Book Review: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

New York Times, via The International Herald Tribune, June 25, 2003 (Book Review)
Frank Kermode, New York Times

Nonfiction By Elaine Pagels. 241 pages. $24.95. Random House.
Elaine Pagels’s “Gnostic Gospels,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award in 1980, introduced readers to the discovery in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt of an extraordinary cache of ancient papyrus books.

Written in Coptic, the documents expounded what appeared to be secret and deviant versions of early Christian teaching. Now, after more years of research, Pagels offers a kind of supplement, based on her own thinking about the Nag Hammadi evidence and its relevance to modern Christianity. Briefly, she has come to believe that over the centuries the outlawing of texts like “The Gospel of Thomas” has impoverished the Christian church and led to a constricting dependence on St. John’s Gospel.

Fifty-two in number, the Nag Hammadi writings are a mixed bag. They include “The Secret Book of James,” “The Apocalypse of Peter,” “The Gospel of Philip” and other evidently “illegitimate” books, including “The Gospel of Thomas.” Although the manuscripts can be dated to the fourth century they are probably translations of Greek originals possibly 300 years older than that – or perhaps even more ancient. Some, it is argued, may be earlier than the four canonical Gospels.

The rejection of these versions of the sayings and acts of Jesus owed much to St. Irenaeus, a second-century bishop of Lyon, remembered as the first great Catholic theologian. He affirmed the authority of four Gospels and sought to purge the church of heretical competitors. These being numerous and diverse, it required the five huge volumes of Irenaeus’s “Refutation and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge” to deal with them all. He and his successors did their work so well that until the discoveries at Nag Hammadi this extensive polemic was the chief source of information about these rival testaments. Now it is plain that they represent views markedly different from those of traditional Christianity. So they had to be eliminated. Had those sects survived the condemnation of the orthodox, Pagels says, Christian thought and practice might have developed very differently, and in many diverse directions.

The Gnostics and the Catholics had a fundamental disagreement about the nature of Jesus. In John’s view his existence was wholly distinct from that of ordinary humans. John’s Gospel differs materially from the other three on some important issues, and this is one of them; to Mark and his adapters, Matthew and Luke, Jesus was not a god but a messiah (christos in Greek) in the Jewish tradition – a human being. John, with his discordant opinion, was added later. Irenaeus said there should be no more, and over time the New Testament canon was closed. But his advocacy ensured that John’s would be in all manner of ways the principal Gospel, first in importance though last in order, and a bulwark against the Gnostics. They did not believe in Christ as the divine light sent from heaven, but held that each person should seek the light within, the goal being personal illumination and a kind of twinning with Christ. The tone of their testimony was therefore quite different from John’s.

“The Gospel of Thomas” may look exotic to modern readers, who cannot help feeling the strength of tradition and the omnipresent authority of the Bible. Thomas failed while John prevailed. Committed to the conservation of his tradition, Irenaeus condemned the likes of Thomas as peddling “evil exegesis” and falsifying the one right path to salvation. All who wanted a unified church, so necessary in a hostile world, must stand by John; Irenaeus provided “the basic architecture of what would become orthodox Christianity.”

In the fourth century the emperor Constantine adopted Christianity, endorsed a creed to which all must subscribe and issued edicts against heretics and schismatics. Now the “Catholic” position had an imperial warrant; there was no salvation outside the church, which alone knew the truth and had the power to purge error. The truth was largely John’s; error belonged in an Egyptian cave.

The dissident voices of Nag Hammadi, silent for centuries, uttered much that was understandably thought dangerous. Some denied the physical resurrection; all suggested a Christian way of life foreign to all that has remained familiar. An interesting exercise in “counterfactual” history would be to guess how different the future of Europe might have been if the Gospel that was added to those of Mark, Matthew and Luke had been not John’s but Thomas’s.

Some scholars continue to think Thomas of secondary importance. Pagels, of course, does not. She had long given up the Christianity of John, and as her knowledge of these dissident ancient communities grew she developed a desire for diversity of practice and doctrine and for the undogmatic benefits of religious community. She seems to rejoice that in the earliest years of Christianity there existed these strange, dissident doctrines of illumination.

Pagels looks about the Christian world today and rejoices at the proliferation of the “new forms” Christianity is taking in Africa, North and South America, Korea and China. She cannot be reconciled to churches that claim sole access to the truth of doctrine and discipline. Nag Hammadi seemed to show her that one must shed all such prejudices. The reward, she believes, may be a truer knowledge not only of Christianity, in whatever institutional form, but also of the other great religions.

Frank Kermode’s new book, “Pieces of My Mind,” will be published this year.

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