[gthomas] Is Thomas GNOSTIC?
From: James Bean
Spiritual Awakening Radio Productions
Gospel of Thomas list:
Happy anniversary and New Year!
I'm new to the list, am a devotee of the book of Thomas, and very
much appreciate your serious and scholarly discussions of the GoT. There
does need to be a place for these discussions on the web.
Jim Bauer writes: "For that matter, was Thomas gnostic at all?"
IS THOMAS GNOSTIC?
Is Thomas gnostic? In my opinion, Thomas was ORIGINALLY, before it
made its way to Egypt, a collection of wisdom sayings used by the Syrian
Christians, and perhaps was used, earlier still (50 A.D.), by the Jewish
Christians (the people of Q?) connected with the James-the-Just branch of
the Jesus movement: "The disciples said to Jesus, 'We know that you will
depart from us. Who is to be our leader?' Jesus said to them, 'Wherever
you are, you are to go to James the Righteous, for whose sake heaven and
earth came into being.'" (Saying 12, "Nag Hammadi Library In English) St.
Paul followed this advice and went to consult with James.
Many scholars believe the real home of Thomas is Syria and the Church
of the East. Bentley Layton: "Since there is nothing especially sectarian
about the Thomas scripture, it must have been a part of the normal canon of
scripture read by Mesopotamian Christians in the second and early third
centuries. It would have been read along with works such as the Odes of
Solomon and Tatian's [gospel] Harmony (Diatessaron)." ("The Gnostic
Scriptures") After the middle of the third century, the Gospel of Thomas
was rejected by the Orthodox, so other groups like the Manichaeans were the
ones who eventually inherited it. Thomas was a Jewish/Christian document
before it became associated with Christians labelled "gnostic," in my view.
It was first used by the Jewish church and the Syrians until the Orthodox
took over, and Christianity went in a different direction -- headed west.
Is Thomas Gnostic with-a-capitol-G? In my opinion, it was a book in
the wisdom tradition, somehow related to the Q Community, and after all,
similar in format to many other collections of proverbs used long ago -- the
Hebrew church was in that tradition. I think in time, we'll find out that
the Hebrew "Q" Christians and the first "Thomas" Christians are one and the
same -- twins (Didymos) or brothers.
I think what has happened is, the book of Thomas has been caught up
in ancient misunderstandings and propaganda campaigns of the Orthodox, who
once were at war with the so-called "gnostics." These old slanted views have
been handed down to US in this generation. We think we're glad that the
gnostic "invaders" were defeated, that Orthodox Christianity prevailed, but
church history has been "written by the victors." I tend to agree with
Michael Allen Williams, who authored "Rethinking Gnosticism," that the term
"gnosticism" has been abused and has become a real obstacle to understanding
early Christianity, since there was no monolithic denomination called "The
Gnostic Church," or "The Gnostic Religion," as something separate from
Christianity. Often in Church history, the term "Gnostics" is used by the
Church to refer to Christians that they didn't like very much: "heretics" of
one sort or another. The Fathers of the Church deliberately lumped together
many different religious traditions and groups, calling them all "Gnostics,"
as if they all belonged to one singular movement, each with the same beliefs
and practices, sometimes controversial -- "the church of cultists, perverts,
and other Gnostics," if you will. Very Orwellian, but effective.
This "history written by the victors" should be reevaluated. We may
find that most of the other denominations of early Christianity, simply,
like today, were made up of people with other ideas about how faith should
be practiced, or that they had their own version of apostolic succession,
that Thomas or James was their guy, not Peter or Paul. Their real "heresy"
might be that they wanted to remain free to practice their religion as they
There are similarities between mystical Christian movements during
the first few centuries of Christianity, and Sufi mystics who emerged during
the first few formative centuries of Islam. Many Orthodox followers of
Islam also viewed their Sufi mystics as heretics and polytheists. The
difference is of course, that most of the Sufis have survived their
persecutors. The various competing Christian movements labelled "Gnostics,"
were mostly wiped out. In Sufism today we have the Mevlevi Order founded by
Rumi, and many other Sufi Orders and mystical brotherhoods, but there is no
Valentinian Order founded by Valentinus still alive in Christianity. The
Valentinians, once a popular movement, our would-be Thomas lovers, have been
I still use the term gnostic when discussing Christian mysticism and
church history -- it's hard to avoid. But, following the advice of Williams,
I often prefer to be more specific and talk about Hebrew Christians, Thomas
Christians, Sethians, Valentinians, Manichaeans, etc.
Not-so-orthodox Christians like the Valentinians "canonized" Thomas.
So did the Manichaeans. To many in Christianity, this makes Thomas
automatically "gnostic" as defined by Orthodox church fathers -- guilt by
association, if you will. But the Manichaeans, Valentinians, and others,
also liked the Gospel of John. Why isn't John considered "a gnostic
gospel," then? The difference here is John is part of a church tradition
that says it's not gnostic -- at least it's not gnostic anymore. Thomas on
the other hand, is a newly unearthed orphan gospel, a "fragment of a faith
forgotten," to borrow a phrase from G.R.S. Mead.
Another obstacle is the lack of copies of Thomas. We only have one
fairly complete Coptic translation with some errors in it, some tattered
pages of earlier Greek editions, Q/Thomas parallels, and a few quotes
embedded in certain early Christian writings. So, because a copy of Thomas
was found in Egypt along with many Sethian and Valentinian books (more guilt
by association!), most assume Thomas is "gnostic," based upon the definition
of "gnostic" which they've inherited from their church tradition or
seminary. Their definition of what a gnostic is, is quite different from
Like it or not, until other copies of Thomas are unearthed, perhaps
Syriac manuscripts, many will continue to think of Thomas as "a Coptic
gnostic gospel from Egypt," whether it is or not. And some -- many in the
fundamentalist community, will continue to view it with great suspicion: "a
book written by ancient heretics and stuffed into a clay jar -- a devious
conspiracy to trick people in the future." I'm jesting a little here, but I
have actually met people that hold that point of view. And I've heard
fundamentalist radio networks do programs on Thomas! These speak of Thomas
as being a "new age gospel written by Satan that the notorious Jesus Seminar
wants to resurrect." From listening to them, you almost get the impression
that Thomas was, in their view, written by the Jesus Seminar iself. Thomas
has some real PR problems in some circles. Has anyone ever read "The Gnostic
Empire Strikes Back?" The ancient battle between the keepers-of-orthodoxy
and those outside that particular paradigm, rages on ....rages on.
Though I don't believe in a Gnostic empire of evil heretics, I do see
a future for terms like "gnosis" and "gnostic." My definition of "a gnostic"
- a Good Gnostic -- a Christian Sufi -- is someone who is a mystic, someone
who "seeks to see Him," a Friend of God, a lover of the Beloved. Becoming a
gnostic of this type was the goal of Egyptian Christianity. Some mystics of
Mount Athos and the Sufis also use "gnosis" and "gnostic" to describe an
ideal disciple who has moved from the world of faith into the world of
intimate Knowledge (Gnosis) of the Divine -- Knowing God. I enjoyed
interviewing on my radio program April De Conick, author of "Seek to See Him
-- Ascent & Vision Mysticism in the Gospel of Thomas," E.J. Brill. I agree
with many of her views on Thomas. Professor Stevan Davies has written some
very insightful words on the mystical theology of GoT -- that T IS ABOUT
"actualizing the Light within all people." God is Light, the soul is Light,
Jesus is Light, and the Kingdom is Light. Light-mystics think of themselves
as Children of the Light, experiencing union with God by contemplating the
But I'll save my views on Seeing Divine Light and mysticism in Syrian
Christianity for another post.
Gnosis and Peace,