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The Gospel of Thomas: Engaging Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas: Engaging Thomas

Some of you will be familiar with the concept of termas, or “hidden treasures,” within Tibetan Buddhism. Termas are teachings of the tradition concealed by earlier masters until the time (perhaps generations later) when students will be ready to receive them. Sometimes a terma is an actual scriptural text that is literally hidden and left to be found at the appropriate time; other times the text is “revealed” within the mind of an adept who has been prepared to receive it.

In my last column , I introduced readers to The Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian gospel recovered last century from the sands of the Egyptian desert. It might be helpful to imagine Thomas as a Christian terma, a hidden treasure-text, uncovered at a time when it was needed, and when humanity was ready to receive it. Thomas was likely buried by monks of a Pachomian monastery in the 4th century, during a period when standards regarding “acceptable” Christian texts were tightening. Recognizing how precious and powerful these teachings were, and not wanting them to be lost forever, our monks buried Thomas, hoping for a time when it would be rediscovered.

Our terma found its time in 1945, the same year the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima. More than ever, a fragmented humanity needed its unitive teachings. It would not be until 1959, however, that Thomas would make its way into English translation. Slowly, over the last fifty years, Thomas has been trickling its way into popular consciousness, reshaping our vision of the very heart of Christian teaching. Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault rightly calls this “the Thomas Revolution.” Over the past decade, that revolution has picked up major steam.

I suggested last month that Thomas greatly expands and deepens our understanding of Jesus’ teachings, giving us several “new” sayings, as well as rounding out previously familiar sayings with a distinctly different tone. I want to turn my attention to some of those sayings, but first it’s necessary to tackle an important question that you may be asking: “Are these really the words of Jesus?”

The most honest answer that can be given to this question is: “We don’t know.” But it’s the same answer we must give to the same question when applied to the canonical gospels. We really don’t know what Jesus said; only what communities attempting to carry forward his lineage remembered him as saying. All of our existing gospels were constructed from an earlier layer of oral tradition in which the teachings of Jesus swirled and developed during those first decades following his death.

What Thomas does present us with, however, is an early collection of Jesus’ sayings that seem to represent an independent stream of the tradition. That is, Thomas, when examined closely and critically, does not appear to be literarily dependent on Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. In other words, the author/compiler of Thomas did not sit down, cull, and reinterpret sayings from our familiar gospels, but rather collected these sayings from earlier streams of oral tradition or sayings-collections in the same way our canonical-compilers would have.

When Thomas’ sayings of Jesus are compared with the familiar canonical collections, something interesting happens. First of all, a baseline of shared material emerges—parables, aphorisms, and proverbs. We might call these “Wisdom” teachings. With Thomas independently attesting to these materials, it becomes even more credible that this was Jesus’ primary teaching method. But more interestingly, there is another grouping of materials that are shared, but developed in different directions. These are teachings of Jesus that take on an apocalyptic, “end-times” flavor in the canonical material, but that are developed along an unflinching Wisdom trajectory in Thomas. Finally, there are the additional “new” sayings known only from Thomas—all of them of the Wisdom genre.

With the baseline material oriented towards Wisdom, rather than judgment or apocalyptic, and examples in Thomas of material previously only known in an apocalyptic reading now showing up as Wisdom material, we are given a new question: was the historical Jesus apocalyptic in his preaching, or was this an overlay provided by certain early Christian communities? The evidence from Thomas seems to point to the latter, or at least to the fact that the earliest Christian teaching material was flexible enough to be interpreted in either direction. Undoubtedly, in Thomas, the Wisdom-orientation becomes even stronger and more developed—and this may be a window into Jesus’ own deeper teachings, or the Thomas redactor’s own unique contribution to the Jesus tradition.

Ultimately, the more significant question seems to be: which trajectory represents the most mature and helpful direction for Christian understanding today? Undoubtedly, the Wisdom material. When the apocalypse fails to arrive, this material does not go out of date. It remains perennially true. And this is where the terma tradition is again helpful. For Tibetan Buddhists, a “later” text need not be less authentic than an “earlier” text. In the West, our tendency is to associate authenticity with historicity. “Hidden treasure,” however, is ultimately not derived from an earlier time in history, but from a deeper dimension of reality. Thomas claims to record the words of “the living Jesus”—the Jesus who is alive even now, still reaching out and revealing from reality’s depths. And so, whether or not these words were spoken by the historical Jesus, the ring of authenticity they bear assures us that they come to us directly from the living Jesus.

In Thomas, Jesus is asked by the disciples, “Tell us how our end will be.” Brushing aside any recourse to the apocalyptic, he responds, “Have you discovered the beginning that you seek to know the end? For where the beginning is, there will be the end. Blessed are those who stand at the beginning, for they will know the end, and will not taste death” (Saying 18). Of course, he’s not talking about time-travel, but an ever-present beginning, the freshness and newness of each moment. Again and again Jesus points his disciples away from wandering off into an imagined future or a distant past: “Come to know what is before your eyes, and what is hidden from you will be revealed” (Saying 5). Or: “You examine the face of the sky and earth, but the one who is in your presence you have not recognized, and you do not know how to read this moment” (Saying 91).

This clear-seeing into the now is exactly where Jesus locates the well-known subject of the bulk of his preaching: the kingdom of God. The second to last saying in Thomas (113) provides us with this scene: “His disciples said to him, ‘When will the kingdom come?’ Jesus said, ‘It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying “here it is” or “there it is.” Rather, the kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth and people fail to see it.’”

Throughout Thomas, Jesus is unrelenting in his teaching that the kingdom of God is now or never. Not in the future, not in heaven after you die. Now. Just open your eyes.

We’ll look at the implications of this teaching, along with Jesus’ other teaching-themes of conscious presence, the unification of being, and nonduality in next month’s final column on The Gospel of Thomas. In the meantime, I encourage you to consider starting a Thomas study group at your local church, with your centering prayer group, or with a group of interested friends. This is a text that perhaps best comes alive through group engagement. But don’t simply approach the text intellectually or academically—enter into it using a process like lectio divina. Set the commentaries aside—how is Thomas speaking to you?

As a group engages the text out of a place of silence and spiritual encounter, layers of meaning have a way of building, allowing each person’s individual understanding to be stretched, challenged, and enriched in the process. Thomas, structured as a collection of short sayings and exchanges, is ideal for this kind of engagement. One saying per gathering is typically plenty, and you might find that the lectio process is ideal for leading your group into a period of chant and centering prayer.

However you decide to engage The Gospel of Thomas, blessings as you join the Thomas Revolution!

Matthew Wright
Matthew Wright

The Rev. Matthew Wright is an Episcopal priest working to renew the Christian Wisdom tradition within a wider interspiritual framework. Alongside his practice of Christianity, he draws deeply from the sacred worlds of Islamic Sufism and Vedanta. Matthew serves as priest-in-charge at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, NY and lives with his wife, Yanick, alongside the brothers of Holy Cross Monastery.