"Not Gnostic?!" DeConnick on the Gospel of Thomas

Whilst I have read the enigmatic, so-called 'Gospel' of Thomas I have not read many books about it. It is most certainly a topic WAY out of my zone of knowledge. But one of the books that I did read I found to be absolutely exhilarating. It was April D. DeConnick's Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth (T&T CLark, 2005).

I love the sheer iconoclasm of her work. Almost everyone seems to think that Thomas was an early, non-eschatological document from a proto-Gnostic Christian group that saw Jesus in the mode of a philosophical Sage. But DeConnick says, in brief, "Rubbish! It is rooted in the mission of the early Jerusalem Church and, in its earliest versions, it was thoroughly eschatological!"

Her thesis is that Thomas was an oral 'text' that was developed and expanded in oral reperformance even after written versions were scribed. She thinks that we can tentatively delineate the contours of a kernal Thomas - the first attempt to capture in writing material from the oral pool. As the community faced various crises it developed new 'prophetic' material and Thomas was expanded and expanded. So for DeConnick this 'gospel' is not a collection of Jesus-sayings written down at one moment in history but an aggregate text.

DeConnick's radical thesis is that the earliest material from Thomas is conservative Jewish-Christian material from the mission of the Jerusalem Church with a strong apocalyptic and eschatological tone (not a mere collection of Jesus' 'wisdom' sayings as the current fashion has things). She thinks it likely to date from 30-50 AD making the hypothesized kernal a very early witnesses to the words of the historical Jesus.

But, thinks DeConnick, Jesus did not return as the community had expected so they began to reinterpret the material in less eschatological and more mystical directions (a mysticism inherent in its original apocalyptic impetus). Between 80 and 120 AD the community came to advocate a fully present kingdom - a new Eden - created in the midst of the utopian community. This later oral material, incorporated into Thomas, reinterprets the eschatological teaching in non-eschatological ways creating the mysitcal gospel known and loved by all modern day Gnostics (and the Jesus Seminar).

For DeConnick the scholarly consensus that Thomas is an early Christian non-apocalyptic gospel preserving the message of Jesus-the-Sage is mistaken. She locates Thomas within early orthodoxy rather than outside it - the voice of eastern Syriac Christianity in its earliest form with roots back to the founding Church in Jerusalem. She even suggests that the roots of eastern Orthodox spirituality are found in it.

Is she right? I have no idea. To my mind she made a pretty strong case for her position. I love the idea that kernal Thomas was eschatological and may have roots in Jerusalem.

However, I must confess though that I find the sayings in Thomas very hard to confidently make much sense of. It is so flipping ambiguous! Reading DeConnick's commentary on Thomas (The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation. T&T Clark) I keep finding myself thinking, "Yes ... maybe."

From an orthodox Christian theological perspective I find that parts of Thomas to be theologically helpful (if I have understood them right - which I may not have), but I find the theology of the finished text to be in need of
(a) supplementing, and
(b) pruning (there is material in it which orthodox Christians will not agree with)
'Handle with Care' rather than 'avoid at all costs' is the theological health warning.

Give me Matthew, Mark, Luke and John any day! But perhaps Thomas can now come to the picnic and bring some paper hats for us to wear.

Comments

Teresita said…
Give me Matthew, Mark, Luke and John any day! But perhaps Thomas can now come to the picnic and bring some paper hats for us to wear.

The fatal flaw in the Gospel of Thomas, and the reason it was not accepted as canonical, is the boastful character it paints of our Lord does not mesh with the humble character painted by the other four gospels. And yes, it is gnostic, for it begins "These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas recorded." By contrast, in the Great Commission Jesus told the Apostles to teach the world everything he told them. And Jesus held women in great esteem, especially in the gospel of Luke, while the gospel of Thomas has Jesus saying that women must become men to be saved (not a sex-change, but a spiritual masculinization). Gnostics hold the flesh in contempt, and women are considered to be closer to the fleshly things, even by St. Paul.
M Slater said…
I’ve read Thomas a few times myself, easy enough as it is quite short, and have very mixed feelings about it. In a class exercise a few years ago during a theology class on inspiration we got into groups and went through Thomas, rating the verses in a very Jesus Seminar-esk way. It was pretty entertaining, but also led to a very deep discussion of Thomas.

It seems to me that the value of Thomas is rather limited. Much of it (later redactions according to DeConnick?) does not fit orthodox Christian faith, but is Gnostic and reminds me of eastern religion more than anything based in the Judeo Christian tradition.

There are a few passages that match or nearly match the Gospels, those are interesting from a historical Jesus perspective, but don’t add all that much to what we know already. Finally there are a few passages that are not in the Gospels but could very well be original, though there is not enough evidence to make that a really good bet in my eyes. If those are original that is very interesting, but relying on such a problem filled book seems to be a path towards less clarity not more. I see a role for Thomas, more so if the book you reference is correct, but over all I think that the excitement some have shone about it is unwarranted for what we actually can gain from it.
Robin Parry said…
Teresita

I share your distaste for the Gnostic rejection of materiality (the early church was very hot on the importance of the resurrection of the BODY and thus held Gnosticism at bay. Hooray! Irenaues is the dude there!).

Regarding the infamous passage at the end of GThom teaching that women must become men to be saved:

DeConnick thinks that this is not part of the kernal but a later accretion.

She believes the idea is that the 'male' that women must become is an androgynous pre-fall Adam (from whom Eve has yet to be differentiated) [echoes of Tribble?].

She thinks that women in the community were called to celibacy and a refusal to bear children (the Thomas community became, in later times, very mystical and ascetic). This calling of women to become like pre-fall Adam in paradise is a way that the community accomodated itself to allowing women to remain in their celibate, 'paradise-on-earth' community.

Is she right? I have no idea. But the call for women to become 'male' may be less obviously anti-women than it looks (though I am not for one moment suggesting that the theology at work here is good Christian theology - it is not!)
Robin Parry said…
M Slater

I am with you on this. GThom in its final form reflects, in my view (and contra DeConnick), a degredation of apostolic Christianity. Its eschatology is over-realized and this leads it into all sorts of problems.

Nevertheless, it has a place at the picnic - it offers some nice paper hats and some chocolates. But don't eat the cheese sandwiches that it has brought along.

Robin
Like you, I have of course read the Gospel of Thomas itself (in translation), but haven't waded through much secondary literature. DeConick's thesis as you describe it sounds fascinating; being Orthodox, I'm particularly interested in her suggestion that the earliest, Syriac form of this Gospel contains, in fact, the kernel of the Eastern Church's spirituality. I should thank you for turning me on to this book, but I won't: now I have to rewrite my budget! :-)

Esteban
Jim Deardorff said…
For additional reasons I agree with you, Robin, that GThom reflects, at least in large part, a degredation of apostolic Christianity. Mark Goodacre has given one reason, a strong one, for concluding that GThom post-dates Luke. Whether its other aspects and gnostic statements were written down at the same time or in stages, as DeConick has it, I wouldn't hazard a guess.

My additional reasons involve the Talmud of Jmmanuel (TJ) document I've been looking into the past 23 years. My research indicates that it preceded the Gospels and likely motivated the gnostic gospels as well. Discovered in 1963, one of its co-discoverers is still alive to vouch for its provenance and authenticity of its surviving translation. It appears that GThom 2,3b derive from this TJ, not to mention a Hebraic form of Matthew. But one must perhaps think outside of a bigger box than one is used to when studying the TJ.
J.L. Hinman said…
I have been arguing this for years. I should have written a book. The gnostic bits are clearly added latter, all that gibberish about the powers obviously comes from the latter centuries. Helmutt Koester demonstrates the early nature of the Thomas Material, and the Thomas Jesus even says he is divine and came in the flesh. He says "in flesh I stood in the midst of them..."
Anonymous said…
You all need to reach a higher level of thinking. You are thinking and feeling only what you WANT to think and feel.

Think and feel what you NEED to think and feel, and matters will be revealed in a more simple, and truthful light. I am not referring to the Thomas text here. Nor throughout this am I in any way defending it. I am only trying to advance the evolution of your mind.

Just because you read something at blind faith does not mean you have to take it on as blind faith. People immediately read objectively, and make criticisms based on their OWN life. Why not embrace the unknown for a moment, instead of criticizing it with the known (with what you know).

How many of you here have lived a life of celibacy, or gone down that path after being sexual?

How many of you here are vegetarians?

How many of you here live with the bare minimum material housing?

How many of you here have chosen to throw their mirrors (and makeup) away? (It is after all entirely possible to look neat and tidy without a mirror or makeup)

How many here do not believe in any established religion, but instead learn all that they can and choose their own path based on what they have learned, instead of what they have been learned?

I guess that not many have even tried one of these things. How do you know what it will be like or what will happen to you if you do these things? You don't!

You do not NEED sex.
You do not NEED to eat meat.
You do not NEED to live with materialistic comforts.
You do not NEED a mirror or makeup.
You do not NEED to pick an established religion (Secularity and Atheism are also established religions).

The point is, you can only learn by reading and trying, NOT BY CRITICIZING.
Anonymous said…
God is evolution, and is in charge of our physicality, but there is also evolution of the mind, and this, we are in control of. In this manner we are still evolving. We are always evolving.

Unfortunately, the masses are held back by the limitations of society. They are brainwashed by it. Their very codes and conducts are that of the system, and so they perpetuate the system instead of evolving themselves.

Instead of extending their mind, and developing their spirit, they buy a new sofa, or a new kitchen, or any number of different meaningless things. So they are stuck in the same tedious cycle all of their lives, never knowing what is real, never knowing what is important.

While they are doing that, a small number of humans the world over dedicate their lives to evolving themselves, and to helping the evolution of others.

Gandhi died doing this, and he died because of doing it.

The age old battle of Jesus (spiritual) vs The Empire (physical).

The greater purpose of this battle lies not in changing the physical, but in developing spirit. For the people of The Empire must change for The Empire to change. Inwardly outward. It does not happen outwardly inward.

The purpose of life is to transcend life (the body cannot do this) and so if the spirit/soul of a particular person is not developed, then they cannot transcend life.

You cannot develop your spirit/soul by munching down animals, by abusing your body with alcohol, drugs, bad food, by being egotistical, or by constantly giving away much needed energy through sex.

Sex is pleasing and brings about life, but there comes a time when it must stop for the development of your soul.
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marmalade said…
DeConnick has written some blogs about Gnosticism that seem relevant to this discussion:

http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/2009/03/transtheism-or-supratheism.html

http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/2008/07/accommodation-to-society-in-gnosticism.html
Anonymous said…
I know that this is replying to a comment from 4 years ago, but I feel as though I must correct innacuracies just in case someone else stumbles onto this page. I can see why they would have called this "heretical"; the sayings are exceedingly difficult for most to decipher, and messages contrary to the one trying to be conveyed are easily arrived at. In Thomas, when Jesus says "let her follow me so that she may become man", he is of course not talking about either a physical or spiritual sex-change, he is telling a paternalistic Jewish society that, despite what their scripture says, women that follow Christ are equal with men that follow Christ. It is thoroughly un-gnostic, and not just for the reasons stated here but also because it affirms the trinity, resurrection, the placement of Jesus as "the son", and it does not agree with gnostic mythology (that there is one great god, and then lesser gods that created the "evil" material world). It even has parallels with the connacol gospels about the last becoming first and the first becoming last, so it has the same "humble" doctrine you mentioned. Jesus is not being boastful by trying to convey a deeper understanding of him to those that require it, and it comes as no surprise that "doubting Thomas's" gospel would be based on teachings that seem to be for those that are seeking faith but are still doubtful. I feel so strongly about this becuase, were it not for this gospel, I would still be an atheist and I would not have had faith in the 4 gospels in the Bible. True, there are some elements that would eventually make its way into Gnosticism, specifically the secret understanding being the sole way to salvation, but the overall content of the sayings, when properly understood, are not in conflict with the bible, and a proper understanding of these saying may help bring some to the bible, as it did me. The Bible is mostly based on the message in mark, which was written for a scared people after the fall of Jeruselem in 70 AD looking for hope not understanding, and this message is easier to digest than that of the thomasine tradition so it stuck and became "orthodox" but you musn't think that was all there is to Jesus.
Anonymous said…
@anonymous
I too am not an atheist because of Thomas.. are you still there? we should talk

Popular Posts