Stanford Report Online

Gospel of John aims to discredit evangel Thomas, scholar says


In the Gospel of John, Thomas is the clueless one. He's the disciple who puzzles over Jesus' words at the Last Supper, the absent one who is chided by Christ because of his doubts about the resurrection.

In fact, John's portrayal of Thomas is so unflattering, it suggests an intense power struggle between two camps of Jesus' followers, religious historian Elaine Pagels told a standing-room-only crowd Jan. 26 in Cubberley Auditorium. Despite a broken ankle, the best-selling author made several appearances at Stanford last week as the Humanities Center's 2004 Harry Camp Memorial Lecturer.

Pagels, a Princeton scholar who did her undergraduate and master's work at Stanford in the mid-1960s, came to national prominence in 1979 with her award-winning book The Gnostic Gospels, an analysis of 52 ancient papyrus manuscripts that were found hidden in an earthenware jar in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Among them was a text of 114 "secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded."

This Gospel of Thomas -- which may have been written within a few decades after Jesus' death -- apparently circulated freely among Christians for hundreds of years. Then, in 367, Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, declared that it and numerous other "secret illegitimate books" were heretical and therefore should not be included in the official New Testament canon.

In her latest best-selling book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Pagels argues that whoever wrote the Gospel of John clearly was familiar with this Gospel of Thomas -- and thoroughly detested it. "What you're seeing when you read [John and Thomas] together is an intense, contentious ... I guess you could call it a conversation, but really it's more like an argument between different groups of the followers of Jesus," Pagels told her rapt Stanford listeners. "What they're arguing about is the question: Who is Jesus and what is the good news about him?"

Certain passages in the Gospel of Thomas, for example, suggest that all humans have within themselves the source of their own salvation. "The [Father's] imperial rule is inside you and outside you," Jesus says at one point. "When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father." As Pagels explained, "In the Gospel of Thomas, the good news is not just about Jesus. The good news is also about you and me. We all were brought forth from the same source. ... Like Thomas, whose name means twin, you are the twin of Jesus on a deep level."

In contrast, the well-known Gospel of John stresses Jesus' unique divinity. The world is lost in sin and evil; salvation comes only through repentance and belief that Jesus is "the only son of God," a phrase the author frequently repeats. "Like Thomas, John speaks of Jesus as the light of the world," Pagels observed, "but the bad news is that you and I are not. We have no access to God apart from Jesus."

As if to underscore these differences, John alone among the evangelists paints Thomas as an ignorant, unauthorized, faithless disciple. Thomas is the only one of the original 12 (besides the betrayer Judas Iscariot) not present in the famous scene when Jesus reappears after his death, and because of this untimely absence, Jesus doesn't make Thomas an apostle like the others, Pagels said. "Furthermore, when the other disciples tell Thomas what happened, he stubbornly refuses to believe it."

It is not until Jesus appears in the locked room again eight days later and chastises Thomas for his lack of faith that the doubting man falls on his knees and proclaims Jesus as his Lord and God. "I think John wrote this scene with some satisfaction," Pagels added wryly, "to show that Thomas finally 'got it' and admitted he was wrong."

Athanasius' decision to include some early works in the New Testament and to ban others had a profound effect on subsequent Christian teaching. The decree had political ramifications as well. In a second lecture at Stanford Law School on Jan. 28, Pagels discussed how various biblical texts influenced modern ideas about human equality, including statements in the Declaration of Independence.

For example, although Paul famously preached, "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female," he later discovered "to his distress," Pagels, said, "that certain converts had taken him at what they thought was his word. Some slaves and women took it to mean that they were now equals of their masters and husbands." Realizing this, Paul set out immediately to correct them. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he explains that for the duration of the present world, for all practical purposes, wives must remain subject to their husbands and slaves to their owners.

In contrast, a secret manuscript called the Acts of Thomas takes a less ambiguous stand against slavery. This ancient text, related to the Gospel of Thomas, describes a time when Thomas was preaching in a crowded marketplace in India. The wife of one of the king's relatives was so eager to see the famous apostle that she ordered slaves who were bearing her litter to press their way through the enormous crowd.

"When she failed to make headway," Pagels said, "she sent a slave home to bring back a posse of more household slaves, who came on the run to force the crowd aside, hitting and beating those who stood in the way." But when Thomas saw this, the apostle challenged and rebuked her: "Why do you trample on those who came to hear the Word? For Jesus said, 'Come unto me, you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.'"

At this point, Pagels said, Thomas pointedly ignored his royal visitor and turned to address the slaves carrying her litter. "This blessing is now for you," he said. "You are the heavy laden, for it is you who bear burdens ... and you are driven at her command. And though you are human, they place burdens on you as if you were irrational animals. Those who have authority over you think that you are not human like themselves, and they do not know that all are alike before God, whether slaves or free."

Pagels also offered two public seminars at the Humanities Center, where she was able to discuss her work on a more intimate level. At one point during her Stanford visit, an audience member asked if she had been invited to the Vatican to discuss her unorthodox research. "No," Pagels replied, laughing good-naturedly with the crowd. The invitation, she joked, probably was lost in the mail.

Elaine Pagels