if you want to experience what he meant
(latest update: 20-11-2018)
AN INTERPRETATION OF THE SAYINGS OF JESUS
IN THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS.
The great silence of the unknowing.
From a destitute wandering wise man to Divinely glorified universal redeemer.
The content of this site is about sayings of Jesus, sayings that came to us from one of the
earliest traditions that followed his death. Collecting “sayings of the wise” (logoi sophon) had
been common practice over centuries in the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures (Robinson
and Koester, 1971;Piper, 1989).
Before we go on, first something about the characteristics of Jesus’ sayings, as this will
say something about the underlying essence of his teachings.The sayings should be
considered as aphorisms, of which Crossan (1983), referring to Asemissen (1949;
Notizen über den Aphorismus) quotes the following: “Every effective aphorism is
characterized by contradiction. To oppose is its passion…..The more perplexing the
contradiction, the greater the tension, the greater the resulting attraction. Therefore the
aphorism contradicts precisely all those things that appear unshakable in their authority
and that enjoy unquestioned general recognition…… Thus even its form is a spirited
contradiction of powerful tradition of systematic deductive thinking. And thus in its content
it especially likes to contradict authoritative opinions, habits, customs, conventions, and
traditions of all kind.” Crossan (1983) also cites Stern (1959) who said that “the aphorism is
the literary emblem of paradox”. If these considerations applies to the Thomas’ Jesus sayings,
two things become clear immediately: first that Jesus had sometime very unconventional
to say, something totally opposed to what was usual in especially religious respect, and
secondly, that he was masterly in the manipulation of language, which says something about the
way his mind worked. It was likely this strikingly masterful way of speaking that made people
keep remembering his unusual words, even if they did not grasp their full meaning.
Initially, Jesus’ sayings were just remembered by heart, which may, as time went by, have
influenced the sayings in their wording. Later on – but we do not know when that exactly
was - the words were used to convince others of certain religious stances, either by individuals
or groups, whereas from there they might have purposely been adapted to serve special goals.
They also might have been used as a kernel for a group’s religious outlook, in which case they
might have been put to writing, but rather selectively, as “carefully redacted composition”
(Koester, 1990). But even that did not guarantee that they kept their original wording, as even as
late as the time the gospels were created the “words of Jesus” were edited to serve the special
aims of the gospel writers, who framed the sayings into their created narratives.
It has become very probable if not almost certain,
that from the start there were several groups of people that kept honoring the Jesus’ sayings,
whereas we can be certain that what later became ‘The Church’ had never
known a single-source emergence (Koester, 1971). Collecting “sayings of the wise”
(LOGOI SOPHON) had been common practice over centuries in the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures (Robinson and Koester, 1971;Piper, 1989).(Koester: Gnomai Diaphoroi; The Origin and Nature of Diversification in theHistory of Early Christianity. In: Robinson and Koester, 1971).
How ‘The Church’ initially developed was a later invention, centuries later, when the Christian
Church leaders claimed a single, unique, and holy historical connection both in teaching as in
person to the disciples, and by way of them directly to Jesus. However, by that time the Jesus’
saying had been manipulated for quit a long time and by various ways, apart from “simple”
scribal errors. Also, the whole of the so-called Apostolic Tradition is a mere fantasy! Even the early
‘Church of Jerusalem’ or the ‘Church of Jacobus’ was most likely just an intimate circle of a
small number of people who remembered Jesus ministry from close-by and kept these memories
alive. A large initial Jerusalem ‘Church of Jesus’ is all the more unlikely as Jesus just visited
that city on the occasion of Passover celebration, whereas he had had Galilee as his
working territory, not Jerusalem. Apart from that, these Jerusalem followers were dedecated Jews,
abiding by Jewish rule and practicing the Jewish faith; praying in the Temple, and abiding by the
Jewish practice of circumcision, for example (Robinson and Koester, 1971; van Amersfoort, 1985).
They likely also did not abstain from animal sacrifice, whereas nowhere in the NT nor Thomas
is there any mentioning of such practice by Jesus, not even the slaughter
of the Passover lamb which was an obligation to every Jew. This does, by the way, not exactly
portray Jesus acting as a conventional Jew (e.g. Mark 12:33 lets Jesus say that loving
one’s neighbor is more important than burning sacrifices).
That the initial groups that cherished memories of Jesus eventually became the ‘Christian Church’,
had much to do with ‘evangelists’ who for their own, although sincere reasons,
created wonderful stories in which they weaved together traditional Jesus stories and sayings
with a purposeful, but creative phantasy of their own on the one hand, and with the mythical Christ
idea on the other.
How did these developments went on from the start in more detail, and especially following
Jesus’ death? Unfortunately it is not known, but some lines of development are discernable
as historical studies have shown us.
Given the fact that a Christian community had been founded in Antioch within a few years following
the death of Jesus (Koester, 1990), indicates that Jesus’ followers must have come to terms with
his death not long after it, and given the “Christian” content of the Antioch faith, identifying Jesus in retrospect with the prophesized “Redeeming Suffering Servant” Divinely glorified, must have taken
place not long after Jesus’ death (Koester, 2007b). This mythmaking may have found its origin in the
early community in Jerusalem, as the church in Antioch had been founded by “the Hellenists,
Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, who had been forced to leave Jerusalem during the persecution
in which Stephen was martyred. It is unlikely that any personal followers of Jesus were involved
in the establishment of this church because they were still resident in Jerusalem many years
thereafter (Gal 1:18-19; 2:1-10)” …. “Jesus death and resurrection was the event upon which their common proclamation was based” (Koester, 1990).
How these pre-gospel traditional Jesus’ stories and sayings, that were ultimately constructed
into writing, came about over time and under what circumstances, and with what purpose lends
itself to much scholarly speculation, but largely remains unknown. This even counts for one of the
most studied pre-gospel collections of sayings that Matthew and Luke have in common, the
so-called Q-gospel (Frenschkowski, 2000). One thing is certain: the development of the Christian
creed found a more solid base in the socio-religious and political developments during the second
half of the first century, than that they were rooted in the teachings of the historical Jesus.
Koester (1990) wrote: “whatever Jesus had preached did not become the content of the
missionary proclamation by Paul, not the churches from which his proclamation took its origin,
nor in…..most of the letters of the NT”.
Much discussion in the literature has been devoted on how much of the gospel stories is can
be traced back to “history remembered”, and how much is “history prophesized backwards”.
For example, what to think of the historical accuracy of the Passion Narrative as written in the
NT and other early Christian writings (Koester, 2007)? The gospels report that with Jesus’
being captured by the Romans, his disciples all fled. To where? Home, most likely, to safe
and far away Galilee. (Spong, 1996). Spong also states that the “Easter experience” did not
take place at Jerusalem et all, but in Galilee, where it dawn upon Jesus followers what his
significance in fact was. The “ seeing” of Peter ( in Galilee) might have been a becoming
conscious of Jesus significance after his death, rather than a physical apperception of a risen
Jesus; Peter being repeatedly described in Mark as stubborn and as one who did not grasp Jesus’ message during his life at all. Peter’s revelation probably was his conviction that Jesus lived on in a heavenly realm, from where he could and would interfere in human affairs, an idea not alien to
contemporal current religious and cosmological understanding.
John 16:32 says that the disciples were “scattered, each one to his home”. Crossan (1995)
accepts the disciples’ flight as historical, but that there were Twelve of them as “an institution
that did not exist until after Jesus’ death…” Crossan also cites the Gospel of Peter (14:59),
where it says: “….and each one, very grieved for what had come to pass, went to his own home”.
Disciples could not have witnessed Jesus’ conviction and death. And trying to make
any sense out of the pointless suffering and death of Jesus, they found such sense in their
scriptures, and they were convinced they succeeded! Various passages in the OT could be
applied to Jesus' Passion, and then the conviction grew that it all did happen with a purpose
after all, a Divinely ordained purpose, foretold a long time ago (Crossan, 1995). They found
models in the OT applicable to Jesus’ life and passion, such as the “Redeeming Suffering Servant”,
the “Kingly Messiah/Christ” from the house of David, “the Second Moses/Second Elijah”.
That such interpretation from scripture had taken place is in fact illustrated by the Lukan
story of the Emmaus travelers, where the risen Lord himself explains from scripture why
all these things had happened (Luke 24). When the
whole story became reinterpreted against prevailing eschatological expectations, Jesus
became the prophetically predicted “Son of Man” who would return to establish his Kingdom on
earth, and he would come soon! However, when time passed by and nothing happened, some
considered Jesus second coming (the Parousia) as having already taken place in the form
of the developing Church, “the Body of Christ”. Others took the apocalyptic stance and taught
that the Son of Man would come back “at the end of time” to judge all mankind, condemning the
wicked, glorifying the righteous, and to establish a new earth and a new heaven where Justice
and Righteousness would dwell. From there it was a small step to the title “Son of God”, a being
one with God, because God cannot be otherwise thought of as being One. And the creed that
was developed was that everyone who believed all this, and confessed he believed all this would
ultimately partake in the glory of the crucified, risen and glorified Christ. All in all quite a
development within a few decades following Jesus’ death, a development from a subsistent,
wandering “wise man” to a redeeming God himself! And in the historicizing backward projection,
the wandering beggar wise man became a Divine miracle worker who subdued nature and
evil spirits, healed all diseases and even raised the dead! We have to realize that this development
did not only take place against a Jewish background, but that Roman-Hellenistic thought also
exerted a major influence (Koester, 1990). Paul modelled his church after the “Suffering
Servant of God” character, whereas the model of a suffering and dying Messiah was a
combination nowhere found in the Hebrew Tradition and in fact “a later Christian
misunderstanding” (Koester, 2007). A miracle-working divine hero-redeemer is a rather
Roman-Hellenistic idea. From the various writings, both in- and outside the canon, it is obvious
that early Christianity struggled quite substantially with the practical implications of the various
“Christ models”, and a lot of often rather hostile polemics went on before after at least two
centuries a winner could formulate its victorious conviction, and institutionalized authority
petrified the Christian faith in both form and substance into creeds and ritual, claiming the place
of Jesus’ Words in the lives of the believers. History is always written by those victorious, and
we can just wonder how much early Christian literature has been dispelled in every thinkable
way by the victors, unless it had been buried in Egyptian desert sand from where it was to be
discovered almost 18 centuries later, such as the Gospel of Thomas.
That there were early Christians who differed in opinion about the way of salvation from Paul’s
kerygma with reference to a likely Thomas source, was convincingly made by Koester (2007).
There were Christians in Corinth who claimed to have found salvation through “knowledge” by
words of wisdom going back to Jesus, instead by belief in the raised and glorified Christ as
Paul had preached. Paul fulminated ironically against these Corinthians and their “wisdom of
the world” (1 Cor. 2:8), paraphrasing expressions which totally match with the second
saying in the Thomas collection! He also quotes “from scripture” (1 Cor. 2:9), which appears
to be Thomas saying 17! Obviously, a form of Thomas collection was around in the early fifties
when Paul wrote his first Corinthian letter.
In Thomas we don’t find anything on Jesus’ death, resurrection, nor his glorified justification
as the Christ-Redeemer. There is only the subsistent, itinerant wise man and his sayings, and
Thomas may be read and understood solely from this perspective! We do not have to curb our
rationality into “belief” that contradicts our human reasoning to see the figure of Jesus as
he was: he wandering wise man who tried to open the eyes of people around him to the
Divine in our existence. He did not teach the divine “virtue” (aretē) or the building of one’s own
personality of Hellenistic philosophy (Koester, 2007). However, there may be Stoic elements
in Jesus’ teachings in the sense that at least Thomas is in line with the Stoic idea of living
according to nature, which includes one’s own specific human nature, being human rationality
In how far Jesus’ message can be fully grasped against the background of first-century Jewish piety remains to be seen! Of course, we should realize that interpreting the Thomas sayings from an
a priory defined context does not allow the context to be defined by the sayings’ explanation!
This fallacy of circular reasoning restricts the validity of interpreting all early Christian writings
. But knowing by reason what is possible and what is not, and by what historical analyses teach us,
we cannot look upon a historical Jesus otherwise than as a wandering, pauper, wise man.
Christian Faith demands primarily belief that the message of the Faith as proclaimed by Christian
churches is true, even if its content unblushingly contravenes human factual knowledge and
rationality! Thomas only demands faith in Jesus’ Words, whereas these Words concur totally
with human reason. However, perhaps we better say trust instead of faith to forestall any
association with what religious faith regularly implies. Trust comes first, and when we see for
ourselves, any belief is totally redundant, because then we know.
The gospel stories were primarily aimed at Jews, and constructed against the
background of the Jewish religious festival tradition, as these were regulated by the
Hebrew calendar, mainly serving a purpose in the liturgical year at the synagogues.
John Shelby Spong (2016) wonderfully and convincingly demonstrates the way the evangelists
came to compose their stories, most of which cannot be regarded as factual information
about the life of Jesus, but serves to expose Jesus' significance as the predicted Jewish hope in
the devastating period after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans,
which, as it seemed at that time, totally destroyed Judaism. Especially Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience, stressing the view that Scripture had become fulfilled with Jesus (Spong, 1996).
Koester (2007) also suggests that the gospels “provided a handbook for the order of the church
and the conduct of the life of the members of the community”.
Matthew e.g., portrays Jesus as the new Moses, as he just like Moses, delivers the core of his
message from a mountain top (the Sermon on the Mount) as a new Torah, for a new people,
with a new kind of God, into a new era: the Son of Man of the eschatological end-time,
the only hope, a kind of new Temple, and the immanent restorer of God's Kingdom on earth
while he had recently lived among God's people. And just as Moses and another great
miracle-working prophet Elijah, he had been “taken up” by God and glorified. The message
to the Jews was clear: Jesus was the new Moses, the new Elijah, yes, even more, and he
deserved the people’s recognition and appropriate veneration.
. On his prophesized return Elijah was the prophet who would deliver reconciliation and restoration,
and “to prevent this fire of judgment and transform the fate of all humanity” (Thompson,2005).
Spong (2007) interprets various miracles in the gospels as an illustration of Jesus’ as
a great prophet in the tradition of Moses and Elijah.
Probably so, because he had been a "wise man" during his lifetime, whereas his story fitted that
of the dying and rising divine redeemer myth, in a time "dominated by prophetic eschatology" (Allison,1998, quoting Helmut Koester). When eschatological expectation were not fulfilled
within the foreseen time, and he eventually did not return, the
"reality expectations" about him were further spiritualized and mystified, away from the
man Jesus towards the eternal and heavenly Christ figure. Robinson and Koester (1971) stated
that the history with which the New Testament as kerygma had directly to do was not the
historical Jesus but rather “the history of the transmission of the traditions” about Jesus.
The process forever made a pauper wise man from Galilee into a universal,
redeeming, dying and rising god-like figure (Thompson, 2005) if not God Himself,
who cured the sick, had almighty power over the elements, man and daemons alike, and who
even raised the dead, but, however, for fantastic but bizarre theological reasons, choose to
die a most horrible death himself, in order to safe everyone who would put his faith in the
redeeming action of the Christ's dying and resurrection. (Nowhere in the synoptic gospels does
Jesus call himself "Son of God"! - Kuitert,1998; and nowhere did he aggrandize himself in
whatever way. - Perrin and Duling,1982).) By the way, the existence of any pagan belief in a
“dying and rising redeemer god” is not “unambiguously evident” (Ehrman, 2012). Did Mark
have the man Jesus inspired by Divine presence, Matthew and Luke took it a level further by
turning him into the risen lord - redeeming Christ figure, who was basically God incarnate in man,
whereas John finally made Jesus one with the Eternal Divine (Spong, 2002).
Strangely enough though, John maintains that the true form of faith is faith
in Jesus’ word (Robinson and Koester, 1971), a position rather like that in Thomas!
So, from messenger of “the Divine” he ultimately became God himself! How bizarre!
Earlier Paul had already shown almost no interest in the man Jesus, but more so in
the crucified and risen Christ who was now glorified with God in heaven, from where He
would hand out redemption to those who would unconditionally believe in Paul's
theological construct.Then the myth became footed in a retrospectively declared fulfilled
Second Isaiah prophesy, the only one in the Hebrew Bible who had spoken about a dying and
rising divine redeeming Messiah (Spong, 1993).
It is by large the way Hellenistic philosophy influenced the course of how things were interpreted
over time (Perrin and Duling,1982; Fredriksen, 2000),
About that time, the authority of the itinerant charismatics, who followed in the footsteps of Jesus,
was restricted and their way of life disqualified as was documented by The Didache (Robinson
and Koester, 1971). However, the thought that it were mainly these homeless wanderers and the
ones they directly relied upon who kept valuing Jesus’ sayings , is rather suggestive. Living
according the “sayings traditions” might primarily have originated in relation to those who
adhered to Jesus’ words and had chosen the itinerant life, whereas the followers who ultimately
showed up in Jerusalem had accepted the scriptural certification of Jesus life and death in terms of Christology. Such differentiation must have begun quite early following Jesus’ death (Koester, 2007b).Various of such cores might have existed, especially in the rural areas where Jesus had
wandered himself. As early written texts could not be but unstable, but depended on various
factors, varying from scribal errors to purposeful redaction, the various phrasings of the
sayings might have developed.
Jesus never was a Christian, but a Jew and he delivered his teachings mainly to Jews, whereas
most of the ones he aimed his message at were paupers, peasants, ‘sinners’, outcasts. If we realize
this, we cannot but conclude that these people were totally illiterate, whereas those
who later on ‘explained’ his words to be ‘the true gospel’ were educated scribes with a certain
agenda about what to ‘explain’ and how; theologians is what we would call them today, or
clergy members. On the other hand, we can read from the Thomas sayings that very few
really understood and observed Jesus' teachings, but whether one should be a theologian or a
professionally educated clergy member to get at what Jesus meant, I really doubt, although
it is always good to listen to each other.
Another important thing to realize is that what is nowadays considered as ‘Holy Scripture’
carrying ‘the Truth’ is an artificial construct dating back to the 4th century! But we are so familiar
with the Bible’s content that it has become a norm against which any other ancient religious
scripture obviously has to be measured, and as religious institutions are based upon the exclusive
veracity of the canonical Bible books, new material is barred from being accepted as equally
belonging to ‘the Truth’. And, however the interpretation of the canon differs among the
multitude of Christian churches and belief systems, in one thing they agree: theirs is the ‘Truth’,
and theirs only, how different their truths may be!
As I said, Jesus was not a Christian, and he never proclaimed belief in a god-like Christ figure,
Paul did and then the gospels did, especially Mark (Perrin and Duling, 1982). Mark was written early following the destruction of the Temple, when the Jews were generally in an edgy state of apocalyptic, seeing the destruction as a sign of the beginning end time. As Jesus was probably remembered as someone preaching against the Temple establishment, the Hebrew cult and many of its teachings,
he might in retrospect have become to be seen as an apocalyptic prophet, whereas Mark was the one
who created the whole of these sentiments into a purposeful theological drama.
The closer we get to the likely authentic words of Jesus, the lesser do we find traces of any
Jesus’ self-appreciation in whatever sense, and in Thomas, we find none! Religious self-esteem
is totally foreign to Thomas’ Jesus and is completely consistent with the content of his message.
Looking at the way Jesus lived and worked, we may say that he was an itinerant charismatic
with an extraordinary and embarrassing teaching. According to some scholars
he taught within the so-called Hebrew wisdom tradition, which would obviate the need
to explain from outside the Hebrew culture the rather unfamiliar substance of his message,
his extreme lifestyle, and his wondrous and consistent use of language, all of which do not
fit such tradition at all. (A scholar like Perrin took some of such characteristics even as a test of authenticity!)And although both Hebrew and Hellenistic influence are apparent in Jesus’ teaching,
eventually this may far from explain the acme of his message. The point is, however, not to try and “explain” the sayings from a post-eastern, Christian perspective, but from the Sitz im Leben
of a pauper, itinerant wise man trying to make man aware of the Divine. Although later on sayings
of Jesus were incorporated into narratives about the crucified, risen and glorified Christ,
originally traditions based on either of these two hubs of religious significance existed
separately (Koester, 2007b).
A HISTORICAL JESUS; FACT OR FICTION?
However, before we continue an important question should be addressed: did there really
ever exist such Jesus person, or was everything that was written about him just religious fantasy,
whether or not closely based on OT sayings and prophesies, as some suggest (Doherty, 2009),
or was he, including his sayings, merely a result from literary and narrative devices as they
were common in ancient world (Thompson, 2005)? However, the fact that the literary form was
a common narrative tool in the ancient world, does not imply that all gospel content was made-up just because there were fantasy stories around as a common literary device! Similarity does not equal
identity, and absence of proof of Jesus being the origin of a saying tradition, does not equal proof of absence of such possibility. Thompson’s (2005) concluded redundancy of a teacher as the source
of the sayings, with the argument that all sayings were solely derived from Hebrew scripture interpretation is flawed, as the premise does not hold: not all sayings existed before Jesus,
whereas quite a number are unique to him. Taking sayings under the denominator of a general
OT motive to prove their inference from prior text seems too casual to me. Ehrman (2012)
systematically and convincingly invalidates prevailing arguments against Jesus’ historicity.
And we are, on the contrary, not without proof of Jesus’ existence. First of all, Thomas can be
considered as a so-called ‘independent attestation’ of sayings that are also in the
gospel stories, whereas it also confirms the idea of the existence of “LOGOI SOPHON” of Jesus
(Robinson, in: Robinson and Koester H,1971). Therefore, Thomas in itself offers a strong
argument in favor of an independent arising of original Jesus’ sayings, independent of the sources
the evangelist Mark had at his disposal, and independent of the Mathew and Luke underlying
Q-source, and any other source they may have had. With a non-argued statement that Thomas
is a third century composition, Thompson (2005) hardly takes serious to provide valid
arguments for such idea.
Another “proof” of Jesus historical existence comes from outside the early Christian writings,
and therefore,serves as independent and ‘objective’ proof of Jesus’ historical veracity.
And indeed, there is such independent report of Jesus' life in first century Palestine, and
almost exactly pointing at the time as mentioned in the gospel stories:
the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
THE TESTIMONIUM FLAVIANUM.
The famous Jesus passage of Josephus is known in the literature as the Testimonium Flavianum,
(written around 93 CE when Josephus resided in Rome) and has been the subject of much
controversy and discussion. It is not my aim here to summarize this discussion, (one could
start at: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/testimonium.html), but I like to point at one major
issue in the discussion whether or not all of the Testimonium is a later Christian insertion,
as argued by Doherty (2009), a fervent defender against the view
of any historicity of Jesus.
This is the whole text in Antiquities 18.3.3.:
"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man,
for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.
He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Greeks/Gentiles. He was the Christ;
and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him
to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive
again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other
wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not
extinct to this day."
If all contentious passages are removed, we are left with a text of which most scholars agree
that it was originally written by Josephus indeed:
"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, a teacher of such men as receive
the truth with pleasure. Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us,
had condemned him to the cross.”
And although even this might still be authentic: “those that loved him at the first did not
forsake him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day",
let us suppose that the minimal mentioning of Jesus was only two lines, than still some
argue that these two lines remain a Christian fake.
The line: He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Greeks/Gentiles, is
likely original Josephus’, but we have to realize that it reflects the situation in the years
80-90 CE, whereas Jesus’ success during his ministry was presumably much more modest
and restricted to Jews. Also " he was a doer of wonderful works", is probably Josephian,
as again we keep in mind he writes in the nineties. Meier (1991) mentions to "detect
in the (final) sentence as a whole something dismissive if not hostile". If so, I wonder towards
whom this hostility is meant. To me the sentence sounds as a cynical remark towards
those who tried by iniquitous means to nip the Jesus' movement in the bud, whereas
just the opposite occurred`, which makes Josephus' hidden accusation even stronger.
One major argument is a mere biased product of the theologically and historically interested
modern mind: as we are eventually dealing here with a passage about someone who has become
one of the most remarkable and important persons over the past two thousand years, we
expect it only natural that Josephus would have mentioned such a religiously and socially
outstanding and important character not by such a miserly, out-of-place passage in-between
summing up upheavals between the prefect Pontius Pilate and the Jews! No! This is a fake! Cannot be
otherwise! However, as Meier (1991) argued, Jesus was only a "marginal Jew", who started an
initially marginal movement in a marginal region of the vast Roman Empire, and one may
even be surprised to find any historical reporting about him at all. Josephus wrote on two
other "marginal Jews": John the Baptist and James/Iakobos, 'the brother of Jesus',
but we should realize that the reason for all three these reports is not the personal historical
importance of these individuals, but because of the religious/political significance of the situations
in which they became involved: all three were executed while being innocent of what crime
whatsoever. Moreover, their innocent deaths were, directly or indirectly, the result of actions taken
by leading Jews: the High priests in case of Jesus and James, and king Herodes Agrippa in
case of John.Personally I guess that by this reporting Josephus wanted actually to expose
the decline of religious morals of his beloved Judaism, while blaming those Jews in charge,
who willingly cooperated with the heathen enemy. Crossan (1995) by way of thought
experiment supposed that if the High Priest and Pilate had fixed agreements over swift and
decisive action against any ripple in the Temple public order at Passover, any execution would
not have taken consent from high commanders, and no trial before these whatsoever. This may
precisely have been the reason why Jesus was executed.
Another argument why the whole of the Jesus Testimonium would be a later insertion is about
context: the Jesus passage would totally sever the flow and content of the chapter
and by consequence would be totally out of place and thus a later insertion.
Although a scholarly refutation against arguments of context, flow or style was delivered by
Martin (1941), these arguments have been repeated until today.
My own idea is that we should consider that first of all, the passage is NOT about any
significance of Jesus at all which, secondly, will lead us to yet another conclusion which
invalidates the argument of context!
Let's see: what is Josephus listing what in his eyes was of historical importance to record?
In chapter 3 he is reporting about activities of Pontius Pilate that
caused ‘sedition’ among the Jews. Now the first upheaval Josephus writes about is
that “Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Cesarea to Jerusalem, to take
the winter quarters there, in order to abolish the Jewish laws…” With the army, and by night,
Pilate brought standards with him into the holy city with heathen images on them, which outraged
the Jews, who protested “in multitudes” in Cesarea, which made Pilate eventually to decide to
remove the standards back to Cesarea. One may wonder whether the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem,
headed by the High Priest , had been informed by Pilate about his intentions; in any case,
Josephus does not mention any protest of the High Priest against Pilate’s acts. It was
“the multitudes” of common people that did. The second calamity, in which many Jews were killed,
had to do with a mass protest against Pilate confiscating Temple money to finance the
construction of an aqueduct. Pilate sent armed, undercover soldiers who killed many among
the masses of rioting Jews. One might object that the protest was totally out of place as the water
would have supplied the Temple, which for its services required lots and lots of water, but that
is not the point! Let us skip for a moment the third issue Josephus reports, which is the
Testimonium, and go to the fourth issue, which starts with: “about the same time also another
sad calamity put the Jews into disorder; and certain shameful practices happened about the
temple of Isis that was in Rome……” However, nothing is mentioned of any calamity among the
Jews, but the story seems to stress the shamefulness of what happened at a temple in Rome.
It would take too long to re-tell the story here, but in the end, the emperor Tiberius had the
Isis temple destroyed and its priesthood crucified for their shameful behavior. No mentioning
of anything Jewish in this number 4 passage!
Issue 5 in Josephus’ list is again something that had to do with an act of shameful behavior
taking place in Rome, this time involving four Jewish men, who made a Roman lady
of “great dignity” to donate money to the Jerusalem Temple, but who confiscated her gifts
to their own use. Eventually, when the emperor Tiberius came to know of the story, he
ordered “all the Jews to be banished out of Rome;…..” , and Josephus concludes: “due to
the shameful conduct of only four men”.
Now, those who consider as binding element in Josephus’ chapter 3 the reporting of five similar
happenings or stories with a common underlying subject, should be consequent and conclude
that if the Testimonium does not belong here, story number 4 should even less so! Number
4 has nothing to do with the Jews neither with Pilate, whereas number 5 also has nothing
to do with the Judean procurator! However, story 4 is about shameful behavior of a priesthood
running a temple! It was so shameful, that the priests were crucified and the temple destroyed! Nevertheless, Josephus starts the passage as if it is about yet “another sad calamity” that
“put the Jews in disorder”. I think Josephus, under the cover of reporting historical events,
vehemently criticizes the Jewish Temple priests and condemns them of shameful behavior, but
from a Jewish perspective! The “sad calamity” is the Jerusalem Temple
priesthood acting shamefully towards their own people. In story number 1 we do not hear of
any official protest by the priesthood or High Priest Caiaphas, and probably because they
agreed with Pilate’s action, not to harm their own position towards the Roman occupier. The
victims of Pilate’s actions were without doubt Jews most of the time, and it cannot be otherwise
than that Caiaphas in fact accepted such actions without contradiction, the consequence of
which must have been that the High Priest was hated by the people outside the priestly
caste, who must have considered him as a mere traitor of the Jewish case, the more so since the
High Priest did not object to Pilate actions which demonstrated no more than contempt for Jewish
religious sentiments. It was a “stern resistance” by a multitude of masses that had Pilate
change his mind at his attempt to introduce standards with the imperial image into Jerusalem,
and not any diplomacy by Caiaphas that we know of. Pilate, in contrast to the governors
preceding him, struck coins with pagan symbols on them, in no way accounting for any Jewish
religious feelings. We may perhaps induce a conclusion from silence as to Caiaphas: he again
undertook nothing to forestall it. Also in the case of the Temple money for the aqueduct we
know of no protest whatsoever by the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas against Pilate’s
sacrilege (Safrai et al.,1974).
Some state that the introduction of passage 4 refers to passage number 2, but it does not!
It has exactly passage 3 as reference: Josephus in passage 3 gives an example of how
shameful the behavior of the Jerusalem priesthood, and Caiaphas in particular, in fact was:
The outrage concerns the behavior of the Jewish leaders, who betrayed a Jewish "wise man” who
harmed no one and acted completely without any political or religious significance whatsoever!
The whole passage is a shrewd way to expose the “shameful behavior” toward the Jewish people
of the Caiaphas administration: it looks like a minor passage about just another, although cruel, but historically insignificant Pilate activity. However, in fact Josephus presents a thundering silence
about something quite different, which is of far greater historical significance than the
crucifixion of a wandering Galilean teacher who accidently was at the wrong time at the wrong place.
Josephus exposes the betrayal of the Jewish social, political and religious values by the very
leaders, which he demonstrates with the Jesus story as a useful example.
This was “the woe which had befallen the Jews”, and the Testimonium is a distressing and
distinctive example of the point Josephus is making! Josephus’ outrage is precisely aimed at
“the leading men among us”, but for reasons of his own preference and safety,
he resorts to surreptitious language. Josephus was reluctant to hurt the feelings of the
Roman officials, which also might have become hostile towards him had he offended
those of his own people who collaborated with them, such as the Sanhedrin and especially
the High Priest, and which, in Josephus’ Jewish eyes, severely neglected
Jewish interests and sentiments. This interpretation is in line with what Flüsser (2001)
states, where he suggests that the Pharisees saw the act of extraditing a fellow Jew to
the heathen, Roman oppressor as a deed of priestly despotism, apart from the fact that
any such act was generally regarded as a major crime. As Josephus remained deeply devoted
to Judaism (Bond, 2004), as an historian he could likely not just pass over a shameless defilement
of political-religious standards, especially not if the perpetrators were those
who in fact were held as the very protectors of these standards. A general animosity between the
priestly clan and the people may be concluded from Josephus, as at various places in his
reports he held the Sadducees "more heartless than any other Jews when they sit in
judgment" (citation from Bond, 2004).
Safrai et al. (1974) mention that the Roman Judean governor Valerius Gratus (15-26 C.E.) had
appointed Joseph Caiaphas as high priest who served from 18-36 C.E., so also under Gratus’
successor, Pontius Pilate (26-36 C.E.). The appointment of the High Priest had been a political
appointment, ever since Herod the Great sacked the High Priest families stemming from the highly esteemed House of Zadok. Caiaphas’ long term as high priest was most likely due
to his smooth cooperation with the Roman governors, despite the fact that during Pilate’s
governorship/prefecture the relations between Jews and Romans deteriorated significantly
(Safrai et al.,1974). Pontius Pilate emerged from these troubles as a “harsh and unbending
ruler….difficult to appease…..bribery…insults…. robberies and frequent executions without trial…”
Nevertheless, he kept good relations with the High Priest, whose duty it was to keep the peace
among his own people, in Jerusalem and especially in and around the Temple complex
(Fredriksen, 2000; Bond, 2012). As the Jews were hard to rule, one can imagine that the means
necessarily to be employed by the High Priest did not exactly make him popular among his own
people, the more so since Caiaphas was rather successful in keeping the peace for a long time.
Therefore, we may infer that Caiaphas not merely refrained from any protest against the harsh
ruling of Pilate, but in fact endorsed it himself in full cooperation with the Roman governor.
Crossan (1995) also presumed close cooperation between the two.
One may argue that the way the High Priest exerted his duties was only to benefit the Jews, as
absence of "law and order" would certainly have made the Romans exercise more often their
cruel maintenance of it. Moreover, the city and the country needed stability!
However, this is not the point, and could well be taken as a traitors' rationalization in favor of
their own position; the people saw it quite otherwise as they could not abide with such compromise.
Besides, many were of the opinion that the Temple system had grown corrupt and opposed the
priests while holding an apocalyptic mood, expecting God to come and destroy the system
in order to establish a totally new order (Ehrman, 2012). Obviously, the priestly caste and the Roman
occupants held a mutual benefit from "keeping the peace" at all costs.
Now when later on Pilate fell into disgrace with the Syrian Roman governor who held Pilate
accountable for troubles in the Samaria district and sent him to the emperor in Rome (36 CE),
the first thing Pilate’s successor Vitellius in attempting to restore confidence in Roman rule
was removing Caiaphas ,“the loyal ally of Pilate” (Safrai et al.,1974), as High Priest, which may well illustrate how the Jewish people felt about their religious leader, and how close to a popular
upraise he had brought them in the eyes of the Romans! By a number of causes, one was a harsh
rule over the Temple and the people, prestige of the priesthood had been on the decline in those
days, and Talmud origins let us know that the people spoke in “angry, mocking an defiant terms
about the Temple priesthood” (Safrai et al.,1974). Meier (1991) takes a sentence in Josephus' report
on the James' case, as referring to the High Priest Ananus who had James executed, as a "heartless Sadducee". Josephus' report on James' death thus also exposes the Jewish highest rulers at that time
as religiously and politically (which were considered identical at that time) corrupt. Meier (1991)
says that Josephus "is interested in the illegal behavior of Ananus, not the faith and virtue of James".
And although Josephus was a Jew from the priestly caste, he was not particularly fond of his
caste, as Meier (1991) writes: "Also telling is the swipe at the "heartless" or "ruthless"
Sadducees by the pro-Pharisaic Josephus; indeed, Josephus' more negative view of the Sadducees
is one of notable shifts from The Jewish War that characterize The Antiquities". Von Bammel
(1974) characterized Josephus as an apologetic Jew, always trying to defend the Jewish'
interests, and I guess that as a Pharisee his sympathies remained rather with the political and religious
sentiments of the Jewish masses than that of their Pharisaic leaders. Gutschmid (1893)
wrote concerning Jesus' process: “Es ist bekannt, dass die orthodoxen Pharisaer die harten
Strafen, welche im Gesetz vorgeschrieben sind, durch Auslegung zu mildern suchten
(vgl. auch Gamaliel). Josephos muss die Sache als ein hochst unliebsames Ereigniss
Obviously, although in veiled language, Josephus could not resist alleging the behavior of the
Jerusalem priesthood of those days as an important, historically relevant state of affairs, and
that is in my view exactly what his Antiquities 18.3. is all about!
Writing in Rome, Josephus could not do otherwise than hide his disdain for his employer,
which at the time of his writings was likely the emperor Domitian, a man known for his harsh
treatment of opponents, which included the Christians of those day, who he cruelly persecuted.
It is obvious that under such patronage Josephus could not openly incriminate those who had
executed the founder of this Christian movement!
As another argument against authenticity of the Testimonium some point out (Doherty,2009;
Mason, 1992, cited in http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/testimonium.html) that Josephus
would never have mentioned an agitator, popular would-be messiah, or someone who would
possibly threaten Roman rule, because “the writer desired to flatter the Romans and gain their
good graces. To do this he expunged from the picture he drew everything likely to offend or to
excite their apprehension” (Goguel,1926, cited in http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/testimonium.
html ). However, there is nothing in Josephus’ text that indicates that Jesus was an agitator, on the
contrary: “a wise man”, a teacher of “wisdom”, an expression which may rather be seen as
underlining the distinctive status of the man who felt so distressingly victim to the whims
of the High Priests’ policy. By using these words Josephus is effectively creating an increasing
feeling of disdain towards the leaders, who not just had an insignificant peasant condemned
by the Romans, but a man who was held in high regard by Jewish people! The picture of Jesus
acting as a Jewish political activist, who could pose a threat to the Roman case is rather
questionable, in any case. If Pilate had considered Jesus like this, why was no one of Jesus’
followers taken into custody or killed with him? The answer is clear: Jesus and neither those
with him posed any threat in Pilate’s view.
The Josephus testimony does not portray Jesus as an agitator convicted as a rebel. However,
the argument has most of the time been turned upside-down: because he was crucified by the
Romans, he must have been acting as a rebel. The argument that Jesus was crucified as a political
agitator because he posed a potential thread since the masses received him as the apocalyptic
Hebrew king (Fredriksen, 2000, e.g.) seems unlikely to me (found Ehrman, 2012, of the same opinion),
as the Romans would probably have had Jesus killed before the end of his donkey ride and the
masses cruelly dispersed by lethal means – this did not happen. The same holds for the Temple
cleansing story: Jesus would certainly have been interrupted on the spot through lethal interference
by the abundantly present Temple police, all was it only to prevent the watching Roman soldiers come down from the stoa roofs and desecrate the area. So, what really did eventually kill Jesus?
Many books, chapters and papers have been written on the question why Jesus was actually
crucified, witnessing the fact that it remains an elusive issue to solve. I would figure that many
obscure political decisions are the result of secret, personal deals from which both parties profit
at the expense of a third, mostly a rather innocent one, whereas the real reasons for such murky
decisions are kept craftily hidden. Therefore, Pilate may have had no specific reason to have
this teacher of the truth crucified, and maybe even the High Priest clan really hadn’t except for
some minor, religiously inflicted irritation (from the Markan Gospel we can read that Jesus’ death
was eventually due to resentment about how his teachings and way of life opposed the traditional
religious values, which might have been felt as a threat to the priestly position. However, Jesus’
presence in Jerusalem might well have been far too insignificant to provoke anything like that) .
Maybe Jesus happened to be just at the wrong time (the Passover) at the wrong place (the Temple),
just peacefully talking to people, although the nature of his talk might possibly not have amused
the priesthood, which would certainly have been informed by the many Temple police around,
who fearfully regarded every kind of people assembly as a potential riot which could potentially
result in a devastating and desecrating Roman interference. It would not have been the
first time at Passover! And if the gospel story about the exchange of Jesus for the rebel
leader Bar-Abas contains some truth, this might just be what actually happened: the people
demanded the release of a favorite rebel Jew, although likely not by means of a shouting crowd,
but by quietly presenting their demands to the prefect by means of the High Priest.
And the only way the High Priest could mitigate this claim away from developing into possible
public unrest was to convince Pilate to release the man, and in exchange, while allaying the
sentiments of the blood-thirsty Pilate (who just might have had Bar-Abas’ crucifixion in mind as
deterrent and sign of zero tolerance to sedition during the Passover), he offered
him Jesus – who in Jerusalem would make a fuss about a dead peasant from Galilee anyway?
"Besides, handing over a prisoner would store up good relations with the governor and might
prove useful as a negotiating tool at a later date" (Bond, 2012) - so, a game of politics!
And in case the Bar-Abas story is just a case of false remembering by the gospel writer, and
perhaps no one else happened to be on the Roman death role as a Jewish political agitator,
Pilate would have been more than happy with the offered opportunity to erect his cruel deterrent
anyway. This would explain why Jesus was not stealthily murdered by those who resented him for whatever reason. Fredriksen (2000) states that the High Priesthood in those days had “excellent
working relations with whatever prefect was in power. If they decided they wanted Jesus out of
the way, Pilate may indeed have been perfectly happy to oblige”. Flüsser (1984) mentions that accommodation towards Jewish popular demands was not something totally unusual, as Pilate
shrewdly chose to give in on two earlier occasions. However, Flüsser does not report which
occasions but likely refers to the stories about the Jerusalem standards and the shields, which
Pilate removed to mitigate the Jewish anti-Roman sentiments.
The Sanhedrin, which can be seen as kind of the Jewish national governmental body, was
allowed to handle many things autonomously and independent from the Roman administration.
However, capital punishment was an exception, even when it concerned anything purely as
cardinal sin merely under Jewish law. However, the death penalty could be sentenced by the
Sanhedrin, which then needed the authorization of the Roman governor for its execution. At least,
this was the situation at the time of Pontius Pilate. That sometimes the High Priest indeed did
condemn someone to death, is illustrated by Josephus' reporting about the case of James,
the brother of Jesus, who, in the absence of a reigning prefect, was killed directly at the
High Priest's command. Therefore, in the case of Jesus: being
found guilty in the eyes of the High Priest/Sanhedrin of a capital crime, a death sentence execution
would still have needed the approval of Pilate as Roman governor, as was reported by the
gospels and Josephus (Safrai,1974). So, it may all have been just a murky deal between
the Hebrew High Priest and the Roman prefect. Bond (2012) argues that the existence of a
Sanhedrin in those days is in fact rather questionable, and it was most likely, therefore, that the
High Priest could pass a death sentence all by himself, but its execution was formerly up to
the Roman prefect (Safrai et al. 1974).
Therefore, although embellished by later Christian writers, the Testimonium in its original
form is most likely a product of Josephus’ pen, and even the sentence “those that loved him at
the first did not forsake him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to
this day", is likely authentic, as it additionally stresses the historical importance of
Josephus’ message: the “wise man” indeed had some historical significance as at the time
of Josephus writing, Christianity indeed had gained a certain political/religious/social,
and therefore historical, significance.
In conclusion then: the first two stories in Josephus third chapter are both reports of
"sad calamities" that "put the Jews into disorder". Story 4 and 5 serve as sources which,
in an allegorical way, illustrate why the third passage indeed is
another such “sad calamity”. The final sentence of the fifth story e.g. : which states that the
Jewish calamity in Rome was “due to the shameful conduct of only four men”,
points at the similarity in Jerusalem where also the shameful conduct of
a limited number of people, the High Priesthood clan, was the cause of
an historic calamity as the Jewish interests of many were squandered for personal profit by few.
Also, the fourth story's main elements being a temple with a shameful priesthood
functions as a simile to the situation in Jerusalem.
Josephus’ judgment of “sad calamities” may have included his agreement with the Roman blame on the religious leaders of Israel not to have been willing or capable to prevent the Jewish insurrection that ultimately lead to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Romans.
The Testimonium can, therefore, rightfully be considered as an independent
and objective attestation of the historical Jesus!
(so far latest correction on 09-04-2018)
How did ‘Thomas’ come about?
Jesus taught by speaking to hearers around him; he never wrote anything down.
As he moved around in the Galilean countryside he likely repeated his message at different
occasions to different hearers, but the way he phrased it may not have been literary identical
all the time. In fact, we can safely assume that it was not. However, there is one thing we
may be sure of: what he meant or intended did not vary between occasions!
The words of Jesus as we know them may not have been written down earlier than decades
after his death, but the exact timing escapes our knowledge. So, what Jesus 'exactly' said
we will never know; not only may different hearers at different times have heard different
phrasings, but memory is a fickle instrument. Moreover, when Jesus’ words were actually
written down for the first time, it was likely done so by a number of different people holding
different views by themselves and having different intentions, which influenced the phrasing
of what they thought they heard Jesus say a long time ago. In addition, later copying and
translating entailed again an attack on the original phrasing. Finally, they ended up not as words
of Jesus, but in stories about Jesus, which delivered the final blow to the words as the
master had spoken them himself. Moreover, his words and the stories about him were
oftentimes simply ‘adapted’, or plainly made up to serve people’s own ideas and intentions.
Without doubt, Thomas also fell victim to such transformation, but likely far less than
the other ‘gospels’.
Nowadays we know quite a lot about how the original Jesus’ sayings found their way
from oral teaching to the classical Jesus gospels. However, how these sayings were written
down the first time, we don’t know exactly, but one could easily imaging how it must have
started, and which would more or less guarantee that they, once written down,
remained very close to Jesus’ original meaning.
Therefore, a fantasy, which may be totally wrong:
Jesus’ closest followers came from a peasant background and were the most destitute
people: wandering beggars, the ‘impure’, ‘sinner’ with whom a ‘decent’
Jew would not associate.
During a number of decades following Jesus’ death, we may conclude from their persistent
itinerant life style that these followers were still full of the words they themselves had heard
as spoken by the historical Jesus. (These two sentences are no fiction, the fantasy starts here:)
one can imagine that, when the members of some
group – and there may have been several of such groups – grew older, they realized
that what they held most dearly would vanish into oblivion with their own immanent death.
Despite the current tradition of oral transfer they might have worried about
preserving the master's teachings for posterity, as their numbers might not have
been encouraging. So, together they decided to try and convince supporting
householders to supply some money, and had the village scribe note down the words of
Jesus as they remembered them. As the funds were limited, the group had to prioritize
among all the sayings they might have remembered and had to come to an agreement on the
most pithy phrasing.
From such process we may assume that the original meaning of Jesus’ message, by which
those who had it written down actually lived their daily lives, was closely preserved, at
least in the primal texts. When the old wanderers had paid the scribe and departed, they
had an unstructured list of what they considered the most valuable of Jesus’ sayings as
they as a group remembered them and had agreed upon. Did the list contain all that
Jesus had ever said? Of course not, but fortunately there were different groups
which eventually supplied different lists, partially overlapping, partially differing.
At least, something of this kind might have occurred..........
Do we possess such original lists? Of course not, but modern methods of analysis of later
copies and translations may today have come very close to such ideal, although there
remains disagreement between scholars. The early phase in which several of such
'saying gospels' were about is referred to as 'the common sayings tradition'. This does
not mean that the saying collections were identical, but that they came from the same
primary source: likely from those who had heard Jesus’ words themselves. There are
differences and overlaps between different saying collections, such as the gospel of Thomas
and the so-called Q gospel which was used as a source by Mathew and Luke, for example,
whereas Mark seems to have had access to an additional source. However, one should
realize again that with time going by and circumstances changing, the sayings were
adapted and re-adapted to serve the purpose of those who felt it as their authentic duty to
convey Jesus’ message as they felt fit for their actual circumstances. This was a process
that went on for ages! Fortunately, modern analysis of the so-called layering of the saying
gospels allow us to arrive as close to the original source as possible.
Most scholars agree that the way the sayings are phrased bears witness to an ingenious mind.
The more 'primitive' the sayings are, the more extraordinary brilliant is their phrasing,
an observation which argues in favor of the relationship between ‘primitive’ and ‘early’.
However, this ingenuity is not restricted to the linguistic, rhetoric and allegoric aspects of the
sayings, as they also demonstrate the presence of a profound psychological insight,
knowledge of scripture, a keen eye for the world around, and philosophical mastery.
As Jesus was born into a peasant background, where did he get all this from, if not from
a dedicated and long-term education in such matters? Without doubt he was a gifted person
in the first place, but we can hardly escape the conclusion that he must have followed a
long-term training during the years of his life about which we are ignorant, and theories
abound about where he went and what he did (Essenes? Flüsser, 2001).
The way Thomas presents Jesus’ teachings makes one thing also very sure: it is
something rather alien to what was current in ancient Palestine, which strongly suggests that
he was influenced by unconventional ideas and methods, if not having been trained in
these for some time. Moreover, he not merely delivered a spoken message, he lived his
message, his whole existence was one with his message, a condition only to be attained
by profound training of considerable duration.
One scholarly view holds Jesus initially as a follower of John the Baptist.
However, although Jesus likely spent some time with John, this was perhaps mainly
because of the lifestyle they held in common, whereas one can hardly imaging that
considering the profound differences in John's and Jesus' message and the way both
expressed it, that it was John the Baptist who must be regarded as ultimately responsible
for Jesus' education. Moreover, the duration of such association would have been far too short
to achieve who Jesus was when he started his ministry. Such idea only satisfies when for
some reason or another one refuses to investigate, let alone eventually accept, any
'outside' influences on the historical Jesus. Also, the assumption that Jesus had a kind of
'instant enlightenment' experience as a follower of the Hebrew mystical tradition, may
explain the 'spiritual' side of his multi-faceted personality,
but leaves much else unanswered.
Thomas calls himself(?) Jesus’ “twin” brother. This was not to say that he was a biological
brother of Jesus, he was not, but to indicate that in his way of thinking, and concerning his
understanding, he was quite similar to Jesus. The Thomas’ collection contains
some sayings which explicitly suggest that in fact Thomas was the only one around Jesus
who really understood him. However, these particular sayings are likely later additions and
a move of a 'Thomas group' to claim superiority over others, despite the fact that such twist
would have been rather against the grain of the Thomas message. Or could there be some
truth in it, in that there was a special relationship between Thomas and Jesus, such as a
joint long-term training in the same milieu? That Thomas went to India some time after
Jesus’ death seems to be almost certain, and one wonders whether that was a return for
Thomas, having been there before together with his 'twin brother Jesus'?
This is a question that cannot be answered by historical data, but is interesting as an
hypothesis (which then has to be made as a statement: Jesus was trained in India before he
started to act as a teacher in Palestine. However, there is a more acceptable
hypothesis than this one).
It is ironic that Jesus’ 'wisdom' – a word likely not to exhaust the nature of his teachings – has
ever since his words had been entrusted to paper been the subject of abuse. It was the
very corruption of his sayings in combination with a shrewd notion of the effects his words had on
people, that made that 'wrong hands' took use of Jesus’ message to manipulate many, but
mainly those whose cause Jesus had primarily defended: the poor, powerless, innocent,
vulnerable, guileless and destitute. Texts that could be used against such tyranny of the
so-called orthodoxy were anathematized, confiscated and burned.
The Thomas gospel was such text, but it escaped not only its intended annihilation but
also its annexation by conventional Christianity. Therefore, it has remained fresh as ever
when it re-appeared after almost two-thousand years from having laid buried in the
Egyptian dessert sand!
So now we have arrived rather close to various sets of Jesus’ original
sayings, do these sayings still hold any significance for us today,
and if so, what is it?
This passage in Unlocking the Secrets of the Gospel according to Thomas (Hedrick, 2010)
may come close to an answer:
in one sense there are as many meanings as there are readers willing to assign a meaning
to a given saying, and, there is no one authoritative explanation for these sayings - nor was
Here, I offer my layman's meaning, which, although subjective, I have tried to test
against interpretations of others. I hope it may be helpful to someone
trying to find her/his own significance in these sayings.
any constructive suggestions are highly welcomed.