Matthew, Mark, Luke, and ... Thomas? the Editors Interview Elaine Pagels

Article excerpt

After Elaine Pagels' young son died of a rare lung disease, and later when her husband was killed in a climbing accident in the Rockies, friends would often comment that her faith must be a real help in her grief. It was. Pagels was able to find hope in the midst of Christian community, ritual, and liturgy that she didn't experience anywhere else. But when she realized that that that comfort had little to do with confessing belief in any creed, she began to question how Christianity came to be associated with intellectual assent to a set of beliefs.

That wasn't always the case, she learned. In the bestselling Beyond Belief.' The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003) Pagels describes how early church leaders supressed another interpretation of Jesus' message--one found in the ancient documents Pagels first popularized in her 1979 book, The Gnostic Gospels, winner of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The Princeton professor admits she still has more questions than answers about the origins of early Christianity and the nature of faith. But, she says, "I struggle with it because it still somehow speaks to me."

What is the Gospel of Thomas? Most Catholics only know of the four gospels of the New Testament.

Like most people, I thought there were only four gospels. But when I went to graduate school, I learned there were all these secret gospels--the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Phillip, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, not to mention the Secret Book of John, the Secret Book of Paul, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Letter of Peter to Paul, the Prayer of the Apostle Paul.

These writings, all attributed to Jesus and his disciples, were found in a cave in Egypt in 1945 by an Arab peasant digging around a cliff near the village of Nag Hammadi. He thought the 6-foot-high jar might contain buried treasure, so he smashed it. To his disappointment, it contained just some old fragments of papyrus. So he took them home. Later, his mother said she used some of them for kindling.

It turned out that what he had found was a whole library of early Christian writings, 53 in all, that came from the oldest monastery in Egypt, founded about 320. They were originally written in Greek like the New Testament, but the ones he found were in Coptic. We don't know who actually wrote them, just as we don't know for certain who wrote the New Testament.

When were they written?

There are scholars who say that some of these are really early gospels, written perhaps even before the narrative gospels. So if Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written in the year 60, 70, 80, or 90, Thomas might have been written in 50, only 20 years after the death of Jesus. Other scholars say they were written around 140. I think the best guess would be around 90 or 100--around the time of the Gospel of John. Both the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John are interpreting Jesus after the other gospels.

Why isn't the Gospel of Thomas in the New Testament?

In 367, the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, Athanasius, one of the great Fathers of the church, wrote to the monasteries and said, "I know there are a lot of secret, illegitimate books that you like, get rid of all of them--except for 27." Those 27 books would come to be called the New Testament. So the others were destroyed, except someone apparently was insubordinate to the bishop and took those texts out of the library, sealed them in a jar, and buried them to preserve them.

Why are these writings important?

First of all, they remind us that there were in the early Christian movement a lot of other writings, a lot of other kinds of Christianity that were winnowed out in the process of constructing the institutional forms of religion we today call Christianity. The Roman Empire was vast, and Christian groups were scattered all over. They were quite diverse. They weren't uniform and simple. …