Jesus' question to his disciples echoes into our day and our culture: "But who do you say that I am?" Elaine Pagels is one scholar who has achieved success by responding with unusual and unorthodox answers. This Princeton University professor, a specialist in Gnosticism and Christian origins, has written "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas," a book that remained for several weeks on bestseller lists when it first appeared in 2003. It’s not entirely mysterious that she has broken through the ivory tower ceiling of limited sales: this book has an engaging style and thoughtful content. Most importantly for this blog, I’m intrigued by the way contemporary scholarship on Jesus reaches the wider culture.
"Beyond Belief" presents a profoundly creative and thoughtful treatment of the growth and diversity of early Christianity. Despite its scholarly rigor and engagement, it reads easily and sets forth a reasonably simple thesis: In order to maintain unity among the various Christians responding to the stories circulating about Jesus, an “orthodox” treatment of his life was formed (namely, the canon), largely based on the Gospel of John as it then interpreted the three synoptic Gospels. The process thereby intentionally excluded other key texts such as, but not limited to, The Gospel of Thomas. (The full title of Pagels book might deceive here). These other texts emphasize one’s identification with God and not the orthodox identification of God with Jesus. In a word, the non-biblical texts validate other “insights or intimations of the divine” (183). Drawing from her personal experience in searching out faith, this validation of diversity is a very good idea.
Pagels decides to tell this story in a personal and lucid manner. She receives high praise for her scholarship and her sympathetic reading of history. Her command of non-canonical texts about Jesus is breathtaking as she glides effortlessly between them and manages to comment on significant themes throughout. Even when there are key antagonists to her vision for pluralism—notably Irenaeus—his creation of orthodoxy is bemoaned, but she generally does not demonize him. For example, she writes that, “although Irenaeus liked clear boundaries, he was not simply narrow-minded, and he was by no means intolerant of all difference” (133).
Perhaps the most brilliant chapter is the second, which, in some ways, represents a microcosm of the book. Pagels constructs a critical comparison between the so-called Gospel of Thomas and John’s. (Using the term “gospel” for non-canonical literature conflates varying kinds of texts. Thomas, for example, has no passion narrative, which is key to the standard treatments of Jesus’ life.) Pagels asserts convincingly that they are essentially brother texts—similar in relating Jesus’ teachings for those who receive Jesus, but radically different ways: either calling for either a trust in one’s own light (Thomas) or only in Jesus (John). Put another way—and not necessarily in Pagels’ terminology—John calls on a Savior, and Thomas follows a Wise Teacher. That two fraternal texts diverge it is not uncommon. Satire exists most vehemently between brother countries—the Germans reserve their biting humor for the Swiss, the Swiss for the Austrians, and so on. In terms of religious traditions, a parallel split exists in Buddhism between representing the Buddha as an enlightened teacher or on a savior on whose grace we must rely.
Pagels decides to keep the book relatively brief in describing a complex history. It is no surprise then that brevity leads to inflating the case. The imagery of the light within human beings (to which Pagels refers in the second chapter) is not restricted to non-canonical texts. It plays a role in the canonical Gospels in Matthew 5:14, where Jesus calls his disciples “the light of the world.” This saying within the fourfold Gospel, forms its own comment on John 8:12, “I am the light of the world.” But the counter evidence works the other way too. Like a good lawyer, she omits the curious text from John 10, where Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6, “Does not the Scripture say, ‘you are gods’?” The orthodox Gospels, reputed to suppress such ideas, have their elements of diversity too.
Pagels garners all her scholarly power to make the case for a broader reception of Jesus, one that includes other “gospels.” These in turn contain interesting elements such as epinoia—creative or inventive consciousness, even imagination (164). The book works to make the contention that current Christianity would be better off with such elements. Elsewhere she has said, “I’m advocating, on some level, the inclusion of [religious texts] that were considered blasphemous. I suggest that there are ways of embracing a far wider spectrum of religious diversity within Christianity and quite beyond Christianity.” Her survey, however, is actually too narrow to support this conclusion. Put another way, one of the most telling criticism of this book is that Pagels works hard first to establish that diversity of the responses to Jesus, and then centers her book on one specific church leader, Irenaeus. It leaves an internal contradiction of logic—shortly after she argues that the story of Christianity is more complex than generally told, it quickly becomes unhelpfully simple.
To be sure, the story of early Christianity is even more complex than she is able—or decides—to describe. Where, for example, is the intense early concern with the Jewish law that spills through the pages of the Gospels and Paul’s letters? Why does she include Arianism in her story but leave out Donatism? On the other hand, a so-called high Christology does not simply emerge with John—or the broader Johannine literature. Consider Paul’s Letter to the Philippians—or almost any of his letters—which were written as early as mid ‘50s or ‘60s. It is a tough case to make that understanding of Jesus as God is limited to John as against other non-canonical texts about Jesus.
The main criticism comes from my work in systematic and spiritual theology. Pagels’ contention is false that an “image of God” theology leads to a deep appreciation for the God within. I grant that the Gospels have little of this explicit theology (though one could argue it emerges with any mention of God’s creation of humankind). Nevertheless, other New Testament documents utilize the imago Christi but emphasize that human beings are to trust in Christ’s power, not their own. This fact contradicts Pagels’ conflating an “image of God” theology with the conclusion that God resides within. Secondly, she cites non-canonical texts that themselves contain poor creation theology. Gnostic texts contradict exactly the creation of the imago dei since the flawed god who creates imprisons human souls in this material world. How else can we reflect the image of God, or the image of Christ, except by God’s creative act?
In the final section (pp. 181-185), we come to the motivation for this work. Scholars, of course, are taught never to let personal interest distort their research, and this may be a clue to the book’s popularity. Has Pagels violated the scholarly prohibition, Thou Shalt Not Self-Disclose? Yes. She wants freedom to believe—or not to believe—a variety of things about Jesus. As one involved in a religious community, I see a greater diversity in “orthodoxy” than she asserts. If anything, the twenty-first century (if not the nineteenth) has diminished concerns about “heresy” in theology generally and in the congregation specifically. That she can find solace at New York City’s Church of the Heavenly Rest while refusing to confess the Apostles’ Creed is not exceptional. When, she closes the book with a call to “spiritual discovery” based on Jesus’ words “seek, and you shall find,” I was left wondering if I just read a passage from Kant’s famous 1784 exposition of the command “Know thyself!” (sapere aude). Not that the Enlightenment was entirely in error; it’s just that Pagels presents this freedom of belief as if it is new. And it definitely is not.
Despite these final criticisms, "Beyond Belief" offers a compelling picture of the diversity of early responses to Jesus. I for one am now lead back to my copy of The Complete Gospels and the texts of Irenaeus and Tertullian. I will even read the New Testament with new eyes, pondering how history was written and imagining—perhaps as Pagels does—alternative histories, musings on what else might have been… but not entirely disappointed by the way it turned out.