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Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomasby Elaine Pagels
Synopses & Reviews
FROM THE FEAST OF AGAPE TO THE NICENE CREED
On a bright Sunday morning in February, shivering in a T-shirt and running shorts, I stepped into the vaulted stone vestibule of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York to catch my breath and warm up. Since I had not been in church for a long time, I was startled by my response to the worship in progress-—the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation; and the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear, resonant voice. As I stood watching, a thought came to me: Here is a family that knows how to face death.
That morning I had gone for an early morning run while my husband and two-and-a-half-year-old son were still sleeping. The previous night I had been sleepless with fear and worry. Two days before, a team of doctors at Babies Hospital, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, had performed a routine checkup on our son, Mark, a year and six months after his successful open-heart surgery. The physicians were shocked to find evidence of a rare lung disease. Disbelieving the results, they tested further for six hours before they finally called us in to say that Mark had pulmonary hypertension, an invariably fatal disease, they told us. How much time? I asked. We don't know; a few months, a few years.
The following day, a team of doctors urged us to authorize a lung biopsy, a painful and invasive procedure. How could this help? It couldn't, they explained; but the procedure would let them see how far the disease had progressed. Mark was already exhausted by the previous day's ordeal. Holding him, I felt that if more masked strangers poked needles into him in an operating room, he might lose heart-—literally——and die. We refused the biopsy, gathered Mark's blanket, clothes, and Peter Rabbit, and carried him home.
Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine. Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt the day before.
I returned often to that church, not looking for faith but because, in the presence of that worship and the people gathered there-—and in a smaller group that met on weekdays in the church basement for mutual encouragement-—my defenses fell away, exposing storms of grief and hope. In that church I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible for Mark, and for the rest of us.
When people would say to me, Your faith must be of great help to you, I would wonder, What do they mean? What is faith? Certainly not simple assent to the set of beliefs that worshipers in that church recited every week (We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth . . .)-—traditional statements that sounded strange to me, like barely intelligible signals from the surface, heard at the bottom of the sea. Such statements seemed to me then to have little to do with whatever transactions we were making with one another,
"A thoughtful and rewarding essay, as we've come to expect from Pagels, and sure to arouse fundamentalist ire." Kirkus Reviews
"Even those who possess only a nodding acquaintance with Gnostic writings will find themselves stimulated by her arguments and perhaps transformed by her conclusions. A fresh and exciting work of theology and spirituality." Ilene Cooper, Booklist (Starred Review)
"[L]ucid...a spiritual as well as an intellectual exercise....[Pagels] seems to rejoice that in the earliest years of Christianity there existed these strange, dissident doctrines." Frank Kermode, The New York Times Book Review
"With the winning combination of sound scholarship, deep insight and crystal-clear prose style that distinguishes all her work, Pagels portrays the great variety of beliefs, teachings and practices that were found among the earliest Christians." Los Angeles Times
"Pagels has accomplished a very rare thing, an examination of early religious writings that is a good read, accessible, and at times even dramatic and poignant." The Columbus Dispatch
"Brilliantly lucid, elegantly written...[Pagels'] book is so readable you can't put it down." Providence Journal-Bulletin
"Just as topical today as it was nearly two thousand years ago....Pagels is great at pulling together the details that allow us to understand not only what people were arguing about but why." San Jose Mercury News
"As relevant as today's front page." The Washington Post Book World
"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....A source of inspiration and hope." Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God
"A book many readers will treasure for its healing, its good sense, and its permission to think, imagine, and yet believe." Karen King, author of What Is Gnosticism?
"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, author of The Scrolls and the New Testament
"[A] wonderful little book....A small book with a fair amount of scholarly apparatus and tone but without overly academic language, it is highly recommended..." Library Journal
The award-winning author of The Gnostic Gospels provides an intriguing analysis of the early origins of Christianity, based on the teachings from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, exploring the faith of the early Christians and offering revealing new interpretations of such topics as the creation of Eve, the virigin birth, and the nature of our relationship with God. Reader's Guide available. Reprint. 150,000 first printing.
[This book] explores how Christianity began by tracing its earliest texts, including the secret Gospel of Thomas, rediscovered in Egypt in 1945 ... [The author explores] historical and archeological sources to investigate what Jesus and his teachings meant to his followers before the invention of Christianity as we know it ... [She] compares...
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 Religion at Princeton University, and she lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband and children.
Table of Contents
Ch. 1 From the Feast of Agape to the Nicene Creed 3
Ch. 2 Gospels in Conflict: John and Thomas 30
Ch. 3 God's Word or Human Words? 74
Ch. 4 The Canon of Truth and the Triumph of John 114
Ch. 5 Constantine and the Catholic Church 143
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