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The Ancient Allure of Tantalizing Thomas


A couple of Sunday’s ago, the reader in my village church was giving the sermon.  She is an mature widow, and she said something that unfortunately demonstrates a grave problem in some parts of the Church of England and other churches.  She said that she thought it was a great shame that the early church fathers guided by the Holy Spirit failed to include the Gospel of Thomas in the cannon of Holy Scripture, or words to that effect (and that ‘guided by the Holy Spirit’ is a direct quote from her).  She said it about a particular, much quoted, saying from the Gospel of Thomas, which she quoted with approval –  saying 77, which reads:

Jesus said, “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.

I believe she only read out the second part of that verse.  Now, I have no idea if she has read the whole of the gospel of Thomas, or indeed, what she may have read about the Gospel of Thomas, but let me assume that she has read some of the normal guff that goes on in certain circles.

It would go something like this:

‘There were some wonderfully spiritual Christians called the Gnostics that were part of the rich fabric of the earliest church.  They believed in equality of the sexes and focused on personal experience of God and not divisive doctrine.  But, oh darn it, those pesky misogynist early church fathers suppressed the wonderful Gnostics and brought the doctrine of that woman-hating Paul to the fore, and lots of the true teaching of Jesus / the early church was suppressed, and only the ‘Orthodox’ Christian gospels were chosen.

These people will often try and make the biblical gospels appear to be as late as possible and the Gospel of Thomas to be as early as possible, to try and claim that it was written about the same time or even before the biblical gospels, so that they can claim it is superior or more authentic.

But the first and most obvious question is, if the early church fathers were guided by the Holy Spirit – as they were – then there is surely a good reason why the Gospel of Thomas isn’t in the cannon.  In fact, it’s worse than that, because it never had a look in.  There were other documents that were far closer to getting in, such as the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles for Gentile churches), or the Shepherd of Hermas, both of which were extremely popular and well respected works in the early church.   Gospel of Thomas, not so much.

In fact, like all the other Gnostic gospels, it was stridently condemned by the early church fathers.  And leaving the Holy Spirit aside, they had good reason to, because these gospels expressed the ideology of a heresy that was hugely antithetical to that of the true church.  They had good reason to on other grounds too.  You see, when it came to doctrine and documents, the early church fathers had one simple rule of thumb: Is it apostolic?  Was a practice part of the teaching handed down from the apostles?   Was a doctrine handed down in their preaching to the elders of the church over the generations?  Did a document come from the hand of the apostles, or from one of their immediate circle (and with their blessing)?  And they were well used to spotting fakes, even pious fakes that came out of orthodox Christian circles.  Famously, a church elder in Turkey was deposed by the apostle John for writing a work called ‘The Acts of Paul and Thecla’, even though he confessed his motive was love for Paul.

There were plenty of ‘gnostic’ gospels later on in the early church (or rather, the heretics who tried to take over the name Christian and the early church).  To be fair, the Gospel of Thomas is undoubtedly older than these, and it is less obviously Gnostic.  It was found in amongst a collection of Gnostic writings or papers that appear to have been dumped at some point.  Much of the material in the ‘gospel’ is directly lifted from or pretty closely parallels the teaching of the biblical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as bits from Paul’s letters and other New Testament documents.  I say ‘gospel’, because it is really just a selection of putative sayings of Jesus, not a full gospel with narrative and an account of Jesus’ death and resurrection (and indeed, even in the sayings, there is nothing about the cross of Jesus at all (only disciples taking up their cross is mentioned) and not really anything on the resurrection of Jesus either.

In the early church fathers, in the 3rd century and later, the gospel of Thomas was said to have been from the earliest Gnostic groups, and one 4th Century church father, bishop of Jerusalem, stated it was written by a Thomas who was the disciple of the heretical 3rd Century teacher Mani, from whom the popular heresy movement the Manichean’s came (Mani himself originally came from a Jewish-Christian Gnostic group).  Whichever is correct, it is quite clear that where there are sayings in the Gospel of Thomas that aren’t lifted from the gospels, they are Gnostic in nature.  The saying quoted by the local church Reader was just one such.  Gnosticism taught that physical matter is evil and that bodies are prisons for the spiritual ‘light’ that needs to transcend the bounds of this evil world and return to the spirit realm by means of secret knowledge (gnosis), passwords and the like.  Thus the opening of the ‘Gospel’ of Thomas starts out like this:

These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.

(1) And he said, “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.”

(2) Jesus said, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All.”….

(7) Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man.”….

(11) Jesus said, “This heaven will pass away, and the one above it will pass away. The dead are not alive, and the living will not die. In the days when you consumed what is dead, you made it what is alive. When you come to dwell in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were one you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?”

These are a world of difference away from the teaching of the true Jesus, the radical Jewish rabbi.  And some of the things in the Gospel of Thomas directly contradict what the real Jesus said.  For instance Jesus commended prayer and fasting (of which I need to do more), but in the gospel of Thomas he condemns them:

(14) Jesus said to them, “If you fast, you will give rise to sin for yourselves; and if you pray, you will be condemned; and if you give alms, you will do harm to your spirits…..

Although later on in the ‘gospel’ of Thomas, Jesus contradicts this by urging fasting after he has gone:

(104) They said to Jesus, “Come, let us pray today and let us fast.”

Jesus said, “What is the sin that I have committed, or wherein have I been defeated? But when the bridegroom leaves the bridal chamber, then let them fast and pray.”

The bible teaches us we are only to worship God and Jesus, who was uniquely born of a woman, but in keeping with the Gnostic hatred for physical flesh – and for women who produce more ‘prisons’, the ‘Jesus’ of the Gospel of Thomas teaches the opposite:

(15) Jesus said, “When you see one who was not born of woman, prostrate yourselves on your faces and worship him. That one is your father.”

It also taught multiple gods, not the one God of the bible, of orthodox Jewish belief, and Christianity:

(30) Jesus said, “Where there are three gods, they are gods. Where there are two or one, I am with him.”

In fact, the Gnostic movement was very much like the New Age movement of today, as demonstrated in the quote that was cited by the Reader.  This is one reason the Gospel of Thomas is so attractive to people of a certain type today.  If you want to escape the ‘restrictive’ bounds of orthodox Christian doctrine, if you want to have a pick and mix religion, one that is all about ‘finding your true self’, then boy does the Gospel of Thomas have the goodies for you.  And if you can somehow claim that you are restoring or uncovering the suppressed hidden true early Christian faith in the process, then so much the better.   That’s why the Gospel of Thomas is so popular in some circles – and so dangerous to true Christian living and doctrine.  Here are some nice New-Agey type quotes from this so-called ‘Gospel’:

(18) The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us how our end will be.”

Jesus said, “Have you discovered, then, the beginning, that you look for the end? For where the beginning is, there will the end be. Blessed is he who will take his place in the beginning; he will know the end and will not experience death.”

(22) Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, “These infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom.”

They said to him, “Shall we then, as children, enter the kingdom?”

Jesus said to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom.”

(24) His disciples said to him, “Show us the place where you are, since it is necessary for us to seek it.”

He said to them, “Whoever has ears, let him hear. There is light within a man of light, and he lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is darkness.”

(49) Jesus said, “Blessed are the solitary and elect, for you will find the kingdom. For you are from it, and to it you will return.”

(50) Jesus said, “If they say to you, ‘Where did you come from?’, say to them, ‘We came from the light, the place where the light came into being on its own accord and established itself and became manifest through their image.’ If they say to you, ‘Is it you?’, say, ‘We are its children, we are the elect of the living father.’ If they ask you, ‘What is the sign of your father in you?’, say to them, ‘It is movement and repose.'”

(60) <They saw> a Samaritan carrying a lamb on his way to Judea. He said to his disciples, “That man is round about the lamb.”

They said to him, “So that he may kill it and eat it.”

He said to them, “While it is alive, he will not eat it, but only when he has killed it and it has become a corpse.”

They said to him, “He cannot do so otherwise.”

He said to them, “You too, look for a place for yourself within repose, lest you become a corpse and be eaten.”

(67) Jesus said, “If one who knows the all still feels a personal deficiency, he is completely deficient.”

(75) Jesus said, “Many are standing at the door, but it is the solitary who will enter the bridal chamber.”

(105) Jesus said, “He who knows the father and the mother will be called the son of a harlot.”

(106) Jesus said, “When you make the two one, you will become the sons of man, and when you say, ‘Mountain, move away,’ it will move away.”

(108) Jesus said, “He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.”

(111) Jesus said, “The heavens and the earth will be rolled up in your presence. And the one who lives from the living one will not see death.” Does not Jesus say, “Whoever finds himself is superior to the world?”

Notice that this is very different to the letters of John, which talks about faith in Jesus as the Son of God being the thing that enables believers to overcome the world (1 John 5.4-5), not ‘finding yourself’.  Similarly, we have these similar but rather nonsensical saying that is very different to the teaching of the real biblical Jesus:

(80) Jesus said, “He who has recognized the world has found the body, but he who has found the body is superior to the world.”

(56) Jesus said, “Whoever has come to understand the world has found (only) a corpse, and whoever has found a corpse is superior to the world.”

And make of this what you will:

(42) Jesus said, “Become passers-by.”

And I really don’t understand this parable:

(97) Jesus said, “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.”

Aside from noting how in the gospels, the kingdom is always compared to something being found, being full, not empty.  It is about people acting purposefully, not accidents.  If it was specifically the handle that broke, then surely if she was carrying it, she would have noticed.

There are subtle changes to the biblical account in another example:

(107) Jesus said, “The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine sheep and looked for that one until he found it. When he had gone to such trouble, he said to the sheep, ‘I care for you more than the ninety-nine.'”

This fits with the Gnostic emphasis on the ‘solitary’ being the chosen.  In the biblical account of this parable (Luke 15.1-6), Jesus never says that Jesus cares for the one sheep more than the rest.   The ‘gospel’ of Thomas also contains a saying in which God’s kingdom is described as being like assassinating someone:

(98) Jesus said, “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.”

That doesn’t fit with the image of the Gnostic Jesus as a kind and gentle, tolerant role model!

One of the major areas of disagreement between the true Christians and the Gnostics was over the body.  In fact, later on Gnostic type views did infiltrate the church, possibly through Syrian Christianity, among other things, and into the monastic tradition.  The church maintained its traditional view, but a significant level of Gnostic overlay did creep in, that viewed the body as bad almost in and of itself, and thus viewed such things as sex as not very good, something to be wary of even in marriage.  This has led to views in the history of the church that are rebelled against by certain moderns.  Typically, these will quite often like to see Gnostics as exemplars of a healthier attitude to the body.  Nothing could be further from the truth, as these quotes from the Gospel of Thomas suggest:

(29) Jesus said, “If the flesh came into being because of spirit, it is a wonder. But if spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty.”

(87) Jesus said, “Wretched is the body that is dependant upon a body, and wretched is the soul that is dependent on these two.”

(112) Jesus said, “Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul; woe to the soul that depends on the flesh.”

These aren’t quite the full-blown Gnosticism of later periods, but they do show incipient body-hating elements.  The following saying may also do, too:

(85) Jesus said, “Adam came into being from a great power and a great wealth, but he did not become worthy of you. For had he been worthy, he would not have experienced death.”

Behind this could well be the Gnostic view about physical bodies as prisons.  We also see a grave contrast between orthodox views and the Gospel of Thomas when it comes to the matter of ‘robes’, which in the New Testament are a symbol of righteousness that people need to put on, but in Thomas:

(37) His disciples said, “When will you become revealed to us and when shall we see you?”

Jesus said, “When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then will you see the son of the living one, and you will not be afraid”

Finally, these people who applaud Gnosticism almost invariably see it as a much more ‘feminist’ view than musty, mysoginistic old orthodoxy, but again, nothing could be further from the truth.   In my last post, I noted that in the Orthodox tradition, the very first indisputable example we have of a text arguing for equality from the bible alone was written in 1666.  The Jesus of the biblical gospels gave women the role of conveying the greatest news of his resurrection to his male disciples (for which reason Mary Magdalene was often given the title ‘apostle of apostles’ in the early church).  Paul taught that in Christ there is no male or female, meaning equality.  However, in this Gospel of Thomas, like so many of the other Gnostic texts, womanhood is denigrated, treated as something shameful.  The Bible notes that maleness and femaleness is the core of humanity being made in the image of God, something that doesn’t go away, but as we saw above in saying 22, the ‘Jesus’ of the Gospel of Thomas says very differently – that maleness and femaleness must be eradicated before you can enter the kingdom:

….and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female….

What is more, the whole ‘gospel’ climaxes on this very point, and utterly denigrates females:

(114) 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.”

Males are the pinnacle, and women can only enter the kingdom of heaven by making themselves male.

So, this is the reality of this ‘enlightened’ Gnostic gospel.  It is profoundly misogynistic, anti-women, and heretical, it appears to teach polytheism, and also pantheism, it abandons and perverts the key core of Christian teaching about the nature of Jesus, God, and the death and resurrection.  The early church fathers rejected this ‘gospel’ as a fake, as a fraud, as heresy, and for damn good reason.  We should do well to do the same.  If we don’t, we too risk perpetuating heresy.

(PS.  For a little more on the Gospel of Thomas, these links might be of interest: