Secrecy and the Structure of the Jesus Movement
- This is really long, so be prepared to spend some time on it if you
decide to go ahead.
SECRECY AND THE STRUCTURE OF THE JESUS MOVEMENT
Over the last several months (Jan-Feb-Mar of 2008) I have answered a
host of questions about early Christianity to my own satisfaction, such as:
Why doesn’t Paul ever quote the sayings of Jesus?
What was the mission of the mission pairs sent out by Jesus?
What relation does the Gospel of Thomas have with the pre-Easter Jesus
What did Jesus think life would be like in the Kingdom after it came?
How did Jesus heal?
What actually happened at Pentecost?
Why didn’t Apollos know about baptism in the Holy Spirit?
It would take a couple of years of research to write all of this up as a
formal paper. Since my wife and I have just adopted a six-year old girl
from Russia and I am working hard on other projects, a scholarly paper
is not possible at the present time. So I have put down my notes and
fluffed them into an intelligible presentation for you.
Why doesn’t Paul cite the sayings of Jesus?
By and large Paul says little about the life and teachings of the human
Jesus. He does not cite the sayings or parables familiar to us from the
Gospels. Why doesn’t he use this material in his letters?
Various answers have been given: Paul did not know the sayings
tradition, or he was uninterested in it, or he had theological
difficulties with it, or he didn’t mention it because he assumed that
everyone was familiar with it already. (See the Q Thomas Reader p 110)
None of these reasons makes any sense. It is unlikely that he didn’t
know the sayings tradition, since he was in touch with people who
actually knew Jesus. Paul considered Jesus to be the Lord of the
universe, how could he be uninterested in what Jesus had said during his
lifetime on earth? If he had difficulties with the theology, why doesn’t
he cite and reinterpret the sayings he had problems with. Today we are
all familiar with the sayings of Jesus but it doesn’t stop people from
quoting his words. Why should it have stopped Paul?
My own answer to the question is that in the early days of Christianity
the sayings of Jesus were secret. They were reserved for advanced
disciples. They were not just secret from outsiders but from the general
population of Christians.
Thomas begins with the words ‘These are the secret sayings of the living
Jesus that Dydimus Judas Thomas wrote down.’ These sayings were secret,
although about half of them are similar to sayings that we find in the NT.
The earliest Gospel, Mark, contains a life of Jesus but little teaching
material. Mark tells us that Jesus spoke in parables to the crowds but
only explained what he meant to the disciples. In other words, much of
his teaching was cryptic to outsiders. The real secrets were revealed to
his personal disciples.
According to Mark, explanation of the parables is given to those who
have received the Mystery of the Kingdom of God (Mk 4:10-12; 33-34).
Morton Smith has identified this Mystery as a night long baptismal
initiation ceremony. He believed that the ceremony actually admitted one
into the Kingdom. On other evidence Joachim Jeremias concluded: “… In
Jesus’ eyes, being a child of God is not a gift of creation, but an
eschatological gift of salvation. Only the one who belongs under the
kingly rule of God may call God ‘Abba …, already has God as his Father,
is even now a child of God. For the disciples, being children means
sharing Jesus’ sonship.” (New Testament Theology, p 181)
I believe that the sayings of Jesus were confined to the inner circle of
the Jerusalem community. When the community was dispersed in 70 AD after
the destruction of the Temple, these teachings also began to be
disseminated to the general population of Christians.
Thomas contains a logion that says that after Jesus is gone, if the
disciples are looking for a leader, they are to go to James the Just,
for whose sake heaven and earth came into being. (Gt 12) This anchors
the source of the Thomas tradition in the Jerusalem community, since
James was its leader for many years, even though Thomas was probably
written down later in Syria.
In the 80s and 90s the teaching material in Q was integrated into the
biography of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The secrecy that
separated the advanced disciples from the ordinary Christian was
breaking down after the dispersal of the Jerusalem community.
Did Paul actually know the sayings of Jesus? I believe the answer to
this question is ‘yes.’ I will return to the question later in order to
answer it more fully.
If the secrecy hypothesis is correct, in considering the evolution of
oral tradition we now need to take into account the fact that
development proceeded on two levels, one inner and secret and the other
outer and revealed. Hence we should see the locus for the evolution of
much of the oral tradition about Jesus after his death not as Christian
preaching to the masses but as secret instruction in the hidden sayings
from master to pupil.
Similarly most of our picture of Jesus preaching to the crowds during
his lifetime is false. The Sitz im Leben of the sayings and parables is
Jesus’ secret instruction to his inner circle of disciples not his
discourses to the assembled crowds.
The sayings of Jesus are far more authentic than we normally believe.
They were not part of the preaching of the early evangelists who, in
channeling Jesus, might have changed the sayings or made up new ones.
They were carefully memorized and handed on from spiritual master to
initiated pupil, care being taken to preserve the precious treasures of
the secret tradition.
The Itinerant Disciples were already in the Kingdom
Theissen in his Sociology of Palestinian Christianity did a social role
analysis of early Christianity in which he stressed that Jesus brought
into being a movement of wandering charismatics who worked with and were
aided by local supporters who were Jewish villagers.
Lk 10:4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road.
Why were the charismatic mission pairs sent out to the towns of Galilee
with the instruction to greet no one on the road? This was a mark of
extreme urgency. They were not to waste time socializing with anyone
they met. They were to proceed directly to a new town to complete their
mission. There were people there who could be rescued from death before
the Kingdom of God broke in and the final Judgment began. Elisha gave
the same kind of command when he sent his servant Gehazi to lay his
staff on the dead son of the Shunammite woman. “…take my staff in your
hand, and go. If you meet anyone, do not salute him; and if anyone
salutes you, do not reply; and lay my staff on the face of the child.”
(2 Kings 4:29) The command to the apostles not to greet anyone on the
way indicates that they were not just itinerant wanderers bringing
countercultural wisdom to whomever they met but were on an urgent
Lk 10:1 says their mission was to every town and place where Jesus
himself was about to come, so the mission pairs can be thought of more
as advance men for the coming of Jesus than as wanderers.
Theissen is correct in saying that the wandering charismatics separated
themselves from home, family, and possessions in order to follow Jesus.
However, he missed the fact that, having made that sacrifice, they are
now, at the present moment, in the Kingdom. Jesus says men of violence
can seize the kingdom. (Mt 11:12) He means that those who can give their
money to the poor, who can leave their families behind, who can take up
the itinerant existence of a healer-herald, can enter the Kingdom now.
When he says that the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John
the Baptist, he means that some of his followers are already in the
Kingdom. (Mt 11:11)
The Roots of Q and Thomas in the Ministry of Jesus
In my view, Q is a mission handbook for healer-heralds, probably
formulated as an oral Mishnah
in Jerusalem by the 12 from their memories of Jesus’ instructions to his
Galilean healer-heralds shortly after the resurrection, when large
numbers of converts were coming in to the movement. Acts puts the number
at several thousand. Most of these would be local supporters, but a
significant portion would have sold all their possessions and joined the
Jerusalem commune to be trained as heralds for the Kingdom.
If you look at the clusters in Q1, they can all be interpreted as
instructions for the charismatic wanderers of the Jesus Movement.
Why is there so much material about John the Baptist in Q? Because the
healer-heralds of both the pre and post-Easter Jesus Movement were
following in the footsteps of John. The people believed that John was a
true prophet and that he had predicted the coming of a spirit-filled man
who would initiate the reign of God. The heralds would be telling those
who believed in John that Jesus was indeed the coming one. Long ago B.
H. Streeter proposed that Q was a handbook for missionaries and pointed
to the material on John the Baptist as an example of how the
missionaries should deal with followers of the Baptist. (Q Thomas Reader
– Kloppenborg – pp 17-18)
Why is Q sapiential both in form and content? Because Jesus was an
exorcist, a practitioner of Jewish magic, and the tradition of Jewish
magic had King Solomon as its fountainhead. King Solomon was also the
hero of the Wisdom tradition in Israel. A Jewish healer-exorcist would
be interested in all traditions stemming from Solomon.
If Q was the mission handbook of the movement, Thomas was its manual of
The Q Thomas Reader says of the theology of Thomas: “The Reign of God is
not something for which one must wait, a future event. The Reign of God
becomes possible, a real potentially present thing, whenever this word
is preached and accepted as true.” (p 119) The itinerant healer-heralds
were actually in the kingdom and Thomas is a collection of Jesus’
sayings about being able to achieve experience of the Kingdom now, in
the present moment. It contains teachings about spiritual discipline and
mystical union. Two of its main themes, Divine Light and unitary
experience of the One, are absolutely typical of mystical experience.
Neither Q nor Thomas contains references to crucifixion and resurrection
because they are collections of sayings of the pre-Easter Jesus who did
not know about the crucifixion and resurrection. Hence Q and Thomas can
be given an early date, since they are not infected with the
post-resurrection kerygma of the cross. Thomas is not very apocalyptic
because its focus is on being in the kingdom now, something that was
available to the healer-heralds, not waiting for the kingdom to arrive,
which was the hope of the local supporters. Hence April DeConick’s
identification of the earliest strata of Thomas as those sayings with
apocalyptic content misses the mark. Thomas was concerned with the
teachings of Jesus on how the itinerant disciples, the healer-heralds,
could achieve experience of the Kingdom in the immediate present. In the
form we have them these teachings were, of course, filtered through the
perspective of Syrian Thomasine Christianity.
Jesus’ personal teachings were reserved for his itinerant
healer-heralds, not the mass of local Galilean supporters. We can infer
this from the principle that the Jerusalem community was set up on the
same lines as the Galilean Jesus Movement: As I have tried to show
above, Paul does not cite any of the sayings of Jesus because they were
secret teachings reserved for the itinerant disciples connected with the
Jerusalem commune rather than the mass of Christian supporters. Hence
Jesus’ personal teachings were reserved for his itinerant healer-heralds.
The Social Role of the Itinerant Disciples
If Jesus personal teaching was reserved for the itinerant disciples,
what was the message given to the local supporters? To answer this
question we have to extend Theissen’s social role analysis of the
wandering charismatics. Here are some of the interactions that may have
taken place when a pair of itinerant disciples arrived at a village.
1. Discussion of oppression: Herod, Roman taxes, Jewish taxes, Temple
taxes, tax collectors, landowners, debts, the Temple in the hands of the
impure, God’s country occupied. The failure of the scribes and Pharisees
to interpret God’s word in a way that helps the common people.
2. Discussion of end-time prophesies, especially Joel – the spirit will
be poured out on the earth/everyone who calls on the name of the Lord
will be saved. Daniel, coming of the son of man on the clouds of heaven.
3. Discussion of John the Baptist and his teachings.
4. Proclamation of Jesus: As John prophesied, the one who baptizes with
holy spirit and fire is here. The quenched Spirit has returned. The
prophet Jesus is possessed by the Holy Spirit and works miracles. The
reign of God and judgment on the wicked is near.
5. Personal witness to miracles performed by Jesus.
6. Personal witness to the coming of the Spirit. Jesus has laid his
hands on me and I have received power from on high. I too can heal and
cast out demons.
7. Personal witness to life in the Kingdom. I have sold my possessions
and given everything to the poor. I have separated myself from home and
family. God is now my father. Everywhere is my home. I don’t need to
worry, I don’t need to work, God provides food and clothing. I wander
for the word of God. I go where the spirit takes me. In the future, in
the kingdom, we won’t need to work, God will provide, he will be our
parent, wickedness, unfairness, and oppression will all be banished,
money and possessions will disappear, all demons will be vanquished, we
will be at home everywhere, everyone will be our brother and sister,
heaven will join to earth and love will reign over all. (The fact that
the itinerant disciples didn’t have to work, that they trusted in the
providence of God, echoes a theme from the Gospel of Thomas – Jesus
thought of the Kingdom as a return to Eden before the fall.)
8. Proclamation of the Love of God: God loves us. We are his chosen
people. He is the father above who does not want any of his little ones
9. Proclamation of End Time Events: Jesus has told us that tribulations
are near and that after the tribulations the Son of Man will come on the
clouds of heaven.
10. The call to return to God. In the last days, God is offering
amnesty. Everyone who calls on the name of the lord will be saved. You
can return to god, even if you are unclean, a toll collector, a thief, a
prostitute, a shepherd, a swineherd, a blemished one who is crippled, or
blind, or covered with skin lesions. Even if you have not paid your
Temple taxes. No matter what you have done, your sins will be forgiven,
and your relationship with God will be restored. The time is short, the
opportunity is now, the Reign of God is beginning.
11. Healing in the name of Jesus: Laying on of hands and pronunciation
of the divine name. Use of the divine name YAHWEH for magical purposes
was strictly forbidden, with a punishment of death. The name Jesus is
very similar, however. It is Yahweh with the addition of a shin:
YAHSHWEH. When the itinerant disciples healed in the Name of Jesus, cast
out demons in the Name of Jesus, and baptized in the Name of Jesus,
those who received the blessing would certainly know that it was the
power of the divine name YAHWEH that was being invoked through his
earthly prophet Jesus. The procedure was legal but skirted close to the
edge of the law. Jesus gave alternate names to some of his disciples,
such as Peter for Simon, so it is possible that he deliberately chose
the name Jesus for himself because of its similarity to the divine name.
Sudden hope for the future and relief from being named unclean by your
own religion produced miraculous cures from diseases brought on by
hopelessness and shame. What the itinerant disciples taught generated an
ecstasy of expectation for a coming release from suffering. In the
kingdom people would be free from oppression, free from disease, free
from worries about food and clothing, free from backbreaking work, free
from aging and death. The power of God was even now at work in the world.
12. Baptism in the name of Jesus: Those who wanted to commit to the
Kingdom would be baptized using a rite similar to John’s but with the
addition of the name of Jesus/YAHSHWEH. Everyone who calls on the name
of the Lord will be saved. However, this was not a baptism that gave the
Spirit; that was reserved to Jesus. (See below for a justification of
13. Arrangements for a Kingdom Celebration: The itinerant disciples also
tried to locate a new follower or group of followers who had enough
money to sponsor a Kingdom Celebration—this was a banquet with Jesus as
the guest of honor, open to everyone in the community including those
usually considered impure. Some of the new converts were not just
peasants but well-to-do prostitutes and publicans who had the money to
put on a big party. Lk 10:1 tells us that the mission of the itinerant
disciples was to every town and place where Jesus himself was about to come
The Kingdom Celebration and Jesus’ Healing
Later, when it came time for the messianic banquet of the Kingdom
Celebration, Jesus would arrive with three or four of his closest
disciples. Here is how I imagine what might have happened at the
celebration. The room would be crowded with all kinds of people. Jesus
would speak briefly about the love of God and how we will all share in
this love in the coming Kingdom. A hymn of thanksgiving would be sung
and Jesus would inaugurate the banquet by breaking bread. There would be
eating and drinking with storytelling by the disciples to much laughter.
After a set of psalms was sung Jesus would speak for about an hour.
Major themes would be the coming of the Spirit, with a retelling of what
happened at his own baptism, the power of the Spirit to heal, and its
gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues. “If you want to commit
yourself to the Kingdom and receive the Spirit, you must fast for a day.
Come back tomorrow night and I will lay hands on you to impart the
Spirit. You will prophecy and speak in the tongues of angels for the
Kingdom of God is at hand and the Spirit is being poured out on all flesh.”
Jesus would then lay hands on all the afflicted who wanted to be healed.
How did Jesus heal? He was the most successful exorcist and healer
recorded in ancient times. Short of a supernatural explanation, how were
these miracles accomplished? We can get some insight from historical
reports of the healing done in the 17 hundreds by Franz Anton Mesmer,
who believed in the existence of animal magnetism, an etheric healing
fluid. Mesmer had a large tub called a Baquet full of iron filings.
Patients were told that the tub radiated the healing energy of animal
magnetism and that absorbing this energy would cause a healing
convulsion to occur. When a group was gathered, they held iron rods
extending from the tub. Soon the more suggestible would begin to shake
and after a while they would fall to the ground. The less suggestible
would be convinced of the power of the Baquet and they too would begin
to experience shaking and swooning. Those still standing were given
magnetic hand passes by Mesmer dressed in impressive robes until they
too succumbed. The patients frequently reported miraculous cures from
When healing at a Kingdom Celebration Jesus would have first laid hands
on his own disciples. They would be slain in the Spirit, knocked over by
the power Jesus imparted through his hands. This kind of manifestation
of the Spirit is common among today’s charismatic Christians. Having
seen this demonstration, when Jesus laid his hands on the afflicted and
invoked the divine name, they too they would fall into a swoon. When
they recovered, they would report being healed of their illnesses. Jesus
would be careful to work with the most suggestible first, so that the
less suggestible would have more and more evidence of the Spirit at
work. If someone had trouble succumbing to the power, Jesus would give
that person special attention using common techniques from magical
practice, such as anointing with spittle.
The Jerusalem Community
After the resurrection the Galilean disciples who remained in Jerusalem
were overwhelmed by an influx of new recruits. Acts tells us that there
were 3,000 baptisms after the events of Pentecost and another 5,000
after the healing of the cripple at the Temple Gate. Following the Way
that Jesus taught, the 12 imparted the sayings of Jesus only to those
who vowed poverty and who joined the Jerusalem commune to be trained as
itinerant disciples not to the mass of local supporters.
Chapter 8 in Acts gives us significant insight into what happened in the
early Jerusalem commune: Philip, one of the Hellenist leaders, is driven
out of Jerusalem during the persecution initiated by the chief priests
after the death of Stephen. He goes to Samaria and converts a large
number of people there, baptizing them in the name of Jesus. (Acts 8:16)
The twelve, learning of his success, send Peter and John, a mission
pair, to Samaria. When they arrive they baptize with the Holy Spirit.
Why didn’t Phillip baptize his converts with the Spirit in the first
place? He was not authorized to do so. This kind of baptism was reserved
for the 12.
This suggests an explanation for what actually happened at Pentecost:
Let us assume that during the Galilean ministry only Jesus was empowered
to give the Spirit by the laying on of hands. After the resurrection,
during a meeting of potential followers, the 12 discovered that they,
too, could now give the Spirit. They had certainly seen Jesus lay on
hands innumerable times. Now they dared to do the same, while praying
for the descent of the Spirit. In the highly emotional mood immediately
after the resurrection masses of new converts received the Spirit. From
then on the 12 were empowered to give the Spirit, but only the 12.
Phillip and the other itinerant disciples were restricted to baptizing
in the name of Jesus, just as Jesus’ itinerant disciples had been
restricted during the Galilean ministry.
This explains the odd events related in Acts 18:24-19:7. Apollos, an
itinerant teacher from Egypt, is fully conversant with Christian
doctrine but baptizes only with the baptism of John, not with the
baptism of the Holy Spirit. Why is he ignorant of true Christian baptism
in the Spirit? Because he learned his Christianity from one of the
itinerant disciples from the early Jerusalem commune, sent out
intentionally or scattered during the persecution, who was not empowered
to baptize with the Holy Spirit.
Under James the brother of Jesus the Jerusalem community was
significantly more centered in Law and Temple worship than Jesus himself
had been in Galilee. In order to protect the community from
Temple-directed persecution and to cater to his new converts, who were
cosmopolitan Jews committed to Law and Temple rather than the peasant
stock of Galilee, James kept a public face of orthodoxy, leaving behind
the anti-Temple rhetoric and the antinomian sayings of Jesus. These
traditions were studied in secret by those advanced students judged to
Comments on Q
Kloppenborg writes, “Important for the later development of the study of
Q is Koester’s observation that there are in the genre ‘wisdom gospel’
or logoi sophon a multitude of diverse forms, some of which are more
typical of the genre and others which are less so. Wisdom sayings, legal
pronouncements, prophetic sayings, such as ‘I’-words, blessings and
woes, and parables are evident, whereas apocalyptic sayings and
apocalyptic Son of Man sayings are least evident. On the basis of this
observation Koester argues that the introduction of apocalyptic
eschatology would have come relatively late in the history of the Q
document, representing perhaps a secondary redaction of an earlier
wisdom book. … This observation offers a way to disentangle and stratify
the diverse forms present in Q, by viewing the wisdom sayings as more
primitive and the apocalyptic sayings as late.”
Unfortunately this approach has resulted in a picture of Jesus as a
Wisdom Sage, shorn of his message of the immanent coming of the Kingdom
of Heaven. Paul, however, was thoroughly apocalyptic in his belief in
the immanent return of Jesus, he studied with Peter, a direct disciple
of Jesus, and was given the seal of approval by the Jerusalem community,
the home base of the 12 apostles of Jesus. In my view it is virtually
impossible for Jesus not to have taught that the Kingdom of God was at
Since a stratification of Q that places Wisdom sayings at the earliest
level leads to false conclusions, there must be some other explanation
as to why the apocalyptic sayings are the least evident. Remember that
in my theory Q and Thomas in their beginnings were secret oral
traditions reserved for advanced Christians. In considering the
evolution of oral tradition we need to take into account the fact that
development proceeded on two levels, one inner and secret and the other
outer and revealed and that this division goes back to Jesus and his
healer-heralds. Q developed on the inner, hidden, track, whereas
apocalyptic doctrines were part of the outer track known to all. Q was
based on the secret words of Jesus to his itinerant disciples and did
not include much apocalyptic material, because the eschatological
teachings were part of the public face of the Jesus Movement.
We need not go so far as to reject current ideas on the stratification
of Q, however, since various scholars using various approaches have come
to similar conclusions (Robinson, et al, The Sayings Gospel Q in Greek
and English, pp 59-60), but only the improper inference drawn from the
stratification, that literary level indicates tradition-historic level.
If we accept the idea that there was a secret tradition of wisdom
sayings and a public ministry of apocalyptic pronouncements, both of
which went back to Jesus, then the later stages of Q represent the
melding of these two equally valid streams of tradition.
Paul and Hidden Wisdom
Steven J. Patterson writes (Q-Thomas Reader p 112) that Paul quotes
saying 17 from the Gospel of Thomas. …“What no eye has seen, nor ear
heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those
who love him,”… 1 Cor 2:9-10. There is no known source for this
quotation other than the Gospel of Thomas. Were Paul’s opponents in
Corinth Thomasine Christians? Patterson does not go so far as to make
that identification, but he does suggest that the sayings tradition has
the potential for producing the kind of views that Paul was combatting
in Corinth: Wisdom speculations that give rise to claims of special
knowledge and special status in the community (1:10-4:21). (p 112) “…
their knowledge has already projected them into the new age that is to
come. They have already begun to ‘rule’ (4:8); they have already become
immortal (ch. 15); they have already begun to practice the freedom that
will accompany the new age (6:12; 10:23).”
Here is some evidence then that a sayings tradition similar to the
Gospel of Thomas was in existence as early as the 50s. Paul is aware of
it, he quotes from it, but his own spiritual understanding of Christ’s
crucifixion and triumphant return is in conflict with its emphasis on
the realization of the kingdom in the present moment.
Paul never labels anything as a quotation from Jesus. At most he
paraphrases instruction from Jesus and tells us that the Lord taught
this particular doctrine. When he quotes saying 17 from the Gospel of
Thomas he does not preface it with ‘Jesus said.’ He obviously knows
certain teachings of Jesus but declines to use them in their sayings
form. “…do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord
comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and
will disclose the purposes of the heart.” (1 Cor 4:5) These are
derivations from sayings such as, ‘Judge not and you shall not be
judged’ and the pronouncement that everything hidden will be revealed.
If Paul knows the sayings tradition, why doesn’t he cite it? My answer
is that in the early days of Christianity the sayings tradition was
secret doctrine. Paul himself says that he has a secret wisdom: “…among
the mature…we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God
decreed before the ages for our glorification.” (1 Cor 2:6-7) “And we
impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the
Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.”
(1 Cor 2:13) Paul identifies Jesus with the Spirit. “But we have the
mind of Christ.” (1 Cor 2:16) “…the Lord is the Spirit.” (2 Cor
3:17,18). Therefore the words taught by the Spirit could easily be the
words taught by Jesus. Paul is of course emphasizing that understanding
these words is a matter of spiritual discernment brought about by our
current possession of the Spirit. He is not talking about the gift of
interpreting prophetic utterances, since this occurs in general church
meetings and Paul is speaking here about the hidden wisdom taught to the
mature in Christ. Why does he say that the words are taught by the
Spirit rather than saying directly that they come from Jesus? Because
the very existence of the sayings tradition is a secret belonging to
those Christians who are mature in Christ.
Identification of Jesus with the Spirit also explains why Apollos’
disciples had not been taught about the Holy Spirit: at a very early
time in the development of Christianity the functions of the Spirit were
transferred to religious experience of the risen Jesus.
The Importance of Thomas
If my analysis of the structure of the Jesus Movement is correct, then
the most important task we can undertake in the study of early
Christianity is to understand the Gospel of Thomas, since it contains
the secret spiritual instructions Jesus gave to his healer-heralds on
how they can experience the Kingdom now, in the present moment.
A friend of mine, having read the above, writes:
Cf. Isaiah 64:4 for the source of Paul's statement. Only a very small
proportion of scholars (all under the influence of Helmut Koester) now
support the early dating of Thomas. By text form, it is not earlier than
the second century. Interesting, of course, but not the Rosetta Stone.
Isaiah 64:4 is too different to be the source for 1 Cor 2:9-10. It’s in
the second person, ‘you’, as an address to God, while Cor is in the
third person. Isaiah starts with ear and goes to eye, whereas Cor starts
with eye and goes to ear, as does Thomas. Isaiah does not mention ‘the
human heart conceived’, whereas a similar phrase is in Thomas. Even if
the original root of the saying is in Isaiah, Paul is citing the Thomas
version. Further, the context of Paul’s citation is Christian Wisdom
traditions and secret teachings, which suggests that the locus of the
saying is in a proto-Thomas tradition of sapiential secret sayings.
A second century dating for the Gospel of Thomas requires us to believe
that a group of Syrian mystical Christians hijacked the sayings
tradition of Jesus, dispensed with the cross, dispensed with the
resurrection, dispensed with the apocalypse, distorted the sayings into
a panegyric celebration of present-time personal experience of the
Kingdom, peppered this stew with a whole series of made-up Jesus
sayings, and served it up as a secret tradition that would, decoded,
bring one to immortality—all of which are acts of incredible hypocrisy.
The whole scenario is highly unlikely, doing violence to the history of
the traditions in Thomas. Both the form and the content of Thomas are
too close to first century sayings to allow for the hijack hypothesis.
The question is, what kind of first century Christianity produced
Thomas? It is possible to believe in Syrian mystical liars because we
don’t know where these traditions could have come from during the
earliest stages of Christianity. I have tried to show that Thomas goes
back to Jesus himself and the secret spiritual instruction he gave to
his healer-heralds who were already in the Kingdom and hence were open
to present-time mystical experience.
Patterson writing in the Q Thomas Reader (pp 86-88) says:
1 “There are perhaps five instances in the entire text of Thomas in
which one must conclude that the canonical texts have indeed influenced
Thomas to some degree.” (And three where the order of sayings is
involved.) Hence there is no consistent and extensive pattern of
dependence and the influences seen can be explained by scribes
harmonizing the text before them with what they know from the synoptic
2. “Most of the sayings in Thomas which have synoptic parallels occur in
forms which are more primitive than their synoptic parallels. …
secondary features are unique to the Thomas version … It is clear that
they have undergone this process of development independently from the
parallel synoptic tradition.”
Both of these facts argue for an early date, a date before the synoptic
gospels became highly influential.
3. As a literary form Thomas is most similar to Q, a first century
4. There is no cross or resurrection in Thomas, which argues that Thomas
goes back to Jesus, who did not know about the cross and resurrection,
not that a group of second century Christians decided to ignore these
vital parts of their religion. (exception )
5. According to Mark Jesus taught in cryptic sayings which he explained
in detail to his inner group of disciples. Thomas follows this form of
teaching; it is a collection of Jesus’ cryptic sayings preceded by a
challenge to decipher the puzzle and win immortality.
6. How could Thomas call itself the secret sayings of the living Jesus
in the second century when half of its sayings were openly available to
second century Christians in the gospels of Mathew and Luke? The answer
is not that Thomasine Christians didn’t know Matthew and Luke in the
second century, but that the Gospel of Thomas goes back to the first
century before Matthew and Luke were written.
7. Paul quotes saying 17 from Thomas.
8. Birger Pierson writing in his textbook Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions
and Literature (p 257) says, “The Gospel of Thomas is not a Gnostic
text…there is no doctrine of pleromic emanations in it, no Sophia myth,
and no ignorant or malevolent Demiurge. What it does share in common
with Gnosticism is the emphasis on self-knowledge, but that is not
something that is specific to Gnosticism as we have defined it.” The
Gospel of Thomas was not part of the wave of Gnosticism that swept
through Christianity during the second century. Free of the Gnostic
historical context we are open to believe that it might well have been a
product of the first century.
Pierson writes (p 267), “The core sayings in the Gospel of Thomas
probably come from a collection of Jesus’ sayings dating to as early as
the mid-first century, probably assembled in Jerusalem. (Of course, a
number of these go back to the historical Jesus, that is, before AD 30.)
This collection was brought to Edessa in Mesopotamia, perhaps as early
as the late first century. Sayings were added after that to the core
collection, reflecting changes in the beliefs and practices of the
Edessene Christian community. The Gospel of Thomas as we know it, that
is, as translated from a Greek (or possibly Syriac) original, was
probably composed sometime around 140. It was brought to Egypt and
circulated there in the second half of the second century. It was
probably translated into Coptic sometime in the late third century.”
What was the core collection? Which sayings go back to the historical
Jesus? What was added in Edessa? What was transformed by the Thomasine
The answers to these questions depend in large measure on your picture
of the historical Jesus, your understanding of who he was, what he did,
what he taught, and the nature of the movement that he began. In this
paper I have tried to show that the mysticism found in the Gospel of
Thomas could go back to the mystical practices of Jesus himself, given
as secret teachings to his itinerant disciples. These disciples were
already in the Kingdom and so were open to present-time mystical
experience of the Kingdom.
This is a starting point for a detailed analysis of Thomas. Most of the
work of tracing the development of Thomas from the point of view of the
mystical Jesus is yet to be done. There are some interesting results
already, though. A theme in Thomas is that Jesus thought of the Kingdom
as a return to Eden before the fall. This theme can be traced back to
the life of the itinerant disciples--God was their father, they trusted
in his care, they didn’t have to work for a living. In other words their
life in the Kingdom was a return to Eden before the fall.
Since all of the above was written, I have been doing more research into
the problem of dating Thomas. I am particularly impressed with Nicholas
Perrin’s book The Other Gospel. I am a bit confused about it all at the
moment. I certainly have been too focused on proponents of an early date
in my reading. I think there are answers to Perrin, but don’t have the
time to go into it now.