One person’s hagiography is another’s heresy, observes biblical scholar Pagels, though that hasn’t stopped generations of Christians from trying to reduce the faith to “a single, authorized set of beliefs.”
God is love, promises the New Testament—and those who don’t believe it are doomed. A mixed message? Well, Pagels observes, the Bible is full of such contradictions, the inevitable product of the many hands that had a part in making the authorized text and its associated creeds. Continuing the project she began nearly a quarter-century ago with The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels examines the first-century Gospel of Thomas, discovered with the Nag Hammadi treasury of early Christian writings, with an eye to showing how a given text comes to be sorted into the “heretical” or “canonical” pile. The case of Thomas is particularly instructive: Thomas’s Christ is a sort of Zen saint who, quite unlike the practical and sometimes impatient messiah of the four approved gospels, answers his disciples’ questions with koans along the lines of, “Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate; for all things are plain in the sight of heaven” and “The Kingdom is inside you, and outside you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will see that it is you who are the children of the living Father.” In stark contrast to this Christ is that of John, whose gospel, Pagels (Religion/Princeton Univ.; The Origin of Satan, 1995, etc.), notes, “directly contradicts the combined testimony of the other New Testament gospels” at critical junctures and was itself considered heretical, not least because it insisted (prematurely, as it happens) that Jesus was “Lord and God.” Yet John made the cut, and Thomas did not. Peeling away accreted layers of doctrine—the triune God, the Athanasian canon—Pagels ventures alternative and sometimes novel readings of biblical history, all with the cumulative effect of questioning the orthodoxy that “tends to distrust our capacity to make . . . discriminations and insists on making them for us.”
A thoughtful and rewarding essay, as we’ve come to expect from Pagels, and sure to arouse fundamentalist ire.