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The immortal words of Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of Thomas

Portion of a page from the Gospel According to Thomas

To help commemorate Easter, the Buffalo Spirituality Examiner will begin a study on a rather unconventional source of the words of Jesus Christ. This source is the Gospel ccording to Thomas, an apocryphal gospel, that this examiner believes should be studied and by more than just scholars.

This is a gospel that is rich in lore and tradition as the canonical gospels, and it also has much to say to the world in revealing the nature of Jesus and his legacy to the world. This gospel has much to say to the world and to Christians. Orthodox Christians ignore it because it is not in the approved reading list or canon of sacred literature. But this gospel may be more authentic than people think. In the spirit of the name of this website, The Examiner, let us now examine this gospel on detail.

Introduction to the study of the Gospel According to Thomas

For many years, it was known to scholars that there were other Christian writings besides the canonical books in the Bible. And there has been much speculation and wonder as to what sort of writings were left out when the Bible as we know it was being compiled. Since some of these ancient books have come to light, many of them have been found to be garbage and they rightly deserved to be left on the cutting room floor. But some writings are at least fascinating and reveal a far more detailed and rich history of our Bible and how our Bible came to be the Bible that we know today. And the Gospel According to Thomas is one such book.

This book, also known as the Logia Iesou, first came to light with the Oxyrrhynchus Papyri found in Greek in Egypt in 1903 by two archeologists Grenfell and Hunt. But this copy of the gospel was badly fragmented and very little survived and only gave a tantalizing clue as to the content of this gospel. It was not until 1945, in Egypt again, in a place called Nag Hammadi, that another manuscript was found, this time in Sahidic Coptic which contained a more complete version of this gospel.

Since then, the gospel has been under much scrutiny. Scholars herald it as a version of the long lost Q or Quelle document i.e. the source document for the sayings of Jesus found in our canonical gospels. This examiner thinks, however, that a simpler hypothesis exists. The Q is actually simply oral tradition and that the Thomas gospel in its earlier versions was probably written contemporaneously with the canonical gospels or perhaps a little later. During the generation following Jesus' ministry on earth, stories circulated about what Jesus said and taught, but it was not until after the earliest followers of Jesus began to die off that the need arose to preserve the traditions, sayings, and teachings of Jesus in their original forms. As stories and sayings got passed around, distortions began to arise, and as the new generation came, they needed a reliable tradition base, and so around 70 CE and after, a flurry of writing began to take place where writers querying earlier generations began to collect the teachings, sayings, and biographical information about Jesus and began preserving them in written form which would help protect them from distortion and loss. And many such gospels were written in addition to our four canonical gospels. This crop of early traditions about Jesus circulated around the ancient world.

Some gospels were written for public consumption such as the canonical gospels. These were written to elucidate and inform readers about the basic teachings and life of Jesus. These were written mostly for unbelievers and recent converts who wanted to know the basic tenets of Christianity and of Jesus. But it is also believed that in this crop of early gospels, that there were other gospels that contained deeper teachings and saying, that were not revealed to the general public, and these gospels were known as private gospels. These gospels were meant for mature believers and were meant for people who were already grounded in the Word and wanted something far deeper and were ready for what the Apostle Paul called the "meat" of the Word (Heb 5:12 -14). Most Christians were only being nourished on the "milk" (1 Pet. 2:2) of the Word, and were like babies in Christ, but there were others that were ready to go deeper into the things in the Kingdom of God.

The exact history of the Gospel According to Thomas is difficult to pin down. If one favors an early date, it is possible to suppose it could have been written in the late first century of the Christian era as a contemporary of the other gospels. Most scholars however favor a mid second century date at around 140 - 150 CE. And many apocryphal gospels were written around that period as well. The manuscripts and fragments that we have in Greek and Coptic were written long after its original writing. The Coptic manuscript believed to have been written in the middle of the fifth century CE, and the Greek fragments a little before that.

It is a known fact that some of these sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are also preserved in a document called the Gospel According to the Hebrews, which was known to even some early Church Fathers. This was an Aramaic gospel that may be representative of the crop of early gospels written in the late first century or very early second century. And some theorists suppose that the Gospel of Thomas is actually an extract of the Gospel of the Hebrews. Irenaeus of Lyons (c 115? - c 202 CE) and Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 - 215 CE ) knew of the Hebrew gospel and even occasionally quote from it and these are the earliest Church Fathers that are thought to have known of it.

The Gospel of Thomas itself is unusual in its content. The gospel is simply a list of Jesus' sayings. One hundred and fourteen sayings are recognized in this gospel, but there were likely more, and some sayings appear to have been fused together as one. Unlike traditional gospels, it contains almost no biographical information about Jesus except what appears in context of the sayings. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are almost purely biographical, starting with his birth or, in the case of Mark, his ministry, and going chronologically until his death, and then follows with his resurrection and ascension. (Mark ends abruptly with his resurrection, and some additional material describing his ascension was added later.) The Gospel of John is thematic, but still contains a great deal of biographical information and then at the end goes chronologically through his death and resurrection and some events after his resurrection. In the Gospel of Thomas, there is no mention of his death, resurrection, his ministry, or birth, or any details about his life. In the beginning of the Gospel in the introduction, we have merely Jesus described as "the One who lives forever, " or more literally, "the ever living Jesus." It also describes itself as having a catalogue of "secret" teachings of Jesus. This was a literary device of Gnostic Christians to indicate that there were layers of knowledge that were to be obtained in Christianity, and as before mentioned, even Orthodox Christians might have had layers of knowledge containing public and private teachings of Jesus based on the maturity of the Christian.

And the gospel as it stands now has much more Gnostic content than the canonical gospels, which was the reason why it was rejected and not included in our Bibles. But it may not have begun as a Gnostic gospel. If it belonged to the early crop of gospels, it might have been an Orthodox gospel and early Christians might have used the gospel.

Now we should note that the word "Orthodox" is a loaded word and is relative to the one using it. It should be understood that every religion and every sect regards itself as orthodox and other sects and religions as unorthodox. Here it is not being used to indicate that one religion is "true" and others "false." But here this word is being used to simply distinguish what might be labeled as traditional or accepted Christianity as we know it today versus other variant sects that existed in the early days of Christianity. These sects will be labeled as "Gnostic."

Gnostic and Orthodox Christianity had many beliefs in common, but also had some widely differing teachings. In this study there will be given both Gnostic and probable Orthodox renderings and interpretations of the sayings.

Now here we should put a basic primer about Gnosticism.

Gnosticism is an umbrella term for many sects which included not only Christian groups, but also Pagans, and Jews. They varied widely in beliefs, teachings and traditions, and morality. Some were very strict and uptight, emphasizing asceticism, sexual chastity, and others were very libertine engaging in sexual orgies as a means of reaching God. But central to practically all of them was a series of core teachings which can be summarized as follows.

1) The material world is an illusion and evil. It came not from the true God, often called the Father, the One, the Whole, or other names, but from an evil and corrupt being who himself is deluded and wishes to delude others as the imposter for the true God. This evil imposter being is often called Yaldabaoth (Child of Chaos), Saklas (Stupid One), Samael (Blind God) or the Demiurge (The Craftsman).

2) The only true reality is the spirit which is good and pure. All else is sinful and evil and must be rejected.

3) Some or all of the human race were created by the Father as beings of spirit who live in purity and light. But somehow the human race (or that part of it which is pure) was deceived by the imposter and corrupted and is thus now trapped in the material world of evil.

4) The only path to salvation is knowledge -- hence the name Gnostic, which comes from the Greek word "gnosis" which means knowledge. This includes knowledge of one's true heritage as beings of spirit, knowledge of the true God, as opposed to the imposter, and knowledge that this material world is an illusion.

5) In Christian varieties of Gnosticism, Jesus is often regarded as either a literal incarnation of Seth, or a direct descendant of the Sethian line. Seth representing that part of the human race that still retains some knowledge of their spiritual heritage. There are various interpretations of Jesus. Some regard Jesus as the Son of the Father, who was sent into the world, from the realm of the Light. And some even say that Jesus is the Son of God, but keep in mind that Gnostics have quite a different idea of God than Orthodox Christians. In Orthodox Christianity, God and the Father are considered synonymous, but in Gnostic Christianity, God, the one who created the universe, is often thought of as the imposter, and the true God is the Father.

6) In Christian Gnosticism, Jesus is said, in most sects, to have entered into the world in either a purified body or in an illusory body, since the pure cannot come into contact with the sinful. Some did believe that he had a material body though. For those who believe that Jesus had a literal material body, they believe that Jesus took on the impurity to dispense with it. Jesus died on the cross to kill the mortal body and thus break the bond that the imposter has on the spirits and souls of human beings. Jesus thus opened the gateway to the Heavenly Realm (often called Barbelo, the Fullness, the Unity) and became the first fruits of all those who would awaken to the knowledge of the truth. For those who believe that Jesus had an immaterial body or a purified body, the crucifixion is a farce -- high drama. The crucifixion was just merely a symbol of the lies and the hypocrisy of the imposter that he thinks he can kill the Son of the Father and the truth.

7) Gnostics had many different interpretations of the structure and form of the universe and reality and a whole list of characters and beings that populate the Netherworld and the material world. A typical system, though by no means the only one, believed that there was the One, or the Heavenly Father, who created a series of angelic beings called the Powers and these powers rule the realm of the Spirit and often have many dominions and subdominions below them. From them or created separately by the Heavenly Father, was also created a series of beings called the Ancient Ones (Archons) who created and rule various heavenly dominions or universes called Aeons. Some Gnostic systems maintain that there are seven of these Aeons or universes and each universe was created in sequence from another universe. Sometimes the series of universes are called emanations, because they come one from the other. But each of these universes created is further degraded from the one which proceeded it. In other words, the further removed from the Father and the realm of the spirit the universe is, the more corrupted it becomes. The first level was pure, the next level less so, the third even less pure than the first two and so on until you get to the seventh level. The seventh and most corrupted universe was created and ruled by the one called Yaldabaoth (or sometimes some of the other names mentioned above.) And of course, the most corrupted universe is the material world. Some systems mention an eighth universe or emanation, which corresponds to the Orthodox Christian Hell.

This is a basic overview of Gnostic ideas, and is by no means comprehensive. Of course, it should be noted that many Orthodox and Gnostic ideas overlap, and some ideas are similar, but may have different interpretations and meanings.

Although many readers, especially in Europe, North and South America and in the Westernized world will be likely familiar with Christianity, we should still also note for those who are unfamiliar with Christianity, or do not know exactly what is meant by Orthodox Christianity, the basic and general tenets of what is called Orthodox Christianity.

1) In Orthodox Christianity, there is one God, the Ineffable, Absolute Supreme Being, who created the universe, including all the heavens and the earth. He is one Supreme Being, but is manifested in three distinct elements called the persons of the Godhead. They are God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

2) The Father is said to be the creator and sustainer of the universe including all the heavens and the earth and the things below it.

3) There is an angelic being, of the order of the Cherubs, who an antagonist of God, called Satan or Lucifer, who fell and now is the tempter of the human race. He corrupted the world and the universe and now the universe is under his dominion and is thus evil and fallen as he is.

4) The Son of God is equal and one with God the Father, but is a distinct manifestation of God who came to earth to live with mortal human beings. This manifestation of God is called Jesus Christ, that is, Jesus the Messiah, who was spoken of by the Hebrew prophets as the one who would redeem Israel and would save the Gentiles.

5) Jesus, the Son of God, is called the Son because he was born into the earth as a baby, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born to Mary who was a virgin when she conceived Jesus Christ.

6) Jesus was absolutely perfect and sinless, though as a human being, he had the potential to sin. However, he was tested in every possible way, but did not sin.

7) Sin entered into the world through Adam, the first human being, when he and his wife Eve were tempted by the Serpent (Satan in disguise) and they disobeyed God and fell. Since then sin is a condition of every human being, in that every human falls short of the glory of God and God's perfection and thus is condemned and will enter into judgment. Human beings can thus never enter into communion with God and are separated from God, and can never enter into the heavenly realm and are condemned to the realm of Hell, the place of fiery torment.

8) Jesus was condemned by evil men, both of the Jews and the Romans (symbolically representing the whole world) and was hanged on a cross and he died, to atone (that is, to make it right, and to offer payment) for the sins of human kind, so that human beings are no longer condemned and thus can obtain eternal life and enter into the heavenly realm with God, and achieve communion with God.

9) Jesus rose bodily from the dead on the third day after he died, he then ascended into heaven, and now is at the right hand of God the Father, and will someday return to earth to judge the world, both the living and the dead.

9) Salvation of the human being comes from knowledge of Jesus Christ and accepting his gift of his sacrifice on the cross. Denominations differ as to exact method of how one accepts and receives this sacrifice, but the basic concept is the same.

These are a basic summary of Orthodox Christian beliefs. There are different interpretations from various denominations, as to how salvation is achieved, for example, but these beliefs stated above are common to Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and fundamentalist Protestant denominations.

In this study, we will not take so much a scholarly approach. Scholars have already dissected the Gospel of Thomas. Instead this is an attempt to truly discern the meaning of the Gospel of Thomas, and to understand the secrets in the Gospel of Thomas. We will explore the different meanings attached to the sayings from both a Gnostic perspective and from an Orthodox Christian perspective. In some cases the meanings will be the same, and in some cases they will diverge widely.

It should also be understood that this will not be an exact translation or interpretation of the Gospel of Thomas. Rather, it will be a reinterpretation of these sayings. Scholars study the sayings in an attempt to ascertain their history and their relationship to our modern Bible. Scholars ascertain meaning, but only in relation to history, society, and culture, but not how it might actually apply to a person's life. But we will take the sayings and try to understand their meaning as they stand by themselves and how people can actually apply them to their lives.

It is likely that many of the sayings are corrupted, parts may have been lost or altered. So here there will be conjecture as to probable reconstruction of the sayings as they might have originally stood, but notes will be given as to the probable reconstruction versus what the manuscripts actually say.

Notes will then be given to explain and interpret the meaning of each of the sayings, one by one, and what they mean to Gnostic and Orthodox schools of thought. Some history and overview may also be included to give detail and information that may be useful in understanding the material.

In the next article, we will then begin to analyze and study the Gospel According to Thomas.


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