I wrote a lousy essay on this. I think it's a fascinating topic. I think maybe it's something that's worth your attention. I think it's worth mine, at least when I can cut past all the accreted scholarly bullshit.
I mean it. Don't read the rest of this page. Just click on through to the Wikipedia article on the Gospel of Thomas, skim it, and follow a link to a translation. Read. Think a little bit. Maybe none of this means anything to you, but my world is a slightly different place because I read it. Maybe you're enough like me that yours will be too.
It's the little things.
The Synoptic Gospels and Thomas
thesis, such as it be
In their present forms, what the synoptic gospels and The Gospel of Thomas say are radically different. Trying to get a grasp on early Christianity, or at least a sense of the things it meant to people, the gap matters.
- adj 1: presenting a summary or general view of a whole; "a synoptic presentation of a physical theory"
- 2: presenting or taking the same point of view; used especially of the first three gospels of the New Testament; "the synoptic Gospels" [syn: synoptical]
The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are three of the four gospels found in the canonical New Testament. They all appear to have been originally composed in Greek, at some point before the turn of the first century. They share source material in a complex fashion which has been analyzed and reanalyzed to an almost pathological extent, most of which is far beyond the scope of this paper.
The Gospel of Thomas is a Coptic translation of a Greek collection of the sayings of Jesus. Portions of the Greek text were found in 1898 at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. The Coptic was discovered among documents found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. While Thomas has been unknown until very recently in modern history, references and quotations in the literature of the early church indicate that it was once widespread. The Nag Hammadi documents are largely Gnostic in origin, and Thomas bears traces of this association though it does not on the whole seem to be a "Gnostic document", if in fact that term has any strictly delineable meaning. Thomas claims in its opening line: "These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down".
The text generally takes the form of:
Jesus said, "Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you. For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed".
Sometimes Jesus responds to a question from his disciples or uses an available example to make a point. There are four brief instances of longer dialogs or narrative fragments, but no overall narrative. The only apparent organization is a loose grouping of sayings, sometimes by content, sometimes by form. Despite this, the sayings in Thomas are closely related to those contained in the synoptic gospels. It is reasonable to assume common source material, whether oral or written.
However, in their present forms, long removed from the "living word" of an oral tradition and now essentially fixed, what the synoptic gospels and Thomas say, and the range of things they can be believed to mean, are radically different. Aside from the (admittedly large) structural distinctions between a compilation of wisdom sayings and a set of relatively context-heavy narrative gospels, two major areas of disagreement emerge: The person of Jesus and his nature, and the meaning of the Kingdom.
None of the gospels are free of contradiction. For the textual legacy of a complex and shifting spoken tradition this is to be expected. Still, Thomas is at least superficially a more self-contradictory document than any of the synoptic gospels taken individually. Many of its more intelligible statements are in opposition to one another or its supposed framework of secret revealed knowledge.
Jesus said, "What you will hear in your ear, in the other ear proclaim from your rooftops. For no one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, nor does one put it in a hidden place. Rather, one puts it on a stand so that all who come and go will see its light."
The synoptic gospels do not necessarily offer a unified portrait of Jesus; however, they do share enough to create a single image in the minds of readers who believe that they are slightly different views of the same essentially true story. To the mind of a believer in the inspired and literal nature of the gospels, the effect can be something like the stereo images produced by a stereopticon. In truth there are as many such images as there are believers paying attention to the text, but they share at least broad outlines. The Jesus of the synoptic gospels is a messianic figure, tied directly to Jewish tradition and prophecy, concerned explicitly with how people interact with certain ritual laws, opposed to Jewish religious authorities, perpetually a worker of miracles, and playing a central role in the vast arc of a cosmic drama. He's also depicted as acting and teaching in anticipation of a future of drastic, catastrophic change . whether change for the better or for the much, much worse is not always clear, but apocalypse seems to be assumed.
Thomas plays merry hell with most of this depiction.
It does so as much by what it omits as what it includes . in sharp contrast to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Thomas almost never presents Jesus as a well defined character. Trying to extract a rounded picture of him from Thomas alone is akin to presenting a biographical sketch of Lao-tzu based on a context-free English translation of the Dao de Jing. Nevertheless, the versions of Jesus that Thomas makes possible are at least oriented differently than, and maybe opposed to, those of the synoptic gospels.
This Jesus is certainly a cosmically significant figure, but there is nothing that obviously sets him aside as a sacrificial savior or defines him in terms of a second coming. His significance is immediate. He proclaims not so much his destiny as his presence, his immanence in all things:
Jesus said, "I am the light that is over all things. I am am all: From me all has come forth, and to me all has reached. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there".
The concept of the Kingdom (of the Father, of God, of Heaven) is important in each of the synoptic gospels. In fact, it is the focus of most of Jesus' parables, and by extension much of the material that they share with Thomas. It is also central to their differences with Thomas, where just as Jesus casts himself as an immediate, living force, he also emphasizes repeatedly the existence of the father.s kingdom. The kingdom is a reality, here and now, an open-your-eyes-and-see presence.
This is perhaps not a total distinction. Many of the parables in Thomas appear in some form elsewhere, often used in a more anticipatory sense. Obviously they can lend themselves to an attitude of waiting and preparation, but in the context of Thomas, they seem almost entirely directed towards the finding, the realization of something which is already in the world or will be within a heartbeat, not a state of affairs destined to manifest itself at some unspecified future date.
There is a perpetual sense in gospels both canonical and apocryphal that Jesus' disciples are forever missing the point. The Gospel of Thomas suggests in a fairly profound way that this phenomenon never really abated. "Open your eyes, lift up the rock, split the wood, listen!" It's this spirit that seems, above and beyond Gnostic overtones, untranslatable imagery, and less interesting weirdness, to most strongly contrast with the synoptic gospels and their orientation, or at least their usual interpretation.