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December 23, 2003

Gospel of Thomas

77. Jesus said, "I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there."

I keep a copy of the Gospel of Thomas on the shelf by my desk. It is a reminder of those works by the early Christians that were not taken up by later committees. A few scholars place the Gospel of Thomas alongside the synoptic gospels and the Gospel of John.

Elaine Pagels is part of that minority, which sees certain verses in John as refutations of Thomasine thought and a valuable illustration of how the early Christian communities lobbied for their version of Christ and his message. "I'm not saying [John] was responding to Thomas as written, because there may not have been a written text [yet]," she says. "But after you study them, it is inconceivable that the Gospel of John is not responding to some of these ideas." In her book Beyond Belief, Pagels adopts an argument proposed by Claremont Graduate University religion professor Gregory Riley. John's author, she says, was infuriated by Thomas' suggestion that Christians could gain salvation through esoteric knowledge and internal quest rather than straightforward belief in Jesus' divinity and atoning sacrifice. She claims that John "hammers home" that displeasure in a series of prickly interactions between Christ and—who else?—the Apostle Thomas.

To my mind, the phrase "esoteric knowledge and internal quest" misunderestimates this Gospel. This is like saying Christians believe they are saved by being ducked under water (though I suppose there are some who do) rather than understanding baptism to be a symbol or sacrement. The Gospel of Thomas is a clearly gnostic, and in this limited sense, esoteric text but the "quest" is not a new age, Jungian contemplation. It propounds revelation and salvation fully consistent with the Word revealed in other scripture. This gospel teaches through parables and is closer to the Sermon on the Mount than anything else in the canonical Bible.

107. Jesus said, "The (Father's) kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine and looked for the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep, 'I love you more than the ninety-nine.'"

Posted by Ghost of a flea at December 23, 2003 10:03 AM


This agnostic wonders: why would it matter (to Christians) that "a few scholars place the Gospel of Thomas alongside the synoptic gospels and the Gospel of John"? It isn't possible for a purely academic investigation to determine which, if any, putative gospels are "inspired" and which aren't.

If decisions reached by the "committees" aren't definitive, then how can one treat any of the texts (disputed or canonical) as more than interesting histories? (Btw, the NT canon was established long before the Council of Nicea.)

You write that Thomas "is closer to the Sermon on the Mount than anything else in the canonical Bible," but you choose an iffy passage to illustrate the point. Do the canonical gospels describe God as loving the lost "more" than the rest of the flock? Because I was scrolling *up* GoaF, I read this quote before the rest of the post, so I didn't know its origin. My initial reaction was, "that doesn't sound like the New Testament. That sounds like it was written by someone who read the New Testament and misunderstood it in a small, but telling way."

(If you're wondering why this subject interests an agnostic, it's because I'm an ex-Catholic who thinks Christianity *might* be true, and that if it is true, then Catholicism has the strongest claim to *the* "truth".)

Posted by: Michael at December 26, 2003 08:09 PM