Should We Read the Gospel of Thomas?

Question: Is there any reason one should or shouldn't study the new texts coming out from the Nag Hammadi Library—apocryphal gospels like Thomas?

Answer: One reason that people read the Nag Hammadi library is for spiritual edification. The Gnostic gospels teach a very different kind of Christianity, one which focuses on direct experience of the divine, rather than institutionally mediated access. Another reason, of course, is to learn about what Jesus really taught. I'll address that second reason, since it has been my primary interest.

The only book in the Nag Hammadi library that can tell us anything about the historical Jesus is the gospel of Thomas. Many Jesus scholars, especially in North America, consider the gospel of Thomas to be a hugely significant find. These scholars consider the first version of Thomas to have been written in the 50's AD, decades before the four gospels of the New Testament. They believe that it represents a very early stage in the Jesus tradition, a stage when Jesus was seen as a teacher of wisdom, rather than as an apocalyptic preacher or as the crucified and resurrected Son of God. This is reflected in the fact that Thomas consists of 114 wisdom sayings. There is no story of Jesus' life and no account of his crucifixion or resurrection. And there is no preaching about the end of the world. In Thomas, we see a very different Jesus than the one we find in the New Testament gospels.

Spiritual seekers have also embraced the gospel of Thomas, which seems to be justified by the significance that scholars have given it. Yet here is the catch: The aspects of Thomas embraced by spiritual seekers are precisely those aspects that scholars typically regard as not historical. Spiritual seekers gravitate towards the Gnostic elements in Thomas. (Actually, it's not clear that Thomas is a Gnostic gospel, since it doesn't have a full-blown Gnostic theology. Scholars instead speak of its "Gnosticizing tendencies.") Seekers gravitate towards those sayings that speak of actualizing our own divine potential, such as this line from saying 70: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you."

Yet it is precisely these sayings that scholars don't think trace back to the historical Jesus. They think that the community that produced Thomas slanted their portrait of Jesus in a Gnostic direction, just as the community that produced the gospel of Mark slanted their portrait of Jesus in an apocalyptic direction.

Instead, the sayings that scholars believe most likely trace back to Jesus are the ones that have parallels in the New Testament gospels, familiar sayings such as the following (all quotes are from the Scholar's Version, as found in The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, by Robert Funk, Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar):

Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven's domain. (Saying 54)

Congratulations to those who go hungry. (Saying 69)

What goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it's what comes out of your mouth that will defile you. (Saying 14)

When you take the timber out of your own eye, then you will see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend's eye. (Saying 26)

Do not fret, from morning to evening and from evening to morning [about your food—what you're going to eat, or about your clothing—] what you are going to wear. (Saying 36)

And a slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor one and offend the other. (Saying 47)

Seek and you will find. (Saying 92)

If you have money, don't lend it at interest. Rather, give [it] to someone from whom you won't get it back. (Saying 95)

Those here who do what my Father wants are my brothers and my mother. (Saying 99)

Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God. (Saying 100)

The significance of the gospel of Thomas, then, is not that it reveals that Jesus taught Gnostic wisdom about contacting the divine spark within. There is not yet any credible evidence that he taught such themes (much as I would like there to be). The significance of Thomas is that it draws out and highlights a body of teachings that is already present in the New Testament gospels. And by highlighting these teachings, it paints a portrait of Jesus which has largely been overlooked by history, but which may in fact have been the very earliest understanding of him.

In this portrait, Jesus is a teacher of a radical and life-transforming wisdom. He urges us to not worry about being poor or hungry, about having enough to wear, or about following all of society's rules. We can be free of care about these conventional concerns as we focus our entire being on one thing alone. By giving ourselves completely to God, we enter into His kingdom (here translated as "Heaven's domain"), a condition in this world in which we live under the abundant care of our loving Father. If we could truly embrace and live this vision, the importance of the Gnostic themes would no doubt fade into the background.

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