ELAINE PAGELS opens "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas," her newest book on early Christianity, with a moving account about a rare but fatal illness that afflicted her young son Mark. One morning, just days after hearing the bad news, she ducked into the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City to get out of the rain. As it happened, services were in progress, and Pagels was moved by the soaring harmonies of the choir and clear resonant voice of the priest. "Here is a family," she concluded, "that knows how to face death."
"What is faith?" Pagels pondered. "Certainly not simple assent to the set of beliefs that worshipers in that church recited every week ('We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, . . .')." These often-repeated clauses seem to Pagels "like barely intelligible signals from the surface, heard at the bottom of the sea." And here is where her scholarly quest begins. Moved by the dulcet tones of the liturgy but repelled by the forbidding idiom of the creed, Pagels poses her question: How did Christianity become synonymous with accepting a certain set of beliefs?
The problem began with the act of assembling the New Testament itself. According to Pagels the earliest group of Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the so-called Synoptic Gospels), shared with the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas a more restrained sense of the identity of Jesus. He was not God but simply a great man. This ancient and happy state of affairs was muddled once the Gospel of John was added to the canonical collection and Thomas squeezed out. The result: Jesus, shockingly, is identified as God.
THE AUDACIOUS MOVE of John to call Jesus "God" leads inevitably to a graver error, the restriction of the path of salvation to the way of Christ. Again, the Gospel of Thomas provides us with a more humane alternative: God was not restricted to a single group's hold on the truth. Truth is to be found by looking within oneself.
Early Christian thinkers were threatened by the audacious pluralism of the Gnostic camp and, armed with the Synoptics plus John, they moved to close it down by transforming Christianity into "a single, authorized set of beliefs." As a result, all subsequent religious experience was forced to conform to the straitjacket of orthodoxy.
It is difficult to know how to respond to this remarkable assessment. If the reader gains the impression that Pagels has somewhat dangerously collapsed the historical gap between the first and the twenty-first centuries by making Gnosticism appear like a form of New Age religiosity, the impression would not be wrong. She recounts that once while having tea at a Zen center in San Francisco she treated the local roshi to an account of the Gospel of Thomas. This man exclaimed: "Had I known the Gospel of Thomas, I wouldn't have had to become a Buddhist!" For Pagels, Gnosticism is not a set of beliefs but a path of inner enlightenment. Jesus, like a good Zen master, answers his disciples with a koan whose purpose is to show the believer that "the capacity to discover the truth is within you." Eschewing the need to create a "unified church," the community that formed around the Gospel of Thomas put its emphasis on each person's search for God.
To my ear, this doesn't sound much like ancient Gnosticism, which was actually a highly elitist and esoteric movement. But even more of a problem is Pagels's characterization of the creeds of the Church. Lewis Carroll's line that the White Queen was capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast seems to be Pagels's notion of what is involved in reciting the creed. No doubt this is because she interprets the creed through her own inability to believe it. The book lacks any attempt to engage what the Christian theological tradition has said about the nature of the truth claims enshrined within the creed. One wishes that Pagels had followed the practice of Thomas Aquinas: Before refuting the position of your opponent you ought to represent his position in the strongest possible fashion. (Indeed a book that would have proved an excellent partner is Frances Young's brilliant study of the origin of the rule of faith and its continuing utility, "Virtuoso Theology.")
NICHOLAS LASH, a theologian from Cambridge, wisely cautions us from applying a "container" model of truth to the creed. Rather, the creed is "a path or framework for the interpretation of [Scripture and the world around us]; it is a pattern according to which we learn not only that God creates parentally ("we believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth . . .') but also that to be a creature is to be indwelt, inhabited, by the gift of God's own self." How on earth, Lash asks--echoing the words with which Pagels opens her own book--might we discover that this improbable suggestion is not only plausible but true? Not by any sort of empirical test. To affirm the creed is to dare to live one's life as though the creed were true. To confess belief in God the Father is to set one's life in God's direction. Every morning religious Jews put on tefillin as a symbolic expression of the joyful assumption of the yoke of God's lordship over their lives. For the Christian, the verbalization of the creed is, similarly, a pledge to assume that pattern of life that was laid down by Christ in the Gospels. When St. Augustine was asked what it meant to confess belief in God, his answer was cast in performative language: "It is believing to love, in believing to delight, in believing to walk toward God and be incorporated amongst the limbs or members of his body."
AN IRONIC VALUE of "Beyond Belief" is the window it opens into the motivation of Pagels's historical scholarship. The book itself, like some of her earlier volumes, was not written as a single text. It is a collection of independent essays, assembled to articulate a larger thesis. The editorial work, however, is noticeably weaker than in such past efforts as her 1979 "The Gnostic Gospels." In particular, an enormous contradiction emerges between chapters two and four. In chapter two she makes the most unlikely claim that the author of the Gospel of John knew the Gospel of Thomas and reacted loudly and angrily against it. This claim, which even Pagels acknowledges is speculative, is initially hedged in by qualifications ("John may have met Thomas Christians," "he may have worried that").
But these misgivings give way at the end of the chapter when she asserts that the Gnostic teaching of Thomas was rejected by John. Indeed the bulk of this chapter is organized to show how the vigorous and uncompromising claim of John that Jesus is God led ultimately to the suppression of the more serene and humanistic teaching of Thomas.
But then chapter four opens with the observation--and it is a good one--that the first commentaries on the Gospel of John were composed by the Gnostics themselves. Indeed Origen's commentary on John was at least in part a reaction of the orthodox to the popularity of this Gospel among the Gnostics. How can John be the bête noire of chapter two but also the hero of chapter four? The only unifying factor is Pagels's need to score points against the orthodox. The canons of careful historical scholarship have been replaced by those of a spirited and overreaching polemic.
But things get worse: If Gnosticism is praised in chapter two as countering orthodoxy's claim to be the single true way, in chapter four Pagels notes with approbation the Gnostic writer Ptolemy's claim that his teaching "offers the only unerring way to comprehend reality" (the italics are Pagels). One might also point out that this same Ptolemy fashioned his own version of a "rule of faith" that looks very much like orthodoxy's nascent creeds. The main difference between Ptolemy's formulation and that of the orthodox is that Ptolemy claimed that the God in many parts of the Old Testament is not the God of the New Testament. As Rowan Greer observes, Ptolemy's conclusion implies "the Gnostic denial of the goodness of creation, the continuity of redemption with creation, and the identity of the God of Jesus Christ with the God of the Hebrew Scriptures." The strikingly anti-Jewish nature of the Gnostic doctrine of God, and orthodoxy's vigorous and vocal rejection of that Gnostic claim, is passed over in silence by Pagels.
I HAVE SPENT a fair amount of my own research time reading Gnostic texts, and I must confess that my reaction to them is quite different from Pagels's. Rather than finding a simple exhortation to self-knowledge, I find them to be highly demanding literary artifacts that presume a high level of belief in a very detailed myth about creation. If the White Queen bragged that she could believe six impossible things before breakfast, the Gnostic adepts would need to multiply that by a factor of four, at least. Why Pagels happily swallows this camel while straining out the gnats of the creed is a mystery.
In her desire to explain how the impossible claims of the creed came to hold such a powerful grip over subsequent Christianity, Pagels focuses on the efforts of Irenaeus, the famous bishop of Gaul in the second century, and the conversion of Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth. The combination of the power of the bishop's mitre authorized by the seal of Imperial Rome signaled the demise of all movements that competed with orthodoxy.
Although this anticlerical position will appeal to many modern readers, it is altogether anachronistic to cede such power and authority to the Church in antiquity. Though bishops frequently claimed great power, in reality they possessed little. As Harry Gamble notes, the earliest Church was composed of "numerous and far-flung Christian congregations, large and small, [that] nevertheless retained a sharp awareness of their collective identity as the ecclesia katholike and affirmed their mutual relations through frequent communication." The result was not a highly centralized power structure run by a tiny elite of bishops but rather "a highly reticulated system of local communities that spanned the Mediterranean world but preserved a strong sense of translocal unity and cultivated contacts with each other."
THE QUESTION PAGELS ought to pose, but never does, is why this far-flung, highly decentralized network found the teaching of figures like Irenaeus and Origen so compelling in the absence of a larger power structure to enforce it. The governance of the Christian movement in the second, third, and even fourth centuries cannot be characterized in simplistic top-down terms; much of what now has come to be characterized as "orthodox" emerged from the ground up.
In sum, what we have in Elaine Pagels's "Beyond Belief" is a well-written account of why one educated woman finds herself unable to recite the creeds today--and why the Gnostics, rather than the orthodox early Christians, seem to her closer to the typical feelings of a twenty-first-century college professor.
My own advice to the perspective reader would be to read a precis of the Gnostic myth and recite its cosmology six times before breakfast. If this sits well with you, then proceed deeper. Most, however, will find the challenge beyond belief.
Gary A. Anderson is professor of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.