Book Review: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels

“Spurred on by personal tragedy and new scholarship from an international group of researchers, Pagels returns to her investigation of the ‘secret’ Gospel of Thomas, and breathes new life into writings once thought heretical. As she arrives at an ever-deeper conviction in her own faith, Pagels reveals how faith allows for a diversity of interpretations, and that the ‘rogue’ voices of Christianity encourage and sustain ‘the recognition of the light within us all.’” –

Dr. Elaine Pagels is one of my favorite Christian authors. Her book The Gnostic Gospels was one of my favorite things I read last year. Her work is incredibly informative and dives deep into the history of Christianity and the orthodoxy vs. gnosticism debate. Beyond Belief is just as fantastic as The Gnostic Gospels, and I will definitely be reading more of her books in the future.

I’m in the middle of figuring out my Adult Spiritual Life™️ right now, and that means rethinking my relationship with Christianity. As part of this spiritual exploration, I decided that for Lent/Easter this year I wanted to learn more about The Gospel of Thomas, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while now. I bought Pagels’s book to read after I finished the actual gospel so that I could incorporate her commentary into my own study. I actually finished it on Good Friday, which is a nice little coincidence.

Beyond Belief is less about the content of the Gospel of Thomas than about its political and spiritual implications. Like The Gnostic Gospels (which I would almost consider this book a sequel to), it follows the theological debates of the second through fourth centuries, when the new Christian movement was still figuring out what it was going to be. Was revelation available to every honest seeker, or only to a select few? Was the complete path to salvation revealed in Jesus’s ministry, or was there more to discover? Was Jesus Christ a mystic, a Jewish prophet, or God himself made human?

Pagels examines this debate through the lens of the two gospels championed by the opposite sides: The Gospel of John for the orthodox, and the Gospel of Thomas for the gnostic. Here she points out something that I had never realized before, although it seems obvious now: John’s is the only gospel to explicitly confirm Jesus’s divinity. Pagels examines why this radical claim — that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, God — came to be a cornerstone of the Christian faith, pushing the Gospel of Thomas aside in the process and drastically changing the nature of Christianity as we know it.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book. I’m fascinated by these kinds of studies, and I love reading about the different early Christian sects and their different interpretations of Christ’s message. I also loved that Pagels included some autobiographical elements in this book, talking about her own experiences and her relationship with the faith — it was a nice personal touch that made the extensive historical study feel more relevant to modern seekers.

The book is written in an academic style, but I never found it tedious. I wouldn’t exactly call this a light read, but it is written in a way that is interesting and engaging.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

Do I Recommend This Book? Absolutely. If you have any interest at all in Gnostic Christianity or in church history, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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