Of all the gnostic gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945, the Gospel of Thomas is undoubtedly among the most accessible and well-known.  Scholars now feel there’s good reason to believe this compilation of Jesus’ “wisdom sayings” dates back as far as the New Testament gospels. The book feels familiar in many ways because several of the sayings have parallels in the New Testament, but the direction taken by the Gospel of Thomas is decidedly different.

The way the book is formatted tells us a great deal.  Thomas is strictly a collection of wisdom sayings, parables and stories with almost no narrative information. In this sense, Thomas is very similar to the lost Sayings Gospel of Q that much of Matthew and Luke are based on. Scholars feel that these “sayings gospels” are probably the original style of writing that circulated among early Christians.  Why is that important?

The New Testament gospels are written in a persuasive narrative style that was designed to focus on the person of Jesus and convince readers that they should believe in him as a messiah and savior. This narrative style also allows the writer to direct the reader’ attention and tell them what conclusions they should come to. On the other hand, the series sayings presented in Thomas requires the reader to tease out their own meaning. Instead of seeing the change from sayings to narrative as a more sophisticated understanding of Jesus, we would argue that it actually demonstrates a complete shift in focus from the message to the messenger. Instead of focusing on Jesus, both the Greek and Coptic versions of Thomas open with these words:

These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Judas Thomas the Twin recorded. And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.”

As you can see, the emphasis is on the teachings, rather than teacher. Instead of seeing Jesus as a savior, the reader is instructed to take personal responsibility and seek out the meaning of Jesus’ words. In fact, Thomas makes no mention of either Jesus’ death or a resurrection.  However, even though Jesus had already died when the book was written, it speaks of him in the present tense and calls him, “the living Jesus.” This combination of information infers that Jesus’ flesh may have died, but he is alive and still available to his followers. However, when Jesus says that anyone who understands his message will not taste death, he is assuring listeners there are no differences between them.

To Christians who have been taught that Jesus was either the only begotten son of God, or a Trinitarian God, these statements might seem quite shocking. But gnostic writers, along with the authors of Thomas, Q and the New Testament gospel of Mark all speak of Jesus in fully human terms.  In fact, an extremely heated argument raged over Jesus’ humanity or divinity for centuries after his death. The matter was finally decided by the Roman Emperor Theodosius who declared that “all true Christians” must profess belief in the trinity.  Immediately following his declaration, Roman forces assisted the institutionalized church in destroying anyone who disagreed. As often is the case, it’s good to remember that might doesn’t make right.

The question of Jesus’ nature has important implications for all of us, which are made clear in Thomas.  If we examine the New Testament gospels in the order in which they were written, a steady change in Jesus’ persona becomes apparent. He begins as a human wisdom teacher or prophet, becomes a human adopted by God, is changed into a demi god (½ human, ½ god) by followers who were formerly pagan, becomes a God in his own right in the New Testament Gospel of John, and is finally made equal to the God of the Old Testament by the trinity doctrine.  During this process, the institutionalized church came to the conclusion that without a divine intercessor, humans were beyond salvation.  The opposing view maintained that the human Jesus was an example all humans could follow and eventually each of us could have a direct, personal relationship with the Divine, just as Jesus did.

In Part 2 we’ll continue our discussion of the differences in the way Jesus is presented by the New Testament and the Gospel of Thomas, and what that means for us.

To learn more about the gnostic gospels visit http://thebeginningoffearlessness.com/articles