Elaine Pagels
Elaine Pagels; drawing by David Levine

In 1897 two British scholars, B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt, excavated an ancient garbage dump at the site of the Greco-Roman town of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt (modern el-Bahnasa), and discovered the largest cache of ancient papyri ever found anywhere. Publication of these papyri began in 1897 and is still going on. The very first to be published, called P. Oxy. 1, consists of a single leaf from a papyrus codex datable to as early as the second century and inscribed in Greek on both sides with what Grenfell and Hunt referred to as “Sayings of our Lord.” Another papyrus fragment with additional “new sayings of Jesus” was published in 1904, together with eight small fragments of “a lost gospel.” These papyri, very fragmentary, were duly noted by scholars and included in standard collections of New Testament “apocryphal” writings, but no notice was taken of them by the public.

All that changed in 1945, when some Egyptian farmers were digging for fertilizing nitrates in the desert at the base of a cliff some six miles from the modern town of Nag Hammadi. They dug up a large earthenware jar containing twelve leather-bound papyrus codices, plus part of a thirteenth, all of them written in Coptic, the most recent form of the ancient language of the Pharaohs. It is written in a modified Greek alphabet and includes in its vocabulary numerous Greek words. These fourth-century books, containing forty-six different treatises of varying lengths, most of them hitherto unknown, make up what is now called the Nag Hammadi Library. Most of them are “gnostic” writings deemed heretical by ancient church fathers. Publication of these writings began in the 1950s.

The second tractate of Nag Hammadi Codex II consists of a complete collection of some 114 sayings ascribed to Jesus, with the title “The Gospel According to Thomas.” The publication of this gospel in 1959 made it possible for scholars to show that the papyri from Oxyrhynchus are from three different Greek copies of the Gospel of Thomas, whose complete text is now extant only in the form of the Coptic translation we have in the Nag Hammadi collection. This “lost gospel” has attracted an enormous amount of attention, not only on the part of scholars but of the general public as well. It has been translated into several languages around the world.

The opening passage tells us something of the content of Thomas, which, unlike other gospels, consists only of sayings, with no narratives of Jesus’ deeds, death, and resurrection1 :

These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down. And he said, “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience [lit. ‘taste’] death.”

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.”

The concluding saying has been translated as follows:

Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary [Magdalene] leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In between are other sayings that sound new to readers of the New Testament, but others that are familiar, with parallels in the New Testament Synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and John.

Of all of the Nag Hammadi texts, the Gospel of Thomas has elicited by far the largest amount of scholarly attention as well as the greatest variation in approaches and interpretations. We have no clear idea who composed it or compiled it, and scholars differ widely over its literary status (a collection of sayings, excerpts from a lost commentary, a “gospel”), its religious character (“gnostic,” “mystical,” Jewish, anti-Jewish, philosophical), its date (mid-first century to late second century), original language (Greek or Syriac), its place of origin (Syria, Palestine, Egypt), and its relationship to the gospels of the New Testament canon (dependent on them or independent).

In Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels, the author of the prize-winning book The Gnostic Gospels, presents a persuasive interpretation of Thomas. But the book is really not primarily about Thomas, and that’s what makes it all the more important. In it Pagels tells the story of how the Christian religion, originally multiform and diverse and focused on love for God and neighbor, came to be an institution demanding conformity to a fixed system of “orthodox” beliefs. What makes her book all the more fascinating is that she brings into it much of her own personal experience, not only as a scholar but as a person who, in spite of its history, can embrace the Christian religion in her own way.

In her opening chapter (“From the Feast of Agape to the Nicene Creed”) she gives an account of how she found comfort in the services of a New York church after her son Mark had been diagnosed with a fatal illness. At the same time she “wondered when and how being a Christian became virtually synonymous with accepting a certain set of beliefs.” She asks, “What is it about Christian tradition that we love—and what is it that we cannot love?”


In Pagels’s view the earliest Christians were, in their devotion to Jesus, united in one thing, the need to reach out to others as “brothers and sisters,” thus creating a new family bound together not only in worship but also in acts of loving kindness toward fellow Christians and others as well, including their persecutors. In matters of faith there was an amazing amount of diversity, and the Nag Hammadi texts provide evidence of Christians who “saw themselves as not so much believers as seekers, people who ‘seek for God.'”

Pagels goes on to present her own interpretation of Thomas, contrasting that gospel with the canonical Gospel of John. The difference between the two gospels is a central theme of her book. She tells of her experience as a graduate student at Harvard reading some of the newly published Nag Hammadi texts, in which she found “unexpected spiritual power.” As an instance she cites Thomas saying number 70, as translated by her teacher George MacRae:

Jesus said: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Thomas’s Jesus, she writes, challenges Christians who “mistake the kingdom of God for an otherworldly place or a future event.” According to one of the gospel’s passages she cites,

Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.”

Pagels’s study of the Gospel of Thomas in comparison with the Gospel of John has led her to conclude that John, written around the same time as Thomas (between 90 and 100 AD), not only directly contradicts in many respects what is found in the other canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) but also contradicts views that are found in Thomas. John reflects a debate among early Christians about who Jesus is, and insists that Jesus is both unique and divine, something not found in the other gospels. Thomas contains teaching that reflects the views of “Thomas Christians” who believed that “the divine light Jesus embodied is shared by humanity, since we are all made ‘in the image of God.'” These Christians looked to Thomas as their apostolic authority, just as other Christians venerated Peter, or Paul, or John, or Jesus’ brother James.

Pagels finds in the Gospel of Thomas a cluster of sayings which she takes as the key to its interpretation, many of them reflecting an interpretation of the opening passages of Genesis. Challenging those who persist in asking about the “last days” or the “end of time,” Thomas’s Jesus points them to the beginning and to their own origins:

The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us how our end will be.” Jesus said, “Have you discovered, then, the beginning, that you look for the end? For where the beginning is, there will the end be. Blessed is he who will take his place in the beginning; he will know the end and will not experience death.”

His disciples said to him, “Show us the place where you are, since it is necessary for us to seek it.” He said to them, “Whoever has ears, let him hear. There is light within a man of light, and he lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is darkness.”

Jesus said, “If they say to you, ‘Where did you come from?’ say to them, ‘We came from the light, the place where the light came into being on its own accord and established [itself] and became manifest through their image.'”

Pagels observes that John, especially in its prologue, interprets the same Genesis texts but in a radically different way. She writes:

For John, identifying Jesus with the light that came into being “in the beginning” is what makes him unique—God’s “only begotten son.” John calls him the “light of all humanity,” and believes that Jesus alone brings divine light to a world otherwise sunk into darkness. John says that we can experience God only through the divine light embodied in Jesus. But certain passages in Thomas’s gospel draw a quite different conclusion: that the divine light Jesus embodied is shared by humanity, since we are all made “in the image of God.” Thus Thomas expresses what would become a central theme of Jewish—and later Christian—mysticism a thousand years later: that the “image of God” is hidden within everyone, although most people remain unaware of its presence.

In insisting that Jesus is the unique Son of God and that salvation is based solely on believing in Jesus, John is also challenging the contrary view of “Thomas Christians.” Pagels notes that it is in John that we find Thomas repudiated as “doubting Thomas.” Following the crucifixion, Thomas is absent from the group of disciples to whom Jesus appears, and on whom he bestows the holy spirit. Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus has been resurrected and is then rebuked by the risen Christ in another appearance: “Do not be faithless but believing.” Thomas is eventually forced to capitulate: “My lord and my God!”


How did John’s view prevail in the early church? Pagels’s answer is, in fact, quite complicated. She notes that, during the second century, the Gospel of John was not everywhere accepted or used among Christians. Indeed, she shows, it was openly repudiated by some, including a Roman presbyter named Gaius.

It was a transplanted Asian Christian, Saint Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Roman Gaul, who “became the principal architect of what we call the four gospel canon.” Irenaeus had been a disciple of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who, in turn, claimed to have known the apostle John. The most important of Irenaeus’ writings is the five-volume work Against Heresies, written around 185, in which he exposes and refutes what he takes to be heretical or deviant beliefs. Irenaeus wrote out of concern for the unity of the “catholic church” and the danger of schism that deviant beliefs represented. In Against Heresies he argues against Christians who have only one gospel, or too many, or the wrong ones (of which many existed, including Thomas). “He boldly declared,” Pagels writes, “that ‘the gospel,’ which contains all truth, can be supported by only these four ‘pillars’—namely, the gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” “For Irenaeus,” Pagels writes, “John was not the fourth gospel, as Christians call it today, but the first and foremost of the gospels, because [Irenaeus] believed that John alone understood who Jesus really is—God in human form.”

But what happens, Pagels asks, when some Christians accept the Gospel of John but read it in the wrong way? In her response Irenaeus again plays a leading part. What is especially interesting in this history is that the first Christian commentators on the Gospel of John were the gnostic “heretic” Valentinus and his pupils Ptolemy and Heracleon. (Elaine Pagels’s first book was devoted to Heracleon’s commentary, The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon’s Commentary on John.2 ) What Irenaeus found objectionable in their interpretations is that they went beyond the literal sense of the text and interpreted it spiritually. A particularly beautiful example of this kind of interpretation is a meditative homily probably composed by the great Valentinus himself, the Gospel of Truth, now available in a Coptic translation in Nag Hammadi Codex I. The opening passage reads:

The gospel of truth is joy for those who have received from the Father of truth the grace of knowing him, through the power of the Word that came forth from the pleroma [“fulness”], the one who is in the thought and mind of the Father, that is, the one who is addressed as the Savior, [that] being the name of the work he is to perform for the redemption of those who were ignorant of the Father, while in the name [of] the gospel is the proclamation of hope, being discovery for those who search for him.

Other “heretics” expanded on the Gospel of John by creating new episodes, such as the “Round Dance of the Cross” in the apocryphal Acts of John, a second-century collection of narratives about John inspired by the gospel. Jesus is depicted on the night before the crucifixion dancing in a circle with his disciples and chanting a hymn to which his disciples respond “Amen.” (I might add that this “Round Dance” is part of the Good Friday liturgy of some Gnostic congregations in California.) Another heretical work inspired by the Gospel of John is the Apocryphon (“secret book”) of John, now extant in four Coptic versions.

Irenaeus excoriated the innovations of his opponents, and insisted that the only way to avoid error was to hold fast to “the canon of truth received in baptism.” The canon referred to is an ancient creed which candidates for Christian baptism were asked to profess, a creed which Irenaeus claims was used in the “catholic church” throughout the world:

One God, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and the seas…and in one Christ Jesus, the son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation, and in the holy spirit…and the birth from a virgin, and the suffering, and the resurrection from the dead, and the heavenly ascension in flesh…of our beloved Jesus Christ.

A further irritant for Irenaeus was that the heretics professed the same faith but then went on to assert that this was only the first step, offering additional rituals and esoteric teachings to a spiritual elite. The result was that Christians were being divided from one another, and damage was being inflicted on the “body of Christ.” Pagels writes:

By devaluing what they held in common with other believers and initiating people into their own smaller groups, such teachers [Irenaeus argued] were creating potentially innumerable schisms throughout Christian groups worldwide, as well as in each congregation. Irenaeus concludes by declaring that any spiritual teachers or prophets who do these things are actually heretics, frauds, and liars. He writes his massive, five-volume attack, The Refutation and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge, to demand that members of his congregation stop listening to any of them and return to the basic foundation of their faith.

Irenaeus was enormously influential in ecclesiastical circles, and his huge work was widely circulated. Fragments of his writings have turned up among the papyri from Oxyrhynchus, datable to within two decades of its composition. As Pagels puts it, “Irenaeus helped construct the basic architecture of what would become orthodox Christianity.” Throughout her work, Pagels wants to show that if we take account of such writings as the Gospel of Thomas, and how they came to be excluded, we will understand the omissions and flaws of that architecture. As for herself, she writes,

When I found that I no longer believed everything I thought Christians were supposed to believe, I asked myself, Why not just leave Christianity—and religion—behind, as so many others have done? Yet I sometimes encountered, in churches and elsewhere—in the presence of a venerable Buddhist monk, in the cantor’s singing at a bar mitzvah, and on mountain hikes—something compelling, powerful, even terrifying that I could not ignore, and I had come to see that, besides belief, Christianity involves practice—and paths toward transformation.

This is the opening paragraph in the final chapter of Beyond Belief (“Constantine and the Catholic Church”). Pagels goes on to describe her feelings of joy and solemnity on the occasion of a Christmas service she attended with her daughter. She then asks, “If spiritual understanding may arise from human experience, doesn’t this mean that it is nothing but human invention—and therefore false?” That was Irenaeus’ conclusion in rejecting such experience as the basis of faith, but the good bishop knew very well that there were many other Christians with a different point of view. And there were other Christian teachers, such as the Alexandrians Clement and Origen, who engaged disciples of Valentinus in serious discussion and even embraced some of their insights.

“Heretical” teachers put a high valuation on spiritual experience and the limitations of human language in expressing the ineffable. Pagels refers to a passage in the Apocryphon of John, which suggests that “human beings have an innate capacity to know God but one that offers only hints and glimpses of divine reality.” In Pagels’s view,

The Secret Book suggests that the story of Eve’s birth from Adam’s side speaks of the awakening of this spiritual capacity. Instead of simply telling about the origin of woman, this story, symbolically read, shows how the “blessed one above, the Father” (or, in some versions of the text, the “Mother Father”), feeling compassion for Adam, sent him “a “helper”—luminous epinoia [‘creative’ or ‘inventive’ consciousness] which comes out of him, who is called Life [Eve].”

Since Greek epinoia (“power of thought, inventiveness,” etc.) has no exact equivalent in English, Pagels prefers to leave it untranslated, but she takes it to mean something that “conveys genuine insight.”

Of course, Irenaeus would have none of that, and his position won out. It was not theological argument that brought that result about; rather it was “the revolution initiated by the Roman emperor Constantine.” The church historian Eusebius tells how Christ’s sign (a cross) was revealed in the heavens the night before a crucial battle in 312, and Constantine won the day. As a result Constantine brought a definitive end to persecution of Christians and became their imperial patron:

But this practical military leader chose to recognize only those who belonged to what may have become, by his time, the best-organized and largest group, which he called the “lawful and most holy catholic church.”

Constantine’s munificence resulted in the building of beautiful churches and economic privileges for the catholic bishops.

But the emperor was also drawn into a brewing theological controversy. Around 318, Arius, a prominent member of the clergy in Alexandria, was teaching that the Word of God (i.e., Christ, as in John 1:1), though divine, was not divine in the same sense as God the Father. The controversy that ensued caused Constantine in 325 to call a meeting of Christian bishops at Nicaea, a city in Asia Minor. What resulted from that meeting was the Nicene Creed, which was subsequently incorporated into the liturgy of the church. Included in that creed, at the insistence of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, was the doctrine that Christ was “of one being with” (homoousios in Greek) God the Father. This terminology was meant to refute the teaching of Arius and his followers. The Nicene Creed, approved by the bishops, was endorsed by the emperor, who meanwhile had tried to legislate an end to “heretical” sects. “The emperor ordered all ‘heretics and schismatics’ to stop meeting, even in private houses, and to surrender their churches and whatever property they owned to the catholic church.”

Alexander’s successor as bishop in Alexandria was Saint Athanasius, whose tumultuous career included three periods in exile. By 361 he had become secure in his position, and in 367 he wrote his most famous letter, an Easter letter which included not only a decree on the date of the upcoming Easter celebration but also a list of canonical books of scripture, both Old and New Testaments. His list of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament corresponds to the canonical New Testament still in use today. His purpose in creating this list was to combat heresy and to cleanse the church of “apocryphal” books that lead people astray. Athanasius also provided directions on how to read the canonical writings. Pagels comments:

Although Athanasius intended the “canon of truth,” now enshrined in the Nicene Creed, to safeguard “orthodox” interpretation of Scripture, his experience of Christians who disagreed with him showed that these “heretics” could still read the “canonical Scriptures” in ways he considered unorthodox. To prevent such readings, he insists that anyone who reads the Scriptures must do so through dianoia—the capacity to discern the meaning or intention implicit in each text. Above all, he warns believers to shun epinoia. What others revere as spiritual intuition Athanasius declares is a deceptive, all-too-human capacity to think subjectively, according to one’s preconceptions. Epinoia leads only to error—a view that the “catholic church” endorsed then and holds to this day.

Athanasius’s letter was translated into Coptic and read in all of the monasteries of Egypt. Pagels accepts the view put forward by many scholars that the Nag Hammadi codices found in 1945 had been buried by their owners as a result of Athanasius’ proscription of heretical books. The owners in question were presumably monks in the Pachomian monastery at ancient Chenoboskia, not far from the site.

In the final pages of her book Pagels notes that “the hardest—and the most exciting—thing about research into Christian beginnings has been to unlearn what I thought I knew, and to shed presuppositions I had taken for granted.” The book concludes with the following observation:

What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions—and the communities that sustain them—is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery. Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus’ words, to “seek, and you shall find.”

The kind of research in which Pagels and others in her field are engaged also elicits that often repeated question, “What if…?” What if Saint Irenaeus had included in his four-gospel canon the Gospel of Thomas instead of the Gospel of John? The church father Tertullian of Carthage, writing in the early third century, reports that the heretic Valentinus was so highly regarded in the Roman church of the mid-second century that he was considered for the office of bishop. What if Valentinus had been numbered among the popes of Rome?

Such questions are, of course, unanswerable. In any case, what Pagels’s book shows is that the Christian tradition is far wider and richer than its “official” versions and that analysis of long-unknown texts can be revelatory for Christians and non-Christians. At the same time, her book is just what is needed for those of us who would rather sing the creed than recite it.

This Issue

October 23, 2003