This post first appeared at Contemplative Journal in May 2015.
For about five months now, I’ve been engaging in a weekly Gospel of Thomas study with a group of folks who meet on Thursday nights at the Episcopal church where I serve. The study began in an unexpected way. This past December, I was interviewed for our local newspaper and off-handedly told the interviewer that I was thinking about, possibly, starting a study of The Gospel of Thomas (more on that below if you don’t know what it is) with my Thursday evening prayer group. When the article appeared in the paper the next Thursday, it stated that Thursday nights at 5:30 St. Gregory’s was studying The Gospel of Thomas! Well, I took that as my cue to get the study up and running. We dove into the text that night, and we haven’t looked back.
So, what, you may be asking, is The Gospel of Thomas? Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus; in its opening words, it claims to have been recorded by “Judas Didymos Thomas” and the final page of the manuscript identifies the text as “The Gospel of Thomas.” This likely refers to Thomas the apostle, known from the New Testament (whether or not he is the actual author). Thomas, however, is not a narrative gospel like the more familiar texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—that is, it doesn’t tell the story of Jesus. Instead, it presents itself as a collection of his teachings, most of them introduced simply with the words, “Jesus said.”
For centuries, Thomas had been assumed lost. We knew it once existed because early Christians mentioned it in their writings, but we had no surviving copies—until one showed up in 1945, discovered by a farmer in a cache of manuscripts buried in a large clay jar in the Egyptian desert. These texts are now known as the “Nag Hammadi Library,” and the version of Thomas recovered from them is a Coptic translation of an originally Greek text. Fragments of a Greek Thomas had, in fact, been found earlier in 1897 in the old Roman city of Oxyrhynchus, south of Cairo—but remained unidentified until the complete Coptic version was unearthed almost fifty years later.
And our understanding of Christian origins has been reshaping itself ever since. How does Thomas change the picture? In part, that depends on when we date the text. The Coptic translation we have is almost certainly from the 4th century; but it preserves a much older tradition, and many scholars date the earliest Greek version of Thomas to the 1st century—emerging during the same window of time that produced the New Testament gospels (perhaps even slightly earlier than them).
As was the case with the more familiar gospels, Thomas was gradually redacted and shaped into the form we now have. At least half of the material in Thomas is duplicated in the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But often even familiar sayings take on a different edge in Thomas, and seem to be preserved in earlier, more primitive forms.
The New Testament gospels were most likely written after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, during a period of time when the earliest Christians (mostly themselves still Jewish) were being persecuted by other Jews and Romans. Many of the sayings of Jesus during this time were reinterpreted through a martyrological lens; for example, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will save it” became “and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). Suddenly a saying that could be interpreted generally regarding clinging and letting go in the spiritual journey became instead a comfort for those in times of persecution.
In the same way, Matthew’s gospel often adds an allegorical explanation following each parable, tying it into the apocalyptic ferment of the times. Scholars had long suspected that these small “sermonettes” were tacked on by the early Church, a suspicion that found confirmation when it was discovered Thomas preserved the same parables without the allegorizing. A good example is Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of God to “a net that was thrown into the sea” in Matthew 13:47-50. The net “caught fish of every kind” and then the fishermen “put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.” Matthew goes on to explain that it will be like this “at the end of the age,” when “the angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire…”
The same parable exists in Thomas (Saying 8), and the first notable difference is the lack of explanation—the parable’s meaning is left open-ended, not locked into Matthew’s fiery apocalyptic reading. But even more significantly, there aren’t “good” and “bad” fish in this telling. Rather, there are several “small fish” and one “large, fine fish.” “Without hesitation,” we’re told, the fisherman “threw all the small fish back into the sea and chose the large fish.” End of parable.
It’s familiar, and yet radically different. Gone is the moralizing (“good” and “bad”) and gone is the apocalyptic (“the end of the age,” “the furnace of fire”). It’s now simply about finding that “one thing necessary.” Suddenly the parable moves into resonance with other familiar parables—the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field. Is this version earlier, closer to the original words of Jesus? There’s no way to know for sure, but there’s plenty of reason to think it may be.
And this is only an example of what Thomas does with familiar material. Half of the sayings here are entirely new. They still sound like Jesus—but a Jesus who hasn’t been dulled by centuries of bad sermons and deadening repetition. These new sayings, much more explicitly than the ones we know, push the reader towards contemplative practice and inner work. They tend to coalesce around the themes of attention (or conscious presence); divine immediacy (the “nowness” of God’s kingdom); and “singleness” (what we might call “wholeness” or “the unification of being”).
In my next column, we’ll explore some of these “new” sayings—how they round out our understanding of Jesus’ teaching, and why they’re of vital importance for Christian discipleship today. I’ll also share more about how studying Thomas in a group setting has been transformative. If you’d like to explore Thomas in the meantime, I recommend working with at least two translations in order to catch more of the text’s subtleties—one from a contemplative practitioner, and one from a more scholarly interpreter. A good place to begin might be Jean-Yves Leloup’s translation, published by Inner Traditions (for the mystic’s angle), and Marvin Meyer’s version, published by Harper San Francisco (for the academic approach).
In our Thursday night group at St. Gregory’s, we work with only one or two sayings at a time (and even that seems like we’re moving quickly), reading it in multiple translations, reflecting on it together, and later coming back to it in worship, surrounded by silence. That to say, go slowly with this text. Soak it in, turn over each saying carefully, and hold them in contemplative spaciousness. Sometimes, in our group, a saying becomes a chant, the words working their way even more deeply into our hearts. You might play with this possibility as you sit with the sayings.
However you approach the text (or however it approaches you!), may the encounter be a living one, with the living Jesus. Amen.
The second and third articles in this series can be found at Contemplative Journal: