Internationally and deservedly famous for her 1979 survey of Christian apocryphal literature The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels introduced a new generation of students and general readers to the field. In Beyond Belief she offers a more focused if in some respects less comprehensive study suitable for the same audience. Not unexpectedly, it reached the heights of bestsellerdom in both hard and paper covers soon after publication.
Well known in scriptural circles for her work on the team who translated the Nag Hammadi Library into English, Pagels has published four other books on the subject of early Christian belief: Adam, Eve, and the Serpent; The Johannine Gospels in Gnostic Exegesis; The Gnostic Paul; and The Origin of Satan; in addition to numerous scholarly articles. She has received the National Book Award, the MacArthur Prize, and awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.
At least in the popular eye, Pagels has made the field of gnostic literature her own. It is hardly surprising that she would turn her attention to what is arguably the best known of many contenders. The subtitle of her book, "The Secret Gospel of Thomas," is somewhat misleading, however, for the Gospel of Thomas (Marvin Meyer's translation, which is conveniently appended) is focal in only the second chapter. The real burden of her discussion is the formation of the Canon of Scripture in the third and fourth centuries.
An intensely personal introductory chapter outlines Pagels itinerary from na´ve evangelicalism to disbelief and her return to a more liberal Christian faith followed by a brief survey of very early Christian writings. The next three chapters are largely drawn from previously published articles in specialist journals. Chapter Two contrasts the Gospel of Thomas with the four canonical gospels, particularly John. The next two chapters similarly adumbrate previous articles centering on the formation of the Canon of Scripture, especially the roles played by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Athanasius. Finally, Pagels returns to her personal odyssey to frame an evaluation of the fixing of the canon in the Constantinian era. Extensive references, an excellent index, and the new translation of the Gospel of Thomas by Meyer valuably round out the volume.
Those unfamiliar with the growing body of critical literature on Christian apocrypha and gnosticism will find Pagels' summaries probing and generally well-documented. A closer reading of the Gospel of Thomas (and greater familiarity with the literature in the field) may lead others to conclude that some of Pagels' assertions and conclusions are inclined toward the tendentious. Her personal suspicion of "orthodoxy" and favorable attitude toward "alternate" forms of Christian belief seem to guide much of her exposition.
Known before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in 1945-6 only from Greek fragments written perhaps in 150 CE, the fourth-century Coptic translation of Gospel of Thomas is a more or less random compilation of sayings attributed to Jesus, possibly based on the Q document, about half of which parallel or at least resemble sayings in the canonical gospels. Biblical scholars have for some time conceded that some of the non-canonical logia in the GT may be authentic. Given that one of the most memorable of Jesus' aphorisms (Acts 20:35b) is not found in any of the canonical gospels, this in itself is not especially shocking. The rub lies in sifting the authentic from the spurious sayings. Needless to say, a wide range of opinions exists. Pagels stands among interpreters who incline toward a more generous judgment and argues that GT represents beliefs fairly widely accepted among educated and spiritually sensitive Christians of the second and third centuries commonly known (and often reviled) by "orthodox" Christian writers of the period as gnostics.
Pitting the Gospels of John and Thomas against each other in a sort of textual duel is not only unwarranted, however, but misleading. While three or four of the logia in GT display a Johannine aura, the bulk of the sayings having gospel parallels or allusions point to the synoptics, particularly Luke and Matthew. Further, Pagels' reading of John often seems forced. John never describes Jesus (docetically) as "God himself in human form," nor claims that "humankind has no innate capacity to know God" (p. 67). To claim that John "probably knew what the Gospel of Thomas taught" is at best ambiguous and improbable on the face of it. It is far more likely that the author(s) of GT had some acquaintance with the Gospel of John or Johannine oral tradition.
In any case, GT resembles the canonical gospels only in consisting of teachings ascribed to Jesus. Narrative is almost wholly lacking. It contains no information about the life of Jesus, such as the passion, death and resurrection accounts, much less the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. Also lacking are the interpretative passages so characteristic of John.
Quibbles aside, in Beyond Belief Pagels has provided a valuable and frequently captivating account of the formation of the Canon of Scripture out of the welter of competing interpretations of the teachings of Jesus which can serve as a corrective to a monoptical vision that misinformed her early instruction and that of many of the rest of us. Above all, Pagels reminds us vividly that early Christianity was a diverse even contentious conglomerate of sometimes rival communities out of which emerged a wide range of memories, traditions, and eventual scriptures. As an introductory undergraduate or adult education text, Beyond Belief could be immensely useful.