Book on religious roots resonates with lay readers
By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ -- When professor Elaine Pagels sat down to write a book exploring the historical roots of Christianity, she certainly wasn't angling to write a bestseller. So Pagels has watched with astonishment as the book, "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas," has spent more than three months on The New York Times bestseller list.
"I think it's very exciting that many people are engaging this material," said Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion. "I'm struck by how visceral and powerful and emotional many of the responses are, whether they're positive or negative, and that speaks to the central importance of these religious teachings in the lives of millions of people."
Pagels, who has taught at Princeton since 1982, has written several books that bring a fresh perspective to the history of Christianity. Her latest work is an examination of the Gospel of Thomas, written around 100 C.E., which was discovered buried in a jar in Egypt in 1945 with other early Christian writings. Church leaders had declared the texts heretical and banned them.
In "Beyond Belief," Pagels compares the Gospel of Thomas, which is composed of what it claims are the secret sayings of Jesus, to the Gospel of John, one of the four canonical gospels of the New Testament. The two texts present different, even contradictory views of the nature of Jesus. Pagels explains how church leaders selected four gospels -- Mark, Matthew, Luke and John -- as the canons of Christianity and suppressed others.
Many readers may not even have known that other gospels existed before they picked up Pagels' book. The author was startled herself when she made the discovery in graduate school.
"I was as surprised as anybody when I first came upon this gospel," Pagels said. "I'd gone to graduate school to study the beginning of Christianity, and it never occurred to me that there would be any but four gospels in that tradition, so I was totally surprised when my professors were reading gospels that I'd never heard about. They had file cabinets full of gospels which were completely new to most of us."
Pagels explores why church leaders might have wanted to suppress the Gospel of Thomas. "One of the things you find in the Gospel of Thomas is this theme about verifying for yourself what is true, and I think that suggestion -- that everyone needs to seek and find for oneself -- is not the message that many leaders of the church wanted to have broadcast," she said.
"Beyond Belief" explores some of the same territory Pagels covered in her 1979 book, "The Gnostic Gospels," an examination of the early Christian religious movement called Gnosticism. That volume, which won the National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award, also provided the building blocks for the recent bestseller "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown, which borrowed -- and then fictionalized -- several elements of Pagels' book.
Book strikes a chord
Pagels' book, despite its distant subject matter, struck a chord with readers right away, said Tom Perry, director of publicity for Random House, the book's publisher.
"This is a book that started to sell as soon as it was put on bookstore shelves, before the author started doing any media," Perry said. The book, which had an initial print run of 30,000, is now in its seventh printing. There are currently more than 200,000 copies in print.
Perry attributes the book's success to Pagels' clear writing style and the public's fascination with religion. "She does a wonderful job of giving you the politics of the early church and describing it in terms you can easily grasp," he said.
Pagels also writes about her own religious beliefs in the book, describing how her faith was shaken and later restored during times of personal tragedy.
"I grew up in a Protestant Christian family, and I found Christian churches and music very powerful in many ways," she said. But when, at 16, a friend who was Jewish died, Pagels grew dismayed with the church. "I was told by various Christians that my friend who was Jewish and wasn't born again was going to go to hell, and it was shocking and very painful to be told that at the age of 16, and so I left. I just said, 'That doesn't make any sense to me. I don't believe that.' So when I went to college, I thought, well maybe if I just try to read these gospels in Greek, I could get closer to them. I started to do that; I found it absolutely fascinating."
She was drawn back to Christianity in adulthood when, distraught by learning that her 2-year-old son was suffering from a terminal illness, she wandered into a church in New York. "I saw people gathered into an extended family with a sense of spiritual power and spiritual purpose, sharing the sense of loving one another and caring for one another that's very powerful. That matters to me a great deal," she said.
Her faith was tested further when her husband of 20 years, Heinz Pagels, was killed in a hiking accident. Today Pagels is remarried and continues to attend church. "I think there's much to love about Christianity, and actually this work has helped me to realize what I love about it," she said.
For her next book, Pagels is planning to take her exploration of religion in a different direction and examine the interaction between politics and religion. Said Pagels, "I guess I like trouble."