The ongoing evolution of Christianity

New understanding of ancient texts suggests the wide diversity of early church doctrine

Elaine Pagels has a gift for bringing ancient Christian texts alive, and for displaying their profound, sometimes startling import for contemporary experience. As a historian of religion, she has poured over and translated early Christian writings that were buried for 1,600 years at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Her initial findings were detailed in the groundbreaking book, "The Gnostic Gospels" (1979).

That award-winning work offered the first direct look at texts termed heretical by early church fathers, who, beginning in the second century, felt the time had come to establish a Christian canon and a set of doctrinal beliefs. Those doctrines - including Jesus' divinity and the Holy Trinity - were eventually enshrined in the Nicene and other creeds that constitute orthodox teachings.

In her new book, "Beyond Belief," Pagels draws on further study of the more than 50 discovered texts - but particularly the Gospel of Thomas - to reveal a diversity of early teachings about Jesus that will resonate with many people today.

"Although later denounced by certain leaders as 'heretics,' " she writes, "many of these Christians saw themselves as not so much believers as seekers, people who 'seek for God.' "

Pagels, who teaches religion at Princeton University, points out that the Gospel of John is the only one in the New Testament that actually promotes the idea of Jesus as God in human form, and she argues, based on research, that it was written explicitly to counter the Gospel of Thomas, which said otherwise. Thomas's gospel, she writes, teaches "that God's light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially at least, in everyone ... and encourages the hearer ... to seek to know God through one's own divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God."

Thomas teaches that one's affinity with God is the key to the kingdom. A quote from the gospel reads: "Jesus said, 'Let the one who seeks not stop seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled; when he becomes troubled, he will be astonished and will rule over all things.'"

The gospels of John and Thomas share striking similarities, however. Both encourage people to look toward "the beginning" not the end of time, and both emphasize, unlike Mark, that the kingdom of God is not to be expected in the future, "but is already here - an immediate and continuing spiritual reality," Pagels says.

In her graceful, illuminating exploration of various works - including the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which shows that women were also early teachers, and the Gospel of Truth, which speaks of God as Father and Mother - Pagels explicitly raises the question of how different Christianity might have been had these works not been banned.

As research has developed over the past two decades, scholars are questioning the designation of "Gnosticism" given to these works. Karen King, of the Harvard Divinity School, says in her new book, "What Is Gnosticism?" that it's now agreed that it was not a historical religion, but a term that's been used to define the boundaries of normative Christianity, and includes works of great variety. Scholars also agree that the authors of the New Testament and the so-called Gnostic gospels are not known, although the works are attributed to the apostles.

While noting the traditional idea that "what has survived must be right," Pagels explores political and cultural reasons that spurred early Christian leaders such as Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons in the second century, and Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the fourth, to choose some writings over others and attempt to destroy the "heresies." (Rather than destroy works that Athanasius had ordered burned, monks apparently buried them in a huge jar at Nag Hammadi.)

As Christianity grew and spread across the Roman empire after the 1st century, it faced widespread persecution as the "atheism" of the day. With the apostles gone, local teachers became the authorities, and differing cultural experiences sparked many variants. "When so many people claim to be divinely inspired ... who knows who has the spirit and who does not?" Pagels writes.

Some argued that genuine revelation had ended with the close of the apostolic age. Irenaeus did not go that far, but he wrote a massive, five-volume "Refutation and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge," aiming not only to settle strictly on the four Gospels, but also to press a certain interpretation of the Gospel of John and to define "the whole faith." To bring stability and uniformity to a persecuted faith, he and his successors sought to ensure that all future "revelations" endorsed by Christian leaders would conform. When the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official faith, he also promoted the gathering in AD 325 that produced the Nicene Creed, which helped unify his empire.

Pagels's small and beautiful book poses many questions: What is spiritual truth and how may it be discerned? Has revelation concluded or is it an ongoing phenomenon? What constitutes genuine baptism and can it occur more than once? Most of all, her book highlights the ongoing debate, so pervasive among Christian denominations today, over whether Christianity should be understood as a set system of doctrines or an ongoing search for the divine.

Acknowledging the good that has come through Christian teachings over the centuries, at the same time she suggests that these works offer inspiration to those, like herself, who are deeply moved by Christianity but do not accept it as "a single, authorized set of beliefs, coupled with the conviction that Christian belief alone offers access to God."

In a period when so many call themselves "seekers" and others press for a return to orthodoxy, this remarkable book will stir and provoke thought. It offers rewards to any reader concerned with the promise and power of faith, and the hunger for spiritual discovery.

Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.

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