Book Review: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas – by Elaine Pagels (Random House, 2003)
Elaine Pagels is a very good scholar of early Christianity, Gnosticism, and Judaism. Here she shows the influence of two early Church “fathers,” both bishops, in particular – Irenaeus in the first century, and Athanasius in the fourth century. These two seem to have had the most enduring influence on the development of orthodox Christianity and the harsh exclusion and denunciation as heresy of other versions of Christianity. She also shares some of her own attractions, repulsions, and ambivalence to Christian faith in modern forms. One early attraction to Christianity of people in Roman times was the acceptance of people into the faith and emphasis on charity.
Early Christians did not think of themselves as Christians but as God’s people, as Jews who revered Jesus as a great teacher in the tradition. She explains the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles” aka the Didache, which was written in Syria about ten years before the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. These are essentially Jewish teachings mingled with Jesus’s teachings such as the Sermon on the Mount. Here also the ritual of sharing bread and wine is recounted as a sequel to the baptism rite. She notes that by the time of Paul’s writings, twenty years after Jesus’s death, the idea of the mystical eucharist as Jesus’s flesh and blood became commonplace, the bread his body, the wine his blood. Such an idea, she notes, would likely be shocking to devout Jews, who require the removal of blood for meat to be consumed as kosher. Of course, rituals like the eucharist and baptism were common to several of the pagan mystery religions long before Christianity but oddly Justin Martyr (around 150 CE) declared that these “devils” were merely imitating the Christian rites. There was also the idea of some Christians that Jesus was a human sacrifice, and much like the animal sacrifices, it would be beneficial to eat his flesh (symbolically). Thus Jesus’s capture and execution were made into a sacrificial mythos. Consuming the eucharist in Christianity has the result of forgiveness of sins. According to the Gospel of Mark Jesus’s death served as a Passover Feast with Christ as the Passover Lamb. The other main gospels confirm this, though in differing ways. This is one of many ways the new Christianity sought historical continuity through the earlier Judaic tradition. In the Gospel of John it was said that the admonition of Jesus to eat his flesh and drink his blood was offensive to the Jews so there was argument about it.
There were some other traditions told about the death of Jesus on the cross in more Gnostic terms that were later removed as heretical. One was the Apocalypse of Peter that told that Jesus was “glad and laughing on the cross,” and another heretical text, the Acts of John, which describes Jesus leading the disciples in a mystical chant during a “Round Dance of the Cross.”
Pagels contemplates the attractive aspects of Christianity such as fellowship and sharing of joyous ceremonies but she also notes the requirements to profess a complex set of beliefs about God and Jesus formulated by fourth-century bishops. These beliefs must be accepted to be admitted to the Church. It was not so in the beginning, she notes. Although she likes the inclusivity of early Christianity, she does not like the exclusivity of beliefs it later came to demand and the exclusivity of Christian belief over other belief systems. This is in great contrast to Roman inclusivity despite some Roman tendencies toward excess. Discoveries from the Nag Hammadi library, Gnostic works hidden in Egypt and discovered in the 1940’s, brought to light many of these differences in tolerance of early Christianity compared to later and then orthodox Christianity. There was great diversity of beliefs in the Gnostic texts. A key event, she notes, was enshrining the Gospel of John while denouncing the Gospel of Thomas as heresy. Discovering and studying the Nag Hammadi texts while pursuing a doctorate at Harvard, she found that many of the texts were not obviously heretical to Christian sentiments but encouraged ideas like self-discovery and diversity of spiritual methods. After much study she concluded that the Gospel of John was written to clarify a heated debate about the nature of Jesus and how he should be understood. The Gospel of Thomas seemed to promote self-revelation, or finding God within while the Gospel of John demanded finding God only through Jesus. Belief in the infallibility and exclusive divinity of Jesus is the main point of John. John’s Gospel is apparently quite different in account of the last days of Jesus than those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
The Gospel of Thomas was likely practiced by an early group of Thomas Christians like other early groups. It is thought to have originated in Syria. It included sayings of Jesus, the same as ones in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but also other sayings not known. There are similarities in style and content between John and Thomas, she says, although John seems to have more add-ins, possibly to promote a new view of Jesus as God incarnate. Clearly, they draw on similar sources. In John, Jesus is called God’s “only begotten son” and the “light of all humanity” while in Thomas that light and divinity dwells within all of us. The difference is basically – we are all divine (potentially) vs. only Jesus is divine. To be called a “son of God” meant that Jesus was a human king in Jewish tradition. To a non-Jew that might refer to a more divine status. Jesus, as “son of man” simply means that he was a human being in most cases but also identifies him with prophecies from the Book of Daniel and identifies him with prophet Ezekiel, also called son of man. Indeed, Jesus is form fitted to fulfill many of the roles of messiah in Jewish tradition (since he said he was indeed the messiah) and yet since it is the Jews that betray him, the later compilers, keen on converting non-Jews into their fold, seemed to get it both ways – Jewish belief is not correct as is while Christian belief is correct and carries the power of the Jewish tradition, quite a pilfering one might say. That the Gospel of John was the last of the four gospels (all from about 68-100 CE) shows a transition from Jesus as a wise and inspired human to a divinity, a god. It seems that John and Thomas interpret the sayings of Jesus in different ways. John is more fantastical while Thomas is more pragmatic. It was in John that the miracle story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead occurs.
In John the Kingdom of Heaven is something that one waits for but in Thomas it is already within. Thomas seems to favor “immanent divinity” over “transcendent divinity” and this is indicated by John’s insistence that Jesus is far beyond us. There are indications in the other gospels (Luke) that there were competing doctrines about the exclusiveness of Jesus’s divinity. In Thomas the emphasis was not on belief but inner experience. In that sense it is “gnostic.” I think maybe what was termed heresy by the influential Church fathers who sowed orthodoxy, was any doctrine that advocated experiential self-knowledge (gnosis). Self-knowledge was replaced by belief in the supernatural scenario, ie. the myth. I think that statement represents the main point of this book as well. The dispute between the compilers of John and the compilers of Thomas possibly represents the beginning of this split that the Church fathers later cemented with the help of Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. The self-knowledge approach was more readily associated with then current pagan paradigms of the “mystery religions” so that John may have sought to distinguish his Christianity from them. Pagels notes that John and Thomas are so similar in content and so different in interpretation that she thinks it quite possible that John was written to refute Thomas. It is also possible that John’s characterization of Thomas as “Doubting Thomas” is a part of that refutation. Biblical stories, she notes, suggest rivalries among the apostles as well as among the compilers of the gospels. John may even have been charged with blasphemy for over-deifying Jesus. The worst and ugliest part of Christian faith for me is the insistence (mainly from John) that not believing in Jesus as the supreme and sole divinity will condemn one to hell and eternal damnation. Such a ruse is utterly ridiculous, and yet it has been adopted by millions or perhaps billions! Indeed, in the Doubting Thomas stories in John, they are all about Thomas being wrong and John’s new belief-based Jesus-as-God scenario being right. Thus was born the paradigm of “salvation through belief.” Many who read the newly resurfaced Gospel of Thomas today simply conclude it is heretical because it was wrong as it contradicted the Gospel of John. But it should be considered most likely that there were rival ideas and John’s won out.
In order to discourage the experiencing of divinity through self-knowledge, the subjective mystical gnosis, it also became necessary to curb “revelation.” Hebrew tradition has a long history of prophecy which is more or less synonymous with revelation. It was simply a method of contacting divine knowledge through inspiration, psychic events, and mystical experiences. One might see it as New Age-style insight with the observation that if it became too common there might be too much diversity, too many competing doctrines. That may not have been the problem in Hebrew tradition, although there are instances where it could have been, but it does seem to have become an issue in early Christian times. One aspect of prophecy involves identifying oneself with God as his servant/interpreter but not identifying oneself as God. In Judeo-Christian and Islamic contexts the God within is taboo and the God without is proclaimed as absolute.
According to tradition the creeds and doctrines that survived the Gnostic and heretical purges are said to be correct. According to Tertullian the Roman pagans accused the early Christians (circa 190 CE) of all sorts of hideous and heinous crimes much like witches and Satanists were accused later. One thing they were accused of was worshipping a man as a god. Justin Martyr in Rome was killed for meeting to discuss Christian philosophy. Christians were considered exotic and dangerous at the time in Rome. Their myths were seen as strange and eerie. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, and his teacher Polycarp also experienced oppression. They had a hope for a universal unified Christianity with less diverse beliefs. Others tried to compile the various beliefs as well but Irenaeus was the most successful. His teacher Polycarp was said to be taught by John, disciple of Christ, so one can see a continuing lineage of from the John branch of Christianity. It was Irenaeus who sanctified the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as the core of the doctrine.
In the rural towns of Asia Minor there developed revelatory branches of Christianity, perhaps influenced by other pagan cults. Many males and females experienced Christ through gnosis. This came to trouble Irenaeus, as some of the revelations could contradict Christian doctrine as he saw it. Of course, the life of Jesus was filled with dreams and visions. Paul (Saul of Tarsus) counted himself as an apostle of Christ having never met him – just based on his visions, according to the Gospel of Luke – so those particularly earlier revelations became part of doctrine. Apparently, many Christians, then and now, also believe John, as the writer of the Gospel of John, was also the same John (of Patmos), who later wrote the Book of Revelations, while imprisoned on the island. That book of highly detailed and impassioned visions also made it into the orthodoxy. Revelation/prophecy was clearly a part of the tradition but it could dilute and pollute the doctrine so at some point revelatory works were scrutinized to make sure they did not refute official doctrine. Gaius in Rome, proclaimed an end to the “apocalyptic age,” an end to the age of prophets. The same would be said in Jewish and later Islamic tradition. The Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mystics to come would all be subject to such scrutinizing and had to be careful about what they said about their visions. Oddly enough, Irenaeus also disagreed with those that said visions were symbolic rather than literal. He said miracles do indeed occur and are often the basis of belief, but only the visions sanctioned by the up and coming orthodoxy. There was a prophetic teacher named Marcus who Irenaeus worked hard to devaluate and expose as a fraud, calling him a “herald of Antichrist’ and so the tradition of persecution by demonization was sanctioned in the new Church, a technique that was to eventually to holy wars to convert non-believers and witch burnings.
Pagels notes that it was the hidden texts discovered at Nag Hammadi and other “Gnostic” works that attest to a pre-orthodox form of Christianity that was based more on subjective gnosis than on official doctrine and belief. Now we can read those writings that were banned and we can understand why they were banned. Unity of the oppressed movement was a motive. Orthodoxy has obvious advantages for making a wider movement more spread out geographically – as interest in Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire.
Some Jewish ascetics in Egypt called the Therapeutae would use ecstatic techniques: celibacy, fasting, song, and prayer to commune with the divine and the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that Essene groups used similar methods. Prophecy remained a big part of Jewish mysticism with the hekalot texts and the Merkaba literature. Usually, these works revolved around previous prophecies such as those of Enoch, Isaiah, and Ezekiel but one could partake of the ecstatic. Most of the apostles of Christ also had mystical visions of various sorts. Describing one’s visions was apparently common at the time. According to the Gospel of Mary Magdalene the apostles Peter and Andrew denounced the visions of others. Mary Magdalene says she saw a vision of Jesus that day and asked him how visions work. He said they are seen not through the soul or the spirit but through the mind between the two. Peter and Andrew were skeptical of Mary’s vision, calling it full of “strange ideas.”
Jesus was molded to be the fulfillment of several Jewish prophecies, mostly as the messiah. Such “proof from prophecy” is of course political though believers like Justin Martyr could portray it well. Many biblical scholars have found misleading translations being propagated as miracles and prophecy fulfillment. This shows that they practice associating past events to build the doctrinal authority. Irenaeus compiled much of current Christian orthodoxy, keeping the four gospels by direct apostles or compiled from the words of direct apostles. He was instrumental in removing many of the “illegitimate” writings, many of those that utilized and sanctioned experiencing divinity through revelatory knowledge. Thus was codified, ‘the apostolic tradition,’ where all experiences would have to be judged by how they conform to the orthodoxy. Later famed mystics like Teresa of Avilla, John of the Cross, and Hildegard von Bingen would have to make sure their visions molded to the doctrine, although they certainly had some license to veer depending on the circumstances of their particular place and time.
Indeed, it could be said that the Gospel of John was enshrined as the archetypal mystical experience. However, Irenaeus may not have been aware of other interpretations of John among the so-called Gnostic sects. Valentinus was one such teacher, who apparently had a different interpretation of John than Irenaeus. Valentinus taught an early form of Christianity before the official canon was established focusing on the sayings of Jesus and Paul’s letters. His student Heracleon wrote a commentary on John. What Irenaeus did, says Pagels, is to convince the other Christian groups that his interpretation of John was correct. He spoke against the type of exegesis that was “current among Greek philosophers” such as the Stoics and readings of Homer said to be understood allegorically. Irenaeus wanted his “canon of truth” to be understood literally. He called other interpretations incoherent. Valentinus’s Gospel of Truth and other Valentinian texts, while having many kind-hearted aphorisms also utilized gnostic methodologies such as the Round Dance of the Cross said to be taught in John as a way of worship that Jesus taught at the Last Supper. In John’s main account Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and such a tradition continues today where the pope washes the feet of his cardinals and even the Mormon elders get their feet washed. In the Valentinian account, from the 2nd century collection, the Acts of John, they all gather in a circle, hold hands, and sing hymns as the disciples circled Jesus. The Valentinians utilized the round dance in their Eucharistic rite and promoted experiencing and understanding Jesus in different ways, something that became taboo in later orthodoxy.
Another influential text that drew the ire of Irenaeus was The Secret Book of John. Here Jesus says,
“I am the Father; I am the Mother; and I am the Son.”
Holy Spirit was emphasized then as feminine – Mother. Among the banned Gnostic texts was seemingly any that showed feminine aspects of the divine. Jesus also noted that God was beyond image. The Secret Book of John and a commentary on John both referred to a kind of creation story or cosmogenesis where there were eight original emanations of the divine (ogdoad) similar to the kabbalistic sephera. Irenaeus saw such an interpretation as nonsense and in his massive five-volume Refutation and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge he demanded belief in one creator God, one Son of God, incarnate for our salvation through a journey of virgin birth, suffering, resurrection, and ascent to heaven.
According to the Valentinian Gospel of Philip, baptism, though a mere initiation into Christianity for most, can also be a transfer of the Holy Spirit and metaphorically a virgin birth. I wonder if such an idea may have a precedent in the virgin birth from the Persian goddess Anahita or some other pagan precedent from the mystery cults. Interestingly, Philip says that many are wrong about their literal interpretations of the baptism and the resurrection – that they are meant metaphorically as what happens to the spiritual aspirant. Philip went so far as to say that whoever goes through baptism in the Holy Spirit can go beyond being a Christian and become a Christ. So it seems a rite originally involving a transfer of blessing energy (from the Holy Spirit) to experience gnosis became a rite to declare one’s allegiance to a set of beliefs. Irenaeus lived in a cruel world where Christians were persecuted and these experiences likely affected his decisions when thrust into a leadership position at a relatively young age. His goal as his teacher Poycarp’s goal was to unify Christians. That he was able to do with a creed – the four gospels and the baptismal declaration. He sought to eliminate any ideas he thought to be divisive. Several of the Gnostic sects utilized a second baptism (apolutrosis) where they were joined with Christ in a kind of marriage. This made a hierarchy with closer-knit communities of insiders, an inner circle that could have been divisive in some ways. Irenaeus main method of accusation was to say that such practices as he did not like or those that did not fit into his universal Christianity were inspired by Satan. He demonized this second baptism as Satanic. It makes me wonder if the Templars and Baphomet (as Baptism of Wisdom) were not a reprisal of the second baptism. Irenaeus championed the transcendent Jesus. Even though the Gospel of John was at one time considered heretical (in Rome by the teacher Gaius) it was introduced by some of Justin Martyr’s students and then treasured by Irenaeus as the most important of the gospels because it declared the divinity of Jesus and de-emphasized Jesus as a mere holy man. Irenaeus’s “canon of truth” would influence the Nicaean Creed that was adopted later.
Irenaeus made an effort to find references to Jesus, as he interpreted using John as a guide, in Jewish Scripture, in order to support his notion of Jesus as God. As Church father Origen noted: only John speaks of Jesus’s divinity. Irenaeus rejected all gnosis except the gnosis of knowing Jesus as divine – thus his title: “falsely so-called knowledge (gnosis).” Irenaeus thus did much to delineate true Christians from false Christians and other false beliefs like paganism and Judaism (the Jews apparently became false by not accepting Jesus as divine – but their tradition was not falsified as it – at least according to Irenaeus – held Jesus to be divine. He railed against “heretics, schismatics, or hypocrites.” Judge and excommunicate the heretics – as he defined them – he said. He seemed to have much trouble with Valentinians and their idea of inherent divinity as it was popular. Irenaeus succeeded in squelching diversity as accusations of heresy came to non-conforming groups. The Valentinians were still around for a while. Irenaeus’s contemporary Clement of Alexandria and his successor Origen had cautious relations with Valentinians. Irenaeus laid the groundwork for what was to come 150 years later when Christians became legitimized and favored under Constantine. Then the Gnostics were banned and driven out as they would eventually drive out the pagans. Irenaeus, often ridiculed Gnostics calling them stupid but the Valentinian Heracleon showed a good understanding of the nature of spiritual practices and acknowledged diverse methods of worship. Tertullian was shocked to find that women in some of the Gnostic sects participated with men in the study of philosophy, were bold enough to teach, and even baptize people. Heracleon was wise enough to avoid literal interpretations of Scripture and see them metaphorically. For Irenaeus faith in the creed was the sole goal and he sought to enforce it as such. For the Valentinians and other Gnostics the goal was faith and understanding. Perhaps the second baptism was involved with understanding and the first with faith. The Valentinians read the Scriptures symbolically, similar to how Greek philosophers at the time were interpreting their myths allegorically. According to The Secret Book of John, Eve from the Garden of Eden represents spiritual understanding. Indeed, both women as spiritual and gnosis/understanding were removed from the doctrine with Irenaeus’s move toward orthodoxy. Thus was Eve, as the “gift of understanding,” shunned. Gnosticism was more of an initiatory/training system to bring out the holiness in oneself through the method of understanding. It is not too unlike the Wisdom methods of the East, ie. Samkhya, Jnana Yoga, Mahamudra, or Dzog Chen. According to Gnostic texts we have capacity for divinity within and so through it we can access the greater Divine without. This is not unlike the Yogic union of personal soul (jivatman) and Divine Soul (paramatman). The Gnostics actually warned not to take passages from the gospels too literally. Theirs was a spiritual technology utilizing a mythical drama as symbolic rather than a belief-based religion tethered to a mythical drama taken literally. Gnostic ideas of a “God Beyond God,” with divine emanations recall texts like the Hebrew Sepher Yetzirah and the Greek Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster. Hebrew mysticism and Persian/Zoroastrian theology also influenced Gnosticism. Someone recently indicated to me the similarities between the Zoroastrian Amesha Spenta and the Archons of Gnostic lore. Some of these ideas probably re-emerged in the Kabbalism of the 10th century.
Constantine set up the Christians as favored and this advantage led to domination after another century or so. Rome was weakened as the Christians were allied to Christ and Christians rather than to Rome. Constantine also set up some strict laws against Jews, including being burned alive if they were prevented people from being converted to Christianity. They were decidedly disfavored. Also in Constantine’s time was the height of the competing view of Arius that said that Jesus was divine but in a different sense than God. The orthodoxic forces led by Athanasius insisted on Jesus being one with God so that is what came to be after much violence. This became part of the Nicene Creed. Constantine’s power and that he conferred on the bishops allowed them to outlaw all heretical sects, by some estimates up to half of all Christians in the empire. Athanasius brought the Egyptian Christians in line with orthodoxy. About 40 years later they would overcome the pagans of Alexandria. The 400’s was a time of pagan temple destruction across the Roman Empire. Athanasius ordered certain books to be removed from Egyptian monastic centers. Thus it is likely about this time that the Nag Hammadi texts were hidden. Athanasius also advised Christians to shun epinoia, or divine intuition, and to understand texts not symbolically but literally. Athanasius stated that: “God became human so that humankind might become divine,” and yet the only way to become divine was through the orthodox methods, all else was heresy inspired by Satan.
Christian doctrine had appeal for many people of the Roman Empire, some no doubt due to kindness, helping the poor, and community but I wonder how much of that derived from the Gnostic sects rather than the belief-oriented teachers. From that time through today what it means to be a Christian involves what one believes, ie. the creed suggested by John, developed by Irenaeus, and further developed and and enforced by Athanasius, with other influences along the way. Faith in one inflexible scenario rather than a multitude of possible techniques utilizing different and flexible scenarios became established. I wonder if Irenaeus’s insistence on one correct view about Jesus with all others being demonic has had a cultural tendency to influence say people’s views, cultural and political. Such an Aristotelian either/or logic about controversial topics does seem to permeate many people. Tertullian ridiculed “seekers” as inferior to “believers.” The word ‘heresy’ referred to choice. Once people involved in Christianity had choice but choice faded with orthodoxy.
Pagels sums it up this way:
“This research offers new ways to relate to religious tradition. Orthodox doctrines of God – Jewish, Christian, or Muslim – tend to emphasize the separation between what is divine and what is human: in the words of the scholar of religion Rudolph Otto, God is “wholly other” than humankind. Since those who accept such views often assume that divine revelation is diametrically opposed to human perception, they often rule out what mystically inclined Jews and Christians have always done – seeking to discern spiritual truth experienced as revelation, truth that may come from intuition, reflection, or creative imagination. Christian leaders who deny that such experience can teach us anything about God have often identified themselves as guardians of an unchanging tradition,……”
This was a good book and I look forward to reading more of her works.
A translation of The Gospel of Thomas by Marvin Meyer and adapted by Pagels and Meyer is included as an appendix. Much of it is analogy and parable and it seems quite intuitive to interpret it symbolically. One statement attributed to Jesus, "No prophet is welcome in his own village; no physician cures those who know him," suggests that prophecy was then a means of gaining converts to one's view. In another saying Jesus suggests that circumcision is not necessary. When Simon Peter suggests that he make Mary leave since she is a woman and so not worthy, Jesus says he will make her a male so she can enter the Kingdom - this suggests to the authors that female and male are symbolic of human and divine in this context. Jesus also said that it is forgivable to blaspheme the Father and the son, but not the holy spirit - no forgiveness for that on earth or in heaven.
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