PW: Why did you write Beyond Belief?
Elaine Pagels: Well, it took me eight years to write this book. I felt like I was writing two books, one of them drawn from my scholarly essays on early Christianity. The other I hoped would be a lucid and engaging description of the difference these early texts make to our understanding of modern religion. I really love my work in the history and literature of the first centuries and I love to share it. In addition, I began to ask a fundamental question: Why do people still engage Christianity? What is it about Christianity or any religion that keeps it alive? For many people religion is still compelling and more than just a place to go in times of crisis. I realized that for them, religion was more than just a set of beliefs, just as it was for many followers of religion in the first century.
PW: You focus a great deal on the Gospel of Thomas in the book. Why Thomas and not another so-called secret gospel?
EP: Thomas is a fascinating book. More than any other early gospel it is part of the dynamic out of which the Christian canon is formed. One of its central messages is that there is divine light within each person. Reacting to Thomas's teaching, the author of the gospel of John has Jesus always declaring that Jesus is the only light of the world. John aimed to negate and suppress other teachings like Thomas's. In fact, in John's gospel, the disciple Thomas is characterized as a fool. I was quite shocked that something really strikes John as wrong with Thomas and his ideas about Jesus.
PW: What is the relationship between John and Thomas?
EP: I have come to believe firmly that John was written to refute Thomas. This becomes clear not only in John's characterization of Jesus as the only light of the world, but also in the way that the early Church reads John and the special place to which it elevates John. The early Church theologian Irenaeus was so convinced that John had the correct teaching that he rejected Thomas and other early gospels from a place in his list of "true" gospels. Not only did he reject these writings, but he also wrote commentaries on how to read John correctly, so believers would avoid being taken in by the many other readings of John available that he considered incorrect. Eventually, by the fourth century, the gospel of John had become so situated in the Church that theologians and bishops used it as the basis for the early Christian creeds. The creeds then become instructions about how to read the gospels.
PW: What can contemporary religion learn from the Gospel of Thomas?
EP: First, we can recognize that religion is not simply a set of beliefs. Religion also offers the possibility of experiencing a relationship with the divine that transcends sets of doctrines. Second, Thomas is not a specifically Christian book, if by Christianity one means believing that Jesus is the only Son of God. Thomas is not about Jesus, but about the recognition of the light within us all. In this way, Thomas has a close affinity with Jewish mysticism. Finally, Thomas leads us to recognize that there are ways to spiritual discovery other than, and including, the canonical.
PW: What message would you like readers to take from your book?
EP: That the early Christian movement was much richer and more complex than we realize. Also, I think these texts help us to see that the divine is the source from which everything comes and that there is a kind of spiritual truth that reveals itself in people's lives.