Saturday, February 2, 2013

Thoughts on the Gospel of Thomas

St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church,
Hyde Park, Chicago (Wikipedia)
One of five apocryphal texts attributed to someone named Thomas, the second century Gospel According to Thomas is a highly contentious book. The author-compiler claims to be Judas Thomas Didymus, the apostle of Jesus, revealing “hidden” teachings to his readers. However, no church has corroborated that claim by including it in any “Christian” canon, although a few people do consider the gospel more authentic that those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The book is often associated with Gnosticism although, like the canonical Gospel of John also favored by Gnostics, there is nothing inherently “gnostic” about it contents. That is, there is no emphasis on “biblical demiurgical traditions,” which attribute the physical creation to a lesser, if not evil, deity rather than to an almighty God.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is portrayed as a sort of Buddha, providing wise sayings without any of the surrounding historical or cultural context found in the canonical gospels. There’s a dearth of proper names of people, rulers, places, and ethnic groups that otherwise could be used to authenticate it. Much of its content parallels that found elsewhere in the New Testament, supporting theories of dependency in one direction or the other. Some readers find the Gospel of Thomas more inclusive of women, since Jesus is portrayed as having female students (cf. Luke 10:39) and allowing them to ask questions, in contrast to Paul, who admonishes Christian women to keep silent (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:34). However, my opinion is that this view is founded more on wishful thinking rather than fact as it fails to explain saying 114, which has Jesus conceding to Peter’s beliefs in masculine superiority.

Because of interest in the similarities between the Gospel of Thomas and the canon, I recently began reading Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer’s The Gnostic Bible: Gnostic Texts of Mystical Wisdom from the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. There are numerous parallels for Christians to explore, some virtually identical in teaching and others radically different. Since my husband has recently finished preaching a sermon series on the biblical parables, they are fresh in my mind. So, I decided to discuss here how parables are used in Thomas in contrast with those in the canon. Although different scholars give different numbers, throughout my reading, I identified fifteen parables in the Gospel of Thomas. Here are my thoughts on each.

The Parable of the Wise Fisherman (s. 8): In this parable, a fisherman keeps only the largest fish from his net and throws back the smaller fish. Although not unlike the story found in Matthew 13:47-50, the one found in the canon, in contrast, is both a message of inclusiveness (“fish of every kind”) and an analogy of how the righteous people will be kept and the wicked discarded. This emphasis on the superiority of some individuals to others in the Thomas version might be evidence of gnostic leanings.

The Parable of the Sower (s. 9): Although there’s no context or interpretation provided in the Gospel of Thomas, I couldn’t find any significant difference in the parable itself from how it’s presented in the Synoptics (Matt. 13:3-23, Mark 4:1-20, Luke 8:5-15).

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (s. 20): This parable also doesn’t differ significantly from the Synoptics’ versions (Matt.13:31-32, Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19), except that the question about what the kingdom is like comes from the students (i.e., disciples).

The Parable of the Children (s. 21): In this parable, children are expelled from playing in a field not belonging to them. The interpretation that follows is a warning about being alert to thieves, as is found in Matthew 24:43-44. What this has to do with the disciples being like naked children, I haven’t a clue.

The Parable of the Wheat and Tares (s. 57): Suprisingly, I actually found the Thomas version more straightforward than those found in the Bible . While Matthew 13:24-30 doesn’t say why it would be any easier to distinguish between the wheat and weeds during the harvest, the Gospel of Thomas explains that the fully developed plants clearly identify themselves while the seeds look alike. In other words, righteous and evil people bear obvious fruit (Matt. 7:15-20, 12:33; Luke 6:43-45).

The Parable of the Rich Fool (s. 63): While Luke 12:16-21 focuses on the damnation of the soul that works for treasure on earth (cf. Matthew 6:19-21), the Thomas version merely suggests that physical death is around the corner for everyone. In other words, even though the stories are similar, the Gospel of Thomas seems to have taken the “punch” out of it.

The Parable of Wedding Feast or Great Banquet (s.64): The Thomas version never mentions a wedding, but obviously tells the story found in Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:7-42, which differ from each other. Something noticeably absent, though, is Thomas’ failure to relate the parable to the kingdom, eternal punishment, or eternal rewards.

The Parable of the Tenants (s. 65): This is another example of where the missing context weakens the parables message. While the Gospel of Thomas presents this as just another story, the Synoptics (Matt.21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-20) show that it was a direct attack on the Jewish religious leaders, who had been initially charged to do God’s work but then neglected their duties and abused their power.

The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price (s. 76): This parable, as given in the Gospel of Thomas, actually combines the story of the merchant who values the pearl so much that sells all he has (Matt. 13:45-46) with the lesson about storing up heavenly treasure (Matt. 6:19-21). I feel that this pairing results in the important teaching of valuing the kingdom above everything else being overshadowed by the message against greed (Matt. 6:24).

The Parable of the Leaven (s. 96): When read in Matthew 13:33 or Luke 13:20-21, we can see the emphasis placed on what the leaven does to the dough and connect it to how the kingdom spreads throughout the world. In the Thomas version, we are told that the woman makes two large loaves of bread, but how this actually relates to the kingdom is left out.

The Parable of the Broken Jar (s. 97): This parable, only found in the Gospel of Thomas, tells about a woman carrying a jar full of flour, who never notices the crack until reaching home and finding the jar empty. The moral of the story appears to be that neglect or inattentiveness can result in losing the kingdom or one’s place in the kingdom. This interpretation noticeably challenges the Calvinist doctrine of “preservation of the saints” (i.e., predestination) and is more in line with some doctrines of “free grace” that allow for Christians losing their salvation.

The Parable of the Assassin (s. 98): Also unique to Thomas, this parable tells about a man testing the strength of his sword before pursuing and killing his enemy. The interpretation that makes the most sense to me is that the kingdom is prepared and successful in conquering its enemies.

The Parable of Lost Sheep (s. 107): The Gospel of Thomas’ version harkens back a bit to the earlier “The Parable of the Wise Fisherman.” As in Matthew 18:12-14 and Luke 15:3-7, but the rejoicing over having found the one lost sheep is interpreted as that one being loved more value than all the others. This might have gnostic leanings in that some followers are seen as being more enlightened and superior than others.

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (s. 109): Here the Thomas version provides a lot of extra context for the story that isn’t found in Matthew 13:44. The latter has the discoverer selling everything he has to obtain the land, telling us to sacrifice everything to obtain the kingdom. The former, however, tells about the land’s owner stumbling across the treasure left by a past owner and becoming rich as a result, with no apparent spiritual lesson coming out of the text.

Although many of the teachings presented in the Gospel of Thomas strongly resemble those found in the Bible, the missing element is the story of Jesus, His pure life, His tragic death, and His glorious resurrection. Like Thomas Jefferson’s edited version, The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, there’s no hope offered to mankind, only wisdom sayings. Without the miraculous, the “nonsense” as Jefferson called it, we are left with a rather uninspiring work. It’s no wonder that it has been virtually lost in obscurity.