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?

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.

One of the biggest "finds" was the Gospel of Thomas (read the text), which some people call a gnostic gospel. Your new book puts forward the hypothesis that the canonical Gospel of John may have been written in response to Thomas' gospel, to refute Thomas.

Yes. Many people have pointed out that the two gospels have a lot in common. They are both different from the other gospels we know, as symbolic and poetic interpretations of Jesus' teaching. But they have a very different practical turn. They both speak about Jesus as the divine light of the world that comes into the world, and the divine energy of God manifested in human form. But the message of the Gospel of John is that Jesus alone is that divine presence among us. Thomas' gospel suggests that Jesus taught something quite different, which is that everyone, in fact all being, came from that divine source [and that we can access that divinity on our own].

Yet you say in the book that the very 'heretics' who embraced Thomas' ideas were drawn to the Gospel of John.

It is surprising. They could read [John] as poetry, with a wide range of interpretation. If you can read it that way, you can find things in it that Christians have found in it for hundreds of years: mysticism, poetry. It's precisely for that reason that one of the second-century church fathers, Irenaeus, said, "The Gospel of John is all right, but you have to read it my way." His way meant Jesus alone offers access to salvation and that believing in him is the only way to truth, and that not believing is a sure path to damnation.

This, of course, has been the fundamental teaching of many Christians for thousands of years. I'm not trying to discredit it, I'm just saying, "This is not the only possible construction of Christianity by a long shot."

Many people point to Jesus' statement in John 14:6: "No one comes to the father but by me." But in the totality of the accepted Christian canon, there are passages that do indicate there's a spark of the divine in everyone.

There's "The kingdom of God is within you" in Luke, as you mention in the book, or Paul's "your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit." Other parts of the Christian canon seem to put forward this more open view that you say is characteristic of Thomas' gospel.

It shows that the teaching of Jesus was recorded and transmitted in various ways. These suggestions [of divinity within oneself] are absolutely there, in Luke and all over the place, if you're looking for them. But they were later placed in a context of a much more strict interpretation, so they're often read that way.