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The Other Christians

In 1897 two British scholars, B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt, excavated an ancient garbage dump at the site of the Greco-Roman town of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt (modern el-Bahnasa), and discovered the largest cache of ancient papyri ever found anywhere. Publication of these papyri began in 1897 and is still going on. The very first to be published, called P. Oxy. 1, consists of a single leaf from a papyrus codex datable to as early as the second century and inscribed in Greek on both sides with what Grenfell and Hunt referred to as “Sayings of our Lord.” Another papyrus fragment with additional “new sayings of Jesus” was published in 1904, together with eight small fragments of “a lost gospel.” These papyri, very fragmentary, were duly noted by scholars and included in standard collections of New Testament “apocryphal” writings, but no notice was taken of them by the public.

All that changed in 1945, when some Egyptian farmers were digging for fertilizing nitrates in the desert at the base of a cliff some six miles from the modern town of Nag Hammadi. They dug up a large earthenware jar containing twelve leather-bound papyrus codices, plus part of a thirteenth, all of them written in Coptic, the most recent form of the ancient language of the Pharaohs. It is written in a modified Greek alphabet and includes in its vocabulary numerous Greek words. These fourth-century books, containing forty-six different treatises of varying lengths, most of them hitherto unknown, make up what is now called the Nag Hammadi Library. Most of them are “gnostic” writings deemed heretical by ancient church fathers. Publication of these writings began in the 1950s.

The second tractate of Nag Hammadi Codex II consists of a complete collection of some 114 sayings ascribed to Jesus, with the title “The Gospel According to Thomas.” The publication of this gospel in 1959 made it possible for scholars to show that the papyri from Oxyrhynchus are from three different Greek copies of the Gospel of Thomas, whose complete text is now extant only in the form of the Coptic translation we have in the Nag Hammadi collection. This “lost gospel” has attracted an enormous amount of attention, not only on the part of scholars but of the general public as well. It has been translated into several languages around the world.

The opening passage tells us something of the content of Thomas, which, unlike other gospels, consists only of sayings, with no narratives of Jesus’ deeds, death, and resurrection1 :

These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down. And he said, “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience [lit. ‘taste’] death.”

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 concluding saying has been translated as follows:

Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary [Magdalene] 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.”

In between are other sayings that sound new to readers of the New Testament, but others that are familiar, with parallels in the New Testament Synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and John.

Of all of the Nag Hammadi texts, the Gospel of Thomas has elicited by far the largest amount of scholarly attention as well as the greatest variation in approaches and interpretations. We have no clear idea who composed it or compiled it, and scholars differ widely over its literary status (a collection of sayings, excerpts from a lost commentary, a “gospel”), its religious character (“gnostic,” “mystical,” Jewish, anti-Jewish, philosophical), its date (mid-first century to late second century), original language (Greek or Syriac), its place of origin (Syria, Palestine, Egypt), and its relationship to the gospels of the New Testament canon (dependent on them or independent).

In Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels, the author of the prize-winning book The Gnostic Gospels, presents a persuasive interpretation of Thomas. But the book is really not primarily about Thomas, and that’s what makes it all the more important. In it Pagels tells the story of how the Christian religion, originally multiform and diverse and focused on love for God and neighbor, came to be an institution demanding conformity to a fixed system of “orthodox” beliefs. What makes her book all the more fascinating is that she brings into it much of her own personal experience, not only as a scholar but as a person who, in spite of its history, can embrace the Christian religion in her own way.

In her opening chapter (“From the Feast of Agape to the Nicene Creed”) she gives an account of how she found comfort in the services of a New York church after her son Mark had been diagnosed with a fatal illness. At the same time she “wondered when and how being a Christian became virtually synonymous with accepting a certain set of beliefs.” She asks, “What is it about Christian tradition that we love—and what is it that we cannot love?”

In Pagels’s view the earliest Christians were, in their devotion to Jesus, united in one thing, the need to reach out to others as “brothers and sisters,” thus creating a new family bound together not only in worship but also in acts of loving kindness toward fellow Christians and others as well, including their persecutors. In matters of faith there was an amazing amount of diversity, and the Nag Hammadi texts provide evidence of Christians who “saw themselves as not so much believers as seekers, people who ‘seek for God.’”

Pagels goes on to present her own interpretation of Thomas, contrasting that gospel with the canonical Gospel of John. The difference between the two gospels is a central theme of her book. She tells of her experience as a graduate student at Harvard reading some of the newly published Nag Hammadi texts, in which she found “unexpected spiritual power.” As an instance she cites Thomas saying number 70, as translated by her teacher George MacRae:

Jesus said: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Thomas’s Jesus, she writes, challenges Christians who “mistake the kingdom of God for an otherworldly place or a future event.” According to one of the gospel’s passages she cites,

Jesus said, “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, 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 and it is you who are that poverty.”

Pagels’s study of the Gospel of Thomas in comparison with the Gospel of John has led her to conclude that John, written around the same time as Thomas (between 90 and 100 AD), not only directly contradicts in many respects what is found in the other canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) but also contradicts views that are found in Thomas. John reflects a debate among early Christians about who Jesus is, and insists that Jesus is both unique and divine, something not found in the other gospels. Thomas contains teaching that reflects the views of “Thomas Christians” who believed that “the divine light Jesus embodied is shared by humanity, since we are all made ‘in the image of God.’” These Christians looked to Thomas as their apostolic authority, just as other Christians venerated Peter, or Paul, or John, or Jesus’ brother James.

Pagels finds in the Gospel of Thomas a cluster of sayings which she takes as the key to its interpretation, many of them reflecting an interpretation of the opening passages of Genesis. Challenging those who persist in asking about the “last days” or the “end of time,” Thomas’s Jesus points them to the beginning and to their own origins:

The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us how our end will be.” Jesus said, “Have you discovered, then, the beginning, that you look for the end? For where the beginning is, there will the end be. Blessed is he who will take his place in the beginning; he will know the end and will not experience death.”

His disciples said to him, “Show us the place where you are, since it is necessary for us to seek it.” He said to them, “Whoever has ears, let him hear. There is light within a man of light, and he lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is darkness.”

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 on its own accord and established [itself] and became manifest through their image.’”

Pagels observes that John, especially in its prologue, interprets the same Genesis texts but in a radically different way. She writes:

For John, identifying Jesus with the light that came into being “in the beginning” is what makes him unique—God’s “only begotten son.” John calls him the “light of all humanity,” and believes that Jesus alone brings divine light to a world otherwise sunk into darkness. John says that we can experience God only through the divine light embodied in Jesus. But certain passages in Thomas’s gospel draw a quite different conclusion: that the divine light Jesus embodied is shared by humanity, since we are all made “in the image of God.” Thus Thomas expresses what would become a central theme of Jewish—and later Christian—mysticism a thousand years later: that the “image of God” is hidden within everyone, although most people remain unaware of its presence.

In insisting that Jesus is the unique Son of God and that salvation is based solely on believing in Jesus, John is also challenging the contrary view of “Thomas Christians.” Pagels notes that it is in John that we find Thomas repudiated as “doubting Thomas.” Following the crucifixion, Thomas is absent from the group of disciples to whom Jesus appears, and on whom he bestows the holy spirit. Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus has been resurrected and is then rebuked by the risen Christ in another appearance: “Do not be faithless but believing.” Thomas is eventually forced to capitulate: “My lord and my God!”

  1. 1

    I am quoting from the translation by Thomas O. Lambdin in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, third revised edition (Harper and Row, 1988). Other Nag Hammadi texts quoted in this review are also from The Nag Hammadi Library in English.

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