Gospel of Thomas

Aug 15, 2012 by

Gospel of Thomas

Gospel of Thomas

Thomas has gone down in Christian tradition as doubting Thomas because of his refusal to believe in the resurrection until he could see and touch Jesus, a story told in the gospel of John 20:19-31. Thomas is often identified with the Judas in Mark 6:3 and John 14:22, so his full name was probably Judas Thomas – and also called ‘Didymus’ or twin

The name Thomas in Aramaic (Tau’ma) means twin or double and the name Didymos in Greek also means twin, one who had a brother or a sister born with him at the same time. So it is in effect saying Judas twin, twin. There is no answer to the obvious question, “Whose twin?” In some Syrian churches, there is a belief that he was Jesus’ twin brother. In the Book of Thomas the Contender, there is a text detailing the dialogue between the risen Jesus and Judas Thomas before Jesus’ ascension. Jesus calls him “brother,” “twin,” and “friend.” But for Didymus Judas Thomas to be Jesus’ identical or fraternal twin seems highly unlikely – no mention is made anywhere in the New Testament that Mary gave birth to twins. Far more likely is that Thomas was an identical twin not related to Jesus, and that became his nickname in the band of apostles. Judas was his proper name, but everyone called him ‘twin’, or Thomas, because there was at least one other Judas amongst the disciples. Much as in Wales, you might get someone called Dai the twin, to distinguish him from all the other Dai’s, so we get Judas the Twin.

As well as being doubting, Thomas is famous for another reason. The Apostle Peter took Christianity to Rome, Paul spread the good news to Greece and Turkey, Mark Christianized Egypt, and the tradition says that Judas Didymos Thomas brought Christianity to Syria and India. The Church of South India strongly identifies with Thomas as their founder. Christianity is India’s third-largest religion, with approximately 24 million followers, 2.3 per cent of India’s population. Eastern Christian writings state that Thomas introduced Christianity to India in Kerala in 52 AD to spread the gospel amongst Kerala’s Jewish settlements.

But nowadays, Thomas is also becoming famous for another writing, the Gospel of Thomas. This was around when the early Church fathers were writing, but it was thought to be lost. It was rediscovered as one of  46 texts in the Nag Hammadi collection found in the late 1940’s – which after various shady dealings got to the scholars around 1955 and then only entered the Christian mainstream in the late 1970’s.

Why was it hidden in the Egyptian sands? One theory goes like this. Prior to the first attempt to shortlist of the canon of the New Testament in 367 AD by Athanasius, early Christianity was very fluid with no fixed canon of texts or creeds.  All sorts of texts were used, some of them very far-fetched stories about Jesus or his birth, or things that the apostles did. When the NT was canonised, many of these texts and gospel stories got left out. There was a period of dispute over what should be in and what should be out, until we arrived at what we have now.  It is thought that the Gospel of Thomas was among several sacred texts from a monastic library, which were placed in ceramic jars and hidden by monks around 400 AD.  The monks presumably could not bear to destroy these precious and sacred texts so they were hidden as a kind of ‘time capsule’ for the future to receive them. The Gospel of Thomas is representative of the ‘lost Christianities’ – the different forms of Christianity, which were around in the early centuries. Christianity began in pluralism with a whole bunch of spiritual communities at different levels of awareness and awakening, having their own favourite texts. It was only gradually that certain ones became accepted as authoritative, and others as not so much. Eventually, one view won out and asserted itself over all the others, assisted by Emperor Constantine and the might of the Roman Empire. All other views, many of them perfectly valid, got stamped on and labelled as heretical, with various horrendous penalties to be imposed if anyone was caught asserting them.

When the collection of texts was first discovered in 1945, they were called Gnostic gospels and they were demeaned as something opposed to Christianity,  ‘gnostic’, and therefore thought to be heretical and  ‘demonised’ in many circles.  They were at first thought to be of late origin and therefore theologically deficient and contaminated.  However, more recently scholars have come to believe that the early sayings of the Gospel of Thomas were very early and only ‘gnostic’ in the sense that they contain wisdom and knowledge, which is what gnostic means. They may have been copied by monks in the 4th century, but stemmed from much earlier.

The unusual thing about the Gospel of Thomas is that it is just a collection of sayings. There is no attempt to link them by a story or set them in a scene. It is as if someone wrote down every fragment they had come across of what Jesus said.

One scholar (April DeConnica) suggests that these oral sayings of Jesus were gradually collected and added to over a period of time, and that much of the Gospel of Thomas comes from 30 – 50 AD, i.e. much earlier than the canonised gospels, and contemporary with the letters of Paul. Because it is a group of sayings, rather than a narrative story, it is thought to have been added to as time went on, but the majority of it is probably very early, and reflects more of the actual words of Jesus than the canonical gospels. The early Thomas seems to come from ground zero, which is very exciting, but also very challenging, as it is not an easy read!

So what does it say? It begins like this:

I who write this am Judas Thomas – the double, the twin. Yeshua, the Living Master spoke, and his secret sayings I have written down. I assure you, whoever grasps their meaning will not know the taste of death.

That’s the first saying. Yeshua is the Jewish name for Jesus. The second is:

Yeshua says, If you are searching, you must not stop until you find. When you find, however, you will become troubled. Your confusion will give way to wonder. In wonder you will reign over all things.

This is what happens when our old world view, our old paradigm, begins to fall apart. It’s what is happening in society today. The old paradigm of constant growth and capital gain is breaking down, it has reached its limits – and we are disturbed, confused. But, says Jesus, Your confusion will give way to wonder. This is what happens we find a new way of understanding the world around us, a new world view. We’re still waiting for that in world economics. It can apply to our spiritual viewpoint as well, we can have our eyes opened to see truths that have been staring us in the face, but we have not seen before. This is a central message in the Gospel of Thomas – that we need to awaken to the spiritual reality of existence.

There are 114 sayings altogether. These sayings are typical of the type that Jesus said in the New Testament gospels, such as Matthew 10:39  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

They are not easy to understand! The sayings of the Gospel of Thomas are like Buddhist koans, short sayings designed to make you think hard, to chew them over, until some deeper revelation comes to you. It is typical of the way Jesus taught, in short sayings and also in his parables. They are cryptic, in the sense of making you go beyond the mind into a new way of looking at things. The idea is to lead to a transformation of consciousness, leading to the kingdom or realm of God that Jesus spoke so much about.

So, you might be thinking, if the Gospel of Thomas is the earliest recording of things Jesus said, why have the church authorities not embraced it with open arms? Well, it is still very early days – only 40 years since it became widely available for study. Changes in institutional church take longer than that! It is also a challengingly different type of gospel – no birth story, no trial, no resurrection, just things that Jesus said. But as the groundswell of opinion about it changes, these things that Jesus said could have an important impact on our understanding of what and how Jesus came to teach us. They reveal that he came to open our minds to the divine reality that is around us and in us. It also highlights how the early church failed to grasp hold of some of his teachings, or ignored them, and reverted back to a mainly sacrificial understanding of his life and death. More traditional believers will not want to deviate from the truths as handed down – but there was a lot of political and theological manoeuvring in the early church which resulted in what stayed in and what we have left out. What the Gospel of Thomas says is that there is a whole other side to Jesus just waiting to be explored and integrated into Christian understanding. I find that exciting to contemplate!

We can take heart from the words that Jesus spoke to Thomas the Twin in John 20:29-31

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  (30)  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  (31)  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Through believing, you may have life in his name? What does ‘in his name’ mean? In his name really means ‘in his character’, ‘like him’, ‘in the same way that Jesus would’. What that means is that you may have life like his, life in all its fullness, resurrection life. We all have the potential to be like Jesus, to love, to give , to rise above our lower, false selves and find out who we really are in God. We are to be remade in the image of Jesus, to be transformed to be as he was, to put on the mind of Christ. This is our destiny and calling to rainbow, resurrection life. And as the gospel of Thomas says, ‘whoever grasps the meaning will not know the taste of death.’

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