Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 6: Thomas

This week’s class was comparatively lighter than last week’s look at Valentinianism. The students had to read only one textbook chapter and two primary texts. Mind you, they also had to hand in their book review of Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels. And if they were anything like me as an undergrad, most of them were reading the book up to the last minute in a mad scramble to get the review done.

It feels increasingly odd to teach the Gospel of Thomas in a Gnosticism class. Many scholars do not see it as really Gnostic; it does hint at Gnostic ideas, though perhaps no more than, say the Gospel of John. Gos. Thom. is such an important text for studying early Christianity that I discuss it in virtually all of my courses, and this week I had to repeat much of what I said about the text in my New Testament Apocrypha class from last Fall.

We began with a discussion of the so-called “School of Thomas.” Early Christian groups seem to have coalesced around certain apostolic figures: the Synoptic Gospels (especially Matthew) primarily around Peter, and the Gospel of John and the Johannine letters are seen as products of a “Johannine community.” The apostle in the texts is portrayed as a spokesperson for a particular theology, perhaps traceable to early missionary efforts by these personalities. The Thomas literature is typically held as the best example of this process. With Thomas you have three texts—the Gospel of Thomas, the Book of Thomas, and the Acts of Thomas—sharing a certain formulation of the author’s name (Judas Didymus Thomas), which seems to have originated in a Syrian milieu. Another text often included in this “school” is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas; the textbook by Nicola Denzey Lewis places Infancy Thomas among Thomas literature. However, this text does not share the triple-name formulation nor the theology observable in the other texts; indeed it appears to have circulated anonymously until the tenth century.

We looked at the evidence for Gos. Thom. (from Nag Hammadi and Oxyrhynchus). I neglected to mention also a burial shroud, also from Oxyrhynchus, containing the saying from Gos. Thom. log. 5 (see HERE for more information) and the rarely-mentioned manuscripts of the Gospel of John that state that the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery originates in the Gospel of Thomas. We discussed what seemed to be the Gnostic affinities in the text as well as some other interesting features. One student asked about the textbook’s treatment of log. 13, which parallels the Confession at Caesarea Philippi from the Synoptic Gospels. Here Denzey Lewis presents a reconstruction of the three things said to Thomas by Jesus, things that Thomas feared would result in the other apostles stoning him to death. Denzey Lewis surmises that Jesus told him: “I am God, you are me, and we are the kingdom of God” (see p. 115). A similar take on the logion is given by April DeConick in her book The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation (p. 84-85). The student asked how this reconstruction affects our understanding of the gospel. Looking at it again, I’m not sure that it changes anything; the first statement seems reasonable, especially given that the Gospel of John 10:30-34 similarly has Jesus declare himself God (“I and the Father are one”) and then the crowd pick up rocks to stone Jesus. But Denzey Lewis pieces the other two statements together using other sayings in the text. Consider also logion 50 in which Jesus presents three teachings to his apostles; could these be what he said to Thomas?

Jesus said, “If they say to you, ‘Where have you come from?’ say to them, ‘We have come from the light, from the place where the light came into being by itself, established [itself], and appeared in their image.’
If they say to you, ‘Is it you?’ say, ‘We are its children, and we are the chosen of the living Father.’
If they ask you, ‘What is the evidence of your Father in you?’ say to them, ‘It is motion and rest.’”

We turned next to theories of composition for the text. For theories of late composition I mentioned Nicholas Perrin’s theory that Thomas drew upon Tatian’s Diatessaron in Syriac and Mark Goodacre’s recent treatment of the gospel and his notion of “missing middles” (see my review of his book HERE). Then we looked at those who argue for an early date, augmented with some examples of sayings that appear, form-critically, to precede the versions in the Synoptic Gospels (principally log. 89 and 78). Finally, we discussed intermediary positions advocated by Birger Pearson and April DeConick. They lay out developmental hypotheses for Gos. Thom. with materials added to the text over time. In this view the gospel is both early and late. I find this theory the most compelling, especially given that changes in the text are identifiable in the manuscript evidence.

We finished off our discussion of the Thomas literature with a brief overview of scholarship on the Book of Thomas and a discussion of the text’s possible Gnostic features. As Denzey Lewis says, this too is not a particularly Gnostic text; as the students noted, its primary theme is sexual renunciation.

Gos. Thom. often appears in popular culture. Previously I have shown the class some scenes from the film Stigmata (dir. R. Wainwright, 1999) but we did not have enough time for that this week (and the textbook mentions it, so the students have some idea of its contents). We did look briefly during the break at which contains video of actors reading the text and you can change some of their attributes: toggle, for example, between a Western or Semitic Jesus, and between a gentle, mezzo, or passionate reading. The site was particularly useful given that some of the students characterized Jesus in Gos. Thom. as somewhat harsh.

The second half of the class focused on the students’ assessments of Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels. Every year that I have taught this course (about five times in 14 years), I have assigned this text. It is a classic in the field and many of its ideas remain current in North American scholarship on the text. The students noted that the topics raised in the book certainly fit with its time of writing, particularly the chapters on gnostic Christianity’s anti-ecclesiastical and anti-patriarchal features. Though I generally praise the book as being evenhanded and even conciliatory to orthodoxy, the students were correct in identifying a bias in Pagels’ approach. She never states, as some of her critics have charged, that Gnosticism is more “true” or legitimate than orthodoxy, but she certainly seems to see it as “better” in some respects. The students appreciated also Pagels’ arguments that social and political factors influenced the formation of the New Testament canon and the censuring of heretical texts such as we find in the Nag Hammadi Library.

When class resumes after Reading Week we go deeper into the rabbit hole and look, at last, at the Apocryphon of John and other texts that are more challenging to understand. Though with Valentinianism and the Thomas literature behind us, the going will be much easier.

3 responses to “Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 6: Thomas

  1. But according to Hippolytus, Refutation v.8.4., the the Naassenes taught these three secret words are “Kaulakau”, “Saulasau”, “Zeesar” from the book of Isaiah. The first one was the Primal Man “Adamas”, the second one is the Mortal Man here below. And the last one, Zeesar, is the Jordan which flows upward. There are strong similarities between The Mandaean cosmology.

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