A: I had a letter from a reader in the U.S. who’s curious about the Gospel of Thomas, so I thought we could switch gears a bit and talk about the manuscript known as the Gospel of Thomas.

J: Okay. Where do you want to start?

A: Well, for readers who aren’t familiar with it, maybe we could start with some background.

J: I happen to know you already have a book on your desk with the relevant facts, so perhaps you’d like to talk about the history of it.

Papyrus fragment from Wikimedia Commons: Gospel of Jesus' Wife (author unknown)

Papyrus fragment: Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (sourced from Wikimedia Commons, author unknown). This fragment is not from the Nag Hammadi collection, but is a good example of an early Christian text written in Coptic on papyrus. This fragment has itself been the source of much recent controversy.

A (referring to textbook): The discovery of the Gospel of Thomas was one of those serendipitous finds, so extraordinary that you’d expect to see it in an Indiana Jones movie. But the history isn’t disputed. Late in 1945, two Egyptian men discovered a large sealed pottery jar hidden beneath a large boulder near the village of Nag Hammadi in southern Egypt. They smashed the jar and found 13 leather-bound volumes inside, which were later sold. These volumes, which date from the mid-4th century CE and contain more than 50 texts, soon attracted the attention of scholars. The collection is called the Nag Hammadi library, and it’s proven to be a goldmine for scholars of early church doctrine. The texts are considered to be Gnostic Christian rather than orthodox Christian, and some scholars have suggested the texts were hidden to protect them from a wave of persecution against Gnostics. The most famous of the books is the collection of Jesus’ sayings — your sayings — called the Gospel of Thomas. There’s disagreement among scholars as to whether the Gospel of Thomas should be considered a Gnostic text. Some believe it should instead be considered a text originating in a different but very early school of Christianity — not quite Gnostic but not orthodox, either. Anyway, it’s unique because it doesn’t follow the narrative format of the four gospels we know from the Bible. Instead, it’s a collection of sayings. Some of those sayings have sparked renewed mystical and creative interest in Jesus’ original teachings. The movie Stigmata is an example of that interest.

J: And don’t forget all those Da Vinci Code type books.

A: Those, too. You don’t want to be learning your history from these books and films, but it’s fun to sit down with a cup of hot tea and an entertaining novel on a cold snowy day.

J: Like today.

A: Yes. That’s quite the storm out there today. A storm front all the way from Texas to Nova Scotia. I hope my boss calls to say we’re closed today. Then maybe I could do a little reading. Catch up on the Gospel of Thomas — which, to be honest, I haven’t looked at in about two years. Last time I read it, I hadn’t figured out the Gospel of Mark. But I think it’s time to revisit the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas and try to figure out how they relate to Mark. All I really know at this point is what you’ve told me in the past about the authorship of the Gospel of Thomas.

J: You mean the fact that the apostle John wrote the Gospel of Thomas.

A: It’s so confusing. Who wrote the Gospel of Mark? Oh, that would be Matthew. But not the Matthew who wrote the Gospel of Matthew, because that author would be Paul’s disciple Barnabas. And don’t forget that Luke and Acts weren’t written by a physician named Luke. And the newly discovered Gospel of Thomas wasn’t written by Thomas, but was actually written by John. It’s enough to give a person a headache.

J: It’s interesting, isn’t it, that John’s name is actually on his other writings — the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and Revelation.

A: Yes. How is it that John’s name got preserved in so many places, and Paul’s name got preserved in so many places, and your name didn’t get preserved on any writings at all? We have texts we call “Pauline,” and we have texts we call “Johannine,” but we don’t have any “Yeshuan” texts. In fact, we don’t even have an adjective in English that corresponds to the name Jesus, so I have to use an adjective based on the Aramaic form of your name, Yeshua. Yet I know you did a lot of writing. So what happened? What happened to your name? And what happened to your writings?

J: Long story. It’s complicated. It makes more sense if you understand the cast of characters, the people I actually lived with and worked with. It makes more sense if you understand the personal motivations for each person involved.

A: Including your own motivation.

J. Yes. Mine, too.

A: Okay. Let’s start with your motivation, then. Can you describe briefly the core of your motivation?

J: To bring healing to disadvantaged children so they didn’t have to go through what my daughter had to go through.

A: Oh.

J: Theologians have been pontificating for centuries about who I was and what I was trying to do. But nobody’s taken the time or trouble to ask me. They all want me to be a reflection of themselves — somebody who’s more interested in how many angels can fit on the head of a pin than somebody who’s interested in the core questions about humanity. Life and love. Healing. But after my daughter died, I couldn’t have cared less about the Covenant or the Law. The Covenant did nothing to help my daughter. In fact, I’d say the Covenant was partly to blame for her death. After you’ve had a child die — a child you care deeply about — your life changes. It’s no great mystery. I embarked on a journey of spiritual questioning and spiritual agony because I felt I owed it to my beloved child. It’s as simple as that.

A: I understand.

J: Yes, because you’ve gone through the same thing. Nobody but a bereaved parent can completely understand. To lose a beloved child is to have your heart ripped out. Except that you don’t lose your heart. If you accept the grief and you accept the loss, you end up finding your heart. It bleeds a lot, but it’s there.

A: Many of the theologians who’ve written about you over the centuries have been neither parents nor bereaved parents.

J: Augustine of Hippo was a bereaved parent. This didn’t help him find his heart, unfortunately.

A: Perhaps he was in denial. It’s not uncommon for bereaved parents to withdraw completely from their emotions because it’s too painful. They retreat into logic and end up focussing on the “mind” and “reason” so they don’t have to feel anything anymore.

J: Exactly. Unfortunately, the orthodox Church is riddled with the immature “victim” psychology that comes with being emotionally crippled, with abandoning healthy, mature relationships with each other and with God.

A: Explain what you mean by “emotionally crippled.”

J: I mean men and women who are emotionally immature, emotionally stunted, emotionally dissociated. Adults who don’t have the courage of their own hearts and souls. It’s hard work to deal with grief. And love. And Pauline Christians aren’t good at it because they haven’t been taught how. Whenever I hear the phrase “one body in Christ,” I think of a zombie — a lifeless corpse walking around with no heart and no capacity for empathy or deep compassion. There’s lots and lots of talk in the Church about free will and reason and blind faith, but if you look closely, you’ll see there’s little talk about emotional maturity or emotional healing or faith based on empathy rather than on pure logic. That’s why the Church doesn’t teach people about forgiveness. Forgiveness is part of a messy package that includes love and grief and pain. Forgiveness is very hard work at an emotional and spiritual and psychological level. It has no appeal for people who are emotionally immature.

A: People like Paul.

J: And people like John the Baptist.

A: Hey — that’s a non sequitur.

J: Not when you know that John the Baptist and John the Evangelist were one and the same person.

A: I take it that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated?

J: There are always wars and rumours of wars. Always deaths and rumours of deaths. Sometimes the one prevents the other.


Update on August 9, 2015:  For an interesting commentary on the Gospel of Thomas, please see the article called “The Gospel of Thomas: Jesus Said What?” by Simon Gathercole in the July/August 2015 Biblical Archaeology Review.  In this article, Dr. Gathercole talks about the history of the Gospel of Thomas’s discovery, discusses theories for its date, and reviews some the Gospel’s major theological themes.

On the question of whether the Gospel of Thomas can be understood as a Gnostic work, he says this:

“Nevertheless, it has always been something of an embarrassment for the “Gnostic” view of Thomas that there is no talk of an evil demiurge, a creation that is intrinsically evil, or of other familiar themes such as “aeons” (a technical term for the divine realms in the heavens).  Properly Gnostic gospels such as the Gospel of Judas and the Nag Hammadi Gospel of the Egyptians, have very complicated accounts of how multitudes of deities and aeons come into existence from a demonic power before the birth of the world.  There is nothing of this in Thomas, though.”


Update on February 26, 2018: Over the past few months, starting in mid-2017, I’ve been adding verses from the Gospel of Thomas to the photo captions of the Jesus Redux posts. Since I don’t read Coptic, I must rely on translations into English from a number of reputable scholars (though occasionally I piece together my own translation based on information that’s arisen through my mystical conversations with Jesus). Here’s a list of some of the sources I’ve been using throughout this process:

Davies, Stevan. The Gospel of Thomas: Translation and Annotation by Stevan Davies. Boston & London: Shambhala, 2004.

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

Grondin, Michael W.. “An Interlinear Coptic-English Translation of the Gospel of Thomas.” 1997-2015. http://gospel-thomas.net/x_transl.htm. (I find Grondin’s site incredibly helpful.)

Meyer, Marvin, ed.. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. 1st Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Pagels, Elaine. Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Random House, 2003.

Patterson, Stephen J.. The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus. Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press, 1993.

Skinner, Christopher W.. What Are They Saying About The Gospel of Thomas? Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2012.

Tagged with →