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What drew you to read this book?
I have been reading and rereading works of the contemporary historical Jesus scholarship. Over the last ten months, I have spent time with the thoughts of Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, and N.T. Wright who, despite vast differences in emphasis and conclusion, begin with a similar assumption from source criticism about the New Testament canon. The assumption is that Mark's gospel was written first, and Matthew and Luke use it as a source while also adding new material from other sources and each expanding on the themes of Mark in their way (Luke is my favorite). However, as the fanciful movie The DaVinci Code made clear, this is not the only assumption on how Jesus came to be understood by early Christians. Elaine Pagel's thesis is that newly discovered Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John both show signs of having been written by rival factions of the 2nd and 3rd-century Christian church who were competing for followers and also for church authority. Pagel's work is an attempt to tell the story of what these communities might have practiced and believed without the strict interpretation given by the eventual winners of the debates (what we know as Orthodoxy). In fairness, the gnostic/new prophecy/mystery Christians didn’t suffer eradication. They are very much still present in the opinions of many who are willing to contemplate a Jesus who is a human guide to the light that is already present within (compare that to the opening of John for the beginning of the distinctions with orthodoxy).
What are your significant takeaways?
I enjoyed her dive into the historical and social factors surrounding the church fathers such as Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Valentinus, and Irenaeus. Her thesis is that Irenaeus drove the effort to develop the orthodox canons of faith and, of the scriptures, as a means of protecting the early church from division. Also, it is likely that debates about orthodoxy were emotionally charged due to the rampant persecution of Christians ( a young Irenaeus watched his teacher Polycarp be publicly executed for his belief). Emotionally, one can easily see that if your life is threatened for philosophy, it's very likely that you have already determined what type of philosophy you are willing to suffer for, in order to protect it.
What surprised you the most about what you learned?
I enjoyed the discussions about controversies between the followers of Thomas and John. Pagel believes that John's gospel is more emphatic about the divine nature of Jesus because it seeks to correct growing misunderstanding in Christian communities, namely among the gnostic/new prophecy/mystery Christian groups. Source criticism holds that Mark is the home base of historical Jesus material, but Pagel holds that John became the theological home base for orthodox Christology and then Irenaeus's effort made it the predecessor to the Nicene creeds
What questions do you have for the author?
Your book is a historical reflection and partially personal reflection on loss and grief. How did your own experience affect the way you view the four gospels and their relationship to the apocryphal gospels?
Why should someone else read this book?
Because you may be curious about why John is so different than Matthew, Mark and Luke, and why Thomas is so different than all four of the canonical gospels. If you are intrigued by history, you will enjoy the discussion on Valentinus and Irenaeus as rival theologian philosophers. You may come to see the Gospel of John with a new set of lenses!
How many Burritos does this one get out of five?
4/5 Elaine Pagel made this very accessible and intriguing. She creates space for the diverse views of the works she mentions without favoring one side overtly or creating caricatures of the conflicting views to advance her arguments.