Seminary Program

This is where we post the essays from many of our Universal Life Church Seminary students. When students finish a ULC course, they write a comprehensive essay about their experiences with the course, what they learned, didn't learn, were inspired by, etc. Here are their essays.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Gospel According to Thomas

The Gospel According to Thomas is one of many scriptural works written in the early Christian era to answer the questions  and allay the doubts of different communities with differing cultural and religious backgrounds who were seekers after truth in the aftermath of the life and preaching of Jesus.  When the content of the canonical scriptures was decided, these works ‘missed the cut’ and in many cases, were subsequently deemed to be evil and heretical by the fathers of the church who were anxious to ensure conformity and orthodoxy in order to enhance the power and influence of the fledgling  church in a new era of power and patronage.

During this time of intense flux,  numerous works were written to attempt to explain,  incorporate and annex the essential message of Jesus and his life, this task rendered the more difficult as he had articulated no specific doctrinal  agenda nor had he described the type of earthly institution that should succeed and represent him, if any.  Given the mixture of prescriptive official persuasions such as Judaism and the plethora of pantheistic and Hellenistic  belief systems that abounded within the Roman Empire, it was inevitable that  the simple teachings of  Jesus should be variously interpreted and subsumed into pre-existing religions in order to enhance their status and to limit the damage that  radical, untamed teachings might do to the statuesque.

A particular feature of this fertile intellectual atmosphere was the emergence of many movements  referred to collectively as ‘Gnostic’.  These  were groups of people who  were not satisfied with the codes of behaviour  and statements of faith  that had been handed down and widely practised.  Christian teaching had become hostile to Judaism claiming that an evil spirit had inspired the Jews to misunderstand  the purposes of God throughout their troubled history.  This led on to a negative evaluation of the material world  and the attribution of ‘good’ only to the spiritual world;  everything material, including human appetites is, therefore, inherently bad.    In essence, Gnosticism  was an attempt to reconcile facets of Christianity with the Platonic dualism of  matter and spirit.  Gnostics, therefore, tended to live the ascetic life (although some,  considering themselves irredeemable, conveniently  practised hedonism)  to minimise the corrupting effects of the flesh.  Salvation came about  when the soul escaped from the prison of the body by liberating the divine spark , which is within everyone,  through ‘gnosis’ a secret revelation  given to members of a particular Gnostic sect.  Gnosticism tended to be a charismatic and egalitarian cult that contained certain elements recognisable to Christians, such as the Godhead, Gospels and a Redeemer.  In his epistles,   Paul denounced certain heresies which scholars now term ‘ proto-Gnosticism’ which developed into fully-fledged Gnosticism during  the second century  under teachers such as Basilides and Valentinus.  The acceptability of this cult to a people schooled in Greek intellectual philosophy but equally  open to the acceptance  of a belief system that offered salvation and redemption, was a danger to Christianity at a time when the body of doctrine was not articulated  and recorded with sufficient precision or  prescription.

The Gospel According To Thomas   came to light in 1945 in the desert at Nag Hammadi as part of a treasure trove of  thirteen codices although some fragments of the work had been discovered in 1897 at Oxyrrhynchus..  Unrelated documents of a commercial nature that were also in the earthenware jar suggest a date in the mid fourth century  and other references indicate that these volumes had been in the possession of the Pachomian monks who inhabited the area.  A number of these works, translated into Coptic from Greek,  were soon published and became well known;  among these was the Gospel of Thomas.

The Gospel itself takes the form of  Coptic text consisting of 114 sayings or logia  attributed to Jesus. About half of these sayings are similar to ones found in the canonical gospels whilst others are previously unknown.  There is no narrative element,  no birth in a stable, no crucifixion and no resurrection;  it is a collection of  propositions that is presented to us as the authentic  words of Jesus rather than second-hand reports or  stories. In the words of the opening lines: ‘These are the words that the living Jesus spoke’.   This discovery gave scholars access to a work that has remained untouched for at least 1700 years, that may derive from direct recollections of Jesus by those who walked with him and that has not been distorted or manipulated by centuries of church politics and  intrigue.

The dating of the Gospel of Thomas is the subject of some long-term debate with commentators largely split into an ‘early’ and a ‘late’ camp.   The proponents of an early dating such as Theissen and Merz  suggest that it is written in an early format like the Q source and that  the genre is  typical of other first century works.  They suggest that it may have predated the gospels because the order of  any similar logia is different  and it also lacks any eschatological references.  Some theologians such as Elaine Pagels have formed the opinion that there is an interplay between the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas wherein John is responding implicitly  to the logia of Thomas.   The reference in logion 12 to James the Just as leader of the community also  lends some weight to the notion of a dating  prior to  AD 70. 

The ‘late’ camp, however,  prefers a date after AD100 on the grounds that the sayings follow the vocabulary that is found in the Gospel of Luke in Greek.  Nor, according to Bart Ehrman is it apocalyptic as one might expect in an earlier work so he concludes that it is probably an early Gnostic work  dating from the early second century.  Snodgrass and Perrin go further in suggesting that the Gospel  is heavily dependent on Syriac writings  and should therefore be dated after the completion of the synoptic gospels.  Perrin even goes so far as to suggest dependence on the Diatesseran which was compiled in 172.  Its existence is certainly referred to by Hippolytus of Rome  and Origen of Alexandria  around 220-230 AD which affords us part of a chronological time frame.

This is an issue that seems unlikely ever to be finally resolved if only because the experts cannot easily agree on the basic frame of reference.  Richard Valantasis has written:

      ‘Assigning a date to the Gospel of Thomas is very complex because it is  difficult to know precisely to what a date is being assigned.  Scholars have proposed a date as early as AD60 or as late as AD140 dependent upon whether the Gospel is identified with the original core of sayings, or with the author’s published text, or with the Greek or Coptic texts, or with parallels in other literature.’

It is not difficult to see why the Gospel of Thomas was excluded from the canon and came to be regarded, by the later fourth century as a Manichaean heresy.  It seems to have no apostolic authority and no clear chronology,  it may have been deemed  not to be in use in a sufficient numbers of centres,  it does not appear to complement other documents,  it smacks of Gnosticism at least by association and, if Gnostic,  it involves secret arcane knowledge not accessible to all  which seems to run contrary to the concept of the Christian faith as open to any and all who truly seek to comprehend it.

It may be, however, that the Gnostic label is unfairly applied to the Gospel of Thomas without a proper  contextual approach to the Gospel.  Early commentators viewed it from a strict paradigm of Gnosticism  described by Irenaeus of Lyons; later  scholars, after the Nag Hammadi discovery appear to have judged it rather too readily on the basis of the circumstances in which it was unearthed.  The cache contained other texts of a more clearly Gnostic nature suggesting that it represented the library of a Gnostic community and the Gospel of Thomas appears to have been labelled as Gnostic on the basis of proximity, at least in part.  One is rather tempted to echo the words of the Duke of Wellington who, on being accused of being Irish  (he was born in Dublin), retorted  ‘just because one is born in a stable, does not make one a horse’!   Similarly, a text discovered with a haul of Gnostic documents is not ipso facto of the same stamp;  the jar also contained various receipts for purchases of grain and flour  so it may well be that the contents were not  the result of a  conscious choice to seal up a Gnostic collection.  We can have no idea of the motivation of those who actually  buried or abandoned these texts or the circumstances in which they found themselves.

It behoves us, therefore, to examine closely and to re-contextualise the Gospel of Thomas in order to free it from the constraints of the time and to  determine what it has to offer us today in our very different spiritual, moral and social climate.   If we do this, we may conclude that it sits easily with ideas of current  philosophy and sociology and also resonates with the wisdom of other ancient cultures.   We can appreciate the  stress upon awareness of ourselves and  the quest for spiritual illumination which is to be found in logion 84:

       When you see your likeness,  you are happy. But when you see your images that came into being before you and that neither die nor become visible,  how much will you bear!

According to Richard  Valantasis,  ‘This saying  describes the burden and wonder of the seeker awakening to the immortal, pre-existent and invisible part of their lives.’

Jesus is speaking here to his listeners in the language and customs of their own culture.   He endeavours to  make clear that  they must rely not on training or status but  must connect with  the inner light and life that is common to all.  He is urging on his hearers a state of grace and serenity, perhaps even surrender, when he says the following:

Logion 24;   His disciples said: ‘Show us the place where you are, for we must seek
                    it.’  He said to them ‘Whosoever has ears to hear, let him hear. There is
                    light within a man of light and it illuminates the whole world.  When it
                    does not shine, there is darkness.’

Logion 67:   Jesus said: He who understands the All but is lacking himself lacks                     

Logion 77:  Jesus said:  I am the light that is above them all.  I am the All.
                    The All comes from me,  cleave the wood, I am there;  lift up
                    the stone, and you will find me there.

Some might suggest that these sentiments chime in well with the  concept of God and Jesus  as the ‘ground of being’,  intrinsic rather than theistic, as   expressed in the works of John Shelby Spong.   In this respect, the Gospel of Thomas speaks clearly to the spiritual  yearnings of so many seekers after truth in this modern age of uncertainty.

Gnosticism has a strongly dualistic tradition  and  many have seen a tension between this and the non-dualistic vision of human wholeness  to be found in the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas.  In logion 72, Jesus states, ‘I am not a divider’,  and in

Logion 61:    Whoever is united will be filled with light, but whoever is divided will be
                     filled with darkness.

In many instances, Jesus makes clear that the state of grace to which he refers is the Kingdom of God :

Logion  51:     His disciples asked,  ‘On which day will peace for the dead come about?
                       When will a new world come?  Jesus replied, ‘What you desire has already
                       come but you don’t realise it.’

Logion  113:     His disciples enquired, ‘On what day will the kingdom come?’  
                       Lord Jesus replied, ‘It won’t come through anticipation;  they won’t say,
                       Look, it’s here, or look over there.  The Kingdom of Heaven covers the
                       Earth with glory but  mankind fails to see it.’

Logion 37:     His disciples asked, ‘On what day will you make yourself known to us?
                       Lord Jesus replied, ‘When you rid yourself of guilt and shame and tear off
                       your old rags  and trample them beneath your feet like children.’

Logion 3  :    If those who lead you say, ‘God’s Kingdom’s in Heaven,’  then
                     birds will fly there first.   If they say it’s in the sea, the fish will swim there
                     first.’   For God’s Kingdom dwells in your heart and all around you;  when
                     you know yourself, you too shall be known.’

Jesus is stating clearly that the expectation of an imperial kingdom that will be imposed by divine diktat is a misunderstanding of his purpose and mission; rather he seeks to teach that the kingdom is already within all of us  and its fruits are within our grasp if we can  set aside our  self-centred outlook on life and  open ourselves up to a new oneness with God and humanity.    ‘If you bring forth what is within you,   what you have will save you.’   (Logion 70). 

The  distinguished theologian,  John Dominic Crossan, has described the Gospel of Thomas as a gospel of  ‘Celibate Asceticism’  and the element of asceticism in the Gospel has exercised commentators greatly as it seems to suggest that Jesus  is out of step with  the culture and philosophy of his own Judaic background   as well as the present.   A strictly ascetic code necessitating the renunciation of a world characterised by family life and human relationships as well as  material comforts,  would seem to identify the Gospel of Thomas as a recipe for isolation  and  detachment.  As Martin Buber says,  ‘Real relationships with God cannot be achieved if real relationships to the world and to mankind are lacking’.   The world in which Jesus lived was as challenged, if differently  in terms of degree and kind, as our own so that we need to assess the  role of self-abnegation in the Gospel of Thomas and perhaps reject more swinging criticism that has been directed at it.

In fact,  paradoxically, the present age may be   more of a corrective  to this criticism than  the early Christian era.   From behind the  veil of materialism,  self-interest,   indiscriminate acquisitiveness,  amoral competitiveness and obsession with status and possessions,  we may appreciate the words of Jesus and  put them into a measured context.  We may accept that the Gospel of Thomas is an ascetic  gospel which advocates an act of renunciation in order to achieve spiritual fulfilment  but we can appreciate that this does not necessitate a wholesale rejection of the world.   A modern reading of the Gospel tends rather to suggest that we need to renounce  the contemporary lifestyle culture which dictates that personal satisfaction is based upon getting and spending, conspicuous consumption and the pursuit of ever greater wealth and influence.  We live in a society where, increasingly, a man’s worth and status is adjudged on the basis of the house that he occupies, the car that he drives, his job title and his income rather than  his value as an individual and equal member of the human community.  Writing recently in the Gospel and Our Culture network newsletter, the Rev. David Kettle states that “Modern consumerism fosters and exploits needy, narcissistic personalities.  It displaces the ‘real’ beyond consumers, peddle ‘identity’ and ‘life’ through consumption, and induces bondage to self-displacing mirages and spectres”.  It is this vision of a world in which true, authentic human values and genuine self-esteem have been all but obliterated that is addressed directly by the Gospel of Thomas and we can appreciate that Jesus is not suggesting that there is anything fundamentally  evil or immoral in  wealth or comfort,  rather that basing ones sense of identity, personal worth  and social position on these criteria  exclusively is illusory and  morally corrosive.  Jesus makes clear that the poor , having less to forfeit, are closer to this  realisation  but  elsewhere he also indicates that envy of the possessions of  others is equally as  damaging a delusion.

Self-knowledge, the search after the truth that is within and renunciation of the transient and the meretricious, these are essential characteristics of the message set out in the Gospel of Thomas.  Rather than suggest, as many scholars have, that  Jesus’ strictures on wealth and excess present an obstacle to our acceptance of his words,  they resonate  well with the opinions of  philosophers and commentators on the modern world who are increasingly aware of the tendency within contemporary society to  reduce all values to the lowest common denominator  of  utilitarianism and  monetary  cost.  Even the  human rights industry, hailed as a great success of our times,  has turned against us as  the rights of the individual have now become private property to be wielded against others in a self-interested and usually lucrative way.  During his recent pastoral visit to Britain, Pope Benedict XIV  referred to  ‘a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms’,  (to which one might also add the description ‘contradictory’)   which has resulted from  initiatives within societies that have lost that overall frame of reference of human dignity, inter-dependence and immutable principle.  Instead, individuals and groups are pitted against one another, as each demands stridently its human rights, in the process  damaging our fundamental respect for the dignity of all and the responsibility of all to see that of God in everyone. 

In the course of 114 logia, the Gospel of Thomas  gives us a new glimpse of how we might change the way in which we interact with our world and our fellow beings.  Richard Valantasis considers that they have a great deal to teach us, saying,

        “These sayings guide their readers and hearers into being different kinds of people,
         or at least, they suggest that a different way of living exists and should be
         attempted.  The alternative experience of self and world posited in these sayings
         aim towards the construction of an alternative way of understanding self and of
         living in the world;  they point towards a transformation of identity and call us  to
         the unity of self that fulfils.  To a new understanding of self and a relationship to

When Jesus says, in logion, 42,  “Become passers-by”, we should not construe this as an exhortation to take monastic vows as the only way to avoid the contagion of a morally bankrupt world.  Rather we should see it, in conjunction  with, say, logion 2, where Jesus says:
            “He who seeks , let him not cease seeking until he finds; and when he finds, he
            will be troubled, and if he is troubled, he will be amazed, and he will reign over
            the All“.

Jesus is telling us how we should conduct ourselves during the search for enlightenment and self-knowledge  and an ability to distinguish between the eternal and the transient is part of this process.  The Gospel of Thomas offers us guidance as to what really matters and what is really important in a fractured and  subversive world.

by Graham Louden


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