Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

Elaine Pagels’ book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas is far more about the development of the notion of Christian orthodoxy than specifically about the most famous of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Gospels (about which Pagels has written a very enlightening book).

The Gospel of Thomas is included as an appendix to the Beyond Belief. But Pagels writes far more about the Gospel of John rather than the Gospel of Thomas. Pagels argues that the Gospel of John is written as a response to the Gospel of Thomas (which commits her to an early dating of the Gospel of Thomas). What she brings out is the sheer activity of the early Christians, in writing and arguing about who Jesus was and what he meant, arguments that can be traced in the canonical Gospels themselves (particularly the differences between the Gospel of John and the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke).

This sheer variety seemed threatening to some within the Christian movement, particularly in the light of its very real persecution. Particularly to Irenaeus who sought to establish a set of Canonical books and a set of basic Christian beliefs: to seek strength through unity. A process that was itself greatly strengthened when Emperor Constantine started supporting the Christian Church – so it became legally important who had authority and who didn’t, who was a proper Christian and who wasn’t. Hence the Nicene Creed.

What interests Pagels in Beyond Beliefis not only how certain propositions and certain specific writings became regarded as fundamental to Christianity but also how the idea that propositional beliefs were defining in the first place developed. (Hence the title.)

In Beyond Belief, Pagels is very up front about being someone whose scholarly enquiries are motivated by various personal concerns and interests. But not, and this may be crucial, convictions. Scholarship is the vehicle for her explorations, not the victim of them. A very clear and striking read.

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