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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas:"Twin" of Jesus

Land of Five Rivers

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 5

We last saw Thomas in Andrapolis. Having left that royal city, one step ahead of the king's police, he went with Habban to the court of King Gundaphorus. Habban had brought the disciple, it will be recalled, to build a palace for the Indian king.

Questioned about his skills by Gundaphorus, Thomas replied that he was a carpenter and a builder. (Thomas is portrayed in religious art as holding a carpenter's rule and square. In the Middle Ages he became the patron saint of architects, masons, and stone cutters.) He could make "pillars, temples, and courthouses for kings." Could Thomas build a palace for him, the monarch asked. Yes, he could both build and furnish such a structure. The king took him outside the city gates, discussing practical matters such as foundations and building methods, and pointed out where he wanted the palace. But Thomas said that, because the ground was marshy, he could not begin work until winter came. He did, however, sketch the ground plan with a stick. Gundaphorus was apparently satisfied. Having to absent himself from his capital for a long time, he left Thomas money and departed.

Place of Stones

For twenty years or more, in the first half of the first century A.D., a king with the name Gundaphorus ruled in the region known today as Afghanistan and Punjab (Sanskrit for "Five Rivers," the main branches of the Indus). The king's name is found with various spellings, among them Gudnafar (Syriac) and Gondapharnes; it has been traced to the Old Persian Vindafarna, "Winner of Glory." He was almost the last in a line of Indo-Parthian kings or viceroys in these eastern provinces of the Persian empire. The Parthian King of Kings ruled some of his subject territories, especially on the margins of the Iranian heartland, through satraps who were semi-autonomous. Normally a lesser king of kings, with a junior member of his family as heir apparent, ruled the eastern Parthian territories and another the northwest of the Indian subcontinent (Afghanistan-Punjab).

This is the region where early kings, wanting to dominate Punjab, set up their capitals, their backs to the foothills of the towering snowcaps, their forts commanding approaches from the south. In the middle of the twentieth century, in the same region, the rulers of Pakistan built their new capital, Islamabad -- more secure from attacks from India, they thought, than a city in the Punjab plains or on the seashore would be.

About the year A.D. l9 Gundaphorus took over Punjab. His new capital was Taxila (in Sanskrit, Taksashila , or Place of Stones), on a tributary of the Indus. Taxila was the meeting place of the four great civilizations of Eurasia at the time -- Greco-Roman, Persian, Indian, and Chinese. For centuries it had been an important entrepot for trade among the four. Alexander the Great had been there in the fourth century B.C. He had been fascinated by the gymnosophists, or naked philosophers, and attached one sage, apparently a Buddhist, to his court. This monk was with Alexander when the conqueror died in Babylon a year later.

After the breakup of Alexander's vast empire, a series of invaders had taken over the region around Taxila. We ought briefly to note the sequence:

Taxila stood among the grey-brown, barren foothills of the great mountains that mark the northern limit of the Indian subcontinent. On a spur between two ridges was a natural shelf big enough to accommodate a small city on the Greek model. At mid-century that city's most imposing structure still showed the effects of a severe earthquake that had devastated the town about A.D. 25-35. This was Dharmarajika ("Ruler of the Law"), a large Buddhist stupa southeast of the town proper. It had been built by Ashoka, greatest of the Mauryan emperors, who had helped to make the region into a major center of Buddhism.

The fertile valley outside the town and the barren hills were dotted with stupas, temples, and monasteries. These were the earliest monasteries to be built by Buddhists. For the first time Buddhist monks, who had earlier been wanderers from village to village, were gathering within settlements. Earlier they had taken common shelter only during the rainy season. The typical monastery was a cluster of structures built within a protecting and uniting outer wall.

A Palace for a King

According to the Acts of Judas Thomas the apostle hewed no timbers and laid no stones for Gundaphorus. Upon the king's return to his capital friends told him that Thomas had built nothing, but had been giving everything to the poor, preaching a new god, healing the sick, driving out devils, and performing other wonders. "We think him to be a sorcerer," they said. And yet, they added, he was so simple and kind, praying and fasting continually, eating only bread, drinking only water, wearing always the same old garment, that he must be considered a righteous man or an apostle of the new god.

Gundaphorus sent for Habban and Thomas. "Have you built me the palace?" he asked the apostle. "Yea," was the response. The king asked when they could go to see it. You cannot see it now, said Thomas, "but when you depart this life, then you shall see it." In a fury, the king ordered that Thomas and Habban be chained and cast into prison. Having further thought about appropriate punishment, he decided to have them flayed alive, then burnt. The apostle, meanwhile, cheerfully assured Habban he had nothing to fear if he would believe in God. Then "you shall indeed be set free from this world, but from the world to come you shall receive life."

Before the royal sentence could be carried out, the king's brother Gad (the historic Gundaphorus had a brother whose name is usually transliterated as Guda) fell sick, rapidly worsened, and died. Angels took Gad's soul up to heaven, showed him celestial palaces, and asked which of these he would like to have. He chose one. When told that it had been built by Thomas and reserved for his brother, Gad asked to be allowed to visit earth and try to persuade the king to sell it.

Miraculously restored to life, at least briefly, Gad begged his brother to let him have the heavenly palace. What palace? asked the king. The one built by that Christian who is now in prison, the Hebrew slave whom you want to punish for deceit, was Gad's reply. The king then realized what eternal benefits lay in store for him as a result of the apostle's good deeds. He freed Thomas and Habban.

Moreover, Gundaphorus asked Thomas to pray that he be forgiven for what he had earlier done, and that he might "become a worthy inhabiter of that dwelling" and "a servant [to] this God whom you preach." His brother joined in this entreaty. Full of joy, Thomas praised Lord Jesus for revealing the truth to these men and prayed that they be received into the fold. The brothers begged to received "the seal of the word." The necessary preparations were made.

In the Greek version of the Acts of Judas Thomas (written, it will be recalled, before the text had been purged of Gnostic elements), the apostle commanded them to bring oil for the ceremony of "sealing." The king gave orders that the bath be closed for seven days, and that no man should bathe in it. On the eighth the three entered the bath where many lamps had been lighted. "And they heard the voice of the Lord, saying Peace be unto you, brethren." Then Judas Thomas poured oil upon their heads, invoking the names of the Holy Spirit, including:

Come, compassionate mother.

Come, fellowship of the male.

Come, she that revealeth the hidden mysteries.

Come, mother of the seven houses, that thy rest may be in the eighth house.

Come, messenger of the five members -- mind, thought, reflection, consideration, reason; communicate with these young men.

After Gundaphorus and Gad were anointed with oil, a youth appeared in dazzling light, holding a lighted torch, so bright that the lamps seemed dim. He departed and was seen no more. The apostle said: "Thy light, O Lord, is not to be contained by us, and we are not able to bear it, for it is too great for our sight." (In the apocryphal Acts of Peter, the apostle baptizes his ship captain, Theon, while sailing to Rome: "And it came to pass when Theon was baptized there appeared in the same place a youth shining and beautiful, saying unto them, Peace be unto you.")

"Fellowship of the male," it has been suggested, refers to a Gnostic use of the word "male" in baptismal rites as a symbol for "spirit" while the material existence or body was thought of as female. The "mother" is by now familiar to us as the Wisdom of the late Jewish scriptures and the Sophia (or Achamoth) of the Gnostics. The eighth house, or Ogdoad, is the Gnostics' realm beyond the planetary cosmos, the intermediate region between the cosmos and the Pleroma, the interface between the material and spiritual, a stage in the spirit's ascent toward oneness.

In later, more orthodox editions of the Acts of Judas Thomas , the mother is dropped from this invocation. And so are messenger of the five members and the bathhouse scene.

Also, baptism is substituted for the anointing or "sealing" with oil, the rite of chrism used by such Gnostics as the Valentinians. The passage is one of the very few in the Acts that refer directly to Gnostic myths.

The dazzling light emanating from the young man is found in descriptions of divine glory in most religions and of unitive experiences in most mystical systems. Numinosity and luminosity are universally linked. (Early in the twentieth century the German theologian Rudolf Otto gave currency to the word "numinosity" -- from Latin numen , divinity -- to suggest qualities of divine power that are beyond rational grasp: majesty, awesome mystery, dreadfulness, overpoweringness, aspects of the holy that set it off from the intellectual and ethical.)

Perhaps, in the initiation of the two royal brothers, there is an echo of the scene at the transfiguration of Jesus. According to Mark and Matthew, six days after Jesus had told his disciples of his impending death and resurrection, he took three of his disciples to the mountaintop where his dazzling change took place before their eyes. Origen, the third-century Alexandrian theologian, for one, took the passage to mean that anyone hoping to see such a transfiguration "must first spend six whole days paying no attention to visible things, feeling no affection for the world or anything in it , . . no desire for anything that may distract the soul from divine things."

Five Members of the Mind

"Messenger of the five members" is one of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit invoked by Thomas at the sealing of Gundaphorus and Gad. One translator of this passage from the Syriac version has given a certain list of English words referring to various mental functions that we regard as being of a distinctively human order: mind, idea, thoughtfulness, consideration, reasoning. Some translations would include "intention" or "volition." The pentad is an attempt to put into words the distinctive powers or faculties that humans are considered to share with the supremely divine. There is, as always with attempts to define "Mind," a question as to whether it is intended to include that elusive element Gnostics sometimes called "spark" or "spirit" or "soul" or "seed." Given the context, we can assume the most expansive definition was intended in identifying those features that set humandkind apart from all other creatures.

Another grouping of five qualities of mind has a direct and intimate connection with Thomas lore. This one was to be found among the followers of Mani, the third-century Mesopotamian prophet of a gnostic religion that combined elements of Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. (We will take a longer look at Manicheism in a later chapter.) Manicheans regarded the five attributes of Mind as the dwelling places of the Father of Greatness, their supreme godhead. The five have been translated as sense, reason thought, imagination (or inventiveness), and intention (or will).

Another writing bearing the name of Thomas seems to allude to the "five members." This is the important Gospel of Thomas , an early collection of sayings of Jesus, recorded (so the text claims) by the apostle. For the moment we want to note only one of the sayings which speaks of five trees in Paradise, changeless in summer and winter, "whose leaves do not fail. Whoever becomes acquainted with them will not experience death."

Scholars have pointed out that the Psalter of the Manicheans equates the five trees with several other pentads, including the five members of the soul or Mind. (The Manicheans were much given to fivesomes -- not to mention threesomes and twelvesomes). A Chinese Buddhist treatise contrasts five kinds of trees of death, poisoned with evil, with "five kinds of matchless precious and luminous trees whose fruits give immortality." The five precious fruits, as we would expect, are consciousness, heart (in China, the seat of reasoning), memory, reflection, and intention.

Another fivesome, central to Buddhist thought, may lie behind the five we find in such later Chinese Buddhism, Manicheism, and some of the Thomas writings. Buddhists hold that nothing exists by itself. "Things" exist only in relation to other things, in mutual interdependence, all continually acting upon each other in a complex process of causal relationships.

Accordingly, we should not think of a continuing, personal Self. What we in our ignorance call the Self is really an interplay of five mental elements and the physical body (known as skandhas ), in temporary conjunctions, constantly changing and interacting. "Skandha" is usually translated as "heap": or "aggregate" or "group," each skandha being itself a combination of faculties shading into each other. The Sanskrit for the five mental skandhas can be translated as consciousness, sensations, concepts, perceptions, and volition.

The Buddhist pentad of mental skandhas may well lie behind the notion of "five members" found among Manicheans, and in Thomas writings that Manicheans read (and perhaps edited). Eventually, in central Asia, Buddhist and gnostic ideas and imagery would merge.

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