Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas
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Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

3.89 of 5 stars 3.89  ·  rating details  ·  3,236 ratings  ·  146 reviews
Pagels, an important writer & thinker on religion & history, winner of the National Book Award for her The Gnostic Gospels, reflects on what matters most about spiritual & religious exploration in the 21st century. This book explores how Christianity began by tracing its earliest texts, including the Gospel of Thomas, rediscovered in Egypt in 1945.
When her inf...more
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published May 6th 2003 by Random House (NYC) (first published 2003)
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Lee Harmon
Pagels is a recognized scholar of religion, and the author of The Gnostic Gospels, among others. This book might be her best.

Don't buy this expecting a dull, scholarly exposition on the Gospel of Thomas. It's hardly that. It's sort of an unobtrusive evangelism for unorthodox Christianity, a plea for the kind of "religious truth" that can never hide behind a stale set of doctrine.

Pagels bares her soul in this book, and her passion for spirituality, religion and Christianity shines. The result is...more
I used this for my MA thesis. It's very smoothly and interestingly written--engaging, really--and contains a great deal of interesting information on the foundations of Christianity and, especially, how early church leaders strove to overpower one another and promote their own view of Jesus. Focus on is the "lost" Gospel of Thomas, part of the Nag Hamadi library--theory is that church leaders who came to power tried to destroy evidence of this report of Jesus' teachings that centered more on Gno...more
The book compares the outlook of the apostle Thomas with the writings that became the book of John. His outlook is that God is within all of us and Jesus told us to find the way to heaven. Even that all people have the spirit of God within us and need to come to Gnosis ( a mutual knowing or understanding of one another with God) through meditation, introspection and study. My main complaint is that very little of the book actually discusses what Thomas' teachings are. Mostly, the book focuses on...more
Randy White
While I enjoyed "Beyond Belief", both the content and Dr. Pagels's writing style, I was somewhat disappointed in the lack of analysis of the Gospel of Thomas. Dr. Pagels presents decent analysis of the Gnostic movement, and places the Gospel of John within the Gnostic context, yet fails to deliver much on the Gospel of Thomas. I enjoyed her personal story and how she believes that there is more than one way to discover God, but again this book is supposed to be about the Gospel of Thomas (or so...more
Elaine is wonderful and I began enjoying her work as a student. I think her book on the Gnostic Gospels in general is intelligent and accessible yet this particular work ( though I stand by my 5 star rating) is, at times, redundant. This is an endlessly fascinating subject for me and I trust Pagels knowledge base and motives. Good book.
This book was used as a study book for a Tuesday morning discussion group. While it's subtitle is the Secret Gospel of Thomas (and the text of the complete Gospel of Thomas is printed in the back, we found it to be more of a history of the development of the early Christian Church. In 1945 a stone jar was found at Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt containing other writings from the beginning of the Christian era. These texts had been hidden when they had been ordered to be destroyed. Elaine Pagels step...more
Lisa Louie
While I'm a little disappointed that Beyond Belief is not the book I was hoping it would be, the book's argument builds steadily to a satisfying plateau of understanding, namely that the social and political upheaval that dominated the first two centuries after Jesus' life and death motivated the likes of church father Irenaeus to unify the church under one set of beliefs and practice, and simultaneously to squelch the diversity of beliefs about God and Jesus that abounded in the early church.

Heather Sinclair Shaw
Jun 05, 2012 Heather Sinclair Shaw rated it 3 of 5 stars Recommends it for: practicing or disaffected Christians, anyone interested in the origins of Christian doctrine
You don't have to agree with everything Elaine Pagels says to love her. This book combines scholarly research with a personal vulnerability that is very disarming, and I found myself engaged with the book on a personal level that I did not expect.

That said, I was troubled by Pagels' tendency to equate mysticism and gnosticism, and I think this is problematic to her argument. I would loosely define mysticism as a belief in man's capacity to commune with God on a personal level, to recognize God...more
First and foremost I think Elaine Pagels writes nicely. She gives her work a nice tone and it flows easily. This book itself seems to contrast an apparently ancient work, the Gospel of Thomas, to one of the main works in the Four Formed Gospel, John. The Gospel of Thomas was discovered with some other works hid away in a field in the town of Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt. Apparently these works which oppose orthodox Christianity were hid there to preserve them from being destroyed. Pagels herself w...more
Beyond Belief has been a formative book for me. (This is the third time I’ve read it.) In a nutshell, the New Testament is the end result of a protracted and often bitter media war. Two thousand years ago those arguing for one belief over another used the same techniques of persuasion that we see today. Case in point. Only is the Gospel of John is there a character named Doubting Thomas. Johannine Christians believed very different things than their contemporaries and rivals, the Thomas Christia...more
David Withun
To be blunt, this was far and away the worst book I've yet read (and I've read quite a few) on early Christianity. Pagels does everything in her power to portray St. Irenaeus of Lyons, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, and the other great Church Fathers in as bad a light as possible, even lying, twisting the truth, and covering up facts. At the same time she slanders the Fathers of the Church, she equally attempts to redeem the Gnostics, portraying them as "spiritual seekers" and innocent victims of...more
I thought the book was going to be about the Gospel of Thomas, but it is really an overview of early Christianity tied in with Elaine Pagels personal search for something to make sense of the world.

Written in plain language, it covers a lot of territory and shows how the beliefs of some groups were crowded out of orthodox Christianity. As always, the most ruthless win.

The main investigation of the book is how to tell the difference between divinely inspired texts and those that are human imagina...more
The book compares the gospel of John with the gnostic gospel of Thomas. Both follow a similar timeline - different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. John's emphasis is on communing to God through Jesus Christ. Thomas has more of a Buddhist approach - looking for God inside yourself.

The theological aspects aren't nearly as interesting as the political ones. In compiling the bible, the "editor" (in the form of Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon) was the one who decided which books to include, and which to leave o...more
Yes, there is a discussion of the Gospel of Thomas; yes, there is a little about the author's struggle to find her own faith; there's even a compact overview of the first millenium of Christianity. What this book is concerned with mostly is the internecine war for dominance between the proponents of the Gospel of John and the proponents of every other Gospel. This book dissects and examines the history of that war and demonstrates how the results of this war shaped, and continues to shape, the C...more
Like some of Bart Ehrman's books, Pagels deals extensively with conflicts among early Christian sects and how the Bible ended up being what it is today. The Gospel of Thomas is one among many others that didn't make the cut and we wouldn't know of it today except that it was hidden for 1600 years with other gnostic gospels at Nag Hammadi. There was not as much detail about the Gospel of Thomas as I had expected. Pagels compares it to the Gospel of John which states that belief in Jesus is the on...more
After reading Picoult's Change of Heart, I was given this book as a Mom's Day gift. I enjoyed Pagels' guidance through the debate of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries regarding the life and teachings of Jesus. As a Religion Prof a Princeton, Pagels has studied the debate of those years through not only those gospels included in the Bible but also the hidden 50 books that were not included and that were found in Neg Hammadi in 1945. A fascinating read that is 'healing, good sense, and gives permiss...more
The influence of the gospel of John in shaping early Christianism

The author is a well known scholar of Christian history, and in this book she evaluates the impact of the gospel of John in shaping the beliefs of early Christian faith. Using the historical facts, all available gospels, and political, social and economic factors during second to fourth century, she observes that the major players were bishop Irenaeus of second century living in Gaul, France and Emperor Constantine helped to establ...more
Another interesting book on early Christianity by Elaine Pagels. It is an analysis of the Gospel of John, which apparently was written in response to the Gnostic text, the Gospel of Thomas. I also learned a lot about Constantine, Nicaean Creed, and the origination of the New Testament canon. I can't help but wonder how Christianity would differ had other texts been selected for the New Testament.
"But for those of us who find ourselves implicated in this history, as I do, untangling some of its complex strands has practical consequences as well as intellectual ones. In my own case, 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" (p. 181).

Knowing more about the true diversity of early Christianities, I'm more freely appreciating mystics, innovators, and outsid...more
Sep 20, 2012 Mike added it
I must admit that I was hoping for a more balanced view of this particular (supposed) gospel. Instead what I listened to (an audio version of a talk she presented about her book and a question and answer session) was just more "yea verily" to the Christian view of history in the Middle East 2000 years ago. She did disagree with some scripture scholars who want to push the origin of the book back 20 years from the gospel of Mark; she think it was written closer to when the gospel of John was writ...more
There is a lot here about Irenaeus, a major second-century figure in the establishment of the early Church and its gospels, which were later confirmed at the Council of Nicea (325). There is also very interesting material on Emperor Constantine. I had not known, for example, that his support of the early Church had so pervaded the everyday workings of his empire. In addition to sponsoring the Council of Nicea, Constantine ruled the empire from the perspective of a Christian, issuing numerous edi...more
Elaine Pagles brings us another fascinating take on the other side of early Christian (proto-)orthodoxy of the first few centuries in the year of our Lord (Anno Domini). Fascinating, well researched, and accessible as it is, the title and subtitle are unfortunately misleading misnomers- no doubt as a result of the publishers attempt to make the outside cover more ingratiating to advertising. Instead of being titled: "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas," a more suitable headline would hav...more
A bit repetitive in parts, but it was interesting to learn more about the "apocryphal" gospels (as we were taught they were called), and especially the politics surrounding how gospels became canonized or not. Fairly balanced in trying to portray that while there was a political component, there was also a sincere desire to "organize" the (then) new Christian religion's theology, by Ireneus, Athansius and the other church fathers. Particularly the roles of mystery and self seemed to fall by the...more
Erik Graff
Nov 13, 2011 Erik Graff rated it 4 of 5 stars Recommends it for: Christians
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: religion
During my studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York I became acquainted with Elaine Pagels, initially on a social level as one of my girlfriend's favorite teachers at Barnard College, then as my own teacher for a course entitled "Creation Myths in Genesis" at Union. I wasn't much interested in the course topic, but I was interested in working under the author of The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis, a book which had impressed me while working on my undergraduate thesis on the history...more
Aaron Meyer
This book, although referred to in the title, has only a little bit to do with the Gospel of Thomas. The majority of the book deals with the early church's fight against heresy and the creation of the orthodoxy. I did find the parts concerning the comparison between the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas really fascinating. She proposes that the Gospel of John is actually a rebuttal of the Gospel of Thomas, even though there are many points of comparison between the two, seemingly coming fr...more
Well, I suppose the market for biblical history is small, but for those that are interested, just about anything by Elaine Pagels is a must read. Personally, I find the history of early Christianity, including how the New Testament was put together, profoundly interesting. Pretty much as soon as Christ was crucified (I’m granting, for the purposes of this review, that Jesus was real and was crucified), people all over started taking liberties with the story. You have to remember that there was n...more
Jennifer Stringer
Once I got over the Osama Bin Laden look-alike on the cover, I was able to get into this book. The title of the book is "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas" and that is my biggest beef with the book. Hardly any of it was about Thomas. She did explain the difference between gnostic and traditional study. Of course, like the gospels, the book of Thomas wasn't written by Thomas, but by his students decades later. In reading this book, I saw for the first time how things weren't so black and...more
This book explores how Christianity began by tracing its earliest texts, including the secret Gospel of Thomas, rediscovered in Egypt in 1945. When her infant son was diagnosed with fatal pulmonary hypertension, Elaine Pagels's spiritual and intellectual quest took on a new urgency, leading her to explore historical and archeological sources and to investigate what Jesus and his teachings meant to his followers before the invention of doctrine -- and before the invention of Christianity as we kn...more
Eric Keys
This book raises more questions than it answers and the answers Ms. Pagels does sometimes provide are unsatisfactory and seem provisional at best. Some of this history seemed oversimplified and one-sided, but I suppose when you are dealing with such an emotionally charged area this is not too surprising. Still, the book is worth reading. Sometimes raising a question important in itself.

The deepest question Ms. Pagels asks is a question the Christian Church has struggled with for all of its exist...more
This book had been on my wishlist for a while, as I've always been interested in the "disappeared" books of the Bible. (Well, always... at least as long as I knew such things existed, anyway!) So, when perusing the religion section of the Mecosta library, this title jumped out at me. (Additionally, the rest of their religion section is rather un-challenging, conventional mainstream to right wing Christianity.)

So, I broke my long standing rule to not check out library books (due to my extended hi...more
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Elaine Pagels is a preeminent figure in the theological community whose impressive scholarship has earned her international respect. The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, Pagels was awarded the Rockefeller, Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships in three consecutive years.
As a young researcher at Barnard College, she changed forever the historical landscape of the...more
More about Elaine Pagels...
The Gnostic Gospels The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters

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