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Publisher's Summary

Spurred by personal tragedy, Elaine Pagels turns to a consideration of the Gnostic Gospels, in particular, the Gospel of Thomas. As opposed to the Gospel of John, which asserted that Jesus was an eternally existing aspect of God who came to earth to save humankind, the "secret" Gospel of Thomas agrees that Jesus was in some sense divine, but says that a streak of divinity can be found in all of us. The Church Fathers did not like Thomas' ideas, and attempted to suppress his Gospel as heretical. Pagels believes that Thomas' words lead to a more open, welcoming, and equitable kind of Christianity. If Beyond Belief is at odds with conservative theological certainties, it nonetheless speaks to Jesus' humanity, and to our own.
©2003 Elaine Pagels; (P)2004 Books on Tape

Critic Reviews

"Exhilarating reading, Pagels's book offers a model of careful and thoughtful scholarship in the lively and exciting prose of a good mystery writer." (Publishers Weekly)
"A fresh and exciting work of theology and spirituality." (Booklist)
"With the winning combination of sound scholarship, deep insight and crystal-clear prose style that distinguishes all her work, Pagels portrays the great variety of beliefs, teachings and practices that were found among the earliest Christians." (Los Angeles Times)

What members say

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  • Buford
  • Somerset, KY, USA
  • 06-08-04

Gospel of Thomas is somewhat a misnomer

The book is less an exploration of the Gospel of Thomas than an exploration of the competing movements and ideas that were present in the early Christian Church. It begins by comparing the gospels of John and Thomas using a unique, to this listener anyway, hypothesis but moves quickly to a broader view of the first three centuries of Christianity. It is none the less an excellent representation of the impeccable research and sensitivity of Elaine Pagels.

The listener is brought to see the importance of the Nag Hammadi texts to the understanding of First-Third Century "Gnosticism" and what would have been lost had these documents not been hidden some 1600 years ago. The question occurs: What documents might not have been preserved and thus lost from these formative years of Christianity? Based on the importance of the Nag Hammadi texts, we are intellectually poorer for any that might have been lost.

The book is very easy to follow. The narrator does an excellent job in reading the text with authority and understanding. It is, technically speaking, a very good presentation.

I certainly recommend it to those who have interests in this area of historical research.

76 of 81 people found this review helpful

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  • James
  • Indian Trail, NC, USA
  • 07-16-04

Dr. Pagels hits a home run (almost a grand slam)

I am not sure why she did not include the full text of Thomas, perhaps in deference to her friends who have published the Gospel of Thomas already. I am sure her book has led to many purchases. I was expecting the Gospel of Thomas to be a part of the book, based on the title. She compares and contrasts Thomas to the Gospel of John. So, read these books first and keep them by your side as you read or listen to this book. I found the book a great read, with some pretty good insight into the mind and culture of early Christians and the way they approached and developed the canon. Her creativity and style are very engaging and you forget you are actually reading one of the very top scholars of pre-orthodox Christianity. She seems to also have a spiritual grasp of her subject and shares some of her own spiritual trials. This book is more than a history lesson, it is a spiritual lesson which should leave you with a deeper sense of connection to your Higher Power. I can't wait for her next book, it should be a grand slam!

24 of 27 people found this review helpful

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It has very little to do with Thomas!

I actually liked Pagel's work, I read two of her books before, Gnostic gospels and Reading Judas, the problem with this volume is that it is exceedingly misleading, not only that many of the materials here came from researches and arguments from her other books, but only approximately two chapters actually has anything to do with the Gospel of Thomas, the rest are early church history and polemnics. So if you already have the Gnostic Gospel, you can pretty much spare yourself this one.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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  • Kris
  • calgary, AB, Canada
  • 12-10-06

Pagels vs Irenaeus

This book should have been titled Pagels vs Irenaeus.

The premise that she tries to support is that there was a great deal of diversity in the early Christian church. Irenaeus and Bishop Polycarp, among others, felt that the diversity was threatening the viability of the Christian faith. They moved to remove the diversity to present a more unified front to the very real threats and persecutions. After the Nicean Creeds and the legalization of Christianity the church fathers took this stance further. This evolved into a program to eradicate all divergent philosophies.

I feel the reason that Dr. Pagels chose to write this book was to put words to her own personal struggle. Her struggle is: that she does not want anyone to get in between God and herself. Indeed, this does sound like a valid course of action but I wonder if it really does not speak to a notion of pride. It is far simpler to live ones spiritual life without comment or interference from others. This is especially true if the other person has an air of authority.

If Pagels accepts the canonical representation created by John and Irenaeus she could only get to God through their Christ. Christ, for her, seems to be the embodiment of their credo and thus filters out all access to God except through their interpretation. Scholars likely love to debate this, but for me it really is less material.

I come away from this book wondering about, how to navigate the complex web of very human individuals - trying to be spiritual. Without these interactions I doubt spirituality can really exist. Now, I am left to reconcile the risk of disingenuous external authorities to the vagaries of self deception.

Would I recommend this book to others? Yes I would. I may not agree with her points and the methods she uses to win the reader to her way of thinking but it is well worth the read.

11 of 14 people found this review helpful

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Compelling

I am a Christian and found this work to be fascinating. Christians whose faith is threatened by works such as this apparently have very little faith to begin with. It is serves all of us to know of the varieties of Christianity in the early years of its existence, and it should also be reassuring to the faithful that what we believe is what won out. Listen to this work carefully: distinguish between the evidence she provides and the conclusions she makes based on such evidence. The former is important, and we need to know about it. As for the latter, make your own conclusions.

11 of 15 people found this review helpful

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  • Mick
  • BOTHELL, WA, United States
  • 10-27-11

Lack of chapter structure is maddening

Great vocal performance. Easy to listen at normal and 2X speed. Book chapters not coinciding with audio file divisions makes it extremely difficult to stop, pause, break, and resume without having to scan around for review before proceeding. My main issue with this book is that it is sold as a book on the Gospel of Thomas but spends little time on the book itself and generally bounces around general Gnostic/Orthodox theological and ritualistic differences between early church communities and all the problems Irenaeus found while establishing orthodoxy. The book should be titled "Hey Everybody, Listen to Me!: The Story of Irenaeus". Interesting book but Pagel's The Gnostic Gospels is head and shoulders better in so far as it covers gnosticism more thoroughly. The one chapter contrasting the Gospel of John with Thomas does not provide justification for the title.

TL:DR - Not really much Thomas material. Book chapters are aggravating. Good performance though.

3 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Get Over "Belief"

This is an excellent book to help understand that the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, those that must be blindly "believed" in order to be "saved" and get into "heaven", are the product of a few delusional and power-hungry white men and have very little to do with the actual teachings of Jesus. They are simply interpretations by mere mortals - fallible, flawed and weak like everyone else - ,that through the ages have calcified into rigid dogma that "must be believed" in order to be "saved". This book sheds much needed light on the development of early Christianity. Thank you, Elaine Pagels

6 of 11 people found this review helpful

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Frustrating

Is there anything you would change about this book?

There are only 5 chapters in the paper copy of this book and there are 10 chapters of audio files. I suspect the reason for this has something to do with the length of recording of the chapters. However, Chapter 2 actually begins in the middle of the second audio chapter. It would be more helpful for students if the files were broken into chapter 1a, chapter 1b, chapter 2a, chapter 2b. I am a student and I take notes as I listen. If I hear something I might want to quote, I note how many minutes into the chapter I am in. I also note the page range for the chapters in the hard copy of the book so I can go and find what was read quickly. The arrangement of this book is not helpful.

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Well-written, scholarly examination Christianity.

Great narration! I now have a much better understanding of the Nicean creed, and its alternatives.

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Refreshing

This book is factually rich and narratively fascinating. It is honest about the facts of the lesser known history of Christianity without condemning the religion. The book never discourages faith - it never encourages it either. The author takes an honest look at facts, and she shows us they're beauty and how Christianity has affected her life during personal tradgedy. It's a great read for anyone interested in Christianity, history, or faith.

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