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The Gospel of Thomas: Becoming Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas: Becoming Thomas

The last two columns in this 3-part series on The Gospel of Thomas asked questions about Thomas’ origins, and whether or not we can view the sayings in this Gospel as the “actual” words of Jesus. The conclusion was that, ultimately, we can’t know for sure if these words were spoken by the historical Jesus—which is the exact same situation we find ourselves in regarding the more familiar gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That said, the teachings found in Thomas do often seem recorded in more primitive (and thus earlier) forms than what’s found in the canonical gospels, and with less emphasis on apocalyptic or judgment (see the earlier columns for a more in-depth exploration along these lines).

More than that, there’s good reason to believe that Thomas preserves a stream of early Christianity that developed outside of the context of the Roman Empire, which goes a long way in explaining its markedly different tenor. Stephen Patterson has made this case, arguing for Edessa (in present-day Turkey, and long associated with the preaching of Thomas) as the Gospel’s place of origin. Until 214 CE, when Emperor Caracalla made Edessa a Roman colony, Edessa existed fairly unharrassed as a commercial crossroads and caravan town beyond imperial borders. ¹

Back on Roman turf, however, things were heating up for Jews and Christians. In the year 70 CE, the second Jewish Temple was destroyed. Scholars believe that Mark, the earliest of the four canonical gospels, was written sometime shortly after this catastrophic event. And so the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John came of age during a time and in an environment that was itself rather apocalyptic, and when Jews and Christians were beginning to formally part ways. Christianity was emerging not just as a “way,” but as a separate identity marker that could be opposed to other identity markers, and with an apocalyptic overlay inherited from the climate of the day.

But the situation was different in Edessa. The times did not feel so apocalyptic or oppositional. Here, outside of empire, a version of Jesus’ teachings was preserved that emphasized spiritual awakening, divine immediacy, and nonduality. Perhaps it was easier to preserve a nondual vision in less dualistic circumstances. Whatever the case, Thomas holds before us a strand of early Christian teaching that honed in on Jesus’ teachings on the alchemy of inner transformation.

In my last column, we began to explore this teaching as it relates to Jesus’ well-known phrase “the kingdom of God.” The meaning of the term remains somewhat obscure in the canonical gospel material—sometimes it seems to represent a time in the future; other times it is “at hand,” or even “within you.” But in Thomas a remarkably consistent vision of the kingdom of God begins to emerge.

In Saying 3, Jesus says: “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.” And again, in Saying 113: “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.’”

And so, the kingdom is not simply an outer, political or social reality, nor merely an inner, “spiritual” experience: it is both within and outside of you. It won’t be found (only) through world-denying navel-gazing anymore than it will be found (only) through social justice-crusading. It’s a vision that includes, and unites, and needs, both the inner and the outer. It is not an apocalyptic reality that will only arrive in the future, but is already spread out upon the earth—and people fail to see it. It is here, now, within and outside of you—perception is the issue.

How, then, do we see differently? Saying 22 tells us that “Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, ‘These nursing babies are like those who enter the kingdom.’ They said to him, ‘Then shall we enter the kingdom as babies?’ Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that male will not be male nor female be female […] then you will enter.”

St. Paul preserves an echo of this teaching in his letter to the Galations: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). Integration, unification—moving beyond dualistic perception—is the requirement for “entering in.” In Thomas, the “kingdom of God” begins to unmistakably emerge as Jesus’ name for what today we might call “nondual consciousness,” or the capacity to see from unity. The mother nursing her child is an image that includes both twoness and oneness—an intimate union that doesn’t erase difference. This is key to the nondual vision of Thomas—it includes both “the One” and “the Many,” unity and diversity, inner and outer.

This integration is identified throughout Thomas as “singleness” or becoming a “single one.” In Saying 75, Jesus says, “There are many standing at the door, but those who are single will enter the bridal chamber.” “Singleness” emerges as the gospel term for the unification of being, the bringing into alignment of inner and outer. As Jesus says in Luke, “If your eye is single, your whole body is also full of light” (11:34). It is the single one who enters the kingdom, the bridal chamber, the place of union. And, significantly, those who enter will become, not single ones, but “they will stand as a single one” (Saying 23; emphasis added); or again, “many of the first will make themselves last, and will become a single one” (Saying 4). Our awakening into unity cannot be a personal awakening, because the unity discovered is not the possession of an isolated ego, but of the entire, universal and cosmic, “Body of Christ.”

Throughout Thomas, Jesus calls us into his own perception of unity. He calls us not merely to become Christians, but to become Christ: “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to them” (Saying 108). “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Compare me, tell me whom I am like.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘You are like a righteous angel.’ Matthew said to him, ‘You are like a wise philosopher.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying what you are like.’ Jesus said, ‘I am not your master, for you have drunk, and have become intoxicated from the same bubbling spring which I have measured out.’”

In the opening lines of the Gospel, Thomas is called “the Twin” (actually, this is the literal meaning of “Thomas”). This twinship, it becomes clear, was no simple biological fact, but Thomas’ own mirroring of Christ, his entering into the mind of Christ. Thomas became a “single one”—and so discovered himself as the only One. And so, may we each become Thomas, falling silent in the unknowing that is true knowledge. May we drink from the mouth of Christ and become intoxicated. May we discover ourselves a single One, and see the kingdom spreading out upon the earth.

Amen.

¹ Stephen J. Patterson, The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014).

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.