Elaine Pagels

[PROFESSOR OF RELIGION]

“SO MUCH OF CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE HAS BEEN THIS BUNCH OF BELIEFS AND YET THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS, ON THE CONTRARY, ASKS YOU TO GO BACK TO YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE AND SAY NOT ‘WHAT YOU BELIEVE’ BUT ‘WHAT YOU KNOW’ EXPERIENTIALLY.”
Reasons for Excluding the Gospel
of Thomas from the Canon:
Contains secret teachings
Advocates experiential, personal approach to God
Antithetical to centralized authority
Officially considered heretical

It takes about thirty-five minutes to read the Gospel of Thomas. It’s a slim book filled with sentences no longer than those on the menu of a fine restaurant. Which is not to say that it takes thirty-five minutes to understand the ancient text. Within its pages are some of the most mystifying fragments in the Christian tradition. It begins: “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke.… Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death,” followed by, “Jesus said, ‘Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All.’”

And yet it’s astonishing that we even have the choice to be troubled by the Gospel of Thomas. Lost to the literate world sometime around 400 AD, the ancient manuscript only accidentally resurfaced in the Egyptian desert in 1945.

This millennium-and-a-half-long disappearing act was a result of the early Christian Church’s decision that the Gospel of Thomas, and all other “Gnostic” gospels, were heretical. Although Thomas was one of Christ’s original disciples, the gospel that bears his name was not included with the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—in the New Testament. In fact, all the Gnostic gospels were destroyed at the behest of the bishop of Alexandria. All, it seems, but one copy.

Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, has spent much of her career not only tracing the history of this remarkable book, but also, especially lately, thinking about what the enigmatic epigrams mean and how they relate to twenty-first-century Christians, herself included.

Her latest book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003) has proven to be the most popular of her career; it spent more than fifteen weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Though she self-deprecatingly calls the book “dense,” it is clearly the work of a gifted writer exploring familiar territory. Read enough reviews of Pagels’s books and the word “lucid” appears again and again.

However, the heart of her work is not only lucid prose. It’s scholarship. Beyond Belief required eight years of research and writing. And not surprisingly, she has the scholar’s longstanding affinity for her source material. At one point in our conversation she said, “When I first met these texts…”

Professor Pagels is a petite, poised woman with clear blue eyes who speaks in the gentle but firm cadences of an enthusiastic expert. This interview was held in her office at Princeton.

—Rodes Fishburne

*

THE BELIEVER: What would the Pope say about the Gospel of Thomas if he were sitting here today?

ELAINE PAGELS: [Laughs] I think he would say what Irenaeus said, “We don’t need that. The world is desperate for the Gospels. We need the Gospels of Jesus Christ that will save souls and forgive sins and deal with guilt and war and conflict and all the serious problems of the world. We don’t need to go off and find our own truth. That’s too idiosyncratic. It’s a very dubious endeavor because after all, humans are basically inclined to sin and they will, left to their own devices, come up with something megalomaniacal and convince themselves that they are really God.” I mean that’s how they parody these sorts of things.

BLVR: And these sorts of parodies have some validity?

EP: There’s some truth in that characterization. Madness and delusion can be part of religious conviction. When you read the Gospel of Thomas you see two things; one is that a lot of the sayings are identical to those in Matthew and Luke, such as “Love thy brother” or “Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God,” so you know that these are early teachings attributed to Jesus. Other material, the enigmatic ones, such as “Recognize what is before your eyes and the mysteries will be revealed to you”—that kind of teaching is said to be a “secret teaching.” And Mark says that Jesus had secret teachings but claims to give it to you, though he never says he gives you all of it. The Gospel of John says if we wrote down everything that Jesus said the world couldn’t contain all the books.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Rodes Fishburne lives in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected]

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