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The Gospel Truth

Elaine Pagels: writer on the Word.

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In 1945, an Egyptian farmer was digging near the village of Nag Hammadi when he made a remarkable discovery: a six-foot jar containing more than 50 texts that have revolutionized our understanding of early Christianity. Among those manuscripts, called collectively the Gnostic Gospels, was the so-called Gospel of Thomas, which claims to be the sayings of Jesus recorded by someone (the disciple Thomas? we don't know for sure) who was close to Jesus, writing at the time of Jesus. Those sayings refer to Christ as the light of the world, as John does in his gospel. But they also say we share in that divine light if we choose to recognize it.

A fourth-century archbishop condemned the Gospel of Thomas (along with the equally unorthodox Gospel of Mary Magdalene, also discovered in that Egyptian jar), and he ordered copies of it destroyed. Christianity at the time was fighting for survival. The church needed a canon of agreed-upon beliefs with agreed-upon texts to support them, not the individualistic thinking indicated in Thomas, not the pluralistic, egalitarian thinking that characterized early Christian groups. The church did survive as an institution mediating between God and man with the authority over what and what not to believe. It also got its New Testament, minus the Gospel of Thomas.

Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University, has been instrumental in bringing the writings of the early church to the attention of the widest possible audience. The Gnostic Gospels (1979) won a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2003, her Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thom-as became a bestseller. On Thursday, October 21st, she is in Memphis to give a free lecture at the Church of the Holy Communion. The Flyer recently spoke by phone to the author at her home in Princeton, New Jersey. The subjects: Thomas, novelist Dan Brown, readers, and Elaine Pagels.

The Flyer: Have you been surprised by the public's interest in early church history and especially the Gospel of Thomas?

Elaine Pagels: What I find amazing about the Gospel of Thomas is its entirely new perspective on the biblical gospels we're familiar with, and I've certainly been happy with reader response. It took me nine years to write Beyond Belief, and it all started with a question that many people are asking themselves today: What is it I love about the Christian tradition, and what is it I cannot love?

In the last decade, the problems with church authority are becoming quite painful. You see it in the Catholic Church, but you also see it in almost every other Christian denomination. You see it in the presidential debates -- on issues that range from abortion to homosexuality. There's hardly a denomination that doesn't have divisions along very fundamental lines.

A hundred years ago, a generation ago, you could live in a community that was largely Christian and not think seriously about the fact that some people are Jews, some are Muslims or Buddhists or atheists. All of us know that now, but it can be challenging and disturbing, especially to those who grew up with the conviction that Christianity is the only way to salvation. People are asking, Is that the case? What are we to think? How are we to relate to other religious traditions?

Are you still having to answer questions about Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code and the debate about the true Mary Magdalene?

What gave The Da Vinci Code enormous power was its storytelling and claim to historical evidence. It raised the question: Well, if there are some things that we didn't know about the early Christian movement or the followers of Jesus, what else don't we know? The answer is: a great deal. Personally, though, I'm more interested in what actually happened than in historical fiction.

I think, for example, we can verify that Mary Magdalene was not characterized as a prostitute until centuries after the Bible. However, Dan Brown's claim that she was the companion, lover, and wife of Jesus and had children by him goes far beyond anything suggested in the surviving texts. There have always been legends about all of this. It's part of the historical imagination. I happen to think it's very unlikely.

What are you working on now, and is there one question about early Christianity you'd like to answer?

I hardly dare tell you what I'm thinking about doing. I'm not sure I should say. I want to write about the Book of Revelation, a book that's especially powerful right now. Where did this book come from? Why was this one chosen to be in the New Testament? What other revelation writings were available at the time? What was meant by the word "revelation"?

I'd loved to know more about the distribution of the various gospels. Who read them and where. I want to know how this, you might say very unlikely, Christian movement became an extraordinarily powerful global religion.

You were in the right place at the right time when the Gospel of Thomas was made public.

Yes, I was a graduate student at Harvard working with a team of other people when this manuscript was first made available in this country, about 1977. We knew it was a very old text, but we didn't know what it was.

It opens with these lines: "These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke. And Thomas wrote them down." It claims to be a list of Jesus' teachings, many of which are identical with sayings in Matthew or Luke, which certainly makes it very interesting. It had been published in Europe in 1959 by scholars, but it wasn't widely available for study.

When it was, you were ready.

I was lucky, yes. I asked my teacher, Krister Stendahl, why, when he'd studied the Dead Sea Scrolls, he never wrote about them for a popular audience. Krister, a Lutheran bishop, looked at me and said, "Well, we and the clergy were afraid it would upset people if they learned that Jesus wasn't who they wanted to think he was." Krister and others thought they were being protective. But I said to him, "That's condescending -- to think that people shouldn't know." So we went to work on the Nag Hammadi manuscripts. Hundreds of people still are. "

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