Jul/Aug 2003 Book Reviews

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

Elaine Pagels
Random House 241 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

This new volume by Princeton's Elaine Pagels, who did much to both legitimize and popularize Gnostic religious studies with her groundbreaking The Gnostic Gospels (1979), has been for many the most hotly anticipated book in its area this decade—and it does not disappoint. While essentially a long essay (it's actually five seperate ones, previously published but revised for accessability), weighing in at just 183 double-spaced pages (sans the copious and as always expertly researched notes section), the book manages to cover the essentials of canonical Christian history, elucidate the importance of the (in)famous Gospel of Thomas and its relation to the canonical Gospel According to John (and other New Testament works) in a lucid and readable presentation that includes the author's own personal experience and reasons for going beyond the traditional "canon" for study.

These are, in fact, separate essays which can be read exclusive of each other: the first two deal explicitly with Thomas and the others with other Nag Hammadi sources as well (The Gospel of Truth, The Gospel of Phillip, The Gospel of Mary (Magdeline), The Acts of John, The Round Dance of the Cross, etc). Pagels provides an excellent overview of the early history of Christianity and the formation of its canon, though a less comprehensive, but even more "readable" one than Hidden Gospels. Pagels sees the primacy of the "orthodox" in essentially political terms, centering the second-century Gallic bishop Irenaeus (fl. 190) as its most influentual figure. The drawback with the collected essays-as-book method is that the subtitle is somewhat deceptive, and she repeats herself, as it were, some seventeen times, often word-for-word—too frequently for a two-sitting read that is presented as a new book. In her transitions, added for book publication, the seams show.

Still, the volume is a brilliant and engaging addition to the work that has made Pagels one of, if not the most important and accessable religious historian of her generation. If you just read one book on religion published this year, for the sake of God, let it be this one.

—While translations of The Gospel of Thomas abound on the Internet, I very strongly recommend the excellent one by Marvin Meyer (HarperCollins, 1992; hardcover, $19.95, copious notes and introduction by Harold Bloom) as a companion piece to the Pagels volume and for a thorough understanding of the issues raised in Jenkins' Hidden Gospels. This beautiful translation has yet to be surpassed in English; when it has, let me know. Pagels uses the also excellent (and more comprehensive) The Nag Hammadi Library, which is available as a single volume in paperback.


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