Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief

August 13, 2022

     Elaine Pagels explores some aspects of the early history of Christianity in similar vein to various works by Karen Armstrong and Geza Vermes. Here she is focusing on the time between the death of Christ and the formal codification of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire by Constantine in the early fourth century CE. It’s a fascinating period, and clearly there is a lot of information from those early centuries for researchers who know where to look.

What I find particularly interesting is how what seems to have been a revolutionary but fairly simple message, preached and developed by a man who was executed by the authorities as a dangerous character, evolved and developed into something rather different, ultimately one of the great world faiths with all kinds of doctrines and creeds, and penalties for the unorthodox and heretical. It’s evident that all sorts of things were going on, including battles between different interpretations of Jesus’ original message, and varying accounts of his life and work, written by people who didn’t actually know the man.

Pagels’ particular interest is the Nag Hammadi/Dead Sea Scrolls, and the various challenges and contradictions they bring to the long-accepted canon of scriptural writings. She makes clear that there was never one single, ‘pure’ early version of Christianity but a great diversity of beliefs and practices right from the start, which seems to have been inevitable in those days of slow and difficult communication. She focuses on the differences between John’s gospel – part of the canon of accepted texts – and the Gospel of Thomas, not accepted as canonical by the church. They espouse rival viewpoints, with John proposing a more church-based practice and advocating the divinisation of Jesus, while Thomas offered a more individualist approach to faith and practice; clearly, for whatever reasons, John became the preferred option and Thomas was quietly erased from history: finding God on your own was not what a church organisation wanted.

It was not a surprise to read about widespread division and controversy within a century or so of the death of Jesus. The framing of the four gospels into an accepted canon was largely the work of Irenaeus of Lyons; the focus was on John’s gospel particularly as it allowed the promotion of Jesus as divine and this shaped the development of the early church. Creation of an organisation necessitated orthodoxy for its survival in an era of persecution; by the time Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, its basic structures and beliefs had been codified, and were rather easier to enforce: the earlier and wider variety of beliefs and practices was no more.

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