Quite different from collections of pithy bits of wise advice and moral guidance but much closer in some ways to the Gospel of Thomas were the Enneads of the third-century Neoplatonist Plotinus. The Alexandrian philosopher does not mention Thomas writings as such, although, as we have seen, he echoed major themes found in the Gospel of Thomas : -- the two-in-oneness of ultimate reality, and knowledge of the Ultimate through knowledge of self.
Plotinus is known as a stern critic of Gnostics. The Gnostics' chief offense, in Plotinus's eyes, was that they had broken with the ancient Greek view, associated particularly with Plato, that the cosmos was a harmonious and beneficent whole: the celestial realm is the home of divinity, and this world, although imperfect, is a fit place for those striving through virtue and reason toward the One. We should not say that the world is of unhappy origin just "because there are many jarring things in it." Many Gnostics did indeed set the old view on its ear; to them the cosmos was an inferior place, the creation of an alien god, from whose thrall the human spirit must strive to escape to a realm beyond this alien cosmos. To insist that creation was good smacked of sentimentality and refusal to face realities.
And yet the Plotinus's goal is much like that of Gnostics he knew. In those rare moments when the soul has attained to the highest, he says, when all duality and distinction fade, the soul now scorns "all that she had welcomed of old -- office, power, wealth, beauty, knowledge." One who has attained the final "mingling" with the supreme has "become the Unity, nothing within him or without inducing any diversity." There is no movement now, no passion, no outward desire; reasoning is in abeyance. "Utterly resting he has become very rest."
In many passages there are echoes of the earlier Gospel of Thomas : the motifs of unity and two-in-oneness, the overcoming of passion and renunciation of the visibles, the ascent of the soul, the coming to rest, the rarity of the ultimate experience. Or perhaps it should be said that the Gospel and Plotinus show signs of a common forebear besides Plato. For example, a relatively obscure Platonist philosopher of the second-century, Numenius of Apamea, is thought to have had a great influence on Plotinus. Numenius appears to have reached back beyond Plato to teachings of the ancient East and to have taught a doctrine of two opposing principles -- evil and good, a Demiurge who created Matter, and a Supreme God who was untainted by matter.
Plotinus himself speaks of mystical experiences in eloquent passages, and his biographer, Porphyry, says that he was present when his master had four such episodes. (Porphyry reports that he, too, had had such an experience at the age of 68.) And yet, some scholars have been very reluctant to call Plotinus a mystic, or, if accepting the label "mystic," are reluctant to allow that Plotinus's experiences and views may have been linked in some way to the Indian systems. It is not always clear whether such hesitation comes from doubts about the nature, or authenticity, of such experiences, or from a lingering ethnocentricity. The philosopher certainly had an interest in those systems and was eager to go to Persia and India at the mature age of 39.
We have already noted that the first Saying in the Gospel of Thomas (after the prologue) offers a parallel about the ascent to the true home: those who continue to seek will find, and then be troubled, then astonished, achieve mastery over the All, and finally find rest. And Clement of Alexander, the second-century Egyptian church father, quotes almost identical words: "He who seeks will not cease till he find, having found he will wonder, having wondered he will reign, and having reigned he will rest." The Book of Thomas the Contender echoes this notion of an ascent to the ultimate Rest:
Watch and pray . . . that you come from the bondage of the bitterness of this life. And as you pray, you will find rest, . . .[and] when you come forth from the sufferings and passions of the body, you will receive rest from the good one, and you will reign with the king, you joined with him and he with you, from now on, for ever and ever.
In looking for modes of thought similar to those found in the Gospel of Thomas , we find much more promising material in the Neoplatonists than in the Jewish Wisdom tradition.
"Love" finds a prominent place both in the ancient wisdom collections and in the writings of philosophers and holy men. The Gospel of Thomas , unlike other books that are more certainly of Valentinian origin, has little to say specifically of Love. It records one saying on the subject (No. 25): "Love your brother like your soul, guard him like the pupil of your eye."
In the Jewish tradition "Love they neighbor" is found, at least in a limited sense, as early as Leviticus: "You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself." According to Matthew , Jesus carried the injunction much further: "You have heard the saying, 'You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
Variations on the golden rule appear in many of the old traditions, sometimes as shrewd, practical advice, sometimes as the overarching ethical principle. Preachings of non-violence and non-retaliation toward enemies could be out of prudence, in some instances, but also out of love. Cynics, for example, had to expect to be harassed: A teacher in the first century A.D. told a young man interested in the Cynic's way of life that he must expect "to be kicked like a dog," but while he was being kicked, he must go on loving those who kicked him, "like the father of them all, like a brother."
Babylonian wisdom included advice not to act wickedly toward your adversary: it is prudent to repay wrong with good. And the long tradition of Egyptian wisdom sayings enjoins people not to practice retaliation: "a good man repays no wrong lest he too should be repaid." Apparently Greek Sophists formulated the golden rule, as we know it, toward the end of the fifth century B.C., for the Western world.
Whereas the Old Testament taught "an eye for an eye" Jesus is reported as commanding "Do not resist one who is evil." Turn the other cheek. ( It has been suggested that the golden rule in the early Jesus movement was not only the supreme moral principle, setting his followers apart from other Jews and from the Hellenistic cultural tradition, but served a political purpose: it was advice for passive resistance in a period when Jews in Palestine were struggling to end Roman rule and ward off the Hellenist world-view dominant in the Roman world, a struggle that culminated in the war of rebellion in A.D. 70.)
Matthew's gospel famously summed up the thought in the words: "whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them." The apostle Paul wrote some equally famous words: "So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." The Valentinian writer of the Gospel of Philip composed a variation. Farming, the text says, requires the cooperation of four element -- water, earth, wind, and light. Likewise, God's farming has four elements -- faith, hope, love, and knowledge (gnosis).
We must wonder if the writer was tempted to add, "and the greatest of these is knowledge"--or, perhaps more likely, "love and knowledge." In some Buddhist thought, the penultimate stage before final enlightenment is a conjunction between gnosis and compassion, between uncluttered consciousness (an awareness of all things and of nothing) and a love embracing all sentient beings. And the writers-editors of the Gospel of Thomas , or a Valentinian Gnostic, or even later Christians and other monotheists of a more orthodox character, as well as Buddhists, might say the two are aspects of the same idea.
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.