"Wisdom" is one of those capacious words that accommodate a multitude of meanings and take on many cultural colorings. Judaism had its particular Wisdom tradition, from which many scholars think the Gospel of Thomas evolved. But the book found at Nag Hammadi is so strikingly different in crucial respects from what is usually known as Judaic Wisdom that other possible sources must be considered.
In the centuries before Christ, Wisdom appeared in two roles in Jewish scriptures. She was the creative, organizing, energizing aspect of the godhead, and she was the dispenser of ethical and practical advice. Little if anything can be found in the Gospel of Thomas to support either function, even assuming that Thomas is here the dispenser of "wisdom". The Jewish Wisdom literature that has survived, while moving toward an affirmation of immortality, universalism, and a personal relationship of human with God, remained firmly based on the Law and Lord of Israel. In general, this body of writing combines advice about how to conduct oneself in the world, with promises of rewards for the righteous (who fear the Lord and obey his Law) and punishment for the wicked.
The Gospel of Thomas , on the other hand, is almost free of concerns with worldly life and the Law. In one Saying (27), Jesus tells his listeners to "fast from the world" -- that is, do not give importance to worldly things. When asked about such matters as circumcision, diet, traditional fasting, dress, or alms giving (Sayings 6, 23), Jesus dismisses the questions; they are irrelevant in the search for the the Kingdom. And that kingdom, as we have noted more than once, is not some future place or an earthly state of affairs following an apocalyptic event but is to be found in this life by the "single ones," by "children," by those who overcome their ignorance and experience the Undivided.
During the Babylonian Exile of the sixth century B.C., leading Jewish families lived in Mesopotamia and were exposed to cultures very different from their own. The Diaspora, the dispersion of Jews into regions other than Palestine and especially to Egypt, continued in later centuries. Alexander the Great's successors brought the late Greek culture known as Hellenism to the lands he had conquered, beginning in the fourth century B.C.
Under Roman rule, leading to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 after many lesser conflicts, the alien influences and pressures continued. Not only among Jews in the Diaspora but also among those in Palestine itself, a form of Judaism evolved that was more widely appealing to non-Jews -- a form less sharply focused on the Jews' special relationship with Yahweh and more concerned with religious and ethical questions of interest to all peoples. Judaism became to some extent a proselytizing religion, seeking converts among gentiles. The strong universal ethical strain that has long been notable in Judaism began to develop.
In the literature of the "intertestamentary" period -- after the time of the Jewish prophets and before (but somewhat overlapping) the early Christian writings -- the so-called Wisdom books are those that thus reach out. [ Among them are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes , and Job (included in the Jewish and Christian canon), and books in the Old Testament Apocrypha (included in the Jewish Septuagint and Roman Catholic bible) -- especially Sirach , also called Ecclesiasticus , .from the second century B.C. and theWisdom of Solomon from the first .]
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes in the fourth century B.C. is rather world-weary-- rational and shrewd about getting on in this brief life but somewhat unsure of this life's value, resigned to the inscrutable ways of the Lord. In Sirach , written in the second century B.C. Wisdom is more positively personified: "From eternity, in the beginning, he created me, and for eternity I shall not cease to exist." She is full of sound practical advice. Among the things that gladden her heart are a man who rejoices in his children and a man who sees the downfall of his foes. Wisdom's soul takes pleasure in agreement between brothers, friendship between neighbors, and harmony between husband and wife. Fear of the Lord underlies all the counsel of Sirach . "To fear the Lord" is the source, root, and crown of Wisdom. But "man is not immortal"; "all men are only dust and ashes." Little is said about women.
As we have seen earlier in these pages, the Wisdom of Solomon , written in the first century B.C., extensively praises Wisdom; again she is distinctly personified, a part of the godhead, yet somewhat apart. She emerges as the aspect of the Lord that shapes and energizes the world, much like the Logos or Word of Stoics and later Christians. And the book now affirms the soul's immortality. Solomon heaps scorn on the ungodly who, finding life short and miserable, engage in revelry, have their fill of costly wine and perfumes, crown themselves in springtime rosebuds, and oppress the poor and widows. They will experience death. But "the righteous are in the hand of God" and "are at peace." "For God created man for immortality," says Solomon , "And made him the image of his own eternity, . . ." Love for wisdom "is the observation of her laws, and adherence to her laws is assurance of immortality, . . ."
The creative role of Wisdom/Sophia/Hakhmuth/Achamoth, the feminine element in the godhead in intertestamentary Judaism and Valentinian Gnosticism, was largely taken over by the "Word" (Logos) in Stoicism and eventually in Christianity. Philo, it will be recalled, used the terms Wisdom and Word almost interchangeably. Broadly speaking, the divine energy personified in the name was responsible for the creation and ordering of the cosmos, and was the source of life and law. No such role for Wisdom, or Jesus in the role of Wisdom, is found in the Gospel of Thomas .
Collections of wise sayings, maxims, guidance to proper conduct, moral teachings, and glimpses of the divine order, were to found in every ancient civilization from the China Sea to the Mediterranean. Among the collections close to Palestine were those of Egypt, reaching far into the past. These old wisdom collections were largely secular, practical advice, as distinct from attempts at spiritual inspiration. Some Egyptian collections, thought to be contemporary with or older than Sirach , offer many parallels with the Jewish sayings: in dealing with the rich and powerful, for example, don't be too forward and don't be too greedy at their tables; don't trust friends until they have been tested. Both agree with an old Greek tradition: to be truly wise a man must be free of labor.
The Mediterranean world, as we earlier noted, also had been fascinated by the philosophers of India as far back as Alexander's time in the fourth century B.C. Minds weary of Greek rationalism sought the "higher" knowledge, beyond the reach of reason, that was to be found in the Hermetic lore of Egypt, the astral studies of Babylonia, the Zoroastrian dualism of Mesopotamia and Persia, the thoughts and practices of gymnosophists and of the Buddha's followers in India.
Diogenes La'rtes, third-century-A.D. author of Lives of the Philosophers , credited various "barbarians" (that is, non-Greeks) with the beginnings of philosophy: the Magi among the Persians, Chaldeans among the Assyrians, gymnosophists in India, and Druids among the Celts. Other learned Hellenistic writers had similar lists. Philostratus, whose biography of Apollonius of Tyana was meant to appeal to the educated in the Roman world, had his saintly subject praise Brahmins of India for their purity and austerity. The third-century heresy-hunter Hippolytus included naked gymnosophists among the philosophers whose ideas threatened the true faith.
Among Northern Buddhists, Wisdom (Prajna ) was Mind in its most refined state, attained in the highest level of meditation, a concentrated awareness but an awareness of nothing, the last stage before complete enlightenment. The perfection of wisdom, as Edward Conze puts it, "urges us to see everywhere just one emptiness and condemns all forms of multiplicity as arch enemies of the higher spiritual vision and insight." The Wisdom taught by Thomas seems closer to this notion than to the Wisdom of Jews, Christians, and Stoics.
For Buddhists and monist Hindus the goal was utter absorption of the individual human spirit (or "soul" or "self" or "mind") in the universal No-thingness or Everythingness. For Christians and Jews the soul continues in some form as an individual entity and can get close to but not unite with God. Creator and creature are distinctly separate. And the way to a place by the throne is creaturely obedience to the creator's Law.
The late Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber was a leader in the modern movement of Hasidism, a branch of Judaism that emphasizes the mercy of God and spontaneous spiritual experience in contrast to what some regard as the more bookish learning of the rabbinical mainstream. Buber was a sharp critic of gnostics, whose negative view of the world was unacceptable, but mystical experiences were important to him.He spoke of knowing well "a state in which bonds of the personal nature of life seem to have fallen away from us and we experience an undivided unity."
After reflection, however, he rejected the possibility that in such a state he had attained union with "the primal being or godhead." Buber concluded that he had reached "an undifferentiated unity" of himself --a unity of "one of the human souls and not the soul of All." His experiences, although free of content related to his personal life, were still those of a creature, bound to God but not part of God. The distinction is one on which monotheists insist. And Buber also felt strongly an ethical demand, to regard other human creatures as subjects like himself, not objects, with all the consequences for social behavior that are implied.
A saying pertinent to the difference between the more usual Judeo-Christian approach to Wisdom and that of Buddhism is ascribed to the Buddhist sage Nagasena. It is found in the Debates of King Milinda . This Indian book of instruction in Buddhist thought, it will be remembered, takes the form of a dialogue between the sage and an Indian king in the region of the five rivers. Perhaps the king was an historical figure (there was a King Melander, or Milinda, in the second century B.C.) perhaps legendary, but in either case he is described as belonging to a dynasty of Greek descent. Nagasena is discoursing on the difference between reasoning and wisdom: "Taking hold is the mark of reasoning, cutting off is the mark of wisdom. . . . [T]he recluse takes hold of his mind with reasoning and cuts off the defilements [those worldly preoccupations that keep one from enlightenment] with wisdom."
By and large, the Gospel of Thomas "cuts off."
One line of modern scholarship thinks that the earliest "Christians" should be more properly called members of a "Jesus movement," who regarded their leader as an exceptionally inspired and inspiring spiritual teacher (perhaps also a faith healer and exorcist). In this view, the distinctively Christian message of Jesus -- as redeeming messiah, atoning for humankind's sins, promising resurrection and eternal life -- came later, with Paul, the canonical gospel writers, and others.
Support for such a view is found if Q and "Thomas" are regarded as the earliest oral traditions recording the teachings of Jesus. (As we have earlier noted, Q is the collection of Jesus-sayings never found as a separate document but deduced from sayings attributed to Jesus, absent from the earlier Mark, but found in Matthew and Luke.
In a related view, Jesus -- as a wandering sage, exorcist, and faith healer of powerful personality, radically critical of this-worldly life as it was lived around him -- is seen as akin to the school of wanderers known from the fourth century B.C. onwards as Cynics. For Cynics, the life that was lived with attachment to the surface "visibles" -- trivial, superficial, and full of deceptions of self and others -- was not the "true" life. They sought to expose hypocrisy. They rejected attachment to the Greek city-state (for most philosophers of the time, every good and wise man should form such an attachment) and preached a more universal responsibility. Many Cynics flouted convention, dressed wildly, did embarrassing things in public, and appeared as the hippies of their day. "Cynic" means "doggish one."
On the Cynics' more positive side, the wise man should seek his true self. The true life is inward, and calls for renunciation, remorse, and penitence. Like Jesus as he is often pictured in the canonical gospels, Cynics taught and exemplified homelessness, rootlessness, separation from family, scorn of material possessions. Judas Thomas, in his Acts , is such a holy wanderer. After bringing back to life the woman who had been killed by her lover in the Sixth Act, his prayer recites the things given up by those who labor in the Lord's work--possessions, parents, "those who belong to us by race," "bodily consorts and earthly fruits."
Cynics had first come into prominence in the fourth century B.C., and then faded. In the first century A.D. they again were to be found roaming the Roman world, but tending to merge with the Stoics. There were, however, many other wandering "wise men" in those times. Certainly in their own regions the mendicant Buddhist monks were familiar figures in northwestern India (and referred to in second-century Egypt as "wanderers"). We have already noted James Robinson's suggestion that Aramaic-speaking mendicant prophets from Palestine might have gravitated toward farming and shepherd hamlets in Aramaic-speaking eastern Syria; perhaps some settled in the center of Syriac culture, Edessa, bringing with them the stock of sayings in Aramaic that came to form the Gospel of Thomas
There was, indeed, a lot of Wisdom in the air in the early centuries of the Christian era. Much of it was more pertinent than Jewish Wisdom to the Thomas tradition.
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.