Saying No. 20 in the Gospel of Thomas is almost identical with one found in canonical gospels. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven "is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds," but in soil it grows into a great plant that can shelter birds. One widely accepted interpretation of the corresponding canonical passage is that Jesus was referring to the seed of faith that will grow among his followers, becoming a universal church.
Basilides, a leading Christian Gnostic in Alexandria in the second century, gives the familiar saying a quite different allegorical meaning. For him the mustard seed is part of a cosmic creation myth, indicating the infinitesimal thing from which all else sprang. The unknowable ultimate godhead, planted "a certain single seed containing within itself the whole seed-mass of the cosmos."
Beginning at least as early as Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C., some philosophers in the Hellenic world viewed the highly diversified observable world as a development from a unity, a single "thing," regarded as a divine entity. Hippolytus records another metaphor for the primal Oneness, from the ideas of a Gnostic teacher whom he calls Monoimos the Arab. For Monoimos the primal unity is a single point -- the "tittle" ("Tittle," from Latin titulus , is familiar to readers of the New Testament from the translation into Jacobean English of another saying attributed to Jesus: "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.")
The iota, an undotted "i" (often translated as "jot" in English), is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet . The tittle is the dot or tiny diacritic mark placed above some letters. By itself, the tittle -- "uncompounded, simple, a pure monad having no composition whatever from anything, [yet] compounded of many forms, of many parts" -- is the image of the unknowable godhead. Placed above the iota, the tittle transforms the letter into the numeral "10." By the power "of the one tittle of Iota," says Monoimos, the one becomes ten.
Here is a striking image for depicting the explosion of the one into many, of unity into diversity. "God," says the Arab, "rejoices in the transmutation of creation which is wrought under the stroke of the one tittle." (In Kabbalah, it has been suggested, the jot of the tittle -- or of the Hebrew letter yod -- and the conversion of one into ten, refer to the ten aspects of God, eventually regarded as sefirot, that went into creation: wisdom, understanding, reason, strength, rebuke, might, righteousness, loving-kindness, compassion.)
The account of cosmic origins that is in favor in our science-minded times has its own version of the mustard seed and tittle. We are asked to imagine, at the beginning of time, a void in which the sole "thing" was a single point of matter-energy, of an inconceivable density and hotness. At a certain moment, between ten and twenty billion years ago, the primordial entity exploded in the Big Bang.
The remainder of the story is familiar, although refinements in detail appear almost weekly. We are far from the pre-Copernican days when Earth was seen as the center of the universe. We have become inured, if not wholly reconciled, to the notion that our planet is an obscure dot in a cosmos of unimaginable scope and that there are probably other planets, in huge numbers, capable of supporting life in forms similar, or perhaps dissimilar, to those known to us.
In our current model, most simply stated, first came the Bang, then creation of hydrogen, then helium, as the primordial energy/matter rushed outward at enormous speeds in emanations that were interacting and cooling. The products and leftovers coalesced into enormous clouds of radiant energy or tenuous matter, and into galaxies and stars of many varieties. Within the furnaces of the stars, heavy elements were formed from burning hydrogen. Our particular star exploded as a supernova, leaving the sun surrounded by planets and other debris. On Earth, elements combined into molecules, some of which somehow became organic. From primitive one-celled forms of life evolved much more complicated forms.
The process culminated, as we tend to view the matter, in homo sapiens . Alone of all known species, human beings have highly developed mental faculties scarcely detectable even in primitive form in most other creatures, and that elusive thing called "consciousness." They have the "five members of mind," the mental "skandhas." They are self-aware. They are also unique in other ways, some of them very ugly. And only in relation to humankind do the categories good and evil have meaning.
Orthodox monotheisms have taken some comfort from the Big Bang model. There was, it seems, a definite beginning to creation, even if it was many billion years ago and not Bishop Ussher's six thousand. (In the seventeenth century the Anglican prelate worked out from biblical texts an often-cited chronology that sets the date of creation at 4004 B.C.)
Many scientists, however, are uncomfortable with the notion of an expanding universe that began at a certain moment. The inability to explore what went on before that moment is inconsistent with the view that there will eventually be an explanation for all phenomena in terms of unvarying natural laws.
Albert Einstein was equally unhappy with quantum physics and the indeterminacy principle, which mean that physical laws can only be stated as probabilities. Whether the search is for the ultimate nuclear particle, or for the beginnings of "life," or for the nature of "mind" or "self." it may prove to be endless. We seem, as Jacob Bronowski once put it, "to be running after a goal that lurches away to infinity every time we come within sight of it."
It was in the relationship of human "self" to the All, and in the experience of "Truth" that the Gnostic was presumably interested. In the Book of Thomas the Contender the savior tells Thomas, his "twin and true companion," that although the apostle is not yet fully comprehending, he has understood that "I am the knowledge of the truth." Thomas, he says, will come to be called "the one who knows himself." The savior (whom the text never names as Jesus) goes on to say that "those who do not know themselves have known nothing, but those who have known themselves have at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the All."
The "one who knows himself;" "those who do not know themselves have known nothing:" the general thought is familiar from many other quarters, ancient and modern. Clement of Alexandria wrote that it "seems the greatest of all disciplines [is] to know oneself; for when a man knows himself he knows God." A depth psychologist like Carl Jung would agree. According to Plutarch, the precept "know thyself" is traceable to the Delphic oracle. Plotinus could say, with the Gnostics, that "to find ourselves is to know our source," and "the ultimate source whence [we] came is the One." The saying has also been ascribed to various Greek philosophers, and has long been a clichˇ in literature and in psychological and religious discourse.
For Knowers the expression had, of course, a distinctive meaning. The bridegroom to whom Thomas preaches the True Wedding in Andrapolis, in the Acts of Judas Thomas , says his goal is "To seek myself and know who I was and who and in what manner I now am, that I may again become that which I was." And "that which I was" is part of the Fullness, the Oneness, the Kingdom with which individual spirit yearns to reunite. To know oneself is to have an intuitive grasp of Oneness.
"You are babes," says the savior in The Contender , "until you become perfect." He concludes with these words (recalling the preface to the Gospel of Thomas , with its sequence of seeking-finding-becoming disturbed and astonished-ruling-finding rest) : "For when you come forth from the troubles and passions of the body, you will receive a place of rest from the Good One. And you will rule with the King, you joined with him and he joined with you, from now on, for ever and ever."
All along, mystics have insisted that the truth they seek is not to be found in the world perceptible to the senses and to ingenious technical extensions of those senses. Rather it is to be experienced inwardly, as an undifferentiated (and therefore unscientific) phenomenon. There is no rational explanation or description for it. The pertinent argument is the old mind-body one: Is there more to "mind" than its physical basis in brain and central nervous system? In the twentieth century the debate often has become cast in terms of the possibility or impossibility of artificially reproducing human intelligence, or the human psyche.
Of the terms sometimes used for the distinctive central core of human being -- Mind, Self, Soul, Spirit, le Moi -- the first two serve fairly well as compendious words, although the scientists who have constructed our model of the cosmos do not usually speak of a role for "mind."
Because esthetic, poetic, ethical, numinous, or mystical experiences do not provide quantifiable, verifiable data, they are not susceptible to scientific study. Many, probably most, scientists tend to believe that eventually the mind will be seen to be merely the functioning of the brain and central nervous system, and psychology will turn out to be part of neurology. And neurology will be reduced to physiology, which in turn can be reduced to chemistry, and chemistry to physics. And at the base of physics the ultimate reality eventually will be found.
And yet some scientists of the revolutionary twentieth century -- astronomers, particle physicists, molecular biologists, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and many others -- have concluded that the answers to ultimate questions, if attainable at all, probably lie beyond the reach of empirical observation and logical reasoning.
For example, Paul Davies, an Australian physicist who is among the increasing number of scientists who explore the limits of physical science and computational logic, notes that when such methods have been pursued to their limits, a different concept of "understanding" must come into play: "Possibly the mystical path is a way to such an understanding." For a long time many scientists have regarded consciousness as a phenomenon so elusive and ill-defined that it cannot be seriously studied. ( In 1992 the highly respected British scientific journal Nature reported a large measure of agreement, within a symposium of scientists and philosophers, that the time had come for scientists to study it and search for a new theory of consciousness. We should note that they thought a scientific explanation could somehow be found, eventually.)
Two of the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi are of special interest regarding the All and "Mind" -- referred to there, as so often, in terms of five members of mind. One, called Eugnostos the Blessed , apparently comes from non-Christian sources in Egypt, possibly from the first century A.D. It relates a version of the Gnostic cosmogonic myth: from the unknowable, infinite, eternal, indescribable divine entity -- "He Who Is"-- came a series of emanations of aeons and powers, including Sophia and her partner the Savior, with Adam on the lowest rung. It differs from the more usual Gnostic myth in that the powers in the hierarchy are benign and creation is good, as Plato and Jews and orthodox Christians would have it.
The second text, The Sophia of Jesus Christ , is a Christianized version of the first, in the sense that the savior is identified as Jesus. In this text he is addressing his close circle: Thomas, Philip, Matthew, Bartholomew, and Mary Magdalene. Sophia ends with the promise of a return to the Father for those who know him "in pure knowledge." After expounding on the infinite, unnameable, imperishable, indescribable nature of primal divinity, the savior offers some description: "[H]e is all mind. And he is thought and considering and reflecting and rationality and power. They all are equal powers. They are the sources of the totalities." And the same five attributes are shared by the lower orders in the hierarchy of aeons, including First Man, the aeon that precedes the first man on earth.
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.