Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

Doubting Thomas
by Allen D. Callahan

Style, grace, lucidity and charm: traits seldom encountered in works of biblical scholarship and almost never encountered together. But those familiar with the work of Elaine Pagels — and few are not, judging from her commercial success as an author (yet another trait rare among works of serious scholarship) — have discovered that these unexpected pleasures are to be expected in everything she writes. And Pagels’s most recent bestseller, BEYOND BELIEF: THE SECRET GOSPEL OF THOMAS (Random House, 2003), is more of the same. The combination of such an erudite mind and such engaging prose makes her arguments for the virtues of the Gospel of Thomas almost irresistible. Almost.

Pagels’s advocacy for Thomas as a source for early Christianity and a resource for contemporary spirituality is appealing. But the gap between her interpretation of Thomas as a guide to contemporary seekers and the text of the Gospel of Thomas itself requires too great a leap of faith based on what Thomas has to offer. We have good reasons for doubting Thomas.

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine PagelsPagels sees the Gospel of Thomas and other apocryphal Christian literature as shut out of the ecclesiastical smoke-filled room that foisted the canon upon early Christianity. But the formation of the canon was a complex process that started long before the Council of Nicea in 325. The canon lists of the fourth century — and there were several different though similar canon lists in existence by that time — reflected to a great extent literature that had been on the reading list of churches throughout the Roman Empire for centuries. This was so even among the Gnostics; when they wrote commentaries, canonical scriptures were their texts of choice. The canon invariably provided the grist for their exceedingly fine-grinding exegetical mills. Apocryphal texts, Gnostic or otherwise, riff on the texts that we have come to call canonical and upon which all Christian literary cachet depends.

Biblical texts were the common ground of the Gnostics and the orthodox, even though the partisans often did not recognize them as such. The arch-orthodox Irenaeus claimed that the Gospel of John declares the divinity of Jesus. On this he agreed wholeheartedly with his Gnostic nemesis Valentinus. Together the two affirmed the importance of the Gospel of John, as did the apocalyptic Montanists, who were otherwise so different from both the orthodox and the Gnostics.

According to Pagels’s reconstruction of the first four centuries of the Common Era, the bishops voted Thomas out and John in because the latter better served orthodoxy. That “official version” is represented in the Gospel of John which, on Pagels’s reading, marshals a theology that intentionally contradicts the Gospel of Thomas: “what [the Gospel of] John opposed … includes what the Gospel of Thomas teaches.” Whereas “the Gospel of John helped provide a foundation for a unified church… Thomas, with its emphasis on each person’s search for God, did not.”

But the Council of Nicea had little to do with the Bible, and the text of John was superfluous to the proceedings. Pagels herself reminds us that some of the bishops at Nicea were troubled because the proposed language of the Nicean Creed was not biblical. Even the Nicean definition of Jesus as “begotten not made” has no real relation to the description of him as “the only begotten” in the Gospel of John. (This latter phrase is a holdover from the Old Testament, where it means “beloved.” God uses it in his conversation with Abraham to describe Isaac, who certainly was not Abraham’s only son.) And as Pagels also points out, in several places the Gospel of John seems to flatly contradict the other three canonical gospels; it was apparently unknown to the early church fathers Ignatius, Polycarp and Justin Martyr, and John had been associated with heretics. Not a compelling pedigree for a text pressed into service as a rallying point for ancient orthodoxy.

But the ultimate purpose of the genealogy of Christian orthodoxy in BEYOND BELIEF is to buttress Pagels’s claim that orthodox Christianity has stolen from us an authentic, first-century Christian spirituality to which the Gospel of Thomas bears witness. This alternative collection of sayings in effect gives us another Jesus, and Pagels says as much. The Nag Hammadi texts “revealed diversity within the Christian movement that later ‘official’ versions of Christianity had suppressed.” Pagels writes of her surprise at finding “unexpected spiritual power” in the sayings from Thomas that call for a personal, inner-directed quest for the divine. The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas “does not tell us what to believe but challenges us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves.” “I realized,” Pagels goes on to comment, “that this perspective seemed to me self-evidently true.”

Pagels speculates that some Egyptian monks placed Thomas and the other Nag Hammadi texts in a six-foot cylindrical jar to save them from the wrath of the orthodox book burners. The jar served as an earthen time capsule for the ancient texts until an Egyptian shepherd discovered them almost sixteen centuries later.

Reading Thomas now, it is easy to see why it might have been a favorite in the monastery. Thomas is shot through with a curmudgeonly, monastic sensibility. Its sayings badmouth weddings, marriage and sex. The phrase “a single one” in Thomas translates from the original Coptic the Greek loan-word monachos — “monk.” The word appears in two other sayings in Thomas. One of them has Jesus say, “There are many standing at the door, but only those who are solitary (literally, “those who are monks”) will enter the bridal chamber.” A monk in the newlywed suite: the austerity here is almost morose, the imagery of a true libido wet blanket. Thomas’s Jesus comes off as a Gnostic killjoy.

Thomas has a healthy monastic disdain for wealth and the wealthy. Those who are well dressed, i.e., well heeled, are incapable of knowing truth. Rich people are fools, and Thomas agrees with the book of Proverbs and Mario Puzo that fools die. Thomas forbids interest and speculation, detests merchants, and warns that businessmen will not enter “the Kingdom of the Father.” Would-be Thomas Christians working on Wall Street? Don’t even think about it.

And just as any celibate ascetic, Thomas has no use for women. The concluding saying of the Gospel of Thomas is cold comfort for feminist seekers: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, I shall guide her and make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven’.” The text leaves undetermined who this “Mary” is. Mary the mother of Jesus, perhaps? Or Mary Magdalene? Or some other Mary? According to the words of “the living Jesus,” however, it doesn’t matter. Whoever they are, women who aspire to Thomas’s version of enlightenment must undergo, at the hands of Jesus, a Gnostic sex change operation.

Like some early Egyptian monks who fled society to wander in deserted places, the Gospel of Thomas is big on bowling alone. The following enigmatic saying is one of several in Thomas that tout the superiority of the single life: “Jesus said, ‘Where there are three deities, they are divine. Where there are two or one, I am with that one.” The text here may be corrupt: nevertheless it seems to echo a saying in the Gospel of Matthew, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Thomas’s version of the saying serves notice on Matthew’s chummy spirituality.

In the opening chapter of BEYOND BELIEF, Pagels recalls her reacquaintance with her own faith on a walk-in visit to the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York. “From the beginning, what attracted outsiders who walked into a gathering of Christians, as I did on that February morning, was the presence of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family.” It is very hard to imagine the writer of the Gospel of Thomas being attracted to what Pagels found at the church that day. He makes a point of inveighing against just such fraternizing. Pagels’s translation of another saying, paralleled in both Matthew 9:37-38 and Luke 10:2, sharpens the point: “Jesus said, ‘The harvest is great but the workers are few, so ask the master of the harvest to send workers to the fields’.” But the later clause literally says, “So ask the master of the harvest to send a worker to the fields.” The singular, in view of Thomas’s predilection for singulars, is not an unimportant detail; one worker will do. For the Gospel of Thomas, two’s a crowd.

The greatest problem for Pagels’s endorsement of Thomas, however, is what its sayings do not say. Early in her book she speaks of her admiration for Christian communities as places where people stand in solidarity against that last of natural shocks that flesh is heir to — death. Recalling her first visit to the Church of the Heavenly Rest, where she began to revisit her own faith, she writes, “Here is a family that knows how to face death.” Pagels writes movingly of the support she received at the church during the illness and sudden death of her six-year-old son. There she found a fellowship in which “those who participate weave the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection into their own lives,” a story that “simultaneously acknowledges the reality of fear, grief, and death while — paradoxically — nurturing hope.”

But that story is missing in Thomas. It is a gospel without the Passion; it offers a way of discipleship without a via dolorosa. There is nothing about resurrection, either of Jesus or anyone else. The “living Jesus” of Thomas speaks of suffering and death quite, well, dispassionately. The gospel presents “the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke,” and there is no suggestion that Jesus has or will “taste death,” as Thomas puts it. So too for those who understand his sayings: “And he [Jesus] said, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death’.” Thomas understands death not as a problem of humanity but as a challenge of hermeneutics.

Thomas shares detachment from death with other Nag Hammadi texts. In passing Pagels discusses the Gospel of Truth, which discourages believers from seeing Jesus “nailed on a cross” but instead recommends that they visualize him as “fruit” on the tree of knowledge in Paradise that imparts wisdom to those who eat it. The writer transforms the grim reminiscence of Jesus’ violent death into an allegory of enlightenment.

Another Nag Hammadi document that Pagels cites with approval, the Apocalypse of Peter, depicts Jesus “glad and laughing on the cross.” This is Gnostic spin control on what the Apostle Paul called the scandal of the cross — the savior of the world publicly tortured to death, the son of God nailed naked on a crude wooden gibbet. In their tacit flight from human suffering, these texts have drained the Crucifixion of its blood.

Pagels concludes her book by damning the orthodox, ancient and modern, with faint praise so suavely written that we might overlook its condescension:

How can we tell the truth from lies? What is genuine, and thus connects us with one another and with reality, and what is shallow, self-serving, and evil? Anyone who has seen foolishness, sentimentality, delusion, and murderous rage disguised as God’s truth knows that there is no easy answer to the problem that the ancients called discernment of spirits. Orthodoxy tends to distrust our capacity to make such discriminations and insists on making them for us. Given the notorious human capacity for self-deception, we can, to an extent, thank the church for this. Many of us, wishing to be spared hard work, gladly accept what tradition teaches.

But it is the unorthodox traditions of Nag Hammadi that taught that death is ultimately a language game, that the cross was more like apple picking than agony, and that the Crucifixion could be a laughing matter. And the orthodox, with all their shortcomings, would have none of it. It was the orthodox who insisted on doing the existential heavy lifting that a cross-bearing gospel demands — truly hard work.

It’s ironic. With poignancy Pagels has shown her readers that she herself is deeply touched by and deeply in touch with our common mortality — that touchstone of the best of Christian spirituality — more deeply than anything we read in the Gospel of Thomas.

Allen D. Callahan is a biblical scholar and the author of the forthcoming book THE SPIRITUAL GOSPEL.