ELAINE PAGELS BEYOND BELIEF PDF

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Style, grace, lucidity and charm: traits seldom encountered in works of biblical scholarship and almost never encountered together. But those familiar with the work of Elaine Pagels — and few are not, judging from her commercial success as an author yet another trait rare among works of serious scholarship — have discovered that these unexpected pleasures are to be expected in everything she writes.

The combination of such an erudite mind and such engaging prose makes her arguments for the virtues of the Gospel of Thomas almost irresistible. But the gap between her interpretation of Thomas as a guide to contemporary seekers and the text of the Gospel of Thomas itself requires too great a leap of faith based on what Thomas has to offer.

We have good reasons for doubting Thomas. Pagels sees the Gospel of Thomas and other apocryphal Christian literature as shut out of the ecclesiastical smoke-filled room that foisted the canon upon early Christianity. But the formation of the canon was a complex process that started long before the Council of Nicea in The canon lists of the fourth century — and there were several different though similar canon lists in existence by that time — reflected to a great extent literature that had been on the reading list of churches throughout the Roman Empire for centuries.

This was so even among the Gnostics; when they wrote commentaries, canonical scriptures were their texts of choice. The canon invariably provided the grist for their exceedingly fine-grinding exegetical mills.

Apocryphal texts, Gnostic or otherwise, riff on the texts that we have come to call canonical and upon which all Christian literary cachet depends. Biblical texts were the common ground of the Gnostics and the orthodox, even though the partisans often did not recognize them as such. The arch-orthodox Irenaeus claimed that the Gospel of John declares the divinity of Jesus. On this he agreed wholeheartedly with his Gnostic nemesis Valentinus.

Together the two affirmed the importance of the Gospel of John, as did the apocalyptic Montanists, who were otherwise so different from both the orthodox and the Gnostics. But the Council of Nicea had little to do with the Bible, and the text of John was superfluous to the proceedings.

Pagels herself reminds us that some of the bishops at Nicea were troubled because the proposed language of the Nicean Creed was not biblical. And as Pagels also points out, in several places the Gospel of John seems to flatly contradict the other three canonical gospels; it was apparently unknown to the early church fathers Ignatius, Polycarp and Justin Martyr, and John had been associated with heretics.

Not a compelling pedigree for a text pressed into service as a rallying point for ancient orthodoxy. This alternative collection of sayings in effect gives us another Jesus, and Pagels says as much.

Pagels speculates that some Egyptian monks placed Thomas and the other Nag Hammadi texts in a six-foot cylindrical jar to save them from the wrath of the orthodox book burners.

The jar served as an earthen time capsule for the ancient texts until an Egyptian shepherd discovered them almost sixteen centuries later. Reading Thomas now, it is easy to see why it might have been a favorite in the monastery. Thomas is shot through with a curmudgeonly, monastic sensibility.

Its sayings badmouth weddings, marriage and sex. Thomas has a healthy monastic disdain for wealth and the wealthy. Those who are well dressed, i. Rich people are fools, and Thomas agrees with the book of Proverbs and Mario Puzo that fools die. And just as any celibate ascetic, Thomas has no use for women.

Mary the mother of Jesus, perhaps? Or Mary Magdalene? Or some other Mary? Like some early Egyptian monks who fled society to wander in deserted places, the Gospel of Thomas is big on bowling alone.

Where there are two or one, I am with that one. He makes a point of inveighing against just such fraternizing. Early in her book she speaks of her admiration for Christian communities as places where people stand in solidarity against that last of natural shocks that flesh is heir to — death. But that story is missing in Thomas. It is a gospel without the Passion; it offers a way of discipleship without a via dolorosa.

There is nothing about resurrection, either of Jesus or anyone else. Thomas shares detachment from death with other Nag Hammadi texts. In their tacit flight from human suffering, these texts have drained the Crucifixion of its blood. Pagels concludes her book by damning the orthodox, ancient and modern, with faint praise so suavely written that we might overlook its condescension:. How can we tell the truth from lies? What is genuine, and thus connects us with one another and with reality, and what is shallow, self-serving, and evil?

Orthodoxy tends to distrust our capacity to make such discriminations and insists on making them for us. Given the notorious human capacity for self-deception, we can, to an extent, thank the church for this.

Many of us, wishing to be spared hard work, gladly accept what tradition teaches. But it is the unorthodox traditions of Nag Hammadi that taught that death is ultimately a language game, that the cross was more like apple picking than agony, and that the Crucifixion could be a laughing matter.

And the orthodox, with all their shortcomings, would have none of it. It was the orthodox who insisted on doing the existential heavy lifting that a cross-bearing gospel demands — truly hard work.

With poignancy Pagels has shown her readers that she herself is deeply touched by and deeply in touch with our common mortality — that touchstone of the best of Christian spirituality — more deeply than anything we read in the Gospel of Thomas. Allen D. Tags: Allen D.

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Style, grace, lucidity and charm: traits seldom encountered in works of biblical scholarship and almost never encountered together. But those familiar with the work of Elaine Pagels — and few are not, judging from her commercial success as an author yet another trait rare among works of serious scholarship — have discovered that these unexpected pleasures are to be expected in everything she writes. The combination of such an erudite mind and such engaging prose makes her arguments for the virtues of the Gospel of Thomas almost irresistible. But the gap between her interpretation of Thomas as a guide to contemporary seekers and the text of the Gospel of Thomas itself requires too great a leap of faith based on what Thomas has to offer. We have good reasons for doubting Thomas. Pagels sees the Gospel of Thomas and other apocryphal Christian literature as shut out of the ecclesiastical smoke-filled room that foisted the canon upon early Christianity. But the formation of the canon was a complex process that started long before the Council of Nicea in

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Why has Elaine Pagels chosen Beyond Belief as her title? How can the title be interpreted? Pagels begins each chapter with a personal reflection. What do these passages add to the book? For what is she searching, as both a scholar and a Christian? 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?

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