RE: [GTh] GTh as a Soteriological Catechism
- RESPONSE TO FRANK MCCOYS QUESTIONS
[Rick Wrote: (6/28)]
FIRST, the Gospel of Thomas represents a de-mythologized
articulation of gnosis that focuses on a redemptive process that
is initiated by inviting an altered understanding of the
conventional structures of reality through alternative modes of
Please briefly outline the original mythologized articulation of
gnosis that is being de-mythologized in GTh. Please also
describe the nature of the redemption that is the goal of the
"redemptive process". What are "the conventional structures of
reality" and how do they differ from unconventional structures of
reality? What are the "alternative modes of cognition", how do
they differ from the standard mode(s) of cognition, and what are
the general categories into which they can be classified? I would
greatly appreciate this additional information from you because
it would be of great use for me in trying to correctly grasp your
intended meaning for this sentence.
The questions you ask are legitimate. They go to the very heart
of the proposition I am trying to develop. Regrettably, however,
it is nearly impossible to briefly outline what is so tightly
packed into this sentence. What I say here may do more to confuse
than to clarify, but I will do my best.
First, what follows must be read against the backdrop how the
current definition of Gnosticism (and the understanding of the
nature of gnosis) evolved over the last 200 years or so. Remember
that, up until the eighteenth century, Gnosticism was almost
universally perceived as an aberration of Christianity. This was
primarily due to a scarcity of primary texts and an over-reliance
on the writings of the Church Fathers as a source of information.
These early Christian writers were hardly objective in their
analysis of Gnosticism. On the contrary, they were
extraordinarily biased against it, for obvious reasons.
Nevertheless, the pious sensibilities of scholars during that
period did not question the credibility of their sources of
Similarly, in order to comprehend the variety of ways in which
Gnosticism is currently understood, and, moreover to understand
why there is a division of opinion about whether Thomas is
gnostic, some background is necessary.
Critical research into the nature and origins of Gnosticism began
in the early 1800s and may be divided into at least four
distinct phases, each of which took a fairly distinctive approach
to the subject.
Contrary to the view that Gnosticism was a Christian heresy, in
1835 F. C. Bauer argued that Gnosticism should be understood as a
philosophical movement with origins outside of Christianity in
Platonism and Judaism [Die Christichle Gnosis oder die
christliche Religions-Philosophie in ihrer geschichtlichen
Entwicklung]. He concluded that the gnostics were the originators
of the Christian philosophy of religion.
Adolph von Harnack introduced the idea that Gnosticism should be
studied from within the context of church history and as such
should be regarded as the acute Hellenization of Christianity
[Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschicte, 1886]. Harnacks view has
exercised tremendous influence and persists in some circles
(apparently) even today.
Wilhelm Bousset, [Hauptprobleme der Gnosis, 1907] successfully
moved research into gnosis and Gnosticism away from the church
history-Christian philosophy approach of Harnack and Bauer into
the so-called History of Religions School
(Religionsgeschichtliche Schule). This approach postulated the
origins of Gnosticism in the Oriental religious traditions of
Babylonia and Iran. It also, by coincidence, brought the study of
Gnosticism into contact with the study of the New Testament
through the work of one of the most prominent scholars of the
History of Religions School, Rudolph Bultmann.
Hans Jonas, a pupil of Bultmann (and incidentally, also of Martin
Heidegger) published his book (or a least part-one of it),
Gnosis and spataniker Geist in 1934. In 1958, Jonas published
an expanded English version: Jonas, Hans. _The Gnostic Religion_.
( Boston: Beacon, 1958). Jonas achievement was that he, for the
first time, analyzed the gnostic phenomenon on its own terms, and
not through the optics of dogma, church history, or the History
of Religions methodology. It seems to me that Jonass approach,
especially that part of which is outlined in the last part of the
work cited is crucial for unraveling Gnosticism in general, and
the Gospel of Thomas in particular.
Kurt Rudolf offers a more detailed description of the four stages
of development of the study of gnosis. _Gnosis_.
(SanFrancisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1987 [pp 30-34]), The foregoing
was extracted from his book. Also, see [Jonas, Gnostic Religion]
which provides a good description of the progress of research.
For a good description of the History of Religions School,
consult Kummel, Werner George. _The New Testament: A History of
the Investigation of its Problems. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972
[206-309]). In addition, cited in Rudolfs book is his own
extensive investigation of gnosis scholarship in (Gnosis und
Gnosticizmus Wege der Forshung, CCLXII).
It is my opinion that, in addition to the four stages of research
characterized by the approaches of Bauer, Harnack, Bousett and
Jonas, there are three other seminal developments that have, in
concert with these varying approaches to the study of Gnosticism,
influenced the way in which the relationship between the Gospel
of Thomas and Gnosticism is understood. At first glance these
developments may seem unrelated to the issue at all. At this
juncture I will not try to describe the contributions they have
made. Instead I will simply mention them in passing.
First, the modern Quests for the Historical Jesus, inaugurated
by Albert Schweitzer at the turn of the nineteenth century, and
that continue now have, it seems to me, had a significant impact
on the way that the Jesus Traditions are understood. Not the
least is the way that some of the Thomas logia have been
pronounced authentic Jesus sayings.
Second, the Messina Colloquium on the Origins of Gnosticism in
1965, and the publications of its proceedings _Le Origini Dello
Gnostocismo_(Leiden:E.J. Brill, 1966) was largely responsible for
precipitating the standard five-part definition of Gnosticism
that is regularly restated in modern dictionaries, encyclopedias
and monographs. One consequence of this definition is that when
the Gospel of Thomas is held up against that definition, it
becomes very difficult to classify it as gnostic.
Third, James M. Robinsons essay, LOGOI SOPHON,(Robinson, James
M. and Helmut Koester. _Trajectories through Early Christianity_
[Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971]), has had an enormous influence on
restricting the understanding of the Gospel of Thomas to the
gattung of Christian Wisdom literature (a view expressed also in
Koester, _Ancient Christian Gospels_. [Philadelphia/London:
Trinity Press International/SCM Press Ltd., 1990]; Kloppenborg,
et al. _Q Thomas Reader_ [Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1990]).
My purpose for offering the above brief discussion is not to
suggest that any of these approaches, or events, are somehow
deficient. In other words, I am not disposed, nor am I
necessarily qualified, to challenge their respective conclusions
or premises. Rather, I suggest that without understanding these
elements, it is virtually impossible to understand why I have
begun to construct this particular argument.
Now, having said far too much, Ill attempt to answer the
original questions, although in a somewhat different order than
they were asked.
MYTHOLOGY AND DE-MYTHOLOGIZING
Please briefly outline the original mythologized articulation of
gnosis that is being de-mythologized in GTh.
A Demythologized articulation of gnosis means simply that,
while the Gospel of Thomas is nearly devoid of the specific
terminology normally associated with Gnostic cosmogony,
anthropogeny, and soteriology (e.g., Aeons, the Pleroma, Archons,
Ascent of the Soul, and the like), it nevertheless uses language
in ways that express similar concepts without resorting to
A popularized, working definition, of mytholgogy is the use of
imagery to express [or describe] the otherworldly [the
transcendent] in terms of this world [conventional structures of
reality] and the divine in terms of human life. In other words,
Mythology can be defined as a description of the other side in
terms of this side [Bultmann, Ruldolph. New Testament and
Mythology np10. Bartsch, Hans W. ed. _Kerygma and Myth_. (New
York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1961).
There is a historical precedent to this suggestion that was
introduced by Rudolf Bultmann more than five decades ago.
Bultmann proposed to demythologize the New Testament. The essay
in which he advanced the proposition is found in the work cited
above, pages 1-44.The essence of Bultmanns essay is that modern
humans no longer accept the pre-scientific mythological view of
the cosmos that is presupposed by the New Testament writers. He
Mans knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such
an extent through science and technology that it is no longer
possible for anyone to seriously hold the New Testament view of
the world p4, ibid.
Bultmann provides a catalog of untenable New Testament mythical
views, including the three-storied universe (with a Heaven and a
Hell), good and evil spirits (devils and demons), mythical
eschatology (the Parousia and an apocalyptic eschaton), the idea
that death is the punishment of sin, the doctrine of the
atonement, the miracles, and the resurrection of Jesus. It is not
enough, he says, to accept some mythical elements, but to reject
others. It all has to go.
Yet, in spite of this radical rejection, and its iconoclastic
consequences, he insists on the validity of the Kerygma!
It goes without saying that Bultmanns proposal was met with
fierce criticism (some of which can be read in the responses that
follow his essay in the work cited). It is also not surprising
that his proposal was not widely adapted by many churches, but in
spite of that, his approach may be useful as a paradigm for
understanding the Gnosticism.
If Bultmanns description of myth in the New Testament applies
equally to myth and mythological language in gnosticism, then
these precepts should be studied carefully:
1. Myth speaks of the power or powers which man supposes he
experiences as the ground and level of his world [conventional
reality] and of his own activity and suffering. p.10
2. Myth is an expression of mans conviction that the origin
and purpose of the world in which he lives are not to be sought
within but beyond it p.10
3. Myth is also an expression of mans awareness that he is not
lord of his own being. It expresses his state of dependence, not
only within the visible world, but more especially on those
forces which hold sway beyond the confines of the known
[conventional reality]. p.11
4. Finally, myth expresses mans belief that in his state of
dependence he can be delivered from the forces within the visible
world [conventional reality]. P. 11
But most importantly, for the purposes here at least, Bultmann
identifies the *purpose* of myth, which is to speak about a
transcendent power which controls the world and man. He notes,
however, myths *purpose* is defeated by its own language. It is
impeded and obscured by the terms in which it is expressed. P.
11. It seems to me then, that texts that are not burdened by
mythological language may be less resistant to understanding. The
implications for understanding Thomas should be obvious.
Therefore, when I say, Thomas represents a de-mythologized
articulation of gnosis I mean only that Thomas exhibits an
understanding of existence, of the origin and purpose of the
world, of dependence and salvation that are not shrouded in the
same imagery of mythology as it expressed elsewhere in gnosticism
(it also means that if such terminology is absent, we should not
try to restore it).
Please also describe the nature of the redemption that is the
goal of the "redemptive process.
Standard definitions of Gnosticism invariably concede that it is
a religion of redemption. In the conventional mythological
language of most Gnostic systems, the redemptive process
involves, first of all, the recognition of ones divine nature.
That nature is almost invariably described as a spark which is
an artifact from some primal event involving supra-mundane
beings. Secondly it postulates that, upon the death of the body,
the Divine Spark separates from the World and winds its way
through a maze of Aeons and Archons until it is reunited with
that from which it came. This is expressed, preeminently, in
mythological language in most gnostic texts. It is mythological
redemption of the same caliber as the dieing-rising savior of
Obviously little, or none, of such mythological reflection exists
in Thomas. That does not mean, however, that there is no
soteriology, or redemptive scheme, present in Thomas. Indeed, the
de-mythologized equivalent of ones divine nature is made
manifest through cognitive mechanisms that bring the eternal
(Divine) character of humanity into a disruptive tension with the
World (or with the conventional structures of reality).
That which is manifest is ones own Being (Dasein). Redemption
begins by bringing to consciousness the tension between that
Being and the impermanence of the world [conventional structures
of reality] expressed as existential anxiety. It is nothing else
than cognitive dissonance at the most elemental level. The
elimination of existential anxiety (aka cognitive dissonance) by
reconciling Being with authentic existence IS redemption and it
happens throughout Thomas.
CONVENTIONAL STRUCTURES OF REALITY
What are the conventional structures of reality and how do
they differ from unconventional structures of reality?
The conventional structures of reality should not necessarily
be contrasted with UN-conventional structures of reality.
Instead, when ones understanding (via HERMENEUEIN) of
conventional reality is altered, one understands the absurdity
and transitory nature of social norms, fate (HEIMARMENE) and even
(or perhaps especially) the claims of institutional religion.
Conventional reality can also be called the conditions of
existence. In mythological terms, conventional reality is the
presence and power of the powers that control the cosmos (e.g.,
Archons, Aeons and the Demiourgos).
ALTERNATIVE MODES OF COGNITION
What are the alternative modes of cognition, how do they
differ from the standard mode(s) of cognition, and what are the
general categories into which they can be classified?
This is an exceedingly complex question, which virtually
impossible to answer in many pages, much less in a few
paragraphs. Nevertheless .
One may come to understanding through several complex processes
of cognition. In some ways it is a transition from Ignorance
(AGNOSIS) to Knowledge (GNOSIS). The pathway of transition from
one pole to the other is interpretation (HERMENEUEIN, which is
another, and even more complex issue). The journey (finding) may
be as important as the destination (meaning).
Cognition is one of three basic functions of consciousness (along
with conation and emotion). Cognition, in general, may be defined
as the assimilation of mind and object. There are however,
multiple modes of cognition. Quidditative cognition is that by
which apprehends the ordinary. When one, for example, reads (or
hears) the word stone and is able to assimilate the word with
the species-object to which the word refers, one exercises
quidditative cognition. Therefore, when one reads a text or hears
a speech, one may comprehend quidditatively.
One of several other modes of cognition is abstractive cognition.
In abstractive cognition, as I understand it, one does not come
to understanding by executing an expression such as (word +
object = thing). Instead the formula is more like (thing1 +
thing2 = another-thing-altogether). Clear as mud, right? Perhaps
some illustrations will help (or not).
Next to where I am writing there is a piece of paper with some
snippets of Visual Basic code that I received by email. By
reading this code, as it is printed on the paper, I am cognizant
of what the code means and I understand what results I can expect
when I type it into my code editor, compile it, and execute it.
That is quidditative cognition.
On the other hand, merely by reading the code, I do not know with
certainty how this code will interact with other routines
existing in the same program. Does it need to execute at a
particular point? What happens if it executes at someplace other
that where it should? What will happen if I execute it twice? If
it performs differently in each of those scenarios, then what I
know about the code I will have understood through the mode of
abstractive cognition (Thing1 + Thing2 =
The topic under discussion here, however is not computer
programming or cognitive theory. It is how alternative modes of
cognition works in the Gospel of Thomas. So, lets try another
Gth 8. Here the story is told about a fisherman who casts a net
into the water and retrieves a large catch. The image of the
fisherman was likely to be familiar to first century residents of
Palestine, most particularly to those who lived near bodies of
water, such as the Sea of Galilee. But in any case, the audience
who heard the story understood this part of it through
quidditative cognition (word(s) + object(s) =thing). Such things
as large catches of fish happened from time to time, Im certain.
When it did, it was an occasion for joy and celebration. Reason
dictates that the fisherman should have kept the fish, and, after
at least a brief celebration, should have tried to catch some
more. When, however, the story gets to the point of explaining
how the fisherman threw the entire catch back in the water in
favor of a single fish, its like sticking a wet fork in the
cognitive toaster. Quidditative cognition fails altogether here!
Those who hear this story and refuse to shift to another mode of
cognition, will undoubtedly pronounce the fisherman insane,
ridicule the story teller and go on with life (or they will try
to revise the story so that in coheres with their perceptions of
the structures of ordinary reality by allegorizing it, as the
Matthean evangelist did in his/her version of the tale). On the
other hand, those who listened and heeded the advice at the end
of the story,( Whoever has ears, etc.), would have shifted to
an alternative mode of cognition, the abstractive mode (Thing1 +
thing2 = another-thing-altogether), in order to come to
The general structure of this story, in the form in which it
preserved in Thomas, makes it evident that the hearer was
expected to find his or her own meaning (HERMENEUEIN) to the
story. At the storys conclusion, the audience is left with a
choice. Those who persist in literal mindedness and refuse to
shift modes of cognition are destined to misunderstand. Those who
make the shift, come to the unmistakable conclusion that things
are not as they seem to be. The conventional understanding of
reality has altered. Redemption has begun.
Humble Maine Woodsman