Tuesday, June 17, 2003

ELAINE PAGELS has a new book out on the Gospel of Thomas:

'Beyond Belief': Another Gospel Truth (New York Times)


The novelty of ''Beyond Belief'' lies, I think, in the polite confrontation Pagels arranges between John and Thomas. She maintains that the fourth Gospel itself plays what might be called (though she does not put it like this) a political game. The disciple Thomas speaks only in John's Gospel, and he is rather coolly presented, said not to have been present with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them after the Resurrection, and condemned for all time to be the one who doubted. On the other hand we are allowed to assume that John was ''the disciple whom Jesus loved'' -- a privileged and authoritative confidant. (Pagels points out that John puts Peter down in a similar way: the ''beloved disciple'' beat him in the race to be first to the empty tomb.)


Some scholars continue to think Thomas of secondary importance. Pagels, of course, does not. In her gently autobiographical manner she recounts a period of exceptional anxiety and bereavement in her own life, when she found comfort in the Sunday morning community of a Manhattan church. She had long given up the Christianity of John, and as her knowledge of these dissident ancient communities grew she developed a desire for diversity of practice and doctrine and for the undogmatic benefits of religious community. She seems to rejoice that in the earliest years of Christianity there existed these strange, dissident doctrines of illumination. Some worshiped God as both Father and Mother, others went in for sacred dancing, others proposed heterodox interpretations of baptism, and so on.

If one already possessed an incontestable version of the truth, all these deviations could be seen as deplorable -- comparable, perhaps, to ''wild analysis'' in the Freudian tradition. But Pagels looks about the Christian world today and rejoices at the proliferation of the ''new forms'' Christianity is taking in Africa, North and South America, Korea and China. She cannot be reconciled to churches that claim sole access to the truth of doctrine and discipline. Nag Hammadi seemed to show her that one must shed all such prejudices. The reward, she believes, may be a truer knowledge not only of Christianity, in whatever institutional form, but also of the other great religions.

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.

Well of course it can.

From the perspective of ancient Jewish studies, one of the interesting things about the Gospel of Thomas is that its doctrine of Jesus doesn't include a "Christology." Jesus is never called Christ/messiah/anointed and the title "Son of Man" isn't applied to him either. He seems, rather, to be identified with the Divine Wisdom. These and other issues are discussed in detail in Stevan R. Davies's vast Gospel of Thomas website. Note in particular the full text of his book The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom.

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