Most scholars believe that the majority of the lost Gospels were written decades and in some cases centuries after Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But a minority think one of the long-abandoned texts, the Gospel of Thomas, was very much on the mind of John's author when he sat down to write in about A.D. 95.
Elaine Pagels is part of that minority, which sees certain verses in John as refutations of Thomasine thought and a valuable illustration of how the early Christian communities lobbied for their version of Christ and his message. "I'm not saying [John] was responding to Thomas as written, because there may not have been a written text [yet]," she says. "But after you study them, it is inconceivable that the Gospel of John is not responding to some of these ideas." In her book Beyond Belief, Pagels adopts an argument proposed by Claremont Graduate University religion professor Gregory Riley. John's author, she says, was infuriated by Thomas' suggestion that Christians could gain salvation through esoteric knowledge and internal quest rather than straightforward belief in Jesus' divinity and atoning sacrifice. She claims that John "hammers home" that displeasure in a series of prickly interactions between Christ and--who else?--the Apostle Thomas.
The incidents culminate in John's indelible post-Resurrection portrait of Doubting Thomas, a man so obsessed with what he can "know" that he is blind to the greatest spiritual truth in human history. For it is Thomas who announces that he will not believe in the risen Christ "unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my ... hand in his side." When Jesus presents precisely this proof, writes Pagels, "Thomas, overwhelmed, capitulates and stammers out the confession, 'My Lord and my God!'" Jesus then turns pointedly to the other disciples and says, "Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe."
"John may have felt some satisfaction writing this scene," Pagels ventures. "In place of Thomas' cryptic sayings, John offers a simple formula: 'God loves you; believe, and be saved.'" --By David Van Biema. With reporting by Maggie Sieger/Chicago