Here is some information I found in a book called Lost Christianities: The Battles For Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart D. Ehrman
The Stakes of the Conflict
Before launching into the investigation, I should perhaps say a word about what is, or at least what was, at stake. Throughout the course of our study I will be asking the question: What if it had been otherwise? What if some other form of Christianity had become dominant, instead of the one that did? In anticipation of these discussions, I can point out that if some other form of Christianity had won the early struggles for dominance, the familiar doctrines of Christianity might never have become the “standard” belief of millions of people, including the belief that there is only one God, that he is the creator, that Christ his son is both human and divine. The doctrine of the Trinity might never have developed. The creeds still spoken in churches today might never have been devised. The New Testament as a collection of sacred books might never have come into being. Or it might have come into being with an entirely different set of books, including, for example, the Gospel of Thomas instead of the Gospel of Matthew, or the Epistle of Barnabas instead of the Epistle of James, or the Apocalypse of Peter instead of the Apocalypse of John. If some other group had won these struggles, Christians might never have had an Old Testament; if yet a different group had won, Christians might have had only the Old Testament (which would not have been called the “Old” Testament, since there would have been no “New” Testament). Moreover, we will see that as vital as the outcome of these early Christian struggles was for the internal character of the religion, it was even more significant for the effect and impact that this religion had externally, on the history of civilization itself. It is conceivable that if the form of Christianity that established itself as dominant had not done so, Christianity would never have become a major world religion within the Roman Empire. Had that happened, the empire might never have adopted Christianity as its official religion. In that case, Christianity would never have become the dominant religion of the European Middle Ages, down to the Renaissance, the Reformation, and on to today. Had the conflicts been resolved differently, as odd as this may seem, people in the West-we ourselves-might have remained polytheists to this day, worshiping the ancient gods of Greece and Rome. On the other hand, the empire might have converted to a different form of Christianity and the development of Western society and culture might have developed in ways that we cannot imagine. However one plays such games of imagination, it is clear that the victory of one form of Christianity was a significant event both for the internal workings of the religion and for the history of civilization, especially in the West. But it was also a victory that came with a price. In this study, as I have indicated, we will be exploring both what was gained and what was lost once the conflicts of the early Christian centuries had been resolved.
The Ancient Discovery of a Forgery: Serapion and the Gospel of Peter
Ancient Christians knew of far more Gospels than the four that eventually came to be included in the New Testament. Most of them have been lost to us in all but name. Some are quoted sporadically by early church writers who opposed them. A few have been discovered in modern times. We can assume, and in many cases we know, that the Christians who read, preserved, and cherished these other Gospels understood them to be sacred texts. The Christians who rejected them argued that they were heretical (promoting false teachings) and, in many instances, forged. The Christians who won the early conflicts and established their views as dominant by the fourth century not only gave us the creeds that have been handed down from antiquity, they also decided which books would belong to the Scriptures. Once their battles had been won, they succeeded in labeling themselves “orthodox” (i.e., those who hold to the “right beliefs”) and marginalized their opponents as “heretics.” But what should we call Christians who held the views of the victorious party prior to their ultimate victory? It may be best to call them the forerunners of orthodoxy, the “proto-orthodox.” Proto-orthodox Christians accepted the four Gospels that eventually became part of the New Testament and viewed other Gospels as heretical forgeries. As the famous theologian of the early and mid-third century, Origen of Alexandria, claimed, “The Church has four Gospels, but the heretics have many” (Homily on Luke 1). He goes on to list several of the heretical Gospels he himself has read: the Gospel according to the Egyptians, the Gospel according to the Twelve Apostles, the Gospel of Basilides, the Gospel according to Thomas, and the Gospel according to Matthias. We know almost nothing of the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles and of Basilides, a famous second-century Gnostic heretic. The Gospels of the Egyptians and of Matthias are known only through a few quotations by Origen’s older contemporary, Clement of Alexandria. These quotations give a sense of what we lost when these texts disappeared. The Gospel of the Egyptians apparently opposed the notion of procreative sex. In one passage, a female follower of Jesus, Salome, known slightly from the New Testament Gospels (see mark 16:1), says to Jesus, “Then I have done well in not giving birth,” to which Jesus is said to reply, “Eat of every herb, but do not eat of the one that is bitter” (Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 3.9.66). At an earlier point he is said to have declared, “I have come to undo the works of the female” (Miscellanies 3.9.63). The Gospel according to Matthias may have been an even more mystical affair. At one point Clement quotes the intriguing words, “Wonder at the things that are before you, making this the first step to further knowledge” (Miscellanies 2.9.45). The other Gospel that Origen mentions, The Gospel of Thomas, has been discovered in its entirety in modern times and is arguably the single most important Christian archaeological discovery of the twentieth century. It is a fascinating document, the subject of an extensive modern literature; we will look at it at length in a later chapter. Clement and Origen were not alone in acknowledging the existence of other Gospels and assigning them to heretical forgers. The early fourth-century church father Eusebius also mentions the Gospels of Thomas and Matthias, along with the Gospel according to the Hebrews and the Gospel of Peter (Church History 3.25). The last named is of particular interest, because Eusebius gives an extended account of how it was used, questioned, and eventually c condemned as heretical by a proto-orthodox leader, to be relegated to the trash heaps of discarded Gospels. But then it turned up again, not in a trash heap but in the tomb of an Egyptian monk, discovered over a hundred years ago.
In addition, there are there fragmentary copies of the Gospel of Thomas, allegedly written by Jesus’ twin brother, Didymus Judas Thomas (the subject of chapter 3)
As we saw at the outset, his contemporary Origen had read yet other Gospels- those according to the Egyptians, the Twelve Apostles, Matthias, Basilides, and Thomas. And we know of apocalypses being read as well, including the one allegedly written by Peter and lost until discovered in a monk’s tomb along with Peter’s Gospel.
Of course, we know that the Gospel of Peter was forged as well, along with other books we have already mentioned- the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Apocalypse of Peter- and scores of other books from the ancient world. But in this case there is a difference. The author who forged the Acts of Paul and Thecla was caught and confessed to the deed.
In other cases, however, complete texts of previously lost Gospels have been uncovered. And in the opinion of probably the majority of scholars of early Christianity, these are the most significant manuscript discoveries of modern times. In particular, it is the discovery of a library of texts in Upper Egypt, near the village of Nag Hammadi, that has generated the greatest scholarly interest and media attention. This was a discovery of inestimable value, as significant for early Christian studies as the Dead Sea Scrolls were for early Jewish studies. Had the Dead Sea Scrolls not been found, scholars would consider the Nag Hammadi library the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times. And among the books of the Nag Hammadi library, none has provoked such attention and created such intellectual fervor and excitement as the Gospel of Thomas, the single most important noncanonical book yet to be uncovered, a collection of the sayings of Jesus, some of which may be authentic, many of which were previously unknown.
The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library
It is an intriguing story, this chance discovery of a cache of ancient Christian documents in 1945, in a remote part of Upper Egypt, a story of serendipity, ineptitude, secrecy, ignorance, scholarly brilliance, murder, and blood revenge. Even now, after scholars have spent years trying to piece it all together, details of the find remain sketchy. We do know that it occurred in December 1945-about a year and a half before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls hundreds of miles away in the Judean desert – when seven Bedouin fieldhands were digging for sabakh, a nitrate-rich fertilizer, near a cliff called Jabal al-Tarif along the Nile in Upper Egypt. The fertilizer was used for the crops they grew near their small hamlet of al-Qasr, across the river from the largest village of the area, Nag Hammadi, some three hundred miles south of Cairo and forty miles north of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. The leader of the group, the one responsible for the find once it was made and the one who later divulged the details of the discovery, was named, memorably enough, Mohammad Ali. It was Ali’s younger brother, however, who actually made the find, accidentally striking something hard below the dirt with his mattock. It turns out to have been a human skeleton. Digging around a bit, they uncovered, next to the skeleton, a large earthenware jar, about two feet high, with a bowl over the top, sealed with bitumen. Mohammed Ali and his companions were reluctant to open the jar, for fear that it might contain an evil genie. On further consideration, they realized it might also contain gold, and so without further ado they smashed into it with their mattocks. But there was no genie and no gold- just a bunch of old leather-bound books, of little use to this group of illiterate Bedouin. Ali divided up the find, ripping the books apart so everyone would get a fair share. His companions evidently wanted no part of them, however, and so he wrapped the lot in his turban, returned home, and deposited them in the outbuiliding where they kept animals. That night, his mother evidently used some of the brittle leaves to start the fire for the evening meal. The story gets a bit complicated at this point, as real life intrudes, but in an almost unreal way. Mohammed Ali and his family had for a long time been involved in a blood feud with a tribe in a neighboring village. It had started some six months earlier, when Ali’s father, while serving as a night watchman over some imported German irrigation machinery, had shot and killed an intruder. By the next day, Ali’s father had been murdered by the intruder’s family. About a month after they discovered the old books in the jar, Mohammed Ali and his brothers were told that their father’s murderer was asleep by the side of the road, next to a jar of sugarcane molasses. They grabbed their mattocks, found the fellow still asleep, and hacked him to death. They the ripped open his chest, pulled out his still warm heart, and ate it – the extreme act of blood vengeance. As it turns out, the man they had murdered was the son of a local sheriff. By this time, Mohammed Ali had come to think that perhaps these old books he had found might be worth something. Moreover, he was afraid that since he and his brothers would be prime suspects in this cold-blooded murder, his house would be searched for clues. He gave one of the books over to the local Coptic priest for safekeeping until the storm blew over. This local priest had a brother-in-law who was an itinerant teacher of English and history, who stayed in his home once a week while making his rounds in the parochial schools in the area. The history teacher realized that the books might be significant enough to fetch a good price, and he went to Cairo to try to sell the volume in his possession. It was not an altogether successful attempt, as the book was confiscated by the authorities. Eventually, however, he was allowed to sell it to the Coptic Museum. The director of the museum had a good idea what the book was, and to make a long story short, in conjunction with a young visiting French scholar of antiquity, Jean Doresse, whom he had known in Paris- known fairly well, in fact, as the director had proposed marriage to Mrs. Doresse before she became Mrs. Doresse- managed to track down most the remaining volumes and acquire them for the museum. Doresse had the first chance to look them over as a scholar. Eventually an international team was assembled by UNESCO to photograph, study, translate, and publish them. The international team was headed by an American scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity, James Robinson. The work was finally accomplished, we now have editions of the collection available in quality English translations, and you can purchase them online or in almost any really decent used bookstore. What is this ancient collection of books? The short answer is that it is the most significant collection of lost Christian writings to turn up in modern times. It includes several Gospels about Jesus that had never before been seen by any western scholar, books known to have existed in antiquity but lost for nearly 1,500 years. The cache contained twelve leather-bound volumes, with pages of a thirteenth volume removed from its own, now lost, binding and tucked inside the cover of one of the others. The pages are made of papyrus. The books themselves are anthologies, collections of texts compiled and then bound together. Altogether there are fifty-two treatises preserved among these volumes. But six of the treatises are duplicates, making a total of forty-six documents in the collection. They include Gospels by such persons as Jesus’ disciple Philip and secret revelations delivered to his disciple John and another to James; they include mystical speculations about the beginning of the divine realm and the creation of the world, metaphysical reflections on the meaning f existence and the glories of salvation; they include expositions of important religious doctrines and polemical attacks on other Christians for their wrongheaded and heretical views-especially Christians we would call proto-orthodox. The documents are written in ancient Coptic. But there are solid reasons for thinking that they were each originally composed in Greek. For some of the books there is no question about it: Among the texts, for example, is a small extract taken from Plato’s Republic. For other works, including the Gospel of Thomas, we have Greek fragments that date from a much earlier period. For some works, linguists are able to determine that the Coptic is “translation” rather than “original composition” Coptic. The leather-bound books themselves were manufactured in the second half of the fourth century. We know this because the spines of the leather bindings were strengthened with scrap paper, and some of the scrap paper came from receipts that are dated 341, 346, and 348 CE. The books thus must have been manufactured sometime after 348 CE. The date of the books, of course, is not the same as the date of the documents found within the books- just as the Bible (another anthology) lying on my desk was manufactured in 1998, but the documents it contains were written some 1,900 years earlier. So, too, with the Nag Hammadi texts: They were originally written long before the end of the fourth century when these particular books were made. The Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas I just mentioned date from the second century, and as I’ve pointed out in an earlier chapter, this Gospel along with others in the collection known to church fathers of the second and third centuries. When were the texts of these books written? Obviously they were produced at differed times and places (Plato’s Republic, e.g., in the fourth century BCE); but most of them appear to have been in existence by the second Christian century at the latest. Scholars have engaged in hard fought debates over the dates of some of these books, especially over whether they were composed as early as the first century, before the books of the New Testament. Among these particular debates, those over the Gospel of Thomas are probably the most heated. We do not know exactly who wrote these books or why they came to be hidden under the cliff of Jabal al-Tarif, just above the bend of the Nile, north of Luxor. It is probably significant that a Christian monastery, founded by the famous Christian monk Saint Pachomius in the fourth century, is located just three miles away. Scholars have been inclined to think that these books may have come from the library of the monastery, a view supported by the contents of the scrap paper in their bindings. But why would monks have disposed of the books? As we will see more fully in a later chapter, a significant moment occurred in the history of the formation of the New Testament canon in the late fourth century. It was in the year 367 CE that the powerful bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, wrote a letter to the churches throughout Egypt under his jurisdiction, in which he laid out in strict terms the contours of the canon of Scripture. This was the first time anyone of record had indicated that the twenty-seven books that we now have in our new Testament canon, and only those twenty-seven books, should be considered as Scripture. Moreover, Athanasius insisted that other “heretical” books not be read. Is it possible that monks of the Pachomian monastery near Nag Hammadi felt the pressure from on high and cleaned out their library to conform with the dictates of the powerful bishop of Alexandria? If so, why did they choose to hide the books instead of burn them? Is it possible that they, the ones who hid the books in an earthenware jar off in the wilderness, were actually fond of these books, and decided to hide them away for safekeeping until the tides of scriptural preference shifted, and they could be retrieved for their library of sacred texts? We will never know. We will be discussing others of these books in the so-called Nag Hammadi library later, when we come to examine one form of early Christian Gnosticism, arguably the most significant and certainly one of the most fascinating forms of Christianity that came to be “lost.” For now, we will look at just one of the books, the one that has proved most intriguing and significant for historians of early Christianity, a forgery known by name from ancient times, which came to be lost, only now to be discovered. It is a forgery of the teachings of Jesus written in the name of one who should know them better than anyone: his twin brother, Didymus Judas Thomas.
The Sayings of Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas is a complete text: we have its beginning, its end, and everything in between. It consists of 114 sayings of Jesus, and apart from the introductory verse by the author, almost nothing else. There are no stories told about Jesus here: no birth, no baptism, no miracles, no travels, no trials, no death, no resurrection, no narrative of any kind. Most of the sayings are simply introduced by the words, “Jesus said . . . “ followed by another verse that begins, “Jesus said . . . . “ In some instances there is dialogue between Jesus and the disciples, in which they say or ask something and Jesus responds, or he says something and they respond. These are the closest thing to a narrative in the book. There is no obvious pattern to the collection of sayings. A few of them are connected by topic or by “catchwords,” but for the most part the sequence appears to be completely random. Over half of the sayings found in the Gospel of Thomas are similar to sayings found in the New Testament Gospels (79 of the 114, by one count). In some instances, these similarities are quite close. Here, for example, you can find the well-known parable of the mustard seed
The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like.” He said to them, “It is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all seeds. But when it falls on tilled soil, it produces a great plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.” (Saying 20, cf. Mark 4: 30-31)
And, in a somewhat more terse form than in the New Testament, the comment about the blind leading the blind:
Jesus said, “If a blind man leads a blind man, they will both fall into a pit.” (Saying 34; cf. Matt. 15:14)
And one of the beatitudes:
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” (Saying 54; cf. Luke 6:20)
Many of these sayings are pithier and more succinct than their canonical counterparts. Is it possible that Thomas presents a more accurate version of the sayings than, say, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (there are fewer parallels to John)- that is, a closer approximation to the way Jesus actually said them? Other sayings begin in a familiar way, similar to something in the New Testament Gospels, but then shift into a different, somewhat odd sounding key. For example, Saying 2:
Jesus said, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all.”
The saying begins like Matt. 7:7-8, “Seek and you shall find.” But what does it mean when it speaks of being troubled, becoming astonished, and ruling over “the all”? Or consider Saying 72:
A man said to him, “Tell my brothers to divide my father’s possessions with me.” He said to him, “O man, who has made me a divider?” He turned to his disciples and said to them, “I am not a divider, am I?” (cf. Luke 12:13-14)
Or take an example near the end, 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 the father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.”
Again, the passage starts in a familiar way (cf. Mark 13:4 or esp. Luke 17:20-21), but ends somewhere else. Then there are a large number of sayings that sound even more remote from what one finds on the lips of Jesus in the canonical Gospels (excerpt for in a few set phrases). Just to take three rather striking instances:
Jesus said, “This heaven will pass away, and the one above it will pass away. The dead are not alive and the living will not die. In the days when you consumed what is dead, you made it what is alive. When you come to dwell in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were one you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?” (Saying 11) His disciples said, “When will you become revealed to us and when shall we see you? Jesus said, “When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then will you see the son of the living one, and you will not be afraid.” (Saying 37) Jesus said, “That which you have will save you if you bring it forth from yourselves. That which you do not have within you will kill you if you do not have it within you.” (Saying 70)
What is one to make of these peculiar sayings? What do they mean? And where did they come from? First, on the matter of where they came from . Since so many of the sayings are similar to those of the New Testament Gospels, there have always been scholars who have claimed that “Thomas” (no one thinks this was really Thomas, the brother of Jesus, but for the sake of convenience, we will grant him his pseudonym) used the New Testament Gospels as a source, modifying their sayings and adding some of his own. To explain this position more fully, I need to digress for a moment. The closest parallels with the sayings of Thomas are those found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three are commonly known as the Synoptic Gospels (literally meaning: “seen together”), since they have so many stories and sayings in common that they can be put in parallel columns and compared carefully with one another. Long before the Gospel of Thomas was discovered, scholars were intrigued by the question of why the Synoptics were so similar to one another, why they often tell exactly the same stories, in the same sequence, sometimes word for word the same, and yet at other times they differ in stories told, sequence, and wording. The solution that was eventually devised for this “Synoptic Problem,” a solution that is still held by the majority of researchers today, is that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source for a number of their stories. But Matthew and Luke have a number of additional passages almost entirely made up of sayings that are not found in Mark. Mark could not therefore be the source for these passages. Where then did Matthew and Luke acquire them? The theory developed that Matthew and Luke took these passages, principally sayings, from another source that has since been lost. The German scholars who devised this theory decided to call this other source Quelle, the German word, conveniently enough, for “source.” It is frequently called Q for short. Q then provided the material found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. It is widely assumed that Q was an actual document, written in Greek, in circulation in the early church, a document that recorded at least two deeds of Jesus (the story of Jesus’ temptations is in Q, as is an account of his healing the son of a centurion) and a number of his teachings, including the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, and other familiar sayings. In the nineteenth century, one of the principal objections to the existence of this hypothetical lost Gospel, Q, was that it was hard to imagine-impossible for some scholars-that any Christian would have written a Gospel containing almost exclusively Jesus’ teachings. Most striking was the circumstance that in none of the Q materials (that is, in none of the passages found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark) is there an account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. How, asked skeptical scholars, could any early Christian write a Gospel that focused on Jesus’ sayings without emphasizing his death and resurrection? Surely that is what Gospels are all about: the death of Jesus for the sins of the world and his resurrection as God’s vindication of him and his mission. This was a common argument against eh existence of Q, until the Gospel of Thomas was discovered. For here was a Gospel consisting f 114 sayings of Jesus, with no account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Even more than that , this was a Gospel that was concerned about salvation but that did not consider Jesus’ death and resurrection to be significant for it, a Gospel that understood salvation to come through some other means. Salvation through some other means? What other means? Through correctly interpreting the secret sayings of Jesus. The very beginning of the Gospel of Thomas is quite striking, in that it reveals the author’s purpose and his understanding of the importance of his collection of sayings and relatedly, of how one can acquire eternal life:
These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down. And he said, “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death” (Saying 1)
The sayings recorded here are said to be secret; they are not obvious, self-explanatory, or commonsensical. They are hidden, mysterious, puzzling, secret, Jesus spoke them, and Didymus Judas Thomas, his twin brother-wrote them down. And the way to have eternal life is to discover their true interpretation. Rarely has an author applied so much pressure on his readers. If you want to live forever, you need to figure out what he means. Before proceeding to an interpretation of the Gospel, an interpretation that has suddenly assumed an eternal importance, I should say a final word about Thomas in relation to the Synoptics. No one thinks that Thomas represents the long-lost Q source. A large number of the sayings in Q are not in Thomas, and a number of the sayings in Thomas are not in Q. But they may have been similar documents with comparable theological views. The author of Q, too, may have thought that it was the sayings of Jesus that were the key to a right relationship with God. If so, in losing Q we have lost a significant alternative voice in the very earliest period of early Christianity. Most scholars date Q to the 50’s of the Common Era, prior to the writings of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark was some ten or fifteen years later; Mater and Luke some ten or fifteen years after that) and contemporary with Paul. Paul, of course, stressed the death and resurrection of Jesus as the way of salvation. Did the author of Q stress the sayings of Jesus as the way? Many people still today have trouble accepting a literal belief in Jesus’ resurrection or traditional understandings of his death as an atonement, but call themselves Christian because they try to follow Jesus’ teachings. Maybe there were early Christians who agreed with them, and maybe the author of Q was one of them. If so, the view lost out, and the document was buried. In part, it was buried the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which transformed and thereby negated Q’s message by incorporating it into an account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. One more form of Christianity lost to view until rediscovered in modern times. We are still left with the question of where the pseudonymous author of the Gospel of Thomas, posing as Jesus’ twin, Didymus Judas Thomas, derived his sayings. While the matter continues to be debated among scholars, most think that he did not use the Synoptic Gospels as a source: There are not enough word-for-word agreements to think he did (unlike the extensive agreements among the Synoptics themselves). Most think, instead, that he had heard the sayings of Jesus as they had been transmitted orally, by word of mouth (just as Mark, for example, heard his stories), and then collected a number of them together, some similar to those found in the Synoptics, some like the Synoptic sayings but with a twist, some not at all like the Synoptic sayings.
Interpreting the Gospel of Thomas
If understanding these sayings correctly is the prerequisite for eternal life, how are we to interpret them? Few matters have been more hotly debated by scholars of early Christianity over the past several years. As we will see in a later chapter, a majority of the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi are closely tied into one or another of the various forms of religious belief and identity that scholars have identified under the umbrella term Gnosticism. On those grounds, from the beginning, a majority of interpreters have understood the Gospel of Thomas itself as some kind of Gnostic Gospel. More recently, this view has come under attack, principally by scholars who fear that interpreting Thomas from a Gnostic perspective requires one to import Gnosticism into a text that does not itself show signs of Gnostic perspectives. The debates have therefore centered on whether or not there are Gnostic perspectives evident in the text itself. I will be arguing below that there are and that these can help us explain some of the more difficult sayings of the Gospel. I will be giving a fuller explanation of that system later. For now it is enough to give it in broad outline and show how it can unpack some of the more peculiar sayings of this fascinating book, which was lost and now is found. Gnostic Christians varied widely among themselves in basic and fundamental issues. But many appear to have believed that the material world we live in is awful at best and evil at worst, that it came about as part of a cosmic catastrophe, and that the spiritual beings who inhabit it (i.e., human spirits) are in fact entrapped or imprisoned here. Most of the people imprisoned in the material world of the body, however, do not realize the true state of things; they are like a drunk person who needs to become sober or like someone sound asleep who needs to be awakened. In fact, the human spirit does not come from this world; it comes from the world above, from the divine realm. It is only when it realizes its true nature and origin that it can escape this world and return to the blessed existence of its eternal home. Salvation, in other words, comes through saving knowledge. The Greek term for knowledge is gnosis. And so these people are called Gnostics, “the ones who know.” But how do they acquire the knowledge they need for salvation? In Christian Gnostic texts, it is Jesus himself who comes down from the heavenly realm to reveal the necessary knowledge for salvation to those who have the spark of the divine spirit within. Let me stress that I do not think the Gospel of Thomas attempts to describe such a Gnostic view for its readers or to explicate its mythological undergirding. I think that it presupposes some such viewpoint and that if readers read the text with these presuppositions in mind, they can make sense of almost all the difficult sayings of the book. For example: Saying One claims that the one who finds the interpretation of Jesus’ secret sayings will not experience death. The sayings are thus secret; they are not open to the public but only for those in the know. Moreover, their interpretation-knowing what they mean-is what brings an escape from the death of this world. Saying Two, quoted above, is about seeking and finding. Knowledge is to be sought after, and when you realize that everything you thought you knew about this world is wrong, you become troubled. But then you realize the truth about this world, and you become amazed. And when that happens, you return, ultimately, to the divine realm from which you came and rule with the other divine beings over all there is. Or as expressed in another saying, “Whoever has come to understand the world has found only a corpse, and whoever has found a corpse is superior to the world” (Saying 56). This material world is dead; there is no life in it. Life is a matter of the spirit. Once you realize what the world really is-death-you are superior to the world and you rise above it. That is why the one who comes to this realization “will not experience death” (Saying 1) Coming to this realization of the worthlessness of this material world, and then escaping it, is like taking off the clothing of matter (the body) and being liberated from its constraints. Thus an effective image of salvation: “When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then will you see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid” (Saying 37). Salvation means escaping the constraints of the body. According to this Gospel, human spirits did not originate in this material world but in the world above:
Jesus said, “If they say to you, “Where did you come from?’ say to them, ’We came from the light, the place where the light came into being of its own accord.’ If they say to you, ‘Is it you?’ say, ‘We are its children, and we are the elect of the living father.” (Saying 50)
Thus we came from the world above, the world of light, where there is no enmity, no division, no darkness; we ourselves came from the one God and are his elect, and he is our ultimate destination: “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the solitary and elect, for you will find the kingdom. For you are from it, and to it you will return”” (Saying 49) It is indeed amazing that this material world came into being as a place of confinement for divine spirits. But as amazing as it is, it would have been completely impossible for it to be the other way around, that human spirits came into being as a result of the creation of matter:
If the flesh came into being because of spirit, it is a wonder. But if sprit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth [i.e., the material world/body]. (Saying 29)
For spirits trapped in this material world it is like being drunk and not being able to think straight, or being blind and unable to see. Jesus came from above, according to this Gospel, to provide the sobering knowledge or the brilliant insight necessary for salvation, and those who were trapped here were in desperate need of it:
Jesus said, “I took my place in the midst of the world and I appeared to them in flesh. I found all of them intoxicated: I found none of them thirsty. And my soul became afflicted for the sons of men, because they are blind in their hearts and do not have sight . . . . But for the moment they are intoxicated. When they shake off their wine, then they will repent.” (Saying 28)
Why then is it that the “dead are not living and the living will not die” (Saying 11)? Because the dead are merely matter; and what is not matter but sprit can never die. How is it that “on the day you were one you became two” (Saying 11?) Because you were once a unified sprit, but becoming entrapped in a body, you became two things- a body and a spirit- not one. The spirit must escape, and then it will be one again. This salvation will not, therefore, be salvation that comes to this world; it will be salvation from this world. The world itself, this material existence, is not something that was created good (contrary to the doctrines of the proto-orthodox). It is a cosmic catastrophe, and salvation means escaping it. For that reason, the Kingdom of God is not something coming to this world as a physical entity that can actually be said to be here in this world of matter. The Kingdom is something spiritual, within:
If those who lead you say to you, “See 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 inside of you, and it is outside of you. . . . When you come to know yourselves . . . you will realize it is you who are the sons of the living Father. (Saying 3)
Notice once again the key: knowing yourself, who you really are. Since this is a place to escape, no one should be tied to material things: “Do not be concerned from morning until evening and from evening until morning about what you will wear: (Saying 36). Instead, all that the world has to offer, all the riches it can provide, should be rejected in order to escape this world: “Whosoever finds the world and becomes rich, let him renounce the world” (Saying 110). And so, one should not be attached to anything in this world; as indicated in the pithiest of the sayings of the Gospel, “Become passersby” (Saying 42). The key to the salvation brought by Jesus is having the proper knowledge, gnosis-knowledge of your true identity:
When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty [i.e., the material world/the body] and you are that poverty. (Saying 3b) Jesus himself is the one who can provide this knowledge, knowledge that the human spirit is divine, as divine as Jesus himself and one with Jesus: “He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him” (Saying 108). And so Jesus brings the knowledge necessary for the divine spirits to be reunited with the realm whence they came. That is why Jesus is not a “divider” (Saying 72). He is not a divider but a unifier. This stress on becoming “one,” reunified with the divine realm in which there is no conflict and no division, is why the text emphasizes so strongly oneness, singleness, solidarity: “For many who are first will become last, and they will become one and the same” (Saying 4); “Blessed are the solitary and elect, for you will find the Kingdom” (Saying 22). Or as Jesus indicates when the disciples ask, “Shall we then as children enter the Kingdom?”:
When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness, then you will enter the kingdom. (Saying 22)
Restore all things to their original unity, where there are not parts but only a whole, no above and below, no outside and inside, no male and female. That is where there is salvation to those who have been separated off, divided from the divine realm. Perhaps it is this idea which can make sense of what is possibly the most peculiar and certainly the most controversial saying of the Gospel of Thomas, Saying 114:
Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The saying has caused a good bit of consternation, especially among feminist historians of early Christianity who are inclined to see, for good reason, that many Gnostic groups were more open to women and their leadership roles in the church than were the proto-orthodox. But how does one understand this verse, that women must become male in order to enter the Kingdom? It is virtually impossible to understand what the verse can mean without recognizing that in the ancient world, the world of this text, people generally understood gender relations differently than we do. Today we tend to think of men and women as two kinds of the same thing. There are humans, and there are either male or female. In the ancient world, genders were not imagined like that. For ancient people, male and female were not two kinds of human; they were two degrees of human. As we know from medical writers, philosophers, poets, and others, women in the Greek and Roman worlds were widely understood to be imperfect men. They were men who had not developed fully. In the womb they did not grow penises. When born, they did not develop fully, did not grow muscular, did not develop facial hair, did not acquire deep voices. Women were quite literally the weaker sex. And in a world permeated with an ideology of power and dominance, that made women subservient and, necessarily, subordinate to men. All the world, it was believed, operates along a continuum of perfection. Lifeless things are less perfect than living; plants less perfect than animals; animals less perfect than humans; women less perfect than men; men less perfect than gods. To have salvation, to be united with God, required men to be perfected. For some thinkers in the ancient world, the implications were clear: For a woman to be perfected, she must first pass through the next stage along the continuum and become a man. And so, salvation for this Gospel of Thomas, which presupposes a unification of all things so that there is no up and down, in and out, male and female, requires that all divine spirits return to their place of origin. But for women to achieve this salvation, they obviously must first become male. The knowledge that Jesus reveals allows for that transformation, so that every woman who makes herself male, through understanding his teaching, will enter then into the Kingdom. As I have pointed out, for this Gospel, it is Jesus himself who brings that knowledge. “When you see one who was not born of a woman [i.e., Jesus, who only “appeared” to be human], prostrate yourselves on your faces and worship him. That one is your father” (Saying 15). Or as he says later in the Gospel, “It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all. From me did the all come forth, and unto me did the all extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” (Saying 77). Jesus, the all in all, permeates the world and yet comes to the world as the light of the world that can bring the human spirit out of darkness so as to return to its heavenly home by acquiring the self knowledge necessary for salvation.
This then is the Gospel of Thomas, a valuable collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, many of which may reflect the historical teachings of Jesus, but all of which appear to be framed within the context of later Gnostic reflections on the salvation that Jesus has brought. Unlike the Gospels of the new Testament, in this Gospel Jesus does not talk about the God of Israel, about sin against God and the need for repentance. In this Gospel it is not Jesus’ death and resurrection that bring salvation. In this Gospel there is no anticipation of a coming Kingdom of God on earth. Instead, this Gospel assumes that some humans contain the divine spark that has been separated from the realm of God and entrapped in this impoverished world of matter and that it needs to be delivered by learning the secret teachings from above, which Jesus himself brings. It is by learning the truth f this world and, especially, of one’s one divine character, that one can escape this bodily prison and return to the realm of light whence one came, the Kingdom of God that transcends this material world and all that is in it. A remarkable document, an ancient forgery condemned as heretical by early proto-orthodox Christians and lost or destroyed, until the remarkable discovery of the Gnostic library in Upper Egypt, near Nag Hammadi, preserved now for us as the secret sayings of Jesus, which, if rightly understood, can bring eternal life.