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Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  5,051 Ratings  ·  213 Reviews
Pagels, a writer & thinker on religion & history, winner of the National Book Award for 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 infant son was dia
Hardcover, 1st, 272 pages
Published May 6th 2003 by Random House (NYC) (first published January 1st 2003)
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Long ago but not so far way I bought this book for my father who was interested in reading the Gospel of Thomas. I had read an apocryphal Gospel one day while a student, happily nosing around in the reference section - it related how once when Jesus was a boy he was out playing in the street when some bigger boys came along, stamped on his mud pie and laughed at him. Jesus' eyes at this flashed with anger and those bully boys fell dead. Later their parents went round to Joseph and Mary and compl ...more
Lee Harmon
Sep 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
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
Mar 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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.
David Elkin
Sep 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Pagels is a well know Gnostic writer and this book is one of her better ones. A nice study of a Gospel not found in the Bible
Erik Graff
Aug 16, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 28, 2009 rated it liked it
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
May 03, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 10, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: religion
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
Lisa Louie
Oct 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
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 Shaw
May 09, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Apr 06, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: spiritual-ethics
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
Oct 06, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 06, 2007 rated it liked it
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
Gail Holm
Apr 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is the second time I’ve read Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Reading it with a group this time deepened my understanding. The words, “Beyond Belief,” have significance in more than one way. I think these words mainly refer to early Christians who chose to embrace rituals, myths and perspectives that didn’t have the stamp of approval of church leaders, such as Irenaeus, who were trying to establish orthodoxy. This phrase can be extended to those people who continue to be seekers ...more
Sep 26, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Mar 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 29, 2011 rated it liked it
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
May 16, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Matt Gulenchyn
Jan 25, 2018 rated it liked it
Although I don't agree with Pagels' conclusion about what faith is, (which I know is a massive problem) I thought her exploration of early church history and reading of Nag Hamadi documents really interesting. If you are an evangelical Christian holding to the belief that the canonical gospels are the inspired word of God, then her skeptical historical inquiry can be quite scary. If we take the conception of Jesus presented in the gospel of John to be merely response to "Thomas Christians" of th ...more
Ivy-Mabel Fling
Feb 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book followed on from the 'Gnostic Gospels' and I found it a useful introduction to the controversies and general circumstances that led to the establishing of the scriptural canon. What it is not, is an analysis of the Gospel of Thomas but it does elaborate on the argument in the first book about the role of the gospel of John in the struggle against Thomas-type mysticism. Very interesting.
Brett Williams
Sep 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Pagels remains a champion for truth and an asset to people who want to know it, painting a more complete picture of Jesus and the evolution of Christianity. Many still consider the Gnostic Gospels heresy - derided as such 2000 years ago, suppressed, lost and rediscovered in 1945 outside Nag Hammadi, Egypt. One of those gospels, the Gospel Of Thomas, is Pagels emphasis here. Scholars have dated Thomas to the same time frame as John, the latest (youngest) of the four Gospels. With Mark as the olde ...more
Sean Patrick Brennan
Mar 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
The only things I didn't like about this book were the subtitle and the attached Gospel of Thomas itself. Though the Gospel of Thomas has a few truly awesome quotables, most of it is just a strange collection of disparate ideas, and reads more like annotations someone scribbled in their notebook while reading one of the four canonically approved Gospel accounts.

I'm open to finding new truths and new Gospel accounts from the 20th Century's discovered texts, but Elaine Pagels does something much
Leila Mota
Jan 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Como em 'Zealot', do Dr. Reza Aslan, este livro traz à luz muitos mitos divulgados pelos primeiros cristãos, e que ainda hoje continuam sendo espalhados equivocadamente. Um trecho do livro vem muito ao encontro do que penso sobre a ideia de divindade, e por pensarem dessa forma divergente, muitos cristãos foram considerados heréticos: "essas "pessoas absolutamente tolas e estúpidas" às vezes respondiam que já não acreditavam no Deus a quem ele invocava como um juiz encolerizado, pronto a atirar ...more
Sep 26, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: religion
This is the third book by Elaine Pagels that I have read, and like the others (The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics and The Gnostic Gospels), it was interesting. Yet most of the content here seems familiar, like I've already read most of this before, presumably in her other books.

The title is a bit misleading. More than the Gospel of Thomas is covered here. She also revisits The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Truth, etc. A better title might have been The Gnost
Nov 03, 2015 rated it did not like it
I managed to get through about 35% of the book before simply giving up on finding any worthwhile discussion or analysis. Along about the time she started using her own previous books as footnoted sources for this one I allowed myself to reach the obvious conclusion that her writing was not intended to discuss but was, instead, simply a presentation of, and arguments supporting, her personal beliefs.

The author's personal beliefs are, of course, fine and she is welcome to them ... I simply do not
Arthur George
Apr 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
This was a rewarding read consisting of a combination of the author's scholarly analysis of canonical, Gnostic, and other early Christian writings and her own personal spiritual and life experiences. Based on the book's title, I had expected more of a technical analysis of the Gospel of Thomas, but an analysis of that Gospel took up only part of the book. I found the book to be a bit uneven, with brilliant expositions on some matters and unimportant digressions on others. But the author's elegan ...more
Dec 13, 2009 rated it liked it
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.
Nov 03, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, 2014
I found the personal sections of this book more interesting than the more-scholarly stuff. Perhaps that's just because I've read so much on the Gospel of Thomas, so it didn't seem that interesting or new to me.
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Elaine Pagels is a preeminent figure in the theological community whose scholarship has earned her international respect. The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, she was awarded the Rockefeller, Guggenheim & MacArthur Fellowships in three consecutive years.
As a young researcher at Barnard College, she changed forever the historical landscape of the Christian r
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“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.” 0 likes
“Many of us, wishing to be spared hard work, gladly accept what tradition teaches. But the fact that we have no simple answer does not me that we can evade the question.” 0 likes
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