Thursday, December 10, 2009

Holy Terrors

The other day I described the child Jesus portrayed in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as a “holy terror.” That got me to thinking, as I often do, of another work ascribed to the apostle Thomas, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, and how that work – which is very, very different from the Infancy Gospel – might itself be described as a holy terror. A terror, at least, to those charged with preserving and promoting Orthodoxy within the Christian community.

I think the Gospel of Thomas is a work of extraordinary power and beauty. In a format much simpler than that of the four canonical gospels, 114 teachings of Jesus are presented. There is no plot, so to speak. A few of the teachings are in response to questions from Jesus’ disciples, but mostly it is just the words of Jesus. Many of these teachings are familiar to readers of the canon, but some are startlingly different. These sometimes enigmatic, sometimes penetratingly clear statements give us a Jesus who urges self-examination and depicts the kingdom of heaven as a state of integrity, inner peace. Consider the following, which is probably my favorite passage in Thomas:
“When you make the two into one,
And when you make the inner like the outer
And the outer like the inner
And the upper like the lower,
And when
you make male and female into a single being,
So that male will not be male
nor female be female,
When you make eyes in place of an eye,
A hand in
place of a hand,
A foot in place of a foot,
An image in place of an
Then you will enter the kingdom.”

Or this, from the opening passages:

“Seek and do not stop seeking until you find.
When you find, you will be
When you are troubled,
You will marvel and rule over all.

If your leaders tell you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’
Then the
birds of heaven will precede you.
If they tell you, ‘It is in the sea,’
Then fish will precede you.

But the kingdom is in you and outside
When you know yourselves, you will be known
And will understand
that you are children of the living father,
But if you do not know
You dwell in poverty and you are poverty.”

When I first taught about Thomas to my Bible study class last spring, the class latched on immediately to words like these, and wanted to know more. The teachings seemed so similar to those of Religious Science, which similarly urges its followers to look within ourselves for an understanding of God (we consider the universe to be the physical manifestation of God, and so God exists within each of us and each of us is a unique expression of God). I wound up devoting a class to the Gnostic Gospels, focusing on the gospels of Thomas, Philip, Truth and Mary Magdalene. Later in the year I focused a separate session on the Gospel of Judas.

I talked about these works in the midst of a series of lessons on the canonical gospels, and used them to provide context on differing views of Jesus in the early Christian communities. Much of what I know about the Gnostics comes from my reading of the Princeton scholar and author Elaine Pagels, whose work I was introduced to through the pages of The New York Review of Books back in the late 1970s. In books like The Gnostic Gospels, The Origins of Satan, Beyond Belief and Reading Judas (co-authored with Harvard scholar Karen King), Pagels has given us a portrait of the ancient world in which a multiplicity of interpretations of the life and works of Jesus competed, sometimes to the point of bloodshed. The Gnostics, with their focus on inner light and the individual search as opposed to church community and hierarchy, were branded heretical and their works suppressed. The Gospel of Thomas disappeared for more than 1500 years, until its accidental unearthing along with more than 50 other Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi.

In Pagels’ view, Gnosticism would likely not have led to a global Christian movement because of its focus on the individual quest for wisdom. Gnostics such as the unknown author of the Gospel of Judas argued passionately against the emerging Orthodoxy, particularly on issues such as the urging of martyrdom on the populace as well as the suppression of the individual search in favor of the following of authority in the form of church leaders.

I think Pagels is right. The establishment of a formal church organization is undoubtedly one of the reasons Christianity survived and spread. But the recovery and rediscovery of Gnostic writings has given us a treasury of alternative views about Jesus and an understanding of the debate that went on before the Orthodox view prevailed. One second-century Gnostic leader, Valentinus, the likely author of the Gospel of Truth, very nearly became pope, a development which likely would have led to a very different history for the church and the world.

One of the things that fascinates me about Thomas is that many scholars believe it to be the earliest Christian writing, completed before the canonical gospels and possibly even before the letters of Paul. If that is true (and there is another scholarly thread that believes it was written much later), then these words of Jesus may be the earliest recorded, maybe even the most accurate, having been written down less than a generation after the crucifixion.

In its structure as a “sayings gospel,” Thomas resembles the hypothetical Q document, which scholars believe was used as a source by the authors of Matthew and Luke in their expansions and elaborations on the Gospel of Mark. It wouldn’t be Q, since it doesn’t contain all of the shared passages of Matthew and Luke that do not appear in Mark, but it may have the form. It’s logical that such a work would have been written early, as a gathering together of memories and individual sayings passed around the earliest Christian communities.

Pagels, in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, makes a convincing argument that Thomas would have to have been written before John, because John’s portrayal of the apostle Thomas as a dim-witted doubter of Jesus (he didn’t even believe in the resurrection until he put his finger into the wound in the resurrected Savior’s side) seems to be a withering criticism directed against communities of Thomas Christians that were probably emerging.

Earlier this year, a publishing event occurred that I think is a landmark: Willis Barnstone published a new translation of the New Testament (The Restored New Testament) that includes the Gnostic gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Judas (I have used Barnstone’s translation in my quotations from Thomas). Thomas has become the most widely read of the Gnostic documents, probably because it is so accessible. Many Gnostic documents, including Mary and Thomas, are dense with cosmology and thus difficult to read. They posit alternate views of the creation, including a view that the creator God is not the true God of Light but rather a flawed and vengeful offspring of the ultimate God and his partner, Wisdom (Sophia). Thomas doesn’t go there, sticking instead to the words of Jesus.

And those words are stunning. Here is a passage from Thomas that Barnstone compares to Walt Whitman:

“I am the light over all things.
I am all.
From me all things have come
And all things have reached me.
Split a piece of wood.
I am there.
Lift up the stone
And you will find me there.”

As we say in Religious Science, God is all there is.

The Gospel of Thomas is, among other things, a great moral work. That puts it in stark contrast to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which Barnstone describes as a work “without moral dimension” (see The Other Bible). It depicts a child Jesus working miracles, but more in the way of sometimes-malicious magic than of healing and life-giving. I view it as a portrait of a child-god not fully aware of how to use his powers, a view seemingly shared by Ann Rice, who borrows these childhood stories in her Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. But at best, the Infancy Gospel is a romantic story, a children’s fairy tale really, with a child magician at its center (Harry Potter fans may love it). Perhaps for that reason, it was never suppressed, although it also never made it into the canon. It remained a popular story from the second century through medieval times.

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