With the winning combination of sound scholarship, deep insight and a crystal-clear prose style that distinguishes all her work, Pagels portrays the great variety of beliefs, teachings and practices that were found among the earliest Christians. — Merle Rubin
This packed, lucid little book belongs to that admirable kind of scholarship in which the labor of acquiring Greek and Coptic, Hebrew and Aramaic, the exhausting study of ancient fragments of text against the background of an intimate knowledge of religious history, can be represented as a spiritual as well as an intellectual exercise. — Frank Kermode
In this majestic new book, Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels) ranges panoramically over the history of early Christianity, demonstrating the religion's initial tremendous diversity and its narrowing to include only certain texts supporting certain beliefs. At the center of her book is the conflict between the gospels of John and Thomas. Reading these gospels closely, she shows that Thomas offered readers a message of spiritual enlightenment. Rather than promoting Jesus as the only light of the world, Thomas taught individuals that "there is a light within each person, and it lights up the whole universe. If it does not shine, there is darkness." As she eloquently and provocatively argues, the author of John wrote his gospel as a refutation of Thomas, portraying the disciple Thomas as a fool when he doubts Jesus, and Jesus as the only true light of the world. Pagels goes on to demonstrate that the early Christian writer Irenaeus promoted John as the true gospel while he excluded Thomas, and a host of other early gospels, from the list of those texts that he considered authoritative. His list became the basis for the New Testament canon when it was fixed in 357. Pagels suggests that we recover Thomas as a way of embracing the glorious diversity of religious tradition. As she elegantly contends, religion is not merely an assent to a set of beliefs, but a rich, multifaceted fabric of teachings and experiences that connect us with the divine. Exhilarating reading, Pagels's book offers a model of careful and thoughtful scholarship in the lively and exciting prose of a good mystery writer. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
In this wonderful little book, Pagels (religion, Princeton; The Gnostic Gospels) provides a historical reinterpretation of John's gospel in light of the more mystical Gnostic gospels, such as Thomas and Philip. She finds in John arguments for Christ's primacy-John locates the actual logos or divinity of God in the person of Jesus. Thomas, by contrast, finds in Christ a case for divinity that lies within each believer: "God's light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially at least, in everyone." Her conclusions support her historical survey of competing gospel messages up to the closing of the canon in the fourth century: that orthodoxy is something imposed upon the early church, that rival messages and ideas about Christ proliferated, and that heresy is as much a matter of interpretation as it is "truth." Her personal investment in this message is clear, and she finds a certain reconnection with the church through these contending approaches to faith and belief. A small book with a fair amount of scholarly apparatus and tone but without overly academic language, it is highly recommended for all religion and Bible collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Sandra Collins, Duquesne Univ. Lib., Pittsburgh Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
One person’s hagiography is another’s heresy, observes biblical scholar Pagels, though that hasn’t stopped generations of Christians from trying to reduce the faith to "a single, authorized set of beliefs." God is love, promises the New Testament--and those who don’t believe it are doomed. A mixed message? Well, Pagels observes, the Bible is full of such contradictions, the inevitable product of the many hands that had a part in making the authorized text and its associated creeds. Continuing the project she began nearly a quarter-century ago with The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels examines the first-century Gospel of Thomas, discovered with the Nag Hammadi treasury of early Christian writings, with an eye to showing how a given text comes to be sorted into the "heretical" or "canonical" pile. The case of Thomas is particularly instructive: Thomas’s Christ is a sort of Zen saint who, quite unlike the practical and sometimes impatient messiah of the four approved gospels, answers his disciples’ questions with koans along the lines of, "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate; for all things are plain in the sight of heaven" and "The Kingdom is inside you, and outside you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will see that it is you who are the children of the living Father." In stark contrast to this Christ is that of John, whose gospel, Pagels (Religion/Princeton Univ.; The Origin of Satan, 1995, etc.), notes, "directly contradicts the combined testimony of the other New Testament gospels" at critical junctures and was itself considered heretical, not least because it insisted (prematurely, as it happens) that Jesus was "Lord and God." Yet John made the cut,and Thomas did not. Peeling away accreted layers of doctrine--the triune God, the Athanasian canon--Pagels ventures alternative and sometimes novel readings of biblical history, all with the cumulative effect of questioning the orthodoxy that "tends to distrust our capacity to make . . . discriminations and insists on making them for us." A thoughtful and rewarding essay, as we’ve come to expect from Pagels, and sure to arouse fundamentalist ire.
“Pagels has accomplished a very rare thing, an examination of early religious writings that is a good read, accessible, and at times even dramatic and poignant.” —The Columbus Dispatch
“This remarkable book will stir and provoke thought. It offers rewards to any reader concerned with the promise and power of faith, and the hunger for spiritual discovery.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Lucid . . . a spiritual as well as an intellectual exercise. . . . [Pagels] seems to rejoice that in the earliest years of Christianity there existed these strange, dissident doctrines.” —Frank Kermode, The New York Times Book Review
"With the winning combination of sound scholarship, deep insight and a crystal clear prose style . . . [Beyond Belief] portrays the rich and beautiful heritage that was lost when champions of religious orthodoxy turned on many of their fellow Christians and declared them 'heretics'." —Los Angeles Times
“Brilliantly lucid, elegantly written . . . [Pagels’] book is so readable you can’t put it down.” — Providence Journal-Bulletin
“Just as topical today as it was nearly two thousand years ago. . . . Pagels is great at pulling together the details that allow us to understand not only what people were arguing about but why.” –San Jose Mercury News
“Majestic. . . . Exhilarating reading, Pagel’s book offers a model of careful and thoughtful scholarship in the lively and exciting prose of a mystery writer.” –Publishers Weekly
“This luminous and accessible history of early Christian thought offers profound and crucial insights on the nature of God, revelation, and what we mean by religious truth.” –Karen Armstong
“As relevant as today's front page.” –The Washington Post Book World