Beyond Credibility: A Critical Review of Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief [1]

By Sophia De Morgan

Are the Gnostic Gospels valuable resources that tell us secret things about Jesus that were repressed by the Church?

Elaine Pagels is a Distinguished Professor of Religion at Princeton and says "Yes!" in her best selling book Beyond Belief. But how sound is her thesis?

T he opening paragraphs of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, give Pagels’ audience a piercing glimpse of her painful struggle with the illness and death of her son. She tells us that, at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, in the embrace of Christians, she finds comfort in Christian love, but not in the Christian creed. The title of the first chapter, “From the Feast of Agape to the Nicene Creed,” defines her problem with Christianity: the tension between the things she loves about the Christian faith, such as its compassion and charity, and the things she “cannot love,” namely, its orthodoxy and “exclusivity.” Pagels believes that the Gnostic Gospels, specifically the Gospel of Thomas, provide a way out of her dilemma.

One of the sayings attributed to Jesus by the author of the Gospel of Thomas asserts that “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” [2] As anyone familiar with the Bible will immediately perceive, this saying is radically different from the message presented in the New Testament—the message of salvation through Christ alone (i.e. the message that Pagels finds so unacceptable). Pagels accuses the Gospel of John of injecting this element of exclusivity into the Christian tradition, and she makes the astonishing claim that the Gospel of John was written as a polemic against the Gospel of Thomas. Interestingly, Pagels begins her analysis of the conflict between the Gospel of Thomas and the orthodox Gospel of John by pointing out their similarities. For example, she asserts that both Gospels assume that the reader is already familiar with the basic story given in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and she claims that both John and Thomas go beyond this story to disclose Jesus’ secret teachings to the disciples. [3] Pagels notes, however, that differences arise when one examines the content of these private teachings. Thomas tells us to look within to discover divinity; John tells us to look to Christ as the only way to God.

This difference is one of Pagels’ main evidences that John was written to challenge Thomas. Unfortunately for Pagels, this argument is like a white Knight that instantly turns black and puts the white King in check. That is, one could easily make the opposite claim: Thomas is so antithetical to John because Thomas was written to contradict John. Moreover, this latter scenario is even more plausible since John is wholly consistent with the teachings of the other books of the New Testament, whereas Thomas, except when it plagiarizes the canonical Gospels, is certainly not.

The next proof Pagels offers to support her theory of “John vs. Thomas” is that John is the only gospel to present a negative image of Thomas. She assumes, for instance, that John “invented the character we call Doubting Thomas” (p. 58). But this reasoning, too, is problematic. Immediately following John 14:6 (one of the verses Pagels uses to illustrate John’s “negative” portrayal of Thomas) Jesus also chastises Philip, saying, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?” If Pagels’ logic is sound, then John’s portrayal of Philip’s density is evidence that John was written as a polemic against the Gnostic Gospel of Philip (c. late second to early fourth century AD). John is also the only gospel writer who says that Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for a gardener.[4] How embarrassing for her! Perhaps this is evidence that John was written against the Gospel of Mary. And what are we to make of the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus in John Chapter 3? After Nicodemus reacts to Jesus’ statements with incredulity, Jesus responds with equal wonder that Nicodemus, being a teacher of Israel, could be so obtuse. Thus, John must have been written against the Gospel of Nicodemus. Further, if Pagels’ reasoning is correct, Nathanael’s cynical remark in John 1 (“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”) may force us to posit the existence of a Gospel of Nathanael. Of course, Pagels’ analysis is flawed. First, her reasoning here is a classic case of non sequitur; she never establishes a causal link between the supposed negative images of Thomas in John’s Gospel and her theory that John was written to contradict the teachings of the (allegedly) earlier Gospel of Thomas. Second, the majority of scholars agree that the Gospel of John predates the Gospel of Thomas.

In Chapters Three, Four, and Five, Pagels attempts to resurrect her old arguments from her book The Gnostic Gospels to explain why John and the rest of the New Testament writings won out over Gnostic texts like Thomas; nevertheless, these arguments lack the freshness they had in 1979. She again indicts the early Church fathers, Irenaeus and Tertullian, as the chief architects of Christian orthodoxy and the ones most directly responsible for depriving Christianity of Gnostic influences. I’ve addressed the flaws in her argumentation in greater depth in my review of The Gnostic Gospels. Suffice it to say, she grossly oversimplifies matters, leaves out quite a bit of relevant information, and fails to make the crucial connections that would validate her arguments.

While Pagels’ writing occasionally has moments of tender beauty, particularly when referring to her personal experiences, it tends for the most part to lack any real structure. Her chapters are peppered with unwarranted jabs at orthodox Christianity and salted with inconsistent reasoning. But what I find most disappointing in 'Beyond Belief' is not its flawed logic, which is present throughout, but rather her frequently misleading, or at least extremely biased, representation of the facts. [5] Pagels is too quick to look for a way out of the doctrines she “cannot love,” but as one who isn’t afraid to list her scholarly credentials and accolades, Pagels should hold herself to a higher standard of accuracy and, dare I say, integrity.

In her closing paragraphs, Pagels writes, “Many of us, wishing to be spared hard work, gladly accept what tradition teaches … Most of us, sooner or later, find that, at critical points in our lives, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists.” [6] I agree that there are individual journeys, but the starting point toward Heaven begins with what we know and trust. In orthodox Christianity, there is no incongruity between the foundations of tradition or history and individualized experiences of God. To truly go “beyond belief,” one need not reject traditional Christian beliefs in favor of the unbelievable; rather, one simply needs to be transformed by what one believes. The Gospel of John gives us insight into the connection between truth and transformation when Jesus says that “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (4:23). So, while Pagels seems to think that declaring “I believe” somehow thwarts spiritual enlightenment, Jesus clearly teaches that worship must be both spiritual and based on truth. John himself binds the conviction of Christ as Risen Lord to the responsibility that this belief places upon us in 1 John 3:23: “And this is His command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as He commanded us.” Christianity has always called us to go “beyond belief,” but this doesn’t mean that belief is of little importance. On the contrary, orthodox belief is foundational to the Christian life—the life of love to which we are called by the One who is Love.

[1] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Vintage Books, 2003).
[2] Gospel of Thomas, 70.
[3] This is misleading, since John actually presents a continuous narrative, whereas Thomas is merely a motley collection of Jesus’ “secret teachings.”
[4] John 20:15. All scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
[5] E.g. her exaggerations of similarities between John and Thomas, her claims of contradictions in the Gospels which are not in the text, and her declaration that John represents the evolution of a higher Christology while later admitting that Paul declares Christ’s divinity much earlier.
[6] See pp. 184-185.