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Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomasby Elaine H. Pagels
Synopses & Reviews
Special edition including the complete text of the Gospel of Thomas
Elaine Pagels, one of the worlds most important writers and thinkers on religion and history, and winner of the National Book Award for her groundbreaking work The Gnostic Gospels, now reflects on what matters most about spiritual and religious exploration in the twenty-first century. This bold new book explores how Christianity began by tracing its earliest texts, including the secret Gospel of Thomas, rediscovered in Egypt in 1945.
When her infant son was diagnosed with fatal pulmonary hypertension, Elaine Pagelss spiritual and intellectual quest took on a new urgency, leading her to explore historical and archeological sources and to investigate what Jesus and his teachings meant to his followers before the invention of doctrine–and before the invention of Christianity as we know it.
The astonishing discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, along with more than fifty other early Christian texts unknown since antiquity, offers startling clues. Pagels compares such sources as Thomass gospel (which claims to give Jesus secret teaching, and finds its closest affinities with kabbalah) with the canonic texts to show how Christian leaders chose to include some gospels and exclude others from the collection we have come to know as the New Testament. To stabilize the emerging Christian church in times of devastating persecution, the church fathers constructed the canon, creed, and hierarchy–and, in the process, suppressed many of its spiritual resources.
Drawing on new scholarship–her own, and that of an international group of scholars–that has come to light since the publication in 1979 of The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels shows that what matters about Christianity involves much more than any one set of beliefs. Traditions embodied in Judaism and Christianity can powerfully affect us in heart, mind, and spirit, inspire visions of a new society based on practicing justice and love, even heal and transform us.
Provocative, beautifully written, and moving, Beyond Belief, the most personal of Pagelss books to date, shows how “the impulse to seek God overflows the narrow banks of a single tradition.” Pagels writes, “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.”
"In this majestic new book, Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels) ranges panoramically over the history of early Christianity, demonstrating the religion's initial tremendous diversity and its narrowing to include only certain texts supporting certain beliefs....Exhilarating reading, Pagels's book offers a model of careful and thoughtful scholarship in the lively and exciting prose of a good mystery writer." Publishers Weekly
"This packed, lucid little book belongs to that admirable kind of scholarship in which the labor of acquiring Greek and Coptic, Hebrew and Aramaic, the exhausting study of ancient fragments of text against the background of an intimate knowledge of religious history, can be represented as a spiritual as well as an intellectual exercise." Frank Kermode, The New York Times
"Peeling away accreted layers of doctrine — the triune God, the Athanasian canon — Pagels ventures alternative and sometimes novel readings of biblical history, all with the cumulative effect of questioning the orthodoxy that 'tends to distrust our capacity to make...discriminations and insists on making them for us.' A thoughtful and rewarding essay, as we've come to expect from Pagels, and sure to arouse fundamentalist ire." Kirkus Reviews
"This luminous and accessible history of early Christian thought offers profound and crucial insights on the nature of God, revelation, and what we mean by religious truth. Those who are moved by religion but who find that they can no longer accept the official doctrines of their church will find this marvelous book a source of inspiration and hope." Karen Armstrong
"It is as generous as it is rare that a first-rate scholar invites the reader to see and sense how her scholarship and her religious quest became intertwined. Elaine Pagels calls for a generosity of mind as she takes us into the world of those early Christian texts that were left behind but now are with us. Her very tone breathes intellectual and spiritual generosity too rare in academe." Krister Stendahl
"Beyond Belief is a marvelous book?honest and engaging, discussing the core issues of contemporary spirituality with such simplicity and profundity. Elaine Pagels guides readers to enter afresh into the ancient debates over whether Christianity is better understood as a system of doctrines or a spiritual inquiry into the divine. It's a book many readers will treasure for its healing, its good sense, and its permission to think, imagine, and yet believe." Karen King
Over the last twenty-five years, award-winning author Elaine Pagels has been on a personal and intellectual quest to understand the origins of Christianity, and in this exciting new book, she traces the source to the Gospel of Thomas. When her infant son is diagnosed with fatal pulmonary hypertension, Elaine Pagels's spiritual quest takes on a new urgency. In Beyond Belief, her most personal book, she reexamines the faith of the early Christians, revealing a path toward transformation that was offered before Christianity became, for many simply a set of beliefs. Pagels shows that both the New Testament's Gospel of John and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas draw on the same sources of Jesus' teaching, but interpretthese in different ways. While both see Jesus as revealing the divine light of God, in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus urges each one of us to seek that divine light within, since all are created in the image of God. But the Gospel of John insists that Jesus alone reveals God, and that only those who believe in him are saved. The Church's decision to include John in the New Testament and reject Thomas as heresy has decisively shaped Christianity ever since. In Beyond Belief, Pagels lends stunning new interpretations to the virgin birth, the creation of Eve, and the nature of our relationship with God. Pagels's scholarship is accessible and alive, and, as with The Gnostic Gospels, it will challenge and transform what we know of Christianity.
A provocative new edition of the New Testament that includes ten more recently found texts, selected by a council of scholars and spiritual leaders, alongside the classic books, with introductions and contextual background from Hal Taussig.
It is time for a new New Testament.
Over the past century, numerous lost scriptures have been discovered, authenticated, translated, debated, celebrated. Many of these documents were as important to shaping early-Christian communities and beliefs as what we have come to call the New Testament; these were not the work of shunned sects or rebel apostles, not alternative histories or doctrines, but part of the vibrant conversations that sparked the rise of Christianity. Yet these scriptures are rarely read in contemporary churches; they are discussed nearly only by scholars or within a context only of gnostic gospels. Why should these books be set aside? Why should they continue to be lost to most of us? And don’t we have a great deal to gain by placing them back into contact with the twenty-seven books of the traditional New Testament—by hearing, finally, the full range of voices that formed the early chorus of Christians?
To create this New New Testament, Hal Taussig called together a council of scholars and spiritual leaders to discuss and reconsider which books belong in the New Testament. They talked about these recently found documents, the lessons therein, and how they inform the previously bound books. They voted on which should be added, choosing ten new books to include in A New New Testament. Reading the traditional scriptures alongside these new texts—the Gospel of Luke with the Gospel of Mary, Paul’s letters with The Letter of Peter to Philip, The Revelation to John with The Secret Revelation to John—offers the exciting possibility of understanding both the new and the old better. This new reading, and the accompanying commentary in this volume, promises to reinvigorate a centuries-old conversation and to bring new relevance to a dynamic tradition.
About the Author
Elaine Pagels earned a B.A. in history and an M.A. in classical studies at Stanford, and holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University. She is the author of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent; The Origin of Satan; and The Gnostic Gospels, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. She is currently the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, and she lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband and children.
Table of Contents
From the feast of Agape to the Nicene Creed — Gospels in conflict: John and Thomas — God's word or human words? — The canon of truth and the triumph of John — Constantine and the Catholic church.
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