Secret Gospels: Essays on Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark/Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

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Secret Gospels: Essays on Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark. By Marvin Meyer. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2003. vii + 199 pp. $23.00 (paper).

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. By Elaine Pagels. New York: Random House, 2003. 241 pp. $24.95 (cloth); $13.00 (paper).

These are two of many books on the extra-canonical gospel of Thomas that have appeared just within the last year, both authored by scholars who have dedicated much of their career to studying the texts discovered in 1947 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Meyer's book collects a number of the essays he has written over the course of his studies. Pagels quite explicitly explores a more wide-ranging reflection on what it has meant, personally, to be involved in that research. Both books are also written in the midst of our generation s current fascination with uncovering, behind Christianity's canonical texts, the "secret," which tends to imply "real," history of the movement that began with Jesus of Nazareth.

Six of the essays in Meyer's book focus on his examination of issues in the gospel of Thomas. Meyer is based at the Albert Schweitzer Institute of Chapman University in California, and so it is perhaps natural that his first essay focuses on Schweitzer's own interest in the Jesus-sayings tradition long before the Nag Hammadi discoveries. Of the other essays on Thomas, some focus on the technical difficulties of reading the text off its papyrus leaves (or, rather, off the photographed reproductions of the leaves). Others deal with more interpretive issues, including two very similar essays on the famous last sentence of Thomas, offered as Jesus' answer to Peter's objection to Mary's presence within the apostolic circle ("every female who makes herself male will enter heaven s kingdom"). In both essays Meyer shows a sensitivity to the leadership that women of the Thomas circle may have been claiming under this difficult saying, given the patriarchal politics of the time.

The last four essays turn to the so-called secret gospel of Mark, buried, then recovered by Morton Smith in 1958, not like Thomas from the compost of an abandoned third-century Egyptian monastic library, but from the archival holdings of a practicing twentieth-century monastic community in the Judean desert. The main feature of this proposed earlier form of the canonical gospel of Mark was an additional "sub-plot" focusing on a beloved youth in Jesus' entourage. All four essays wrestle with the significance of this young man. The second essay, in particular, focuses on how this "Ur-Markan" figure might relate to the "beloved disciple" that the gospel of John claims as the author of the traditions it records.

These essays, while repetitive, are clearly written, and together provide a good introduction to the issues involved in reading two fascinating extracanonical texts.

Pagels's book on Thomas is a quite different study, though also by a scholar who has dedicated a career to exploring early Christian texts. …