Matthew, Mark, Luke and... Thomas?

What would Christianity be like if gnostic texts had made it into the Bible?

As a young researcher at Barnard College, Elaine Pagels changed the historical landscape of Christianity by exploding the myth of the early church as a unified movement. Her findings were published in the "The Gnostic Gospels," an analysis of 52 early Christian manuscripts unearthed in Egypt. "The Gnostic Gospels" won both the National Book Critic’s Circle Award and the National Book Award and was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best books of the 20th Century.

Her latest book, "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas," focuses on religious claims to ultimate "truth." She contends that, as Christianity became increasingly institutionalized, it became more politicized and less pluralistic.

She was interviewed about her latest work by Beliefnet's religion producer, Laura Sheahen.

In describing your earlier work, you say the 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi ancient Christian texts "allowed the heretics to speak for themselves." What did the heretics say?

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What they found in that discovery was over 50 early Christian texts that we just had never known about. We knew there were terrible heretics who said terrible things, but we didn't have what they actually said, we only had what their enemies said. It's like reading what one political party says about the other, trying to reconstruct their opponent's viewpoints. It really doesn't work well at all.

So for the first time we had a very wide range of early Christian sources. And we began to see very clearly that what we call Christianity is a rather small selection, a small slice, of a much wider horizon. What survived as orthodox Christianity did so by suppressing and forcibly eliminating a lot of other material.

It's hard to characterize these texts in one simple way, because there's a whole library of different things. But most of them are about the premise of finding access to God for oneself. That's why the monks who hid them liked them, and that's why the bishops didn't like them, because if you can find God for yourself you might not need a church or bishops or the whole ecclesiastical apparatus.

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