from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Gospel of Thomas

It does not tell the story of the life and death of Jesus, but offers the reader his 'secret teachings' about the Kingdom of God.

 

Elaine H. Pagels:

The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University

This book opens with the lines, "These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and the twin, Didymos Judas Thomas wrote them down." Then there follows a list of the sayings of Jesus. Now this raises all kinds of questions. Did Jesus have a twin brother? Actually the name Thomas Didymos -- well, Thomas is Hebrew for twin. Didymos is Greek for twin.... The implication here is that he is Jesus' twin. But this character, of course, also appears in the Gospel of John, he's one of the disciples, the twin. Here he appears as if he's Jesus' twin, and he is one who knows secret teaching, which Jesus hasn't given to all other people. Some of these sayings are familiar. We know them from Matthew and Luke - Jesus said, "I have come to cast fire on the earth." Or "Behold, a sower went out to sow," and so forth.... Others are as strange and compelling as Zen koans. My favorite of these is saying number 70, which says, "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." The gospel opens as Jesus invites people to see....

The Gospel of Thomas also suggests that Jesus is aware of, and criticizing the views of the Kingdom of God as a time or a place that appear in the other gospels. Here Jesus says, "If those who lead you say to you, 'look, the Kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds will get there first. If they say 'it's in the ocean,' then the fish will get there first. But the Kingdom of God is within you and outside of you. Once you come to know yourselves, you will become known. And you will know that it is you who are the children of the living father."

In this gospel, and this is also the case in the Gospel of Luke, the Kingdom of God is not an event that's going to be catastrophically shattering the world as we know it and ushering in a new millennium. Here, as in Luke 17:20, the Kingdom of God is said to be an interior state; "It's within you," Luke says. And here it says, "It's inside you but it's also outside of you." It's like a state of consciousness. It's hard to describe. But the Kingdom of God here is something that you can enter when you attain gnosis, which means knowledge. But itdoesn't mean intellectual knowledge. The Greeks had two words for knowledge. One is intellectual knowledge, like the knowledge of physics or something like that. But this gnosis is personal, like "I know that person, or do you know so and so." So this gnosis is self-knowledge; you could call it insight. It's a question of knowing who you really are, not at the ordinary level of your name and your social class or your position. But knowing yourself at a deep level. The secret of gnosis is that when you know yourself at that level you will also come to know God, because you will discover that the divine is within you.

JESUS IN THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS

The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas does appear rather different from the Jesus we encounter in the others. Because the Gospel of Mark, for example, depicts Jesus as an utterly unique being. This is the good news of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. The Gospel of John says that Jesus isn't even a human being at all, but he's a divine presence who comes down to heaven in human shape.... The Gospel of John says, "God sent his son into the world to save the world." If you believe in him, you're saved, if you don't believe in him you're already damned, because you haven't believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

Now, [in the Gospel of Thomas], this Jesus comes to reveal that you and he are, if you like, twins.... And what you discover as you read the Gospel of Thomas, which you're meant to discover, is that you and Jesus at a deep level are identical twins. And that you discover that you are the child of God just as he is. And so that at the end of the gospel Jesus speaks to Thomas and says, "Whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I will become that person, and the mysteries will be revealed to him." Here, Jesus does not take the role of authority and teacher. In the Gospel of Thomas, the disciples say to Jesus, "Tell us, what do you want us to do? How shall we pray? What shall we eat? How shall we fast?" Now if you look at Matthew and Luke, Jesus answers the questions. He says, "When you pray, say, 'Our Father who are in Heaven, hallowed be...' When you fast, wash your face, don't make a show of it. When you give alms do it privately and without being showy." In this gospel, this Jesus does not answer. He says, "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate, for everything is known before heaven." Now this answer throws you and me upon ourselves.... Here Jesus, in effect, turns one toward oneself, and that is really one of the themes of the Gospel of Thomas, that you must go in a sort of a spiritual quest of your own to discover who you are, and to discover really that you are the child of God just like Jesus.

Helmut Koester:

John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School

KNOW THYSELF

One of these documents [found at Nag Hammadi] begins with the scribal note in the margin, "The Gospel According to Thomas." And the first sentence of that document says, "These are the secret words which the living Jesus taught and which Judas Thomas Didymos wrote down." And then they start a total of over 110 sayings, each introduced by "Jesus said...." Some of those sayings have parallels in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Some of these have not. Some of these sayings may go back to a very early period of Christianity, some of them may have been added later. The document itself comes from the fourth century.... As with all gospel text, with this one in particular, we have to remember that these texts were fluid, that scribes could add, that scribes could leave out things, that scribes could add comments, or add an interpretation. So we cannot with certainty reconstruct what did the Gospel of Thomas look like around the year 100 or earlier. But it is very likely that it existed at that time, and that a good deal of the material that's now in that manuscript was already in a Greek manuscript that dates back to the first century. Which of course, is very exciting because here we have a collection of sayings of Jesus, additional sayings of Jesus, that were not known before, and the whole beginning of a new field of studies has opened up....

Now what is typical about these sayings is that in each instance, these sayings want to say that if you want to understand what Jesus said, you have to recognize yourself. You have to know yourself, know who you are. It begins with a saying about the Kingdom of God, "if you seek the Kingdom of God in the sky then the birds will precede you. And if you seek it in the sea, then the fish will precede you, but the Kingdom is in you. And if you know yourself then you know the Kingdom of God." (The Kingdom of the Father, in fact, it always says in the gospel of Thomas. Normally the Kingdom of the Father, not the Kingdom of God.) "But if you don't know yourself, you live in poverty." And poverty is understood as the ignorance of a life in its physical existence. Knowledge is understood to be the knowledge of one's divine origin, of the fact that one has come from the Kingdom. That we are on this earth only in a sojourn....

What does it mean really to know oneself? To know oneself is to have insight into one's own ultimate divine identity. You can go back to understand this to Greek models, which certainly exist. "Know yourself" is a very old Greek maxim... that is, you have to know that your own soul is divine, and then you know that you are immortal, whereas the body is the mortal part of human existence. Now this is radicalized in the Gospel of Thomas into saying that everything that is experienced physically and through sense perception, everything in this world that you can perceive in this way is nothing. It is, at best, chaos and, at worst, it doesn't even exist in reality. The only thing that really exists is your divine spirit or your divine soul, which is identical in its quality with God himself. And Jesus is the one who teaches that....

[When one truly knows oneself], one understands that one is divine, but also one understands that one is mortal. In such a way, you recognize that this mortality is really meaningless, as physical existence is meaningless. And therefore, death is no longer a problem, but death is a solution, because in death finally all this mortality will fall away, and the true self will be liberated to an independent existence that's no longer dependent on physical existence. And on everything that goes with physical existence, sickness and poverty and so on. And so physical existence is often described as poverty. But when you know yourself you are no longer in poverty.

Read the Gospel of Thomas.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
teachers' guide . viewers' guide . press reaction .  tapes, transcripts & events

published april 1998

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS