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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas:"Twin" of Jesus

Knowing Thomas

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 30

Two Traditions

As we have seen in these pages, the Thomas tradition developed along two tracks. On one, Thomas the Wanderer is the legendary founder of churches, any distinctive doctrine being secondary to the prestige his apostolic name conferred on ecclesiastical organizations and to the political advantage of having a founder different from the one favored in the Roman world . On the other track, that of Thomas the Knower (the tradition that disappeared for sixteen centuries), it is the unitive or mystical message, delivered through "Thomas" as the words of an inspired sage, that predominates. Perhaps the two roads started from the same point in the early years.

Why did some groups, in some places, at various times, say that a man named Judas Thomas, or Thomas Didymus, a close follower of Jesus, founded certain churches? In the case of the Nestorian Church of the East one part of the answer is clear. Quite apart from what may have been sincere doctrinal differences, it served Nestorian interests to claim Thomas rather than Peter as their founder. A break with the churches of the Roman empire made the Nestorian form of Christianity more acceptable to the rulers and peoples east of the Euphrates, in an empire for centuries bitterly hostile to Rome.

The strange performance of Eusebius in publishing the Jesus-Abgar story can plausibly be seen as an effort by those around him to honor Thomas, whose writings were established and whose person was revered in Edessa, and at the same time remove him as the direct founder of Christianity in eastern Syria. The Roman church, it will be remembered, soon claimed that the true line of apostolic succession in Edessa ran from Thaddeus (Addai) to Aggai (who was killed before he could be properly consecrated) to Palut, who was consecrated in Antioch in the line traced to Peter; the eminence of Thomas east of the Euphrates could be recognized but he must be made subordinate to Peter. Nestorians, to the contrary, held that the succession passed from Addai to Mari and his successors, omitting Palut and the line originating in Rome.

For some of the indigenous peoples of South and Central America and sympathetic Spanish or Portuguese settlers, to claim Thomas as the original evangelizer of their lands (in Mexico, as Quetzalcoatl) gave them a sense of local identity and worth, reducing their spiritual and political dependence on Iberian overlords, bureaucracies, and clerics.

As missionaries, Nestorians apparently brought the tradition of Thomas as founding apostle to southern India, where it was adapted to local conditions. The St. Thomas Christians became, in effect, a high caste in the Indian social order, alongside a religious system that was well acquainted with the idea of earthly avatars of divinity. At the time the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century, Thomas Christians of the Malabar Coast still looked to the Church of the East in Mesopotamia for their bishops, rites, and liturgical language.

The Portuguese authorities and Roman church adopted and strengthened the local lore in India about the Twin's evangelizing mission and martyrdom as recorded in the Acts of Judas Thomas . They sought in some ways to reinforce, not to undermine, reverence for Thomas and were imaginative inventors of local wonder-working and other bits of legend to give him support. But, again, Thomas had to be subordinated to Peter, and his churches must accept the headship of Rome. For their part, the Thomas Christians, living in a predominantly Hindu land, wanted to keep their identity distinct from the Christian institutions of the encroaching imperialist West and to preserve their high social position.

Eastern Syria in the upper reaches of the Euphrates valley was evidently the starting point for the Thomas movement There Thomas was known as the Twin of the Savior, his spiritual counterpart and intimate confidant. There the sayings-collection known as the Gospel of Thomas probably was first committed to writing. There the Acts of Judas Thomas was later written.

Perhaps we will never know just what happened to the early Thomasites, who were possibly Valentinians giving Thomas special reverence. Their major writings, apart from the Acts of Judas Thomas , disappeared for sixteen centuries. We know, however, that at least some of those writings -- certainly the Acts and Gospel -- were known to the Manicheans whose missionaries (including a leading one named Thomas) spread out through the Roman world to the west and through Asian lands to the east in the third and later centuries. And the Acts links Thomas with the first-century king Gundaphorus in the eastern territories of the Parthian empire, the land of two rivers, which was a stronghold of Buddhism. "Tradition tells us," Eusebius writes, that Thomas "was chosen for Parthia" --a statement we may take as firm evidence that such a tradition was being fostered at a time when the apostles' roles were being elaborated but not persuasive as evidence that Thomas actually went to Parthia.

In third-century Alexandria, Clement and Origen were acquainted with at least parts of the Gospel of Thomas , including some of the "non-parallels" -- sayings that had no counterparts in the canonical gospels. In the fourth century the book was still known in Palestine and Egypt. Among the witnesses are Cyril of Jerusalem and the monks who hid it with their library near Nag Hammadi. And it is probable that the Manicheans contributed something (but not everything, as Cyril alleged) to the Gospel of Thomas as it has come to us. Even an orthodox text like 2 Clement , it will be recalled, explicitly says that the crucial Saying 22 -- about two-in-oneness--"came from the Master." It certainly did not come from the Manicheans, who only appeared on the scene more than a century later.

As doctrines of the Great Church took shape in the theological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries, the leaders could not be expected to accept a book in which Jesus did not appear as Christ, which had nothing to say about his passion and resurrection. And an emerging orthodoxy screened out many of the Gnostic elements in the Acts of Judas Thomas and denounced it, along with the Gospel, as apocryphal. In the late versions of the Acts still available, edited centuries after the original text was written, Thomas no longer calls upon the "Father of Truth" or "compassionate mother" or "messenger of the five members" when he invokes the Holy Spirit.

Thomas a Gnostic?

There is continuing debate as to whether the Thomas writings, or parts of them, can properly be labeled Gnostic, or tending toward Gnosticism, or not Gnostic at all. To label the Gospel of Thomas "Gnostic" can be a way of pushing it aside; if it is Gnostic, say some, it need not be of concern to Christians. Much of the commentary about Thomas as a Gnostic uses the term in a pejorative sense: to call it Gnostic is to condemn it. On the other hand, Christians who take the Gospel seriously for its insights and its clues to ideas found in some of the earliest churches may wish to rid it of the label "Gnostic." And those inclined to view Gnosticism sympathetically may take the label as a recommendation, not as a red flag.

The element of extreme austerity, especially in dealing with sexual matters and procreation , is striking in the Acts and Book of Thomas. This encratite element was strong in all the apocryphal Acts of individual apostles; it was a hallmark of Christianity and some other religions in Mesopotamia-Syria well into the third century, and was not in itself necessarily Gnostic. The Gospel, as we have seen, was close to some of the teaching of Jesus found in the familiar four canonical gospels -- give up family, riches, home, ritualism -- but not austere in the encratite sense.

The known Thomas writings depart, in varying degrees, from views that later came to be regarded as orthodox. Apart from elements and characters in the Genesis creation story (which are drastically changed to suit their own aims) they show almost no interest in the Old Testament and its Law, embraced by mainstream Christians as a foreshadowing of their messianic faith. The Sayings show little concern for rules of conduct in this world; when his followers ask Jesus questions about alms giving and diet, Jesus puts them off. The audience hears of "deficiency" and "ignorance," not of "sin."

The Gospel, in particular, has a strong mystical element, a teaching that, through unitive experience expressed as paradox, beyond the reach of reason, the human spirit can ascend to reunite with universal spirit. And it can be merged into the All, not just become "close to God"; monotheists would insist that creator and creature are forever separate. Salvation can be experienced here and now, not in some future time or place.

The early Gospel and Book of Thomas do not speak of Jesus's returning to reign over a world purified by catastrophe. They do not talk of resurrection of the scorned body. There are a few traces of the Gnostic cosmogonic myths, in which the universe comes into being when Spirit radiating from the true God gets mixed with matter through misadventure. For example, we find in both the Acts and Gospel (No. 50) occasional references to the need to circumvent the cosmic rulers or powers that will try to impede the ascent of the soul to its true home.

Code terms such as "little children" and "garments of shame" are open to interpretation, but in context we can readily suppose them to be used, as Gnostics did, to refer respectively to the spiritual Elect and to the bodies that are left behind when gnosis has freed the spirit. The "poverty" of this world, and the "ignorance" or "drunkenness" of those who have not yet grasped the truth are favorite Gnostic images. All these terms are found in the Gospel.

And Thomas invites being called "Gnostic" by the company he keeps. He often appears in unmistakably Gnostic texts along with certain other close followers of Jesus -- Philip, Andrew, Mary Magdalene, Salome -- who might almost be called the Gnostic disciples, although membership of the group varies somewhat. As Burton Mack points out, "Thomas, Salome, and Mary [in the Gospel] say the right things, ask the right questions, and so are privileged to be part of an inner circle. . . . These figures obviously represent the true followers of Jesus." Other disciples ask the wrong questions, showing concern about the future and about correct ritual behavior, and are put down. References to Salome, a major figure found with Thomas in his Gospel and in other Gnostic works, disappear from the canonical New Testament after the early gospel of Mark.

Bartholomew, Mary, Matthew, Philip, and Thomas are the only disciples named in the Pistis Sophia . Douglas M. Parrott, an early translator of much of the Nag Hammadi collection, suggests that "these five were selected [from those named in Mark ] to be Gnostic disciples, not because of anything that was known about them, but precisely because little or nothing was known about them and hence they could easily be used in the presentation of Gnostic Christianity."

The Gospel of Thomas and Book of Thomas were found in a monastic collection that is almost entirely Gnostic. They share a codex with texts that are indisputably Gnostic, including the Gospel of Philip . Because four non-Gnostic texts were found at Nag Hammadi (such as briefs pieces on Plato and some of the Sentences of Sextus, a Stoic philosopher), some commentators say that the presence of the Gospel of Thomas in the collection should not be taken as a sign that the text is Gnostic in origin. But everything about the book is much more readily understood if its Gnostic character, in consonance with the bulk of the collection, is recognized. Critics object to the lack of system in the Gospel; it appears to be a random collection of Sayings that do not form an ordered system. Much the same could be said other collections, including Q. The Sayings in our Gospel become far more meaningful when read along with Valentinian texts such as the Gospel of Truth and Gospel of Philip .

The absence of specific references to a Gnostic mythology (apart from Saying 50) is hardly relevant. No references to narratives embraced by mainstream Christians -- the virgin birth, passion, crucifixion, resurrection -- are to be found in the collection of sayings found in Q and accepted as authentic by mainstream churches. And Christians would not find in the earliest books of their scripture, the epistles of Paul, recapitulations of the basic story. Some Gnostic groups had elaborate hierarchies of aeons and archons; some were relatively simple. (The eminent historian of Christian dogma, Harnack, was among those Christians who do not approve of the elaborate theology that evolved about the natures of Christ and the Trinity in the fourth and later centuries. He once drily commented that, when it comes to aeons, orthodoxy limited itself to three.)

In the early Christian centuries the new faith took a variety of forms and so did the movement now known as Gnosticism. At different times and places, under the guidance of different leaders, the overlap between the two could be considerable or slight. In the Thomas writings the overlap is so substantial, and the message so different from that which later dominated the mainstream of Christianity, that we correctly call them Gnostic. And for many readers seeking to recover insights from the early Christian era, unrestrained by the ancient stamp of disapproval given by church leaderes sixteen or seventeen years ago, such a characterization will not be at all troublesome.

A Thomas Church?

It seems clear that the mystical teaching in the Gospel of Thomas was at one time favored by groups of Christians -- in East Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt -- who found it inspiring or advantageous in some way to attribute its texts to one they identified as being in some sense the twin of Jesus, who would gain great authority from this kinship and at the same time serve as a symbol of mystical union. Although he does not put "Thomas" in the context of Gnosticism, Gregory Riley makes a persuasive case for recognizing a very early "Thomas community" at odds with a Johannine (or "John") community on the issues of Jesus's divinity and bodily resurrection.

Some scholars who have given special attention to the Gospel think it was used by Christian communities (most probably, Valentinians) in Mesopotamia and Egypt. There are indications that both Valentinians and those holding Thomas is special favor were well known in Mesopotamia and eastern Syria as late as the fourth century; quite possibly they were overlapping groups.

Julian the Apostate is known as the fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to turn his subjects away from the "Galileans" (his epithet for Christians) and return them to the old religion and philosophy of the Greeks. He reported in a letter that, to punish Arian Christians in Edessa for persecuting Valentinians, he had confiscated their properties. These Christians, he noted, preached that believers should sell their goods and give to the poor in order "that they may attain more easily to the kingdom of the skies." His act of confiscation, he added sarcastically, would make them poor and thus help them attain their goal. Ephraim deplored the presence of fourth-century Valentinians in Edessa, where they "stole sheep from the Christian flock."

The whole of the Euphrates Valley in the first Christian centuries, from Edessa to the river's mouth, invites the scrutiny of anyone looking for the origins and location of the "Thomas" movement, of the Jesus movement or earliest Christianity, and of Gnosticism more broadly. Edessa in the north and Babylon-Ctesiphon-Baghdad farther south are obvious targets.

Thomas in Egypt

Another river valley has been an even more productive site for diggers of Thomas lore. Users of the Thomas texts may well have been a branch of the Valentinians or some other Christian Gnostic sect in Egypt. We know that at least part of the Gospel of Thomas existed in the land of the Nile long before the complete text in Coptic was hidden at Nag Hammadi. Fragments, sometimes mere shreds, of an older Greek version have been found in Egypt, dating to some time in the second century.

Clement of Alexandria, repeating part of Saying No. 22 on the "two-shall-be-one" theme at some time around 200 B.C., attributes it to an ascetic named Julius Cassianus, of whom nothing is known from any source other than Clement himself. Further, he says that Cassianus got it from the Gospel of the Egyptians , and that, too, has disappeared. Clues to the puzzle of missing Thomasites may lie with the missing Cassianus and Egyptian gospel; they are probably lost forever, but Egypt has been full of surprises.

Alexandria was the second city of the Roman empire, first city for Jews in the Dispersion, a latter-day Athens, home of a sophisticated Hellenized intelligentsia, heir to hundreds of years of mystery religions and philosophic speculations, queen of the eastern Mediterranean, entre for sea-trade between Rome and the East, and breeding ground of important second-century Christian Gnostic leaders. Both Basilides and Valentinus, two leading Christian Gnostics in the second century, lived parts of their lives in Egypt. The land became known for its openness to religious variety and for its Gnostic tendencies in the first two Christian centuries. It was the home of a native, non-Christian gnostic movement that developed around the lore of Thrice-Greatest Hermes (Hermes Trismegistus ). And Egypt was not on Paul's itinerary.

Even Clement of Alexandria and Origen, two theologians close to the emerging mainstream late in the second century and early in the third, were attracted by some Gnostic ideas -- descent and ascent of the spirit and the value of a "gnosis" not available to everyone, as spiritual understanding of a kind higher than that commonly known. Clement was aware of Buddhism. Dion the Golden-mouthed (who, it may be recalled, instructed his second-century listeners on the wonders of India) spoke of the presence of Indians at Alexandria. While opposing "Gnosticism," Clement spoke of "gnostics" who had a more highly developed aptitude for recognizing Truth than that of ordinary people. And he could say that "pain and fear are as inherent in human affairs as rust in iron."

Both Clement and Origen were open to "wisdom" from quarters other than those identified with later Christianity. As Origen put it, "If ever we find something wisely said by the pagans, we should not scorn it with the name of the author . . . but as the apostle says, 'Test all things, holding fast what is good.'" In Alexandria Philo, the sophisticated Jewish philosopher and man of many parts, roughly contemporary with Jesus, tried to reconcile Judaism and Greek philosophy. He speculated about Sophia-Wisdom as a part of the godhead.

According to Clement, Basilides taught that to liberate one's soul from the cycle of reincarnations, one must follow three precepts of God's will: to love all things, for all things are part of the Whole; not to lust after things; and not to hate anything. This could have been said by a Buddhist. In the Buddhist view, attachments and aversions, along with ignorance, are at the root of our anxieties and suffering. Compassion for all sentient things together with Wisdom, in the sense of a purified consciousness or awareness, are the means to nirvana.

Alexandria, then, has persuasive claims to be a principal site for followers of Thomas. Paul had taken his message to what is now Turkey, and to Greece and Macedonia. Almost nothing concerning Egypt or Eastern Syria is found in the writings that bear his name. The Apostle John and those writing in his name are associated mainly with Ephesus, in Turkey. It should not at all surprise us if the Jesus movement and early Christianity took on different coloration in Egypt, in the early centuries when both Christianity and Gnosticism took many different forms, before mainstream Christianity became rigidly defined and its basic texts chosen.

The Thomas whose legendary travels had once almost encircled the globe, whose churches once spread (albeit sparsely) from the Mediterranean to the China Sea, had all but vanished from sight by the late twentieth century. The Church of the East, reaching its peak in Asia in the thirteenth century, had withered into near-nothingness except for an offshoot in the south of India. The other branch of the ancient Thomas tradition -- the teaching of a return to spiritual unity through knowledge of self -- was long ago lopped off from orthodoxy.

The chance discovery of "Thomas's" recording of mystical teachings, received (according to their compilers) from his twin and master, dramatically resurrected the apostle as a major figure for historians and questers after the numinous. And whether that master be regarded (on the evidence of Thomas, among others) as a charismatic wandering sage or as a Gnostic aeon temporarily inhabiting a human body, the orthodox view of him would be seriously challenged.

Studies of Thomas and of the Nag Hammadi collection of Gnostic works are still in their infancy. The Twin looks over the shoulder of everyone who delves into the early history of Christianity and into ancient interactions of East and West. He cannot again be forgotten.

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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.