A Spirituality blog from our Community

An 8th century Austrian copy of the cannonical Gospels. This text, known as the Lindau Gospels was produced using fine metals and jewels, and depicts the four Gospels- but is there room for a fifth?

‘Thomas’ is a short text of about 5,000 words comprising 114 statements attributed to Jesus. It is a book of aphoristic wisdom like the book of Proverbs. Another text like this is the hypothetical text ‘Q’ from which we get Jesus’ sayings common to both Matthew and Luke that aren’t in Mark (about 200 verses), but that would have been longer and more detailed than Thomas. The sections appear to have been arranged at random and two of them appear twice. The manuscripts are prefaced with the declaration that they are the records of one Didymos Judas Thomas. This is not Judas Iscariot (it was a common name), but the disciple Thomas who in the Bible is sometimes known by his nickname ‘Didymos’ which means ‘the twin’ (the etymology of the prefix ‘di’ is the same as that of ‘dioxide’: twin = two). Thomas’ church community was in Syria so the text likely came from that area, although at §12 it says that Jesus gave all authority to James (rather than Peter) who was based in Jerusalem.[1]

It was discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt (two years before the Dead Sea Scrolls), among Christian and Gnostic documents and Greek philosophy including Plato’s Republic. Despite not having a narrative structure nor even mentioning Jesus’ death or resurrection it is usually known as a Gospel because it presents itself as the good news of Jesus sufficient and indeed necessary for salvation. The kind of salvation we are offered through ‘Thomas’ is rest and freedom from “the experience of death”.[2] The unique aspect of this message is that the text claims to be the secret sayings of Jesus, rather than a message that Jesus was always keen to spread.

What follows is a representative set of selections from the text.

“His disciples said to him, ‘When will the rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?’ He said to them, ‘What you are looking forward to has come, but you don’t know it.’”[3] The “kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father.”[4]

“The kingdom of the father is like a certain woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking on the road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her on the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty.”[5]

“The kingdom of the father is like a certain woman. She took a little leaven, concealed it in some dough, and made it into large loaves.”[6]

“The kingdom of the father is like a certain man who wanted to kill a powerful man. In his own house he drew his sword and stuck it into the wall in order to find out whether his hand could carry through. Then he slew the powerful man.”[7]

“Congratulations to those who are alone and chosen, for you will find the kingdom. For you have come from it, and you will return there again.”[8]

“The kingdom is like a man who had a hidden treasure in his field without knowing it. And after he died, he left it to his son. The son did not know (about the treasure). He inherited the field and sold it. And the one who bought it went plowing and found the treasure. He began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished.”[9]

“Whoever finds the world and becomes rich, let him renounce the world.”[10] “Businessmen and merchants will not enter the places of my father.”[11]

Simon Peter said to him, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’  Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’”[12]

“Mary said to Jesus, ‘Whom are your disciples like?’ He said, They are like children who have settled in a field which is not theirs. When the owners of the field come, they will say, ‘Let us have back our field.’ They (will) undress in their presence in order to let them have back their field and to give it back to them.”[13]

“It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all. From me did the all come forth, and unto me did the all extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”[14]

~~~~~~~~~

What’s the significance of these being ‘secret teachings’? What does that suggest to you; are they actually secret teachings?

A quarter of the sayings of Thomas are teachings made publicly in the canonical Gospels which refutes the claim of the preface that “these are the secret teachings that the living Jesus spoke”[15]. Having said that, most of these are phrased a bit differently, and that can be significant.

Do you remember anything in the four canonical Gospels about secret teachings?

The Synoptic Gospels mention teachings which Jesus gave only to his Apostles –what theologians have called the Messianic Secret – but don’t actually detail what they were. John, however, says that Jesus taught nothing in secret (18:20 c).

This doesn’t necessarily show that the evangelists had different records of the events, but only that they made different editorial decisions when it came to presenting Jesus. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus is reluctant to be seen as the messiah until it comes to the Paschal Mystery. Even then he is never presented as being God. In John by contrast, Jesus openly goes around telling people that he is the messiah (such as the woman by the well, John 4:1-26) and is identified with God several times (20:28, and cf. Exodus 3:14 : John 8:58; 6:35; 8:12; 10:9-11; 15:1; 11:25 and 14:6; ). It follows from this that the mysterious teaching which the authors of the Synoptic Gospels kept secret but the author of John did not was the divinity of Jesus. (Rudolf Bultmann argued that the discrepancy could be explained by Jesus actually having taught as in John but it remaining ‘secret’ to all but the apostles since ‘the world’ is blinded to this great truth (John 12:40).)

~~~~~~~~~

Because this was never included in the Bible we call it a non-canonical text, and it is also often called ‘apocryphal’ which connotes it being spurious. For all the controversy surrounding them, none of the non-canonical ‘Gospels’ deny the divinity of Jesus. ‘Thomas’ doesn’t say anything so specific as ‘Jesus is the messiah’ or ‘Jesus is God’, but it does endorse Paul’s vision of the Cosmic Christ at §77. Thomas was also “referred to by early Christian writers and given some authority by them.”[16]

“Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas as old as AD 200 have been found”[17] and our earliest historical record of the text dates it to the middle of the second century. But in its original form it could plausibly have been composed from AD 40 onwards. I say ‘original form’ because as a simple assortment of sayings the composition could be more fluid than with a structured story, with sayings being moved, added and removed over time. Indeed there is evidence for some fluidity because the fragments of Greek manuscript we have (the Nag Hammadi discovery was in Coptic) are slightly different.

Moreover, it seems plausible that Jesus’ important teachings would have been recorded first and the story of his life gradually elaborated around them, thus placing the basic text chronologically prior the four narrative Gospels in the cannon. This thesis is supported by the fact that such collections of sayings, characteristic of an oral tradition, had fallen into disuse among Christians by the end of the first century, placing its composition earlier.[18] This change was probably because the core of the canon had been established by then, which is itself another reason why it wouldn’t have made much sense to compose the text after then. And if someone did, an appeal to the authority of Thomas at that time would not have been very convincing since 1) the Church community would have easily identified it as fraudulent, and 2) the time in which individual apostles were sources of authority in their own right had passed; authority now lay collectively in the hands of the fledgeling Church hierarchy.[19]

There are, however, very good reasons for doubting that the ‘gospel’ as we know it pre-dates the canonical Gospels. In general it “uses vocabulary that comes from second century translations and harmonies of the four gospels.”[20] But more intriguingly about a tenth of the sayings recognisably express the doctrines of Gnosticism (particularly §§22 and 37, but also 3, 21, 24, 28, 49, 50, 61, 70, 83-4 and 109) and as even Bart Ehrman (a biblical scholar who believes there was nothing supernatural about Jesus’ life) concedes, these parts “cannot be dated with confidence prior to the beginning of the second century. Thus, while some of these sayings might be quite old –may in fact go back to Jesus himself– the document as a whole probably came to be written sometime after the New Testament Gospels (although perhaps independently of them), possibly in the early second century).”[21]

What was then was Gnosticism? A very diverse religious movement, Gnosticism became popular at around the same time as Christianity and was highly influenced by Neo-Platonist philosophy. The Neo-Platonists were metaphysical dualists who saw their tradition as representing, not only the insights of Plato, but the ancient wisdom of humanity across the world- something which can be seen in their congeniality with Indic philosophy. For the Neo-Platonists people were essentially spiritual beings who were inherently good because they are from God. Unlike souls in Christianity, these souls had never been created but were eternal and could be reincarnated in different bodies. They viewed human bodies and the whole physical world as inherently evil.

For the Gnostics this was because the world was the result of a cataclysmic rupture; human souls were literal children of God (often seen as gods in their own right) who had become trapped in the world like sparks of light scattered into the darkness. Over aeons of time our resistance to the ways of the world –and with it the memory of divine origins– had been eroded to nought. Gnosticism predates the development of the doctrine of Original Sin. For the Gnostics people are bad and unable to realise their potential because they have forgotten who they are and where they came from. Similar beliefs are found in much Hindu philosophy but there souls have always been ignorant of their quasi-divine status, rather than having forgotten it.

Realising this knowledge then is the path to holiness and salvation, and indeed the name ‘Gnostic’ originates from the ancient Greek for knowledge, gnosis. In this the Gnostics drew inspiration from Plato’s analogy of the cave (Republic 514a-17e), which depicts the attainment of intellectual knowledge of increasing abstraction as the path out the darkness. Significantly, the belief in an esoteric teaching that would save those who possessed it is compatible with the belief in a special person who had could make that teaching available. When Gnosticism came into contact with Christianity therefore, it seems that the belief in Jesus as saviour became blended with the Gnostic views of human falleness and salvation, creating a hybrid sect.

As we’ve seen though, not all of the text is Gnostic. The theme of the first selections -§§3 and 51- is that “the kingdom is not an earthly future but a spiritual present”.[22] Like the parable of the leaven after it, this is emphasised in the canon (“God’s kingdom is here with you” – Luke 17:21b), albeit often displaced by the message of a post-mortem paradise. (See Parables and the Kingdom of God.)

The parable of the broken jar seemed to me to have a similar message, that God has spread his kingdom far and wide- so secretly that even he didn’t notice it. A better suggestion, however, was that it is emphasising how we are so often not aware of the influence of our actions upon the world. It’s notable in these first two parables that the kingdom is compared to women, which may have been shocking to the audience in such a patriarchal society. Yet the tone of a few sections of Thomas, particularly §114, is very misogynist. This is unsurprising because the Gnostics viewed males as less worldly -and therefore more perfect- than females.

The parable of the assassin seems to just be advocating prudence. Plan, measure up your task and practice, and you will succeed, it says. I can imagine that Jesus really did speak this but that it wasn’t regarded as canon material, not only because of its overtones of violence, but the message of making your own mind up and taking action into your own hands which may have threatened the authority of the church hierarchy. For the individualist approach to salvation held by the Gnostics, however, this would have been apt.

The §109 parable of the treasure in the field is so radical an inversion of the similar canonical parable (the ‘pearl of great price’ Matt 13:44-6) that it possibly could have been written in response to it. Both §109 and §110 talk about treasure/wealth but there seems to be a tension between them- we thought they are probably talking about different types of treasure. §109 seems to be talking about knowledge which was the greatest (and most hidden) treasure for Gnostics, whereas §110 is talking about material wealth which they despised.

§§21 and 49 (as well as §§13, 19 and 28 that we didn’t read) express Plato’s idea that we have forgotten that we are spiritual beings that have become trapped in this physical world. Following this, the Gnostics taught that salvation is in propositional knowledge, discovering and thinking that the teachings are true, rather receiving forgiveness through the the power of the Resurrection or by living faithfully. “In the Christian story, this intellectual training is replaced by training in practical love. The wisdom of God is the wisdom of love, not of theoretical understanding. This wisdom, the Logos, enters the darkness of our world”.[23]

Which, if any, of these sections not in the cannon do you think are actual expressions of the path to spiritual truth? Could we read them in church and say ‘this is the word of God’?

> Several of us in our discussion group felt drawn to the more positive, zen-like aspects but were repelled by the impenetrability of the language (not, as was noted, that it is always easy to understand the Bible).

Can you think of things you’ve read or heard which drag Christianity back into the grip of the Gnostic distortions of salvation? 

Appendix 1 – Other Sects

Two other important groups active in the first centuries AD were the Manicheans and the Marcionites. Like Gnosticism, Manicheism was a religion heavily influenced by Platonic philosophy. But while the Platonists held that there was one God who was the source of all goodness, and that evil is merely an absence of good (like a shadow is an absence of light), the Manicheans held that there were two gods: one good and one evil. As a result of the eternal conflict between these two cosmic powers the world is a chaotic place. St. Augustine was famously a Manichean in early adulthood.[24]

Marcionism by contrast was a sect of Christianity which was quite powerful between the middle of the second and middle of the third centuries. Their founder, Marcion, took Paul’s contrast between the Good News of Christ and the burden of the Jewish Law to its logical extreme. Partly influenced by Manicheism, he emphasised the nasty bits of the Old Testament to identify the God of the Jews with the Devil -a god of evil- and the God of Jesus Christ with truth, justice and love.[25]

Appendix 2 – Why is the Canon the way it is?

The important date is the publication of Eusebius’ Church History in 311. This was a detailed work spanning ten volumes. Eusebius documented the developments in the selection, and authenticity of, most of the cannon as it now is. He says that the Book of Revelation was still heavily disputed but that the prospect that Thomas (and several other texts) could be authentic was no longer entertained. Some scholars such as Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy have claimed that Eusebius’ history was forged as propaganda for Constantine to use in inventing an orthodoxy under which to unite the Empire. But this is ridiculous because as scholars including Ehrman have pointed out, Eusebius didn’t work with Constantine until 14 years later at the First Council of Nicaea. And contrary to conspiracy theories such as found in The Da Vinci Code, there is no evidence the canon was even discussed at the Council (the main topic was the nature of Christ’s divinity).

In 367 the canon as we know it appeared for the first time in a letter by Athanasius. As the author conceded, there was still some dispute as to whether the Second Letter of Peter and a text called ‘the Shepherd of Hermas’ should be included. Despite not actually being ratified by a centralised council in the early Church, the Athanasian Canon took firm hold by convention. Starting with Augustine at the 393 Synod of Hippo, all the bishops’ conferences choose to adopt it for their regions. As such it seems very unlikely that it was a result of the Catholic hierarchy unilaterally acting to destroy all the parts of Jesus’ teaching that would undermine their authority. (Indeed, plenty of that still exists today!)

————

See the Next Part of Bible For Bluffers.

Notes

[1] Miller (ed.), (1992), p. 302

[2]Ehrman translation in Ehrman, (2003).

[3] §51, Scholars’ Translation. The ‘rest for the dead’ could be a time, a place, a state, a person…

[4] §3, Lambdin Translation. Cf. Luke 17:21b “God’s kingdom is here with you.”

[5] §97, Lambdin Translation

[6] §96, Lambdin Translation. Cf. Matthew 13:33 / Luke 13:20-1.

[7] §98, Lambdin Translation

[8] §49, Scholars’ Translation

[9] §§109, Lambdin Translation

[10] §§110, Lambdin Translation

[11] §64, Lambdin Translation

[12] §114, Lambdin Translation

[13] §21, Lambdin Translation

[14] §77, Lambdin Translation

[15] Scholars’ Translation

[16] Ward, (2011), p. 172

[17] Craig, (1998), p. 4

[18]Miller, (1992), p. 302

[19]Ibid

[20] Craig, (1998), p. 4

[21] Ehrman, (2003), p. 20

[22] Ward, (2011), p. 172. This message is also present at §113.

[23] Ibid, p. 173

[24] Ehrman, (2004)

[25] Ibid

Bibliography

Beutner, Edward F. (ed.), (2007), Listening To the Parables of Jesus, California, Polebridge Press (Jesus Seminar)

Craig, William Lane, (1998), ‘Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: The Presuppositions and Pretentions of the Jesus Seminar’, Faith and Mission, 15, (pp. 3-15)

Ehrman, Bart D., (2004), Lost Christianities: The Battle For Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Ehrman, Bart D., (2003), Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into the New Testament, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Lambdin, Thomas O. (trans.), The Gospel of Thomas

Miller, Robert J. (ed.), (1994), The Complete Gospels, California, Polebridge Press (Jesus Seminar)

Patterson, Stephen & Meyer, Marvin (trans.), (1992), The Gospel of Thomas: Scholar’s Version, (Jesus Seminar)

Ward, Keith, (2011), The Philosopher and the Gospels: Jesus Through the Lens of Philosophy, Oxford, Lion Hudson Plc.

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Comments on: "The ‘Gospel’ of ‘Thomas’" (2)

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