One of the summer’s surprise bestsellers was a book about the early Christian church. Written by Princeton professor Elaine Pagels, it is called Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas [New York: Random House, 2003].
The book’s thesis is very simple. According to Pagels, there is more to Christianity than we read in the pages of the New Testament. Much more. During the centuries following the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity was an inclusive religion that tolerated a diversity of opinions about Christ. But Christianity gradually became narrower and more dogmatic. Certain texts—the ones in today’s New Testament—became “official,” while others were “suppressed.” Church leaders systematically rejected some Christian writings on the grounds that they were heretical.
Elaine Pagels believes that this was a big mistake. She is hostile to the idea of orthodoxy and deplores the church’s “tendency to identify Christianity with a single, authorized set of beliefs” [p. 29]. Instead, she believes that we need to recover the theology of extracanonical books like the Gospel of Thomas. What’s so wrong with a little heresy?
The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in the northern Egyptian community of Nag Hammadi in 1945. It consists of more than a hundred randomly arranged sayings that supposedly come from Christ—the so-called “secret words” of “the living Jesus.” The majority of these sayings repeat material from the biblical gospels, but the rest are new and independent.
What Pagels and other scholars claim is that the Gospel of Thomas and other writings preserve authentic words of Jesus. And these words, they say, give us a new perspective on Christianity that challenges traditional doctrine. According to this version of Christianity, we know God through ourselves as well as through his revelation. God has a feminine side as well as a masculine side. Salvation is universal. It is not only for people who trust in the risen Christ, but for those who seek to find God through their own intuitions. God’s light shines from everyone, not just from Jesus. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you” [p. 32]. Does this sound anything like the true Gospel of Jesus Christ?
It is not surprising that some scholars want to embrace the new Jesus that they find in the extra-biblical books. We are living in an age when people want the freedom to believe what they prefer to believe. A do-it-yourself Christology, put together by coming up with imaginative interpretations of ancient texts rather than by accepting the plain meaning of Scripture, belongs to the spirit of this postmodern age.
What should orthodox Christians believe about the Gospel of Thomas? To begin with, it is not really a gospel. The biblical word for gospel (evangelion) means good news. It refers to the proclamation of a great event. In the case of the Bible, the good news is salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, the Gospel of Thomas does not contain this good news. It records various things that Jesus may have said, but it does not tell the story of his perfect life, his atoning death, or his triumphant resurrection. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is a teacher but not a Savior. Again, it is not surprising that contemporary scholars find this attractive. Jesus is a wise philosopher, somewhat like them, but not a miracle-worker, a suffering servant, or a glorious Lord.
Is it possible that the Gospel of Thomas preserves some authentic sayings of Jesus? Of course it is possible, even though it was written later than the biblical gospels. The gospel writers themselves admit that they have not told us everything. Luke testified that many people had tried to write down the story of Jesus (Luke 1:1), and John said, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30). Perhaps some of the things that Jesus said are recorded in one of the ancient texts. It is even possible that some of the material in the Gospel of Thomas comes from Thomas himself—the doubting disciple (see John 20:24-29).
But there is a reason why the church never recognized the Gospel of Thomas as the Word of God or included in the New Testament. It is not orthodox in its theology! So Pagels is right to say that Thomas and other texts were suppressed. The early church suppressed them because these writings did not contain the apostolic gospel of the cross and the empty tomb. They were the kinds of writings that Paul warned about when he said, “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8).
The things that Pagels likes about the Gospel of Thomas are the very things that rightfully excluded it from the New Testament. The people who wrote it claimed to have secret information about Jesus. They offered a more advanced form of religion that came through a second blessing from God’s Spirit. The term for this kind of religion is gnosticism.
Modern scholars who advertise the Gospel of Thomas are the new gnostics. They claim to have discovered secret information about the true origins of Christianity. These alleged discoveries are always enticing to people who do not believe the biblical gospel. Sometimes they are disconcerting to Christians, but they shouldn’t be. The early church recognized the books of the New Testament as Holy Scripture because they alone contained the apostolic faith. And by his wise providence, God has preserved the canonical gospels through the centuries. We don’t need to worry that we are missing something. We have the Bible God wants us to have, and it contains everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3).
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