Elaine Pagels is perhaps best known for her text, 'The Gnostic Gospels' first published in 1979, in which she explores the different alternative gospel and scriptural writings used by (or at least known to) the Gnostic sects of Christians and proto-Christians in the early years of the common era. In this book, 'Beyond Belief', she returns to this subject by focusing more intensely upon the Secret Gospel of Thomas, one of the many gospel texts floating around the ancient Christian world, prior to the time the canon of scripture was more-or-less solidified.
She begins with a remarkably personal tale, her idea of faith and the power of God in the face of her own son's problem - he had been diagnosed with a fatal disease, one that is required painful and risky procedures with little hope of success. Where does faith come from in a time like this? Where does faith go?
Her first chapter talks about the power of the community, and she traces a history of early initiation rites and community-forging events (including the martyrdom of many). Pagels then relates these back to her own experiences, tracing a connection between then and now. The controversies the early church faced - the participation in communal feasts that were misunderstood, the renunciation of the world in dramatic ways, coupled with a care for persons in unique and egalitarian ways - these are not always the issues faced today. However, Pagels shows how these issues served to form what we hold today as normative Christianity. She also sets the stage for a look at the diversity of practice and belief - prior to the formation of the canons and creeds, there were more points of difference in the Christian world - texts such as the Secret Gospel of Thomas is one such.
Pagels identifies a conflict between the gospels of John (one of the canonical four, itself a bit on the fringe, given its greater differences with the synoptics than they have with each other) and Thomas. Pagels asserts that both assumed their communities would be familiar with the basic outline of the gospel story a la Mark (most likely the earliest of the canonical gospels), and that both John and Thomas give similar accounts of the private teachings of Jesus. However, the use of these teachings and emphasis differs between Thomas and John - whereas they might have been complementary, they end up being at odds. For example, John argues strongly for the uniqueness of Jesus, as the light of God for all humanity; Thomas, on the other hand, looks at the light in Jesus as being something that all people have and have access to from within themselves. This gives Thomas a gnostic tint.
Pagels likens the message of Thomas to those developed later by mystics, including most recently the writers Tolstoy and another Thomas, Thomas Merton. The kingdom of God is within us, not something that is meant to have a physical definition, either in the past under a messianic warrior-king, nor in the future in some heavenly city descending like a spaceship, but rather, within us.
Pagels develops an interesting speculative biography of the author of the gospel of John, and looks at the images of Thomas presented in John, including the ideas that he was the 'doubting' one, and that he missed the gathering of the disciples upon with Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit (the account of Matthew indicates that all the disciples were present; John has Thomas missing). These kinds of images, Pagels suggests, might indicate a sort of rivalry for position. John's gospel was itself questioned during the early church, and his community of Christians existed on the fringe of the wider community. However, John's gospel is a clear and powerful one, and Pagels demonstrates that at many crucial points in the Thomas narrative, pieces are cryptic at best, and not at all definable and discernable. This would not have appealed to certain communities in Christianity, searching for a certain faith.
Pagels traces the development of the acceptance of John over Thomas in the wider context of canonical development - she introduces other non-canonical writings of the time, such as the Secret Book of John, the Secret Book of James, the Prayer of the Apostle Paul, and others. She also traces the thought of major figures such as Polycarp, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. Much of what we have known historically about the different groups labeled heretical have come from the writings of the 'orthodox' - Ireneaus, for example, is a primary source of certain heresies through his great, five-volume 'Refutation and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge'. However, this is a necessarily biased source of information.
One interesting piece is the exploration of the Gospel of Philip, another of the non-canonical gospels - Philip's gospel divides the church into those who have it right and those who don't, but along different lines than the typical orthodox view. For Philip, the virgin birth and the resurrection are not one-time-only events for Jesus, but rather apply to all of humanity in potential. Anyone 'born again' experiences a virgin birth through the power of the spirit; all believers are transformed, and this constitutes a resurrection. Philip makes a distinction between those who pay lip service to being Christian and those who are truly spiritually transformed - this is an idea that will resurface again and again Christian history, too.
Given imperial backing, Pagels argues that it was largely the party with influence at the court and the centre of empire that won the day. Still, even as these documents were no longer copied and held as valid scripture, the ideas they contained would remain undercurrent in Christian thought. Pagels' skillful writing and interesting narrative choice of using her own life as a backdrop to the larger issues of church history make this an interesting and worthwhile text for all.