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The History and Nature of the Gospel of Thomas


And now, a bit of history...


December 1945; Upper Egypt (near Nag Hammadi)

    One morning, Muhammad 'Ali al-Samman and his brother Khalifah saddled up their camels and rode off for the Djebel el-Tarif, a near-by mountain. The journey would take them several hours, so during the trip they talked. Mostly, their discussions focused on a man who lived in a near-by village. His name was Ahmad Hawara.

    The two brothers were plotting his murder.

    Back in May, Ahmad had killed Muhammad 'Ali's father, the latest victim of an ongoing blood feud. Muhammad 'Ali wished to avenge his dad's death, and bandied ideas with Khalifah on how best to achieve this ghoulish goal. At his side he had a mattock, which his mother advised him to keep sharp, should they happen to find the monster who made her a widow. For now, however, he intended to use it to dig sabakh, a soft nitrogen-rich soil that is good natural fertilizer.

    They reached Djebel el-Tarif, an imposing mound with over one hundred and fifty caves, and chose a suitable place to hobble their camels. Muhammad 'Ali began to dig around a boulder, and to his surprise encountered something solid buried in the ground. Quickly, he unearthed a large clay pot, caked with ages of earth. The top, he saw, was sealed on with bitumen.

    Muhammad 'Ali pondered this a moment, extremely uneasy. After all, just to the north on another side of el-Tarif was an old graveyard. Officials who served the pharaohs of the Sixth Dynasty with distinction were interned there. He considered the jar before him, mattock in hand. To him, there was the very real possibility that it might contain a djinn, and breaking it open would release it. Muhammad 'Ali had no desire to free (and then confront) an evil spirit. But of course, it might also contain gold. He weighed his options, and greed conquered superstition. Hefting his mattock, he smashed open the top.

A shower of tiny golden flakes rose up on crests of stale air, to be carried away by the wind. Leaning over, Muhammad 'Ali looked inside. He found it held, not gold or spirits, but thirteen leather-bound books, filled with crumbling, yellowed pages that flaked off and blew away as he pulled the tomes out to examine them. The pages were cracked and brittle, and filled with an elegant calligraphy totally lost on his illiteracy.

He had no idea what they were, but was certain of one thing: these books were ancient.

Which meant that they were valuable. Antiques dealers in Cairo just loved these things, and paid good money for them. So, wrapping them in his tunic, he returned home and put them on a bed of straw right next to the stove. His mother was pleased: not only had her son brought fertilizer for their crops, he apparently found some kindling as well.

Her joy became even greater a month later when she learned that Ahmad was near by. She urged her sons to go seek vengeance, and then tossed another codex on the fire to brew up a cup of tea. Muhammad 'Ali and his six brothers carried out their mission with a zeal that would have made mama proud. In fact, they attacked Ahmad while he was asleep, and "...hacked off his limbs bit by bit, ripped out his heart, and devoured it among them, as the ultimate act of blood revenge."1

    Unfortunately for them, the person they had chosen to kill was the son of the local sheriff. Ahmad was not very popular, and the villagers (who had eagerly shown Muhammad 'Ali where Ahmad was) suddenly suffered acute amnesia regarding the whole affair. During the investigation, Muhammad 'Ali learned that the authorities were going to search his house for evidence. He decided it prudent to sequester the books, until he could eventually get to Cairo to sell them. He gave several to friends for safe-keeping. He also gave one to a Coptic priest, knowing that a priest's house would hardly be searched. The priest agreed to keep it for him, and put it aside without looking at it.

    Coptic priests can marry, and this priest's brother-in-law happened to be visiting. He saw Muhammad 'Ali's codex, suspected its value, and promptly stole it. He took it to an antiques dealer in Cairo, who bought it for 250. Most, if not all, of Muhammad 'Ali's "friends" did likewise over the next year as the homicide investigation dragged on. This eventually attracted the attention of the Department of Antiques, who began to acquire them (and ultimately resorted to nationalization to get possession.)

    Still, several of the codices made a successful exodus from Egypt. One was purchased by the Carl Jung Foundation and presented to the psychologist on his ightieth birthday. The CJF made the first serious attempt to translate their work, which turned out to be an anthology containing titles such as The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Apocryphon (i.e.: "Secret Book") of James, The Gospel of Truth, and The Treatise on the Resurrection.  Unfortunately, numerous pages were missing, making any sort of translation at that point difficult at best.

    In an effort to solve this, Professor Giles Quispel investigated the history of the codex and flew to the Coptic Museum in Cairo where the surviving texts had eventually been acquired. It turned out that they did have most of the missing pages from what is now known as the Jung Codex, and they agreed to give him photographs of the missing pages, plus several of the other texts as well. Hurrying back to his hotel room, Quispel began deciphering the ancient manuscripts.

    His curiosity quickly turned to astonishment when the very first thing he read was:

    These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.

    After nearly two millennia, The Gospel According to Thomas had finally been found.

*  *  *

    The Gospel of Thomas contained in Muhammad 'Ali's Codex is not a biography or a Passion romance in the fashion of other Gospels, but as its incipit states, it is a collection of over one hundred "secret sayings of the living Jesus." About half of the sayings have direct parallels to sayings recorded in the Canonical gospels, much of the other half can be linked theologically to the rest of the New Testament. Perhaps most importantly, almost every saying in Thomas has either a direct or allusional reference point in the Old Testament.

    It could be argued that to deny the authenticity of Thomas is to deny the authenticity of the entire Bible.

    Or it could be argued that Thomas is merely a redundant rehash with subversive filler.

    For every five scholars who argue it is authentic, another five argue otherwise. All ten offer convincing "evidence" that frequently contradicts the "evidence" of the other nine. Thankfully, the answer(s) must ultimately be decided by the individual reader, who hopefully will say afterward, "I agree because..." or "I don't agree because..."

    It can also be argued that this very thought-provoking procedure was the real reason Thomas was suppressed.

    The existence of the Gospel of Thomas has been known to scholars since the origins of Christianity, but no (known) copies have survived any of the puritanical purges. The work is mentioned by the early church fathers, and (not surprisingly) almost always in a negative context.

    Hippolytus mentions a 'Gospel of Thomas' in his report on the Naassenes (Refutatio, ca 223-235CE) and quotes saying 4.2

    About 233. Origin, in his first homily on Luke, mentions the Gospel of Thomas on a list of heterodox gospels. Two different versions of his homily have survived, each noticeably different. Jerome's Latin translation reads, "I know of a certain gospel which is called 'The Gospel according to Thomas' and a 'Gospel according to Matthias', and many others we have read - lest we should in any way be considered ignorant because of those who imagine that they possess some knowledge of these." Greek fragments from Catenae alternately read "That is to say there are also in circulation the Gospel according to Thomas and the Gospel according to Matthias and some others. These belong to those who 'have taken it in hand'." (The last is a citing of Luke 1:1, meaning that these other writers were writing without the aid of the Holy Spirit.)

    Eusebius of Caesarea sites a Gospel of Thomas among apocrypha "...which have been adduced under apostolic names by the heretics."

    Philip of Side (c. 430), referring to Eusebius, says "...most of the elders had completely rejected the so-called Gospel of Thomas as well as the Gospel of the Hebrews3 and that of Peter, saying that these were the work of heretics."

    In December, 1905, diggings at Oxyrynchus (now Behnesa, in middle Egypt) unearthed over a thousand fragments of unidentified Greek Biblical script dating from the first two centuries. Included was an account of Jesus visiting the Temple and arguing with a Pharisee named Levi (OP 840), a narrative of Jesus' dinner at Matthew Levi's (OP 1224), and, on OP 654:

  These are the words which<...
Jesus spoke, the living, a<nd..
(who) also (is called) Thomas, and he said<...
these words<...
will he not taste.

    In 1952 it was established that Papyrus 1 and 655 also were fragments of Thomas.

    The books found by Muhammad 'Ali are known collectively as the Nag Hammadi Library. The Gospel According to Thomas is the second work of the second Codex (NHC II,2) page 32 line 10 to page 51 line 28 (between The Apocryphon of John and The Gospel of Philip.) The Codices were written and buried c. 450, but as we have seen, Thomas was written much, much earlier.

    The NHL was composed in Coptic, an Egyptian language that uses characters of the Greek alphabet. Scholars are in general agreement that Thomas was originally written, like all the Canonical works, in Greek.

    Going from Greek to Coptic is tricky. The best example of this is NHC VI,5 which contains an excerpt from Plato's Republic (588a-589b). When first translated, VI,5 was not recognized for what it was, in part because the flowing language of Plato does not transmit well into the much clumsier Coptic. Careful paralleling of the original text and its Coptic translation show it to be more than a bad translation. The work has to do the human soul, and the parts of VI,5 that deviate the most have almost no relation to what Plato meant. It has been demonstrated that portions of VI,5 have been altered to fit a specific theology.

    A similar problem exists with the Nag Hammadi edition of Thomas. Comparisons of the Coptic text with the excerpts from Oxyrynchus show that it has undergone some change. This is not only in the language and imagery, but of the eighteen passages preserved from Oxyrynchus, two of them are noticeably different, and several unique. Scholars are not wholly convinced that the Greek Oxyrynchus Fragments are the Gospel's original form, but even if they are, it is clear that Coptic Thomas has suffered from at least one revision.

    In studying texts for tampering, one thing to look for is what both writers and scholars call an 'editorial seam.' This is where text changes abruptly in voice or intent. A good example is Numbers 25:1-9. When at verse 6 the villains abruptly change from Moabites to Midianites, and a previously unmentioned plague suddenly stops, we clearly have a seam.

    Of course, seam-hunting isn't a monopoly of Biblical scholars (or novelists with too much time on their hands)--it's a game anyone can play!

    The very nature of Thomas makes seam-hunting a trying task. All too easily, a spurious saying could be added: all that's required is a "Jesus said" prefix and you're in. Likewise, saying some wag scribe found distasteful could be deleted or altered and no one would know--especially if all other copies had been burned by fun-loving Inquisitors. But perhaps most importantly, the order of the sayings in the Coptic version does not always agree with the order of the Oxyrynchus Papyri.

    In short, the Coptic Gospel of Thomas is a corrupt text.

    These corruptions have two side effects: suspicion and frustration. We must be suspicious of how closely Coptic Thomas mirrors its Greek original, and we are frustrated because there is currently no way of knowing without an earlier, more immaculate copy.

    This makes determining the authorship, place, and time of composition of "autograph" copy extremely difficult. The incipit of Thomas specifically identifies the author is "Dydimus Judas Thomas". This is the form of the apostle Thomas's name favored by Syrian Manicheans. There is evidence to support that one of the redactions--if not the actual writing itself--occurred in Syria. The church father Cyril, naturally, denies that the author was the apostle, but a Syrian disciple of Mani also called Thomas. The Manicheans were known to have used the text, and parts of it do have Manichean leanings.4   But again, almost all of it has direct relation to the New (and Old!) Testament.

    Like the canonical Gospels, the question of authorship will probably never be resolved. If you would like my opinion, however, I think it is no less authentic than the four Canonical gospels. Remember: we do not for certain who wrote those, either. The Synoptics were originally anonymous, and decisions of authorship came about in the second century based on legend and (especially with Luke, often suspect) exegesis. Matthew was determined to have written Matthew solely because 9:9 differs from Mark 2:14/Luke 5:27. The authorship attestation of John 21:20-25 is missing (along with most of Chapter 8) from the earliest sources. Until we have better evidence, we simply do not know for sure who wrote any of these. With criteria like that, I nominate Thomas for canonization. For what it's worth, though, I suspect that in its original form, The Gospel of Thomas probably was written (or contributed to) by somebody who actually had heard these sayings when they were said, quite possibly the apostle Thomas himself.

    At this point it is worth discussing this person in detail. After all, to understand a work, it is important to understand its creator (or at least the person cited as such.) Even if Thomas did not write this gospel, a person or collective saw fit to nominate him out of at least twelve others to be the bearer of this message. So who was he, and why was he so special?

    There is, of course, credible debate over whether an apostle named Thomas actually existed. If there was no historical Thomas, this is certainly bad news for the monastery of Saint John (Patmos) who believe that they have the apostle's head. Opinions vary from Thomas being a wholly fictitious creation (a purpose, not a person) to being a minor follower of Jesus later overdramatized (a person into a purpose.) Weeding out the filler is a lot like eating puffer fish: you have to extract a tasty nugget surrounded by deadly poison.

    Whether or not there was a physical apostle Thomas, it serves us to study the how he is portrayed. If we can discern Thomas's purpose, perhaps we can then discern Thomas's. "Thomas," of course, is not a proper name. Much the same way "Peter" was a nickname, "Thomas" is simply Aramaic for "twin." The Greek of John clarifies Thomas is also called "Didymus" (DidumoV) the name which appears in the incipit. Unfortunately, "Didymus" is Greek for "twin", so we have 'twin called the twin.' The incipit further clarifies that his real name was Judas, which is echoed by the Book of Thomas (NHC II,7) and the Acts of Thomas. Most importantly, Eusebius, in his commentary on the twelve apostles, also sites his true name as Judas.

    John 14:22 makes it clear that there was more than one Judas, though Thaddaeus is apparently a form of this name as well. For those who don't know, Judas was a very common name back then.

    But who was Judas Thomas the twin brother of? Twin is a tricky translation: the implication can two siblings either from the same "litter," or two that simply look alike.5  

    A Judas is listed on both lists of Jesus's brothers. Many contemporary New Testament commentators have attributed this to Thaddaeus, and one (Hyam Maccoby) to none other than Judas Iscariot. However, the Acts of Thomas 1:11 is quite specific:
  "And he (a bridegroom) saw the Lord Jesus in the likeness of the apostle Judas Thomas, who shortly before had blessed them and departed from them, conversing with the bride, and he said to him: 'Didst thou not go out before them all? How art thou now found here?' But the Lord said to him: 'I am not Judas who is also Thomas, I am his brother.' "  


    Many scholars claim that Thomas was James (the Lord's brother's) twin, and some that he was Matthew's (for that is who he is usually paired with on apostle lists). Here's a clue as to what I think: in Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, Thomas (seated at the table second from the left) is Christ in profile.

    Twin has also been interpreted metaphorically: one whose understanding was equal to Jesus's.

    Thomas is best remembered as "Doubting Thomas" (a term which originated in Harper's Magazine in 1883.) With cynicism that would do any skeptic proud, he refused to believe until confronted with physical evidence (compare saying 97)6. Hey--I can relate to that totally. Thomas always struck me as the most level-headed guy in the whole New Testament. Many people see this story as too good to be true, with the message to the reader being "Blessed is he who hasn't seen yet believes." Its omission from the synoptics makes it even more suspect - if true, the story was too good not to be reported by all. There are several legends that Thomas preached the Word in India, and a group there (Christians of Saint Thomas) claim theological descendency from him.  The Roman Catholics claim that he was martyred in India on July 3rd, which happens to be my birthday.

    Aside from his death date, another thing I like about Judas Thomas was that he would seem to be a prolific writer. The Chronography of Nicephorus (Patriarch of Constantinople 806-815) cites a Circuit of Thomas on a brief index of New Testament Apocrypha. This is the only reference to this document I have ever found; according to Nicephorus, it is 1600 lines long (300 more than the Gospel of Thomas, which is listed after it.)

    Among Thomasine material I have found are two versions of an Apocalypse of Thomas: either one is a condensed version of the other, or the second is an elaboration on the first. The world ends in seven days with seven signs. Comparatively weak stuff when compared with Apocalypse's of Peter, James (of which there are two completely different ones!) or good ol' John of Patmos (aka Revelation.)

    An Infancy Gospel of Thomas had been known--and roundly condemned as a heretical forgery--for centuries. Different versions have been found, and dating makes it possible to actually trace the evolution of the text to an extent, though the original is still to clouded by rubbish and redaction. It is an account of Jesus's childhood between the ages of five and twelve, ending with a brutal cut and paste of Luke 2:41-52. The titles are alternately Infancy of the Lord Jesus (Syriac), Account of the Lord, by Thomas the Israelite philosopher (Greek MS A), or Book of the holy apostle Thomas concerning the life of the Lord in his infancy (Greek MS B). In it, Jesus is depicted performing miracles and wonders galore, many of which seem to foreshadow the events in the gospels with suspicious frequency. Oftentimes, the miracles performed are but vulgar displays of power, designed to impress the reader - without any consideration of the story's implications. For instance, a boy beat Jesus in a foot race, so Jesus (impressively!) smote him dead. To my knowledge, there is universal agreement that the author (or primary redactor) was a gentile Christian with little to no knowledge of things Jewish. New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann put it best: "Although lacking in good taste, restraint and discretion, it must be admitted that the man who collected these legends and composed the (Infancy) Gospel of Thomas was endowed with a gift of vivid story-telling, especially when he depicts scenes from everyday childhood."7

    It is worth mentioning that Pistis Sophia (Codex Askewianus), after his resurrection Jesus instructed Philip, Matthew, and Thomas to set down his words in writing. Thomas also gets two question/answer sessions with Jesus. Also, The Dialogue of the Savior (NHC III,5) is a heavily damaged (and heavily gnostic) transcript of a conversation between "The Savior", Mary, Matthew, and "Judas." To my knowledge here is no (surviving) indication which Mary is present, or if the Judas in question was Iscariot (considered most probable,) Thaddaeus, or Thomas.

    Two books have also been written about the apostle Thomas, and it has been suggested that one of them may have been partially written by Thomas himself. The same codex which held the Gospel of Thomas also contained the Book of Thomas. This work was completely unknown until the accident of its discovery. The title has been alternately translated The Book of Thomas the Contender or The Book of Thomas the Athlete.

    The secret words that the Savior spoke to Judas Thomas and which I, Matthew, wrote down, while I was walking, listening to them speak with one another. The Savior said: 'Brother Thomas, listen to me, while you still have opportunity in the world, that I may reveal to you what you have pondered in your mind.'

    The first half of the book is a dialogue between Jesus and Thomas, the rest is an extended monologue by Jesus. Seams can be demonstrated, and the consensus is that this is two different documents pasted together. One hypothesis is that the first half was written by Thomas himself, and the monologue was recorded by Matthew on another occasion; for unclear reasons, the two were grafted into something resembling its present form. Unlike the Gospel, where he is shown to have special insight, Thomas in the Book does not make a particularly good showing--the few questions he asks show a marked lack of understanding. Interestingly enough, one of the subjects the two discuss is doubt and non-belief. Strictly speaking, it is not a particularly happy document. If it's any indication, the recurring image (i.e.: secret word of the day) is fire. It is also heavily seamed with gnostic thought, especially Manicheism.

    So, too, is the Acts of Thomas. This is essentially a gnostic historical romance which tells of Thomas's travels to India after Pentecost. It also tells of his death, which makes the chances of his authorship unlikely at best8. Still, it is by far the most readable of the individual Acts of the apostles, and if nothing else is a neat story. Parts of it, such as the Hymn of the Pearl, are known from Syriac scripts. Aside from its beautiful language, it also has a fascinating (and passionately reverent) deeper allegorical level that is the hallmark of gnosticism.

    So, too, does the Gospel of Thomas. Indeed, the very first saying, Jesus invites the reader to look for a deeper meaning into the parables. Many of the sayings are universal, but many of them make the most sense in a gnostic context. It is therefore worth discussing gnosticism for a moment.

    History is always written by the winners, so it is no surprise that the gnostics have been portrayed so poorly. A simple, blunt fact: until the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church was the overwhelmingly dominant force in Christianity, with schisms, dissensions, and new ideas crushed by spiritual death (excommunication) or physical (inquisition/crusade.) Until recently, all that was known of the Gnostics was what was written by certain church fathers in works condemning them. This is analogous to Joseph Goebells describing Jews, or Rush Limbaugh describing Bill Clinton. With the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, however, the gnostics were finally able to present their thoughts in their own words. Reading the NHL, it quickly becomes apparent why gnosticism was censured (and censored.) However, in many cases, it can be proven that the censures had no clue as to the true nature of what they were censuring. So what, then, is gnosticism?

    Jehovah's Witnesses, Amish, Mormons, Greek Orthodox, and Branch Davidians all claim to be Christians, but when paralleled, their beliefs often make them seem totally different religions. So, too, with Gnosticism. Marcion, Valentinus, and Mani were all Gnostics, but their ideas are often worlds apart.

    Roughly, though, Gnosticism is a hybrid of Kabbalism and dualism. Good and Evil are both equals, and it was believed that the physical universe was not the creation of the Good God but an (imperfect) Evil Demiurge. Gnostics were divided into different schools on who that demiurge was, but they all believed that physical matter was bad (if not downright evil.) They also believed that inside man was a divine spark. It was trapped in this evil physical matter, and existence as such was frequently viewed as an accident. Gnostics were fascinated by the Garden of Eden story, and wrote extensive commentaries on it. And while much of their literature was devoted to explaining how the divine spark became separated from (the true) God, an equal proportion was spent explaining how to get it back to its rightful place.

    Gnosticism is primarily a religion of redemption, and that redemption came through knowledge. This knowledge was called "Gnosis" (gnwseV), Greek for the same word.) Again, there are differences between sects as to what this knowledge was: often it was simple awareness of your fallen state, other systems included secret passwords that must be known to enter Beyond. With some notable exceptions, such as followers of Mani and Simon Magus, Gnostics almost universally heralded Jesus Christ as the bringer of this knowledge. Just as the Jews awaited a Messiah, the Gnostics awaited a Redeemer. Jesus was both. It was how the Gnostics interpreted their Redeemer's actions and teachings--and in fact, the whole Bible--that the church fathers found fault with.

    It's not hard to see why. Simply put, parts of the Bible make no sense. Contrary to Leviticus 11:6, a rabbit does not chew a cud. The Bible contradicts itself on everything from minutiae (the spelling of the King of Tyre's name in 1st Kings 5:1 vs. 2nd Chronicles 2:3) to major matters (Jesus's last words on the cross: Matthew 27:46 = Mark 15:34 vs. Luke 23:46 vs. John 19:30; compare also Gospel of Philip 72:1 and Gospel of Peter 5:17.) The case against inerrancy is nailed shut by two incompatible stories of the demise of Judas Iscariot: Matthew 27:5-10 (which itself confuses Jeremiah 18:1-3 with Zechariah 11:12-13) vs. Acts 1:18-19. If the Bible as a whole is taken literally, the world is six thousand years old, was created in twenty-four hours, is flat, rectangular (i.e.: having "four corners") and is the center of the universe. There's no two ways about it: that is pure bullshit.

    However, the Gnostics were apparently the first to realize what to me is common sense: If the Bible is contradicted by direct evidence, it does not mean that the Bible is wrong. What it probably means is that you need to interpret it differently (i.e.: don't take it literally, moron.) Gnostics excelled in Biblical speculation and deeper interpretation (from the Kabbalah), and are often acknowledged to be the first Christian theologians (after Paul, of course.) Indeed, Clement of Alexandria, of whom we shall learn more at the end of this exciting commentary, used the term "gnostic" to describe anyone who had penetrated deeper into the mysteries of truth than the average believer.9 As we shall see, many of the gnostics' conclusions raised the wrath of prominent Catholic leaders.

    But it was more than their interpretations that choked the Catholic chain. Gnosis was a personal thing, and gnostics stressed an individual's relationship with God. This meant that they had no use for organized congregations with hierarchies, which the Catholics favored. Subsequently they ignored them--and the Catholics who used them. In many cases, gnostics violently opposed the Roman Church, saying that the Catholics did not actually serve the true God but only the (evil) creator Demiurge. This was a direct threat to the Church's monopoly on Christian teaching and structure. "Heresy" is Greek for "choice", so by calling the Gnostics heretics, the Church was simply saying that they were making the wrong choice (we have Saint Augustine to thank for the Catholic doctrine that Choice is evil.) The rigid, entrenched mentality of orthodoxy must be taken into account: the past two thousand years have shown that they insist that only their interpretations are correct, and when you choose to find an alternate meaning of something, by their definition you are automatically wrong. When the Catholic Church flourished under Constantine, it suddenly had the weight of the Imperial army behind it. What it could not defeat with ideology, it vanquished with brute force. The Donatist schism (fourth century) was ended this way, though no two historians agree on how many thousands died. When a form of Gnosticism appeared in France in the thirteenth century (the so-called Albigensian, or Cathar, heresy), the Church launched the first Inquisition to eradicate it--and about half of France while they were at it. It is worth mentioning that despite--or even because of--their gnostic leanings, the Albigensians were undergoing a cultural renaissance while the rest Europe still mired in the Middle Ages. By destroying one of the few centers of learning, the Catholic Church was able to prolong its world rule for several centuries.

    Depending on your point of view, one of the beauties or one of the problems with the Bible is that, by carefully picking and choosing your passages, you can get anything you want out of it. For instance, Martin Luther wholeheartedly embraced (to put it mildly) Paul's letter to the Romans, which emphasized justification by faith, but completely ignored James's emphasis of good works (calling it "a right strawy epistle.") Likewise, by performing esegesis (as opposed to exegesis), it is possible to make Jesus into anything you want. Using passages from the canonical gospels, scholars, theologians, and lay alike have "proven" that Jesus was a pharisee, an essene, a revolutionary zealot intent on overthrowing Roman occupation, a Kabbalist mystic, a Marxist, a supply-side Republican, and even a Taoist. {and, of course, others have also found passages to repudiate every assertion} Likewise, Gnostics, using the very canonical gospels themselves, interpreted Jesus as one of their own.

    Scholars continue to debate the effects of Gnosticism on "mainstream" Christianity, and on the canonic gospels themselves. The gnostic concept of a divine spirit trapped in weak, imperfect flesh can be found in Matthew 26:41 (= Mark 14:38) and especially Romans 8:3-9. John 1:1 has been demonstrably traced to a Judeo-gnostic hymn that predates Christianity. Indeed, Elaine Pagels published gnostic exegeses of both John and the authentic Pauline letters, convincingly showing that they are more at home in Gnostic thought than Orthodox.

    In one aspect, however, Gnosticism had an unquestionable effect on the New Testament: the books were specifically selected to counter it.

    In the third century, an important gnostic named Marcion reached a conclusion: the God of the Old Testament is not the God of the New. The God of the Old Testament was the demiurge who created the (evil) world. For instance, in 2nd Samuel 24:1, God told David to take a census of his people, but in 1st Chronicles 21:1 the very same census was inspired by Satan; therefore God and Satan are one in the same, and thus not to be worshipped. Jesus was the Redeemer, but Marcion's interpretation of him was different than the "Catholic Line." Since matter was evil, he had no interest in the historical Jesus. In the choice between The Man and The Message, Marcion unequivocally chose The Message. To him, the only works of import were the Pauline letters, which, for the most part, only deal with the significance of the resurrection. Marcion composed a list of works he considered authoritative. In it, he completely threw out the Old Testament and all contemporary works on Jesus (i.e.: Matthew, Mark, John et al), and only kept the Pauline epistles and an edited version of Luke. Most importantly, Marcion claimed to have secret teachings from Paul himself! A number of tracts in the NHL purport to be either by or about Paul, though I do not know if any of these were among the ones Marcion claimed to have.

    A different list was composed by his contemporary, Valentinus, which combined New Testament selections with other works--many of which were found at Nag Hammadi. Indeed, several works from the codices have a distinctly Valentinian flavor, and there is something to be said for the hypothesis that the Gospel of Philip and Gospel of Truth were redacted--if not actually composed--by Valentinus himself.

    The Catholic response was fairly immediate. Bishop Irenaeus countered with a list of his own of what the authoritative works should be. He decreed that there were only four authentic gospels. His logic was that there were four compass-points, four oceans, and four corners of the world; therefore it was divinely decreed that there should be four gospels. Whew. It is important to emphasize that personal preference played as much a part in his selection as did mathematical coincidence: the list was more a reflection of his own beliefs than Christianity as a whole. In response to the Valentinians (who used too many texts) and the Marcionites (who didn't use enough), he drafted an index of what the "authoritative" teaching were. He urged that these works--and only these works--were to be read to the illiterate laity. This list inspired subsequent church fathers to compose similar lists of "good" and "bad" material (it is from such lists that we have our earliest testimonies to the existence of the Gospel of Thomas.) It was not until relatively late (i.e.: sixth century) that the catalogs developed a continuity. On many of the early indexes, only the synoptic gospels were cited as "laity-approved"--John was either ignored or classified as heretical due to the above-mentioned gnostic undertone. Also frequently omitted (and condemned as heretical concoctions) were the epistles of James, Jude, 2nd Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, and the Apocalypse of John (i.e.: Revelations, which was not fully accepted until the tenth century.) Conversely held as authentic and acceptable were the Gospel of Peter, Epistle of Barnabus, The Shepherd of Hermas, the Acts of Paul, the Revelation of Peter, and the Teachings (didixai) of the Apostles. However, these were later excised from the authoritative lists when evidence became overwhelming that they were spurious. But despite similar evidence concerning the epistle to Titus and the First (and Second) Letter to Timothy, those three were kept. Partly because they contain some of the best proofs for keeping women in their place (1st Timothy 2:12.) Aside from patriarchal social justifications, there are also numerous anti-Gnostic (and thus pro-orthodox) teachings: "Avoid... falsely called knowledge." (6:20) It has been postulated that the heretical communities discussed in Colossians and Jude were also Gnostic communities, though if they were, they had strayed considerably from the "orthodox" gnosticism. Both communities were into gross physical excess, and as we have seen, gnosticism generally stood opposed to all things physical.

    But whatever effects gnosticism had on the New Testament, the New Testament clearly had an effect on the gnostics. They quoted from it (or, at least, what would become it) as often as they quoted from their own materials. I find it interesting, by the way, that nothing from the New Testament was found at Nag Hammadi. But then again, at least three of the codices were burned as fuel for the stove, so there is no way of knowing what was lost.

    Although the Gospel of Thomas has clear origins in the New Testament, it also--in its Coptic form--bears distinct gnostic overtones. The crucial question, of course, is how much is authentic, and how much is the result of later gnosticising. This question will probably never be satisfactorily answered, unless an earlier edition is discovered. However, some observations are in order.

    There is no doubt that much of it goes back to the historical Jesus. Scholars studying the Q Gospel theory have written extensively on the similarities. At first it was wondered if Thomas actually was the suspected Q, though the general consensus remains that it is not. Thomas contains too many unique sayings, and there are enough Matthew/Luke sayings without Thomasine parallel to support that. The Q-type sayings Thomas does have fall into specific categories, which helped scholars plot the evolution of Q, but in fact more was learned about Q than Thomas. In fact, the consensus is that Thomas developed independently of Q, though at the same time, and many prominent New Testament scholars are of the opinion that many of the sayings in Thomas are actually of a purer form than those preserved in the synoptic gospels! Practically speaking, however, it is impossible to tell for certain on way or another, except to note one point. The consensus is that Q was a written source, where-as Thomas shows signs of being derived directly from oral tradition.

    The types of sayings collected in Thomas are of interest. A large number are allegories for the Kingdom of Heaven, and many of these have the complexities of Zen koans. They make it clear that Heaven is not a physical place, as the church fathers taught, but more a state of mind. Indeed, this is exactly how Thomas Aquinas described it a millennium later. Instead, Heaven is something that the individual brings about himself. The gospel offers numerous "clues" on how one can achieve this, though it is up to the reader to decipher them. Again: the gnostic emphasis on personal relationships with the Sacred, and inner soul searching for gnosis. Thomas also has numerous wisdom teachings that, regardless of any esoteric readings, stand on their own at face value.

    It is also worth discussing what Thomas does not have. The sayings are presented with little or (more often) no historical context. There are ostensibly almost no allusions or foreshadowing of contemporary or upcoming events. With the Gnostic emphasis on the spiritual over the physical, this is not surprising. Indeed, materiality is consistently portrayed in a negative light. One of the most gnostically important sayings, 39 equates ignorance with poverty. This is an interesting metaphor: in a belief system where knowledge is good and materiality is bad, lack of knowledge is considered the lowest state of materiality. Also conspicuously missing from Thomas are the apocalyptic sayings (unless a deeper level is read into them) and, to a lesser extent, the Son of Man sayings in the synoptics. But again, this tells us more about Q than Thomas.

    In one aspect, however, their absences from Thomas make it all the more readable. Here we are presented with one hundred and fourteen slivers of wisdom which, detached from their historical context, are just as true today as they were two thousand years ago. And regardless of authorship, authenticity, and intent, there is much wisdom and truth to be found in it.

    So why, then, was it banned? Even by Gnostic standards it is heretically tame. Certainly more controversial works have been found, such as The Second Treatise of the Great Seth (NHC VII,2), in which Jesus, in a first-person narrative, claims that it was not he who was crucified, but a substitute: Simon of Cyrene. As I have said, Thomas is mostly oriented towards helping the reader find The Kingdom on his or her own. This, I believe, was perceived to be its true danger: the Gospel of Thomas encourages the reader to think for himself! This is further hampered by the fact that conceivably there are no "universally correct" interpretations: undoubtedly each reader will draw unique conclusions to some passages. Where I might draw one meaning out of saying, and my solution might be correct for me, you might draw a completely different message that would only work for you. And neither of us would be wrong. Since both gnosticism and Thomas stress an individual relationship, this means that there are individual answers.

    Orthodoxy has always insisted on having a monopoly of Biblical interpretation, so clearly Thomas presents a problem for them--especially since parts of it are seemingly irreconcilable with fixed, inertialess orthodox doctrine. From an orthodox standpoint, The Gospel According of Thomas would have to go.

    And at this point, I think it's worth telling you a little story.

    In 1958, Professor Morton Smith of Columbia University was visiting a Greek Orthodox monastery near Jerusalem. In the last, unprinted pages of the works of Ignatius of Antioch (1646) he found a handwritten entry. It was an excerpt of a letter from Clement of Alexandria to one Theodore. From context, Theodore had written to Clement seeking advice concerning a gnostic sect called the Carpocratians. Apparently they had obtained--and were using--a new (or altered) version of Mark. Theodore was asking for advice on how to deal with the problem, hence the letter.

    Smith photographed the text--which has been sequestered by the monastery and not shown to anyone else to this day. It was not until 1973 that he published the text (from the photographs), as well as an extensive commentary on it. Through detailed linguistic analysis and comparison with authentic Clement works, Smith concluded that the letter is genuine.

  `You did well in silencing the unspeakable teachings of the Carpocratians. For these are the "wandering stars" referred to in the prophecy, who wander from the narrow road of the commandments into a boundless abyss of the carnal and bodily sins. For, priding themselves in knowledge [gnosis], as they say, "of the deep things of Satan," they do not know that they are casting themselves away into "the nether world of the darkness" of falsity, and, boasting that they are free, they have become slaves of servile desires. Such men are to be opposed in all ways and altogether. For, even if they say something true, one who loves the truth should not, even so, agree with them. For not all true things are truth, nor should that truth which merely seems true according to human opinions be preferred to the truth, that according to the faith.'  


    Think about that for a moment! Clement has told Theodore that if his enemies happen to be telling the truth, he should deny it in order to refute them. Later, Clement discuss the problem of Mark's gospel, and it's 'misuse' by the Carpocratians.
  As for Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord's doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the secret ones, but selecting those he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. But when Peter died as a martyr, Mark came over to Alexandria, bringing both his own notes and those of Peter, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge [gnosis]. Thus he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected. Nevertheless, he yet did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the heirophantic teachings of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystegogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by the seven veils. Thus, in sum, he prearranged matters, neither grudgingly nor incautiously, in my opinion, and, dying, he left his composition to the church in Alexandria, where it even yet is most carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.

But since the foul demons are always devising destruction for the race of men, Carpocrates, instructed by them and using deceitful arts, so enslaved a certain presbyter of the church in Alexandria that he got from him a copy of the secret Gospel, which he both interpreted according to his blasphemous and carnal doctrine and, moreover, polluted, mixing with the spotless and holy words utterly shameless lies.

To the Carpocratians, therefore, as I said above, one must never give way, nor, when they put forward their falsifications, concede that the secret Gospel is by Mark, but should even deny it on oath. For "not all true things are to be said to all men."



    Clement goes on to give two passages from the secret gospel in question, one of which is a version of John's Lazarus story--with shades of Mark 14:51--and at least two deviations that raise embarrassing questions for entrenched dogma. For the moment, that is not important. What is important is that Clement not only freely acknowledges that there is, in fact, a secret gospel of Mark, but that Theodore is to deny it at all costs.

    We thus have a tremendously important precedent. Even if the Gospel of Thomas were written by the apostle Thomas himself, it would have been suppressed by the Catholic Church because it contains ideas they did not subscribe to. Thomas's very nature sealed its fate.


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