Book Reviews of Beyond Belief : The Secret Gospel of Thomas

Beyond Belief : The Secret Gospel of Thomas
Beyond Belief The Secret Gospel of Thomas
Author: Elaine Pagels
ISBN-13: 9780375501562
ISBN-10: 0375501568
Publication Date: 5/6/2003
Pages: 272
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.

3.5 stars, based on 17 ratings
Publisher: Random House
Book Type: Hardcover
Reviews: Amazon | Write a Review

7 Book Reviews submitted by our Members...sorted by voted most helpful

reviewed Beyond Belief : The Secret Gospel of Thomas on + 74 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 2
Explores how Christianity began by tracing its earliest texts, including the secret Gospel of Thomas, rediscovered in Egypt in 1945.
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Helpful Score: 1
Comparison of the Gospel of Thomas that was found at Nag Hammadi to the Gospel of John, and comparison of the Gospel of John to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Early history of the Christian Church and key players in the formation of the New Testament.
reviewed Beyond Belief : The Secret Gospel of Thomas on + 16 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
I have gone two pages into this book and already many flags have been raised. The author steps into a church which is lead by a female priest; relegating demons to "energies" and psychosomatic states. Clearly the author holds to heterodox beliefs. But the most interesting statement this author makes is this one: "What is faith? Certainly not simple assents to the set of beliefs that worshipers in that church recited every week...Yet I know from my own encounters with people in that church...that what matters in religious experience involves much more than what we believe". That statement clearly tells me that she doesn't understand what faith is. For me faith is a simple statement, the Nicene Creed, for instance, which is the body of faith articulated by members of the Christian Church. If Dr. Pagels doesn't think the Nicene Creed doesn't constitute faith, then perhaps she should do a little spiritual exercise. Try for a week to hold to the Niecene Creed, recite it in her mind, her heart, her whole being. Try to see how long she can successfully accomplish this simple task.

From what I've gathered so far, Dr. Pages is going to elaborate for the rest of the book what she thinks faith is, something complicated and presumably profound. She is going to do what she was trained to do and does for a living, she is going to make a complicated argument and probably resolve it, too.

Books like this one bring several points to mind, a few of which seem relevant to modern-day Christians. First and foremost, a member of the religious faculty at a university, prestigious or otherwise, a religious authority does not make. Using human discernment and reason to attemp to penetrate the mysteries is an exercise in folly.

I just finished a documentary on C S Lewis, a powerful Christian writer whose life and inner struggles echo modern man's. After watching that documentary I was inspired to write a more lighthearted review of this book, a little less scathing. While I still stand by the previous statements I made, I have to recognize that the reconciliation between the mystery of Christianity in all its forms and our current state of affairs is a challenging one. I myself recognize this challenge because my understanding of the nature and mystery of God has undergone many transformations, and that in a way parallels the transformations of C S Lewis' faith. What is my point? Well, instead of taking the all too common and erroneous humanist approach as Dr. Pagels has done perhaps it's best to address the issue of faith from the divine point of view. I also recommend the book Mere Christianity by C S Lewis, a book that challenges and inspires, a book that can help us surrender to God rather than our own pride.
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Elaine Pagels first came to my attention on PBS; she was commenting on some facet of the Bible, the focus of the program. Since then, I've seen her a number of times when she has been interviewed regarding historical aspects of the Bible. I've found her opinions to be intelligent and shared succinctly. When I found this book discussing the cache of texts and fragments found in a jar in Nag Hamadi (Egypt, found in 1945), I knew she would shed some historical light on these works.

I was not disappointed; Pagels set the scene to explain why these banned works might have been hidden around 360 AD. When we look at religion today, everything seems clear and organized. However, after Christ's death, the emerging Church was in conflict and in flux.

The fact that Dr. Pagels is not a theologian is a bonus; she looks at the Nag Hamadi texts and pieces from the view of a historian. She helped me see why these texts were not selected for the final version of the New Testament. I am always surprised by the disparity between Mathew, Mark, Luke and John's version of God's story . Now I see that there were many more versions of God's story that were not selected for the final version of the New Testament.

Pagels explains that Iraneous, the Bishop of Lyons, was trying to weave various factions of the emerging Church into a more cohesive whole. Iraneous viewed John's gospel to be the most important of the four gospels. Only in John is Christ equated with God; in the other gospels, Christ is a paragon of goodness (Christ is not called God).

Probably the most important reason Iraneous did not select the Thomas text was the fact that Thomas did not say Christ was divine; his writings encouraged touching the Divine through deep thought and ritual. Neither of those two things required an organized Church. Hmmmmm.

Pagels paints Iraneous with an all-too-human stroke of the brush. He did not seem to think women capable of understanding spirituality. From Pagel's quotes by this bishop, the reader can see that he was fairly pompous and narrow minded. But through his tireless efforts to condense the news of Christ's life into the New Testament, he probably saved the Christian Church from devolving into countless warring factions (that might eventually have killed the Christian movement).

I find Pagels to be highly readable and she explains the complex geopolitical facts of the time that had such an effect on the early Christian believers.
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I agree with those reviewers who state this book has a misleading title. What is explored is the whole phenomenon of early christianity and its literature. The gospel of Thomas is not the major focus of the book. In fact, Dr. Pagels devoted many more pages to the gospel of John. In any case, the value of this work, is the convincing arguments that the early church was very diverse. She elucidated the process by which a unified "orthodox" church eventually emerged - after hundreds of years.
All in all, I have given the book a rating of 3 stars. In this area, I prefer Dr. Bart Ehrman - who is more readable.
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Very interesting!
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a great account of the Author's personal experience and how it brought here to the life of a respected historian, AND the information found in her reserch that leads one to, not away from, spritual thought and growth.