Encouraged by the spirited discussion in the comments to my earlier post on the Gospel of Thomas, I dug up and read a copy of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003) by Elaine Pagels. I was surprised. From the title, I was expecting sort of a critical indictment of orthodox Christian views, using the "secrets" from Thomas to critque orthodox "belief." In fact, it is a crisp, clear review of early Christian history, with an emphasis on the slow development of the canon, the problematic role of Iraneus, and the fate of the Gospel of Thomas. Great book, lousy title.
In Pagels' treatment, the creeds of the 4th century were the culmination of a battle for power and authority in the early Church. That battle also resulted in the marginalization of "heretical" branches of Christianity, derided as "gnostics" by Iraneus and other orthodox leaders, as well as the eclipse of certain writings that were accepted as legitimate Christian writings by some groups but not, in the end, by the orthodox. The Gospel of Thomas was among the rejected writings.
The Gospel of John, of course, differs from the three "synoptic" gospels, for example viewing Jesus as fully informed of his messianic and divine role from the very beginning of his ministry. John shows Jesus delivering long, symbolic sermons rather than pithy epigrams and colorful parables. The Gospel of John, however, sounds remarkably like the text of the Gospel of Thomas in some places, often using similar language and images. "Both Thomas and John, for example, apparently assume that the reader already knows Mark and the others tell, and each claims to go beyond that story and reveal what Jesus taught in private."
But John (meaning the text and those who supported it) did not see eye to eye with Thomas (again, meaning the text and those who supported it). Where John depicts Jesus as the light of the world to whom each must look for salvation, Thomas has Jesus teaching that each person is a light unto themselves and must tap that inner light in order to achieve what we would now term spiritual growth. Followers of Thomas had a tendency to follow their own inner light wherever it led, often in creative directions that worked against the centralization and consolidation desired by leaders of the oft-beleaguered Christian communities scattered across the Roman world. John was, among other things, an indirect attack on the Thomas Christians and their writings. In John, Thomas is depicted as "doubting Thomas," the apostle who was not present when the resurrected Jesus appeared to his apostles, and John reports several deprecating exchanges between Jesus and Thomas. In contrast, John the apostle is depicted as "the beloved disciple" who has a special relationship with Jesus, bolstering the claim that the "secret teachings" presented in John are legitimate as compared to the teachings held out in Thomas.
It appears that gnostic Christians weren't heretics until aggessive orthodox leaders of the third and fourth century made them so. On the other hand, while gnostic Christians may sound like clever elaborators of basic Christian doctrines to us, or even as creative intellectuals to some, they no doubt came across as dividers and dissenters to those tasked with leading Christian communities. Gnostics might have been Christian, but they were problems, not solutions, in an age when Christian leaders had plenty of problems from outside the Church to contend with. Gnostics didn't have many friends in high places. Thus, when Constantine put his money on the Christians in the 4th century, the power that flowed to orthodox Christian leaders quickly moved gnostic Christians first to the margins and then completely outside the borders of the new official, catholic (i.e., universal) Church. In short order it was good-bye Thomas, to such a complete extent that the text was lost for 1500 years.
That's pretty much the storyline of the book. An LDS reader follows the tale, I suspect, with a good deal more sympathy than the average "every Bible word inspired" Evangelical, to whom the surprising diversity of Christian teachings and writings of the second century offers something of a puzzle and a challenge. Let's give the last word to Thomas, who has Jesus saying the following about the effect of his words on the world, but which one might also apply to the modern Gospel of Thomas itself: I have thrown fire on the world. Look! I watch until it blazes. (GT 10).