much as you need this kind of interior struggle.”

Had the Gospel of Thomas been included in the New Testament, Pagels guesses that it would have enriched Christianity by “not only allowing for but inviting diversity; instead of ‘having all the answers,’ [Christianity] would tend to evoke the capacity for intuition and spiritual discovery.”

By K.F.G.

Book Shorts

Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology — Edward Tenner ’65 (Knopf). As he did in his previous book, Why Things Bite Back (1996), Tenner looks at the unintended consequences of innovations, focusing on what he calls body technologies — baby formula, sandals, chairs, eyeglasses, helmets, keyboards — everyday things that affect how people use their bodies. The use of chairs, for example, has damaged our body’s natural flexibility. Tenner is a senior research associate on invention and innovation at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

The Big Fix: How the Pharmaceutical Industry Rips Off American Consumers — Katharine Greider ’88 (PublicAffairs). The author points a finger at the drug industry, which, she argues, exploits customers with high prices and seductive marketing — creating demand for drugs that many people can’t afford and may not even need. She also looks at government regulation of the industry. Greider is a journalist in New York City.

The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be — Dana Mackenzie *83 (Wiley). This science history traces the emergence of the most popular lunar-creation theories, including a recent breakthrough: a Mars-sized object collided with Earth four billion years ago, and the remains of this explosion — the Big Splat — coalesced to form the Moon. Mackenzie is a science writer in Santa Cruz, California. By K.F.G.

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