Synopses & Reviews
In Beyond Belief
, renowned religion scholar Elaine Pagels continues her groundbreaking examination of the earliest Christian texts, arguing for an ongoing assessment of faith and a questioning of religious orthodoxy.
Spurred on by personal tragedy and new scholarship from an international group of researchers, Pagels returns to her investigation of the “secret” Gospel of Thomas, and breathes new life into writings once thought heretical. As she arrives at an ever-deeper conviction in her own faith, Pagels reveals how faith allows for a diversity of interpretations, and that the “rogue” voices of Christianity encourage and sustain “the recognition of the light within us all.”
"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
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
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
Reading Group Guide
“[A] winning combination of sound scholarship, deep insight and a crystal clear prose style.” —Los Angeles Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Elaine Pagelss fascinating exploration of how and why the New Testament acquired its present form.
1. Why has Elaine Pagels chosen Beyond Belief
as her title? How can the title be interpreted?
2. Pagels begins each chapter with a personal reflection. What do these passages add to the book? What do they reveal about Pagelss own struggles with some aspects of traditional Christian beliefs? For what is she searching, as both a scholar and a Christian?
3. Pagels argues that those who “enshrined the Gospel of John within the New Testament and denounced Thomass Gospel as ‘heresy decisively shaped—and inevitably limited—what would become Western Christianity” [p. 29]. In what ways has the triumph of John over Thomas shaped and limited Western Christianity? How might Christianity be different today if Thomas had been included in the New Testament?
4. Pagels says, “Thomass Gospel encourages the hearer not so much to believe in Jesus, as John requires, as to seek to know God through ones own, divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God” [p. 34]. Why is this distinction so important? Why were Thomass ideas considered heretical?
5. Why did Irenaeus and other early Christian theologians feel it was essential to unify Christian beliefs into a canon of orthodox teachings that all Christians must accept? What political pressures influenced their decisions?
6. What are the dangers of spiritual intuitions, visions, divine revelations, and other intensely subjective religious experiences? What are some of their destructive consequences? What positive value is there in such experiences? Should the Church encourage or discourage Christians from seeking or relying on these methods of access to a direct knowledge of God?
7. How do the Nag Hammadi texts alter our view of early Christianity? Do they, as Pagels suggests, offer a more open, diverse, and less doctrinal version of Christianity? Can they coexist with canonical texts? Should they be embraced by Christians? Why were they suppressed?
8. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus tells his disciples, when they ask about the resurrection, “What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it,” and says that “the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it” [p. 50]. What are the implications of these statements? How do they differ from more traditional ideas of the resurrection and the kingdom of God?
9. Pagels discusses several highly symbolic or metaphorical readings of the Bible, such as The Secret Book of John, in which Eve is interpreted as an embodiment of “epinoia—a ‘creative or ‘inventive consciousness,” and the apple as a symbol of higher spiritual knowledge [pp. 164-67]. How convincing is this reading? What does it offer that more conventional readings do not? Why did Irenaeus want to prohibit such interpretations?
10. At the beginning of Chapter 5, Pagels asks herself “Why not just leave Christianity—and religion—behind, as so many others have done?” [p. 143] Why is she tempted to abandon the church? What is it about Christianity that she still finds compelling? Does her situation seem representative of the ambivalence that many Christians feel today?
11. Based on your reading of Beyond Belief, how should religious tradition and innovation be balanced? How can the Church maintain its traditions without suppressing the imaginative involvement of creative individuals?
12. Pagels ends by saying that “the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions” encourages “those who endeavor, in Jesus words, to ‘seek, and you shall find” [p. 185]. Why does she end her book in this way? What aspect of Christianity is she underscoring?