if you want to experience what he meant
(latest update: 24-11-2018)
What might a layman do with all that scholarly Jesus information ?
And who would be interested in Thomas-Jesus' sayings?
Perhaps the rare loner who lost all connection with irrational creeds, dogma’s,
rules, rites and rituals as promulgated by churches, communities, sects or groups of
whatever sort, and who is proud to be a rational being, but open to a kind of personal
spirituality with or without the wish to fundamentally break away from
an eventual Christian, or whatever, tradition.
A shortcut: Thomas Jesus' sayings comply with human rationality!
If God (however imagined) exists (we come to the concept of God below), one of the most
wonderful things He bestowed upon the human race is the gift of rationality, at least, that is
my personal understanding. That we often misuse this capacity does not invalidate this view,
but points to the fact that man is driven by various other things. I could agree with
Kitarō Nishida (1921): reason is the basic faculty that should control our spirit, and the
satisfaction of reason is our highest good. It can thus be said that human good is to follow reason.
In any case, holding this view one cannot at the
same time adhere to all kind of irrationalities solely on the ground that
without them religion would lose its backbone, as many assert – “no religion without belief”,
where in the sphere of ‘belief’ all things rational should be put aside. To me such view
seems an ungrateful undervaluation of our Benefactor (however imagined), while the
proposition that religiosity or spirituality cannot be upheld in the face of being
rational is nonsensical and unnecessary! Faith that conflicts with knowledge cannot become
the basis of life (Kitarō Nishida,1921). Therefore, I agree with what BH Streeter (1932) wrote:
....the thing that matters is, not what religions teach, but how much of it is true.
The Gospel of Thomas is fully compatible with the combination of man's reason and his leaning
towards spirituality (however imagined). What’s more, all the usual conditional irrationalities of
traditional belief are conspicuous by their absence in this gospel! In this sense, Thomas
resembles an aspect of the teachings of the Buddha about which Streeter (1932) remarked: ....agnosticism.....in regard ..... to metaphysical speculation.
It is actually amazing that nowhere in his teachings Jesus has the need for adding
force of argument by invoking supernatural forces; rather contrary to what was
usual in that era (and has ever been, up until today, by the way!) – one has only to
remember the many Biblical stories in the Old as well as the New Testament.
Thomas is completely void of it!
The Buddha was also opposed to invoke the supernatural, and rather took the Pyrrhonal stance.
When asked about it he refrained from answering such pointless questions.
Later gospel writers, especially Mark, stuffed their narratives with the most fantastic
Jesus also never ascribes super-natural properties to neither himself nor the kingdom.
This suggests that where he mentioned 'God' or 'Father' he did only do so because his
hearers were unable to imaging anything else 'religious' or 'spiritual', and in that way created
a certain frame of mind in his hearers.
Themes absent in Thomas:
The message in the sayings by Thomas’ Jesus has another great advantage: it does not
have to be discussed with others – you might, but you probably see no use in that at all,
it does not have anything that requires consensus on, no necessity to state or confess
your personal conviction, because there is nothing to ‘believe’, because ‘believing’ is
no issue in Thomas. Things are completely different! And yet, they are inferred from
sayings that come quite a lot closer to having being authentically spoken by the historical
Jesus than what we commonly read in the Bible! You don’t believe that? Well, you
shouldn’t, because you should see for yourself, or, in the vein of Thomas’ Jesus I better
say “seek for yourself”!
By the way, it was Orphism that introduced the idea of original sin, and the dualistic
nature of man in terms of titanic elements closely associated with the body, and the
dionysiac elements which were allied with the soul. It also made the salvation of the individual
soul of first importance, which could be achieved by living the Orphic life is ascesis from
the world - Angus, 1924. Obviously, Thomas' Jesus did not follow this dualistic thinking of a
'foul' body in need of purification to reach a state of spiritual cleanness, and although he was
a wandering beggar, he had by far no such purpose in mind. On the contrary, he preached not
to worry about one's body, not because it was sinful and worthless, but because it would be
provided for. The idea of an evil body in need of redemption may even be older, as in the
Egyptian Papyrus of Ani - Egyptian Book of the Dead - dating back at least to ca. 1550 BCE,
one reads - and I assume the translation is not
dualistically biased -
….I have got rid of my evil
I have discarded my wrongdoing
I have cast to the ground the ills
which were on my flesh.
O you keepers of the gate,
make way for me,
for I am one like you.
meaning: I have now become like the gods.
Concerning baptism, we may remark the following: various scholars hold it as an historical fact
that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. If indeed so, one might just wonder why Jesus
consequently abstained from following this symbolically powerful and fundamental practice himself,
which would have been the most obvious sign that he indeed was a follower of John had he
practiced it. But he didn't! And it is not only Thomas who is silent about any such practice
by Jesus. Dunn (2003) speaks of the even more 'thunderous silence' in the Gospels regarding any
practice of baptism by Jesus. And: the complete silence of the Synoptic tradition regarding Jesus' continued baptismal practice is quite simply baffling. And: we have little choice but to conclude
that Jesus himself did not baptize during the bulk of his mission, that is, the mission recorded
by the Synoptic Evangelists. Therefore, one may seriously wonder whether Jesus in any way
can be seen as a follower of John the Baptist. In any case, baptism is not a thing that can be
traced back ever having been practiced or instigated by Jesus, which also, in my view, casts
considerable doubt on the baptism of Jesus himself.
The "layering" of Thomas.
Most scholars argue for a rather early date for the construction of Thomas, even earlier than the
Gospel of Mark, some dating it back as early as about 30 CE. However, not everyone agrees,
although personally I hold the arguments in favor of an early dating more convincing than those
that favor a late one. The study of Goodacre (2012) for example, although seemingly consistently academic, holds a firm a priory superiority of the synoptic gospels in content and timing of
construction (very late), a bias against Thomas as ”self-consciously” aiming at being “secret”
and “enigmatic”, mixing up similarity with one-directional causality, and often using rather
suggestive, belittling and deprecating language, unfit to an academic. Goodacre says he accounts
for a layering in time of Thomas, as argued by DeConick (2005) for example, but mixes-up more
original sayings with later additional material, using later additions to date all of Thomas,
including earlier sayings.
Key examples which Goodacre uses to argue in favor of an issue in general are in fact
obvious exceptions! An example: Matthew’s us of “the kingdom of heaven” is so uniquely Matthew,
that Thomas using “the kingdom of heaven” must have copied it from Matthew. Now , if we keep
Goodacre to his commitment to a layering by “kernel” and later sayings as, according to the author
it does not matter if one accounts for such layering or not, I count Thomas using
“the kingdom of heaven” as only once (saying 54), whereas Thomas uses just “the kingdom”
six times, “kingdom of the father” five times, and “kingdom of my father” one time. So, Thomas
uses the same expression as Matthew only once out of thirteen times he mentions “the kingdom”.
This one out of thirteen in itself makes Goodacre’s argument rather weak if not totally falsifying it.
But furthermore, Matthew’s use of the expression “kingdom of heaven” is far from unique,
as he also uses “kingdom of God " 19 times. So, Matthew uses “of heaven” (or the heavens)
in 63 percent of the case, while Thomas only 8 percent!
And this should count as an argument that Thomas’ use of his kingdom expression is copied from Matthew? Not a very convincing argumentation after all. But what is more: the author should have explained the 12 other cases of Thomas’ kingdom expression, but he didn’t. Comes to it that one
should realize that Matthew’s expression of “ the kingdom of heaven” is “so characteristic”
of Matthew only in comparison with the other two synoptic gospels! Such type of argumentation is
not convincing, and one could just as well a priory state that Matthew rather borrowed from Thomas
than the other way around – or more likely even: they had a common source. After all, there was
just one source they had in common: the words of Jesus of Nazareth!
By the way: holding Thomas as "secret" or "enigmatic" may rather stem from
a biased or pre-occupied mind which, trying to "explain" Thomas, clings to
subjective and personal ideas about religious reality, and tells us more about someone's
personal belief system and other interests than about Thomas' Jesus!
Some scholars take the fact that Thomas' Jesus is not eschatological as indicating that Thomas
is a rather late composition: after 70 CE the early eschatological expectations had not been fulfilled, whereas the destruction of the Temple did not denote the fulfilling of the expectation that God
Himself would, following the destruction, build a new Temple and new Jerusalem as a start of His
Kingdom on earth. However, the most primitive level of the hypothetical Q document may on
the same ground be considered as late, a conclusion which no sensible scholar would maintain.
The earliest part of Q is rather of sapential character as is Thomas' earliest layer, but in these
sapential sayings of Q there is already a strong constructive element apparent which probably
was used “to provide persuasive and seemingly impartial guidance on delicate matters of
potential (or actual) conflict in the early Christian communities (Piper 1989). Piper even goes as
far as to conclude that the “compositional style” the Q-collections of aphorisms “does not
suggest the spontaneous creation of a preacher’, but rather implies “a studies approach
and method”. Thomas lacks such clear constructive character and may, therefore, not only
be earlier than the composition of the Q document, but also closer to original sayings of
the historical Jesus.
Later on, rather gnostic additions gave it its gnostic taste when we neglect to differentiate
any layering but rather consider Thomas as carrying a unitary, rather gnostic, and therefore late,
message.If Ehrman's (2012) conclusion is right, in that "Jesus become(s) increasingly
miraculous with the passing of time", this would serve as an argument in favor of an early
date for Thomas' composition, as there are no miracles in Thomas at all! Robinson
(Robinson and Koester, 1971) agrees with Quispel’s idea that Thomas represents an early,
independent, Aramaic tradition.
Patterson (1993) and Arnal (1995) suggested a layering of Thomas as a reflection of
developments over time. An identification of those saying that likely belong to an earliest
stratum was carried out by DeConick (2005).
Comments on this site are on those Thomas' sayings which are indicated as 'kernel sayings’,
meaning that they belong to the earliest stratum, going back to 30-50 CE, according to DeConick
(2006). The method she used was based on content criticism, whereas Crossan based his
temporal stratification of the sayings on the frequency of independent attestations in other texts (Crossan,1992). Consequently, sayings without such independent' attestation were not even
considered as possibly early in Crossan's approach. Of the 77 DeConick kernel sayings, 14 did not
fulfill Crossan's criteria of at least double independent attestation. However, as Thomas
developed independently from other early Jesus traditions, absence of Thomas’ sayings
elsewhere may not be taken to falsify a stratification based on content criteria. On the other
hand Crossan's method may be used to falsify denying some sayings as early
by content criteria - if a Thomas' saying was already also mentioned early elsewhere,
it is likely also early in Thomas.
There are seven (37 and 52, and 12, 13, 51, 104 and 113 in part) such sayings. However,
the problem is that the phrasing in the different sources may vary substantially, whereas
later additions to individual sayings in such case can never be excluded. (Only the question
part in 13 may be early, whereas just because of the question's phrasing DeConick did not
include this saying altogether into the kernel; furthermore, 51 and 113 have a similar meaning
as saying-3, whereas in the case of 12, 13, 37, 52 and 104 I follow DeConick 's argumentation
to exclude these as early). DeConick's (2006) kernel sayings are derived from at least five
speeches of Jesus, whereas every Thomas' saying that has a parallel in Q is in this kernel, and the
same goes for the Pseudo-Clementines and Tiatian's Diatessaron. This seems a rather
convincing validation of DeConick's methods of layering Thomas. By identifying translational
mistakes DeConick found that an Aramaic substratum underlies the kernel Thomas translation,
but a Syriac the later accretions, which further strengthens DeConick's methods.
Apart from the question which sayings are most likely authentic as originating from the
historical Jesus, trying to identify a most early layer offers another possibility: it may
facilitate a unified "interpretation".
I am not a scholar in the field of religion, nor of history, language, or any of the social sciences.
So I rely heavily on the work of others, and I will do my best to correctly cite any work I
quote from. On many an occasion I will stray from the Thomas’ path and make an
outing to various other religions or philosophies when I find it conducive to illustrate the
general validity of the sayings’ interpretation. I do so because I am convinced that Thomas’ Jesus
sayings point at a fundamental truth as various other traditions also do. In the end, I cannot but
conclude that Thomas is neither 'Jewish' as it was known back then, nor 'Christian' as we
know it now.
The translation of the sayings I used is mainly that of:
(Koestler & Lambdin,1990)
sometimes with some adaptation, which, when minor, are not followed by citation.
The interpretation of the sayings.
For many aspects of Thomas I refer to the many papers, books and websites available.
However, one should realize that when it comes to the interpretation of the sayings even
scholars differ substantially. So what the sayings eventually mean, and especially from a
personal perspective, is difficult to subtract from the literature and from various personal
opinions, including the one exposed on this site. This site is one among many sources
and it does not state it is the Truth to you. It never could be, because you have to
seek your own Truth.
Reality is a miracle, and we are only part of it, have come into existence
from it. Fundamentally we may be of similar nature, but we are not of equal nature, as
our rationality fails to fully comprehend reality. We simply cannot 'look over the rim
of our own limited reality', and we never will, because while being part of the system
we cannot behold the system from a point apart from the system.
So, why bother about Ultimate Reality when in no way we can fundamentally touch upon it?
Or could we? Thomas does not pose that question, but there is an implicit yes with
the invitation to seek, and the assurance that one will find, whereas such finding implies
an experiencing, a knowing, which differs from believing. If one wonders what it is
there is to experience, we fail to put that into words; ordinary language fails in this
respect, but perhaps we can call it the sacred (Borg, 1998), should that carry any
meaning to you. Language about the sacred could only be metaphorical (Borg, 1998).
Therefore, Jesus' sayings do not allow a true, original, authoritative, objective interpretation;
the meaning remains in large part subjective. They do not mean to convey
objective knowledge, but may work at the level of experience. The Buddha also declined to
say what he meant by Nirvana, but his most probable view was that Nirvana consists in realised
identity with the Absolute and the peace ineffable which comes therewith (Streeter, 1932).
Exchanging views with each other about ‘God’ has led people many times to horrible
behavior, whereas it cannot be conducive to anything, because such views can only
have a personal meaning and significance. In fact, it cannot be a view in the first place.
I think that as far as Thomas' Jesus uses the word God, or Father, or Light, and
the kingdom, he is purposely using words familiar to the ears of his listeners,
while he meant something completely different. Regarding the kingdom the sayings were
drawing upon notions that were already in the air and thus not completely vacuous, ...[were]
nevertheless vague and inviting rather than clear and programmatic (Mack, 1996).
Dodd (1935) stated that the kingdom in Jesus' teachings referred to the fact of present
experience, which was not congruent with the Jewish usage of the term. Therefore,
we may not take the term the kingdom in Thomas to mean what it meant according to
the usual OT interpretation at Jesus' time.
Those who judge Thomas’ sayings about the kingdom to be mysterious, secret, hidden or Gnostic (whatever they mean by that) should well realize that also the synoptic gospels
(Mark 4:11, Mathew 13:11 and Luke 8:10) speak about the mystery of the kingdom (Marcus, 1986;
Koester, 2007b). So, any definition of the concept of the kingdom, either followed or not by
of Heaven, of the Father, or of God will likely fail to express Jesus' intentions; the term
itself is just a metaphor, and, as said before, possibly a later addition (Breech 1983, Hedrick, 1994).
Perhaps Crossan's interpretation of the John gospel phrase the word became flesh - the divine
meaning of life .... incarnated in a certain human way of living, may come close, but where
Crossan sees such life as manifesting the Hebrew order of Gods righteousness, justice and
purity he may be far off what Thomas' Jesus meant (Crossan,1998). Elsewhere, however,
the same author says about the meaning of Jesus' parables: to assist people to find their
own ultimate encounter....to help others into their own experience of the Kingdom, and to
draw from that experience their own way of life...... What that experience might
be he illustrates by quoting from Hermann Hesse's Novel Siddharta, where the main character
declares that the nature of the Buddha's enlightenment cannot be communicated
in regular language. Such experience can only be referred to in poetic
language, such as Jesus did by means of his parables (Crossan, 1992b). Here, I fully agree
with Crossan. That he quotes from Buddhism to seek for clarification on the most
fundamental question regarding the interpretation of Jesus' main theme, puzzles me; what
happened to the historical-social-anthropological-archeological-linguistic modelling?
Insufficient? (one may object that Crossan's quotation from a Western writer's phantasy and
not from Buddhist literature is "second hand Buddhism", not to be taken seriously.
However, Hesse had done his homework quite well, and his phrasing
can easily be substantiated from "real" Buddhist' sources - to follow).
Crossan (1992b) also quotes from Zen Buddhism by W Barret when trying to clarify
the nature of some of Jesus' sayings, in that they work like a Zen koan, which uses an
image that lives because the image suggests the meaning beyond conceptualization. And one
cannot talk about things one cannot conceptualize, whereas a koan overcomes such hindrance.
Here, again, I fully agree with Crossan, and already we have a Jesus who technically
taught like a Zen master, while handling his message like the Buddha!? In the comments on
the sayings I come back to this point, only to offer more similarities.
So, if Jesus used teaching techniques so similar to those typical in Buddhism,
and especially its ZEN side, one cannot but wonder whether he was influenced by
Buddhist' methods, or developed these himself.
Borg lists Jesus among the wisdom teachers
such as Lao-tzu, Buddha, Socrates, who all taught enlightenment wisdom (Borg, 1998).
(Crossan makes use of still another typical Zen example and then states that he does not want to
attempt here to blur the immense differences between Jesus and Zen; but, maybe unwillingly,
that is exactly what he just did! Of course, there are immense differences, however not on a
fundamental level, as Crossan just argued in favor of similarity, and it would not sound very
convincing that after using the fundamental to illustrate the particular, the fundamental has done
its job and can be disposed of !)
Apart from his methods, what did Thomas' Jesus teach
in terms of content?
To start with, Jesus often uses the term the kingdom, but keeps silent about what it actually
represents – he just does not say! Thomas’ Jesus’ message is a sound of silence when
it comes to the nature of the kingdom. Some scholars, such as Gaza Vermes (2012) based on
the synoptic gospels alone, conclude that Jesus abstained from defining the Kingdom of God,
or the Kingdom of heaven. Elsewhere Vermes (2004) called it a somewhat nebulous reality.
However, there are two things that may bring us closer: advice on how to actualize or
realize the kingdom, and a number of things one can compare it with. The term the kingdom
may not be taken as a kind of social or mythical construct by an early group of Jesus people.
The reason is that nowhere in Thomas is the kingdom defined as to what it signifies from
the perspective of such group.
Mack (2006) states that there was in those days no such thing as a
common conception about “the” messiah or “the” kingdom to come. Charlesworth concludes
that the Princeton Symposium on the Messiah scholars agreed that there was no single,
discernible role description for a "Messiah" into which a historical figure like Jesus
could be fit , whereas there is no evidence that Jews had a common messianology
(Charlesworth & Dunn, 2010). The term "messiah" in Hebrew scripture referred to the
redeemer king or high priest, but without transcendental overtones. However, that a
figure corresponding to this last description would hopefully free Palestine from
foreign domination and establish a lasting kingdom of Israel, was a "standard common
expectation" (Crossan 2012, quoting JJ Colins' The Scepter and the Star).
Therefore, we may suppose the kingdom to be a term used by Thomas' Jesus with a
meaning related to his teachings, whereas using the term may have invoked some
arousal of familiarity in the mind of his listeners. Montefiore
and Turner (1962) note that "the normal synoptic description The Kingdom of
God is carefully avoided" in Thomas, whereas instead the kingdom or the kingdom of
the father is used. Some suggest that Jesus himself did not use the term at all,
and that it was a later addition by those who otherwise had no idea what Jesus
had meant to say (Breech 1983, Hedrick, 1994). Borg stated that Jesus used the term to subvert the
monarchial model with God as heavenly, distant Ruler (Borg, 1998).
The idea that early generations of Jesus people were involved in a serious reorientation
of social and cultural alignments, and in the light of the novel vision came up with the idea
of living the kingdom of God in this way (Mack, 1996) seems to neglect the fact that
Jesus' personal teaching of the kingdom preceded such process, whereas it is highly doubtful
whether he ever intended the kingdom to be what it later was thought to mean in social terms.
But as said: Jesus himself just might not have used the term as an introductory note
to his sayings. Meyer (1992) uses the term 'humankind' for the kingdom.
Crossan strongly favors the idea of Jesus carrying out a social program he had in mind
for his itinerant followers, by having these recruited destitute loners fed by householders
(Crossan, 1998). Crossan argues that there were quite a few of such people due to intense
rural poverty, because the nearby cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias drained lower rural
Galilee of most if not all of its food supplies. However, such hypothesis ignores the
intensive shipments of especially grain that were going on from even the most distant corners
of the Roman empire to feed its cities, and not only Rome (Cunliffe, 2008). Why should the nearby
city of Sepphoris, being a busy trading center, have been excluded from such regular trading?
Borg (1995) also notes that Sepphoris traded extensively with other parts of the Mediterranean.
Elsewhere, however, Crossan's idea of the kingdom is different, where he states that
the primary emphasis of the original Semitic term was not on the place, but the
act of God.....(1992b), a process, not a place (Crossan, 1995). So, the term may rather be
taken to refer to Divine action, manifestation, presence, power, ruling, than a royal place
where God resides (see also: Borg, 1998).
In such case, it does not refer to a worldly situation, in whatever sense. The interpretation
of the kingdom in Thomas should be looked at against such background.
Mack (1996) admits that as a social concept the kingdom idea was not worked out with
any clarity, and calls the concept a vague notion on the side of the Jesus movement.
Theissen notes that Jesus did not primarily found local communities, but called into being
a movement of wandering charismatics. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Jesus held
primarily a social program with the goal in mind to establish a kingdom on earth
where God resides, either as divine presence as in the Judaic temple cult, nor as a
manifestation of God's righteousness, justice, and purity on earth. Of course, we may call
everything that involves more than two persons to be of social nature. But even in that
case one can hardly take Jesus' individually directed message as a structured social program.
Besides, one should try to resist from framing history into concepts used in modern social
sciences as this restricts the freedom of interpretation, and may blur rather than
enhance a wider understanding of things.
So, we should be careful to interpret the kingdom concept with a bias towards the social paradigm.
Actually, the same holds true for all original sayings. It remains doubtful whether Jesus must
be seen as a religiously driven social worker with a social plan for the poor in mind
in trying to comply a social construct as a manifestation of God's justice on earth.
Besides, if that was his major aim, we may well conclude that he utterly failed in his
intentions. And if that is all he left, how can he still be seen as a figure of some importance?
Scott (1981) argues that the term kingdom should actually be taken as a symbol,
where a symbol functions to represent something that cannot be conceived of
in regular discursive thought, let alone expressed in such language, nor acknowledged in
perceptual experience. Its fundamental meaning transcends ordinary human perceptual and
conceptual abilities. Therefore, what the kingdom specifies escapes our daily comprehension,
back then and still today, which may be the very reason why the term has remained so
controversial. In reference to the kingdom Jesus made use of parables, which themselves
lack discursive meaning (Scott, 1981). But not only the parables, but perhaps most of Jesus
sayings are metaphors referring to a symbol - how complicated can it get? Expressing the incomprehensible in terms of the incomprehensible (Scott,1981).To my mind we come
here very close to the way the ZEN masters of old used to address their students.
However, the reason is to open up a level of reality with great personal meaning, that cannot
be attained at otherwise. Scott (1981) called the kingdom a symbol of such significance that it
remains beyond definition or immediate expression.
Jesus, speaking to Jews, might have avoided the use of the name of the Divine. However,
the question is whether that explains the absence of his referral to the divine in general.
In contrast to the prophets and other divinely sent messengers, Thomas' Jesus does not
speak in the name of God, does not invoke God's authority. His parables, e.g. are not religious
or divine instructions, but hint at reality (or Reality, if you like) behind things as we regular see
them without a priory invoking anything supra-natural. There where it says in Thomas:
the kingdom is like...., there is nothing to "like" to. Jesus' words are not meant to compare
things; "is like" should rather be taken as, can be sensed, tasted, experienced, become
aware of, give you an idea of,.............. . The natural is mysterious and wondrous and Divine enough
as it is; there is no need in seeking these things outside the natural world in the first place.
Jesus' mastery as reflected by Thomas is of a different kind.
Theissen (1978) wrote: the validity of an idea is quite independent of
whatever causes may have given rise to it in the first place. It is here exactly that Jesus' sayings
transcend the original situation to which his words were applicable. However, one may differ in
opinion whether it were the circumstances which invoked the sayings, or whether a
genius master was making use of the circumstances to empower his words; words already
holding the inherent power to transcend time and place. However, such words
when taken seriously, cannot but affect the world around, regardless time and circumstances,
and if one wants the call such effects "social", that's fine with me, but we should realize that
Jesus' teachings were not "hung up" on the specific circumstances bound to the time he lived.
Otherwise, his teachings could not have any other effect, not on a personal and also not on
a societal level, which was in Jesus' time interwoven with the religious life.
So, reading Thomas we should try and refrain from requiring a certain idea of what the kingdom
stands for, and one might as well keep a blind eye for reading the term most of the times at all!
In this way the sayings are allowed more space to resonate in our minds, which was probably
originally meant they should do anyway.
Is Thomas a 'gospel'; is it gnostic, hermetic?
Thomas is almost completely void of narrative passages. It is a sayings gospel, and
its importance lies in the fact that it is for the first time a complete, unified, and
coherent sayings gospel (Dunn, 2003).
Its orientation has been considered as gnostic or proto-gnostic (Mack, 2006), but actually
only because of the ‘secrecy’ or things ‘hidden’ in the sayings, whereas any regular gnostic
characteristic is totally absent. One of these gnostic hallmarks was the dualistic idea
of an evil, brutal world, something not to be found in Thomas. On the contrary,
Thomas does not mention an evil world, but rather considers the kingdom, nature
and man as a unity, very similar to Indian non-dualism of the Vedante philosophy/religion.
Jesus sees himself clearly not as a divider in the world, but as a unifier of man and
kingdom - by many understood as a unification of the divine and man, which was straightly
blasphemous in Hebrew religious thought, and a view totally alien to
current thinking at that time. Whether he really meant that, remains unclear, however. Later
Christion orthodoxy also strongly opposed such inward way of gnostic mysticism
(Montefiore and Turner, 1962).
The era in which Jesus wandered the world was a dynamic period; not only in relation to
shifts of power with all its consequences in the socio-political arena, but also concerning
cultural phenomena such as philosophy and religion, which both saw the development of
many new ideas. Two of these, apart from Christianity, were Gnosticism and Hermetism
(some say, Hermeticism). In relation to Thomas these two are of interest as they may have
influenced the content and development of Thomas. I cannot go into detail here about the
nature of both traditions (please see elsewhere; you might start with Wikipedia).
The question is, if we regard the original sayings close to the historical Jesus, whether
Jesus had been influenced by Gnosticism or Hermetism.
However, we have to realize that regarding Hermetic thought we do not know
what its content exactly was in the first century, as the Hermetic literary corpus developed
only late (2nd-3rd century CE). The three aspects of early Hermetism, magic, astrology,
and alchemy do not figure at all in Thomas. Furthermore, scholars consider it very likely
that Hermetism itself was strongly influenced by Platonism and Judaism, and even by
early Christian thought (Broek & Quispel, 2003). If Thomas borrowed from late antiquity
Hermetism one has to indicate what exactly it was that Thomas borrowed. At least when we
consider the early Thomas (kernel) sayings, these are almost void of any religious or
philosophical speculation, which completely differs from Gnosticism and Hermetism
with their whimsical mythological and mystifying concepts
of man, the universe and God, and their mutual, mystical relationships.
Also, in Thomas there is no mentioning of the dualistic idea of a body-soul antithesis
as in both Gnosticism and Hermetism, and no concept of salvation of a body-bound soul,
nor reference to initiation into mysteries as in Hermetism, nor to receiving
divine gifts such as the gnosis in Gnosticism. So, I think, differences are quite
fundamental. One seeming similarity might be the concept of negative theology in all
three traditions. Negative theology refers to the fact that God can only be characterized
by what He is not, because fundamentally He cannot be known by the human mind,
and therefore, it is completely impossible to even think of God because any
conceptualization will miss the point. Therefore, He cannot be described or defined.
However, both Gnosticism and Hermetism provide rather extensive positive definitions
of the ineffable state of God. Thomas is more consequent: if something cannot be thought of,
it cannot be mentioned, and therefore, one can only be silent about it. Here Thomas,
together with Buddhism and Toa-ism (The Tao that can be talked about, is not the real Tao!
(Mitchell, 1988); The eternal name cannot be named (Schipper, 2011)) differs fundamentally
from other religions, and obviously also from Gnosticism en Hermetism, both of which
aspired to personal experience of the Divine. However, such aim is not made explicit in Thomas.
Not even does Thomas not deny that God could be known through the
human mind as, Thomas’ Jesus’ sayings lack any reference to God at all!
Where it might seem so that Jesus speaks about God, it is just not what it seems to be!
(you ‘ll see it when you get there); he only speaks about the kingdom
which is in you and around you, with the advice to seek it!
Currently most scholars do not share the view on gnostic dependence of Thomas any
longer (Quispel, 2004; DeConick, 2005; Davies, 2006). The Gospel has also been considered
as depending on the canonical gospels, or even on Q layers, but foremost Thomas experts
consider the gospel as stemming from an independent or autonomous Jesus tradition.
Therefore, it can separately be traced back to the time early after Jesus' death, albeit that at
that time it functioned most likely as an oral sayings collection (Crossan,1983; Patterson, 1993;
Quispel, 2004; DeConick, 2005). Thomas overall meaning has been identified as tied to traditional
Jewish wisdom orientation (Borg,1995) with some sayings having a gnostic proclivity
(Patterson,1993). However, most sayings on which Patterson bases this connotation are
not in the kernel identified by DeConick and are most likely later additions, reflecting a later
orientating towards ideas that held a similarity with those of Gnosticism. Gnostic interpretation
of Thomas by earlier authors can also be traced back by a preferential attention for those
saying that do not belong to the DeConick's kernel, or sprang from obvious personal
religious convictions (Montefiore and Turner, 1962).
However, we should realize that any similarity between Gnosicism, Hermetism, and ideas
of early Jesus movements may rather have sprung from the same philosophical and
socio-cultural background of that era than from inter-dependence (Broek vd & Quispel, 2003).
Jesus has been called "a mystic", and sometimes even being so "in the Jewish mystical
tradition" (Montefiore and Turner,1962). However, one should in such case carefully define
what this means, otherwise it may be only taken to mean that one refuses to consider
any influences on Jesus education from outside the Jewish tradition. Especially so,
when Jewish mysticism is defined as a system of creating relationships with God
across the abyss through the medium of the Thorah, as can be applied to the era of rabbinic
Judaism (Ariel, 1988). From Thomas, we cannot consider Jesus as being
sympathetic towards any system of influencing "the Divine" by whatever means,
and specially not the Torah! Early Judaism and even later Judaic mysticism held a clear
dualistic view, as God being fundamentally different from anything "here below", whereas
Jesus in Thomas appears rather a monist!
Is Thomas eschatological?
DeConick (2005) favors an apocalyptic interpretation, which she also based
on the interpretation in the Recognitions of the Pseudo-Clementines
(www.compassionatespirit.com) . Many scholars deny any eschatological message in Thomas
at all, even when not based on the by DeConick indicated kernel, which contains even
fewer sayings that could be interpreted in that direction. Only when the expression
the kingdom is by definition taken as the eschatological kingdom which God will establish
soon, is such interpretation justified. Whether the apocalyptic expectances were later
replaced by a sapiential turn inwards, remains debatable. Mack (1993) agrees with
Kloppenborg (2000) that in terms of development over time the shift was not
from apocalyptic announcement to instruction of wisdom, but from wisdom to apocalyptic!
Eventually even Crossan declares, in agreement with Patterson, that the original Common
Sayings Tradition contained neither Gnosticism nor apocalypticism but required redactional
adaptation toward either or both of those eschatologies (Crossan,1998). In this respect Thomas
is similar to Q, as even at the level of Q's final stratum Kloppenborg (1990) states:
In the Pauline and hellenistic missionary spheres, the center of theological gravity was the
kerygma of the crucified and risen Lord who had become the aeschatological mediator, and
the few sayings of Jesus that had infiltrated this sphere served only as paraenetic (=moral/ethical) sentences. Kloppenborg also finds “no evidence of Q’s acquaintance with the putative
pre-Markan theologizing of Jesus’ death….”. And also “that Jesus’ resurrection was not to be
understood as constituting a saving act of God to be thematized in the kerygma…(which)
….for Q still concerns the coming or the presence of the kingdom”. Mack (1990)
summarizes Kloppenborg’s conclusions as: “that Q represents a Jesus movement that did not
need, know, or cultivate a “Christology” based upon Jesus’ death (much less resurrection)",
and: “Q does not share the pessimism and dualism characteristic of apocalyptic”. Kloppenborg
notes that Jesus’ vindication after his death in Q relates to the continuation of the value and
character of Jesus as words of eternal Wisdom. That may be exactly how Jesus' sayings, as
preserved in Thomas and in Q, should be interpreted: Words of Divine Wisdom!
Perrin and Duling (1982)
state that for the New Testament all apocalyptic Son of Man sayings fail the test of the criteria
for authenticity of sayings of Jesus.
Those who oppose an eschatological nature
of Jesus’ teachings have sometimes been accused of keeping a hidden agenda, of trying
to secularize the historical Jesus. On the other hand, those in favor of Jesus’
eschatological message are far from consequent when they haven’t yet declared
Jesus to be anything else but an historical failure figure! What kind of religious, spiritual
or philosophical importance can one attribute to a preacher who’s teachings in terms of
predicting the end of times were already utterly belied by history not long after his death,
whereas no generation, up until the present day has seen anything fulfilled what he would
Only when the term eschatological is interpreted to indicate mere fulfillment without
the classical apocalyptic overtones, we may recognize what Jesus hinted at in some
of his sayings: the fulfillment of the kingdom, right here and now on a personal level.
Realized eschatology in that case does not signify the realization of the kingdom by the
appearance and teachings of Jesus (Dodd, 1935), but to participate in the same
experience he had. If one assumes any timeless relevance of the sayings, one cannot accept
classical eschatological motives in the teachings of Jesus in Thomas. Their meaning
transcends the socio-political and cultural-religious situation in first-century Galilee.
As the kingdom within and the kingdom in and around you belong to an early kernel,
it is difficult to link such wording with a future, or even immanently expected or feared
end-of-the-world scene or the coming of a new Jewish kingdom situation.
A totally different interpretation of the kingdom seems justified; one that allows Jesus
to be seen neither as an ancient failure prophet nor as some kind of divine person to
cling to with the irrational belief that his apocalyptic message will still somehow
become true in the near or distant future. How regretful, when the chance that you will live
to see it is remotely small. What Thomas' Jesus' meant with the kingdom, however,
is rather more hopeful!
Jesus; a cynical social radical, social reformer, or magician?
Thomas Christianity has been called to hold a tradition of social radicalism
(Patterson, 1993), by which is probably meant that the Thomas people behaved
socially in a quite unusual and even provocative way.
From the sayings it cannot be concluded that Jesus aimed at any reform in the social
sense; not the world around was to be changed, but the way individuals stand and act in
the world. For example: he says that people should treat their neighbors according to the
golden rule and care for them: Love your brother like your soul, guard him like the pupil
of your eye. (saying-25). However, he never stated that because of that on a societal level
action had to be employed to instantly abolish slavery, for example. More similar examples
can be thought of. Personally, I would find it hard to imaging social radicals who behave
"as innocent as doves". Bringing the picture of begging Buddhist wandering monks to my mind
does not evoke an association with the connotation social radicals, and I see more
resemblances between them and the Thomas itinerants than between the latter ones and
such as were the classical Cynics. This conviction is strengthened by the characterization
of these wandering charismatics as given by Theissen (1978) ; his description can easily
be applied to adapts of the so-called South-East Asian Buddhist forest tradition
(Acariya Mun Bhuridatta. A Spiritual Biography. www.buddhanet.net; Ajahn Chah. The Collected Teachings. http://forestsanghapublications.org/viewBook.php?id=50&ref=deb; Ajahn Tate (1974).
Therefore, Jesus' teachings may have less been aimed at society and institutions
than at individuals.
There may have been quite a few similarities between Jesus and the Cynics
(Crossan,1992; Desmond, 2006) . Vaage (1994) made a comparison between the Cynics
and Jesus' followers according to Q, and found many resemblances. He suggested that Cynism
is actually rather difficult to characterize because of the varying mode Cynics expressed it.
However, this does not allow taking exceptions of the Cynic behavioral rule to illustrate the
specific in the Q wanderers!
Of course, one may compare anything with anything else, but resemblances neither affirm
nor falsify inter-dependence. This also holds true for any comparison between Jesus' teachings
and those of Buddhism or any other religion or philosophy. Furthermore, one may question
the relevance of Cynic texts dating back from sometimes a century or more after the life of
Jesus, for a comparison with Jesus' way of life or teachings.
One of the core Cynic characteristics was to scoff at morality in general, whereas not only
the content of the Cynics' speech was provocative, but also their behavior, which was not
just "unusual" but often straightforward abusive and scandalous. Cynics knew no
moderation, no decency whatsoever. And there are many more differences.
Similar to Buddhist rule, Jesus instructed his itinerant followers not to greet anyone on
the road - a Buddhist monk should not be distracted by the world around him, whereas
Cynic behavior was quite the opposite. (By the way, such “prohibition against a greeting flies in
the face of what was commonly accepted as good manners and public propriety in the world of
antiquity”- Meyer, 2000). Also the "occasional public silence" of the Cynics
(Vaage, 1994) cannot be taken as a similarity to such rule.
Another difference between Cynic and Buddhist tradition on one side and Jesus' instructions
on the other was that the characteristic begging bag (pēra) or bowl for keeping food of the first
two was considered superfluous by Jesus. Vaage (1994) states: the followers of Diogenes
were to rely only on what they could carry with them in the pēra, not requiring
nor trusting in any other system of "social security". This points at a fundamental difference
between Cynics and early Jesus followers; Jesus seeing the shared
meal as the teaching opportunity par excellence. In rural first century Palestine this may
have been one of the few circumstances that people could take some
leisure time together, and could invite a wandering teacher to join them. It was not solitary
ostensive Cynic-way begging which Jesus compelled, put rather a patiently waiting to be invited
to join a communal meal. Not a solitary meal from a begging bag or bowl while on the road,
but a shared meal with attentive listeners. This was a tradition Jesus set out.
Did Cynics never enter a house? Of course not. Did Jesus followers never eat
while on the road? Of course not. But let us not take exceptions to illustrate the rule.
Jesus was neither a Cynic as Buddhist wandering monks are Cynics, whereas in Thomas we find
nothing to the contrary, although not everyone will agree (Betz, 1994; Eddy, 1996; Seeley, 1997).
In his analysis of the Q2 stratum concerning Jesus and John, Cameron (1990) states
that both figures were not seen by the composers of the Q2 layer as eschatological preachers,
but more as "Cynic figures". However, we have to realize that such view was not expressed
explicitly in any Q text, but is a scholar's conclusion, which at least made Cameron to conclude
that the Q people at that stage considered Jesus from the perspective of a wisdom tradition,
rather than an apocalyptic one. Various types of “wandering wise men” may have had in common
what Meyer (2000) refers to in a Cynic text: being content with little, free from popular opinion,
a life in accordance with nature; but these characteristics might have had a low specificity and low sensitivity as to identify a Cynic.
However, similarities between the Cynics and Jesus may indirectly stem from contact by both
separately with Indian Wisdom traditions. Regular contact between the Middle-East and India
date back at least to the end of the 5th century BC, as Ctesius of Cnidus, when he returned from
being a Greek physician attendant on the Persian court, took the trouble to publish trade routes
between Ephesus and various centers in Bactria and India, and by the end of the first century BC an
enormous trade passed along the sea routes from the Red Sea to India between Greek Egypt and
various ports in India (McEvilley, 2002). Kuzminski (2008) states: The Persian empire by the sixth
century BCE included both northwest India and the Ionian Greek city states of Asia Minor.
Historically certain contact between the Indian and Greek world dates back to 517 BCE!
McEvilley again: In 1958 an edict of the Buddhist emperor Asoka Maurya
(3rd century BC) was unearthed with a text in both Greek and Aramaic. And further evidence has
been found that indicates that a rather large Greek speaking population must have been living
there at that time. One of the edicts contains the claim that Asoka had sent missions to the lands
of the Greek monarchs, and McEvilley lists ‘good reasons’ to belief it. Conze (1951) is even more
detailed: it was one of the greatest rulers of India, King Asoka (274-236 BC), who first made
Buddhism into a world religion, …brought it to Ceylon, Kashmir and Gandhara, and even sent
missions to the Greek princes of his time – Antiochos II of Syria, Ptolemy Philadelphos and
Antogonos Gonates of Macedonia. McEvilley mentions that there were many ways by which
early Buddhism might have been influence by Greek thought, and even suggests (pg. 376)
that ..’it….might have been a Greek-influenced and Greek-carried form of Buddhism that
passed north and east along the Silk Road. However, McEvilley also notes:
The similarity between Cynics and yogis is so striking that Indian influence on Diogenes has been hypothesized by way of the Asian trade routes to the Black Sea (his ref. 67). Most scholars have
preferred the occasion of Alexander’s visit to India in 326 BC for the transmission of yogic ideas
into Greek ‘’philosophies of retreat’’. But most of these might be traced back from before
Alexander’s expedition. McEvilley concludes: In fact, the situation is balanced. As the
dialectical-logical dichotomy entered India from Greece, so the whole monism complex had
entered Greece from India several centuries earlier, and has dominated the monistic and
idealistic strands of western philosophy from Parmenides, Pythagoras, and Plato, to Spinoza,
Hegel, and Heidegger. And: two massive transfers of ideas or methods of thinking, first from
India into Greece in the pre-Socratic period and again from Greece back to India in the Hellenistic
period. In the later period the presence of Greek colonists in India who remained in touch with
the Mediterranean, and later the continental intrusion of Greco-Roman merchant ships, created a
situation in which Mediterranean cultural elements were carried to India. Furthermore:
every mystical element in Indian thought can be found in Greek thought too, and every rational
element in Greek thought can be found in Indian.
In Conze (1951) we read that the founder of the Cynic School, Phyrrho of Elis (c.330BC)
founded his school immediately on his return from Asia, which, together with his teacher
Anaxarchos, he had visited in the train of Alexander’s army.. ..The Sceptic philosophy was
something quite new to Greece, and none of the preceding indigenous Greek developments
led up to it. Phyrrho had likely met the naked ascetics, the gymnosophists, the Digambara Jains.
Conze concludes that the Madhyamikas’ doctrines, therefore, go back to much earlier than we
have written evidence from, to c. 350 BC, which is within 150 years after the Buddha’s Nirvana.
McEvilley (2002), however, states: at present, archeology, typology, chronology, and geography
are all in line for explosive Greek input into both the Perfect Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) and the
Middle Way (Madhyamika), and the current trend of the evidence is to make such input
increasingly likely. And: It is very suggestive that the areas of India where Mahayana
Buddhism (from which Zen resulted) is most commonly supposed to have arisen – Gandhara,
Kahmir, and Amaravati – are the areas where Greek culture penetrated most deeply.
From these considerations we should not be surprised to find Jesus' teachings to reflect
ideas that were rather cosmopolitan at that time. Jesus might have had contact with people who
visited India or had even lived there. It may also not come as surprise would Jesus have travelled
and lived in India, part of which was heavily Hellenized, and where even Aramaic language
was known. Such environment would have had quite some familiarities with his own
Hellenized cultural background.
In order to clarify some more issues which various
Indo-European religious and philosophical traditions held in larger or lesser degree in common
around the beginning of our common era, I would like to quote extensively again from the study of
For the Cynics, as for Madhyamikas, Zen teachers, and others, phenomena could be dealt with
legitimately only in a nonverbal and non-conceptual cognition which can result only from the
ultimate elenchus of stripping the mind of all the conceptions with which it ordinarily tries to deal
with them. The rejection of predication was accepted by the Cynics in general and led to the
concept of typhos . The word literally means ‘’smoke’’ or ‘’mist’’; it describes the blurring effect
that preconceived ideas of reality have on the sharp edges of raw experience. By analogy it
meant ‘’illusion’’ or ‘’error’’. The Cynic ethical distinction is paralleled very closely in early Buddhism
where, as one scholar put it, ‘’One way of deciding whether an action is right or wrong, good or bad,
is by finding out whether it leads to detachment or attachment’’(McEvilley's chapter 16 ref 52).
Beyond this distinction, for the Cynics, all things are adiaphora (non-different from one another),
and are alike to be treated with apatheia (non-reaction), an attitude which stands above pleasure
and pain alike (and which seems closely related to Buddhist upeksa =the perfect virtue of
equanimity) . Similarly in early Buddhism, enlightenment is ‘’the ability to remained unmoved
when in contact with the external world or when experiencing happiness and suffering” (McEvilley's
chapter 16 ref 53). When we add to this the idea of philanthropia (universal loving kindness), which
was elevated to great prominence by Diogenes’ pupil Crates, we have an attitude remarkably like the Mahayana Buddhist linkage of prajna (wisdom) and karuna (love).The similarity can be
extended in many details: the Cynic gave up his possessions, their poverty, their practice in
general be declared ‘’for the salvation of everyone’’ (compare the Buddhist idea of the Bodhisattva),
pain is held to be more prominent in life than pleasure, independence from externals. McE also
remarks that this all sound very familiar to the path of Yoga in India. The Cynic Onesicritus
accompanied Alexander to India and talked with Yogis there, and compared their teaching with
those of Socrates and Diogenes.
The parallel between the Cynic epistemology and that of the Madhyamika thinkers is very strong.
The Madhyamika thinker, having stripped away all yes-or-no conceptualizations, does not then
proceed to construct…..an alternative system of concepts which he declares to be true. He takes
his position in the emptiness resulting from his destruction of concepts. This emptiness cannot be conceptualized because it is precisely what is left when concepts are erased. The most striking
parallels occur between Cynism and the much later Ch’an and Zen traditions, which are ultimately
Based on the Mahyamika:
-the short-cut to enlightenment
-the non-reliance on scriptures
-emphasis on the present moment and acceptance of it
Elements in the passing on the Cynic and Cha’n (=Zen) traditions:
-overwhelming emphasis on teaching by example rather than by discourse
-frequent use of perverse, irrational, and/or violent examples (Diogenes striking his students
with his staff! – 4th century BC??))
-requirement, and signs of total dedication from the student
-use of shocking and/or enigmatic verbal formulae as teaching devices
-emphasis on hardihood, indifference to phenomena, and extreme symplicity or frugality
of physical milieu
-a mirthful attitude
-a mental balance impossible to disturb
-a tendency to reject or at least neglect inherited doctrines
In addition, we have to bring Pyrrhonism/Skepticism in view; McEvilley writes (with some minor
adaptations on my part here and there):
At the age of 35 or so Pyrrhon went with Anaaxarchus on Alexander the Great’s expedition to
India. Returning to Greece when he was perhaps 45 or 50 years old, he taught in Athens for
about forty years and founded the lineage known as Pyrrhonism or Skepticism. Only two sayings
attributed directly to Pyrrhon : ‘’nothing really exists, but human life is governed by convention’’,
and the second: ‘’nothing is in itself more this than that’’, which denies that things have separate
essence. The skeptic defines nothing, determines nothing, grasps nothing, clings to nothing, and
….quietude enters the soul along with suspension of judgment. So, all very
Buddhist-like , according to McEvilley (2002). It is clear, that the essentials of Pyrrhonism were
already to be found among the followers of Socrates and Democritus in the late fifth and early
sixth century BC, well before Alexander’s visit to India. If Pyrrhon encountered such doctrines in
India, they must simply have reminded him of doctrines that had been common in Greece for a
150 years and which his own teachers had taught him. Thus the dialectical, ethical, psychological,
and language-critical levels of Pyrrhonism may have said to have been Greek before Alexander.
Still it is possible that Pyrrhon brought back from India some bits or pieces of thought or
formulation which seemed useful terms of attitudes he himself already held.
In his study on the relationship between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism Kuzminski (2008)
says that A sceptic (skepticos) is a seeker, one who enquires or examines, considers,
deliberates, etc. , and holds no beliefs, because beliefs are assertions about things that are
persistently non-evident. To suspend rather than affirm or deny beliefs is not nihilism but a return
to the one thing we have in common, to our problematic but compelling experiential world, where
direct experience speaks without the need of belief. (!) Kuzminski quotes Flintoff who stated
that Pyrrho and his disciples introduced into Greece a phenomenon common in India but
previously absent, rare, or marginal in Greece, namely, one of wandering holy men, often
possessed of special powers, indifferent to pain and suffering. Before Pyrrho, it seems any kind
of liberation in Greece remained predicated on sorting out various wrong dogmas, not in hopes
of gaining freedom from dogma as such, but rather in hopes of finding the right dogma or belief
in place of all the wrong ones. Seeking liberation through one or other belief turns out to be
self-defeating. Pyrrho, like the Buddha, taught the opposite: that liberation was possible only
through suspending all dogma, all belief. Pyrrhonists and the Mādhyamaka (Buddhists) both
.........disclaim the view that some kind of reality lies beyond experiences, existing independently
and unconditionally, and that this ultimate reality, among other things, explains what merely
happens. Kuzminski cites the Buddhist ancient philosopher Nagarjuna who made: it clear that
‘’emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. For whomever emptiness is a view, that one will
accomplish nothing’’. And: ‘’emptiness should not be asserted, non-empty should not be asserted;
neither both nor neither should be asserted’’. In such way no ‘’truth’’ can be asserted, only error
cleaned away. Absence of any definition in Thomas of the kingdom may relate to such view,
whereas Jesus' teachings may mainly be read as 'cleaning away error'. Furthermore: to eschew
beliefs is to eschew actions based on beliefs....whereas : belief falsely tries to make the
indeterminate into something determinate…
About Stoicism McEvilley says: The Stoic system, like many pre-Christian Greek systems,
reveals a way of thought and a constellation of leading ideas which are more or less equivalent
to those which are found in most Indian systems.
From these studies we may conclude that many, but not all(!) of elements held in common
by various traditions, are encountered in Jesus' teachings!
However, such findings neither make Jesus a Cynic, Stoic, Pyrrhonist, nor a Buddhist!
What we also observe in Thomas' Jesus' teachings is the general difference between the more
devotional side (Bhakti in 'Hinduism' and Buddhism) of religion and its more philosophical,
sapential, experiential , mystical,' gnostic' side (prana in 'Hinduism' and Buddhism) which are
often seen as in opposition, and in conflict with one another, but should rather be considered
as two sides of the same coin. However, extremes are less well tolerated by both sides, like the
slaughter of animals was unacceptable by the Buddha, and the Hebrew piety regulations by
Jesus, whereas the more mystical turn has been accused of "gnosically corrupt", esoteric, secret,
mysterious, hidden, and nihilistic.
Conze (1951) notes: The Buddhist idea of ultimate reality is very
much akin to the philosophical notion of the 'Absolute', and not easily distinguished from the
notion of God among the more mystical theologians, like Dyonisius Areopagite and Eckhart.
Concerning Jesus' role as a miracle worker, exorcist or magician we can be rather short :
there is nothing in Tomas that points to that. As Angus (1924) wrote, The Jews excelled in
syncretistic magic, and particular in exorcism, and he lists the various Jewish magical elements
that Jesus actually abhorred! Therefore, to me it sounds rather implausible that Jesus indeed
worked according to the same principles he rejected, and his image as an exorcist and miracle
worker was more likely attributed to him by admirers to bestow contemporary fame and awe
upon his person.
As said before, the sayings address primarily individuals to make a change in their
personal lives. At least this goes for the original sayings of the historical Jesus – at
the time of his ministry there were not yet any communities of Jesus people which
would use and adapt his sayings from the perspective of more community-laden
interests. How interesting the study of community-related issues in this respect is
for the understanding of the development of early Christianity, the individual seeker of
today is probably most interested in getting as close as he/she can to the authentic sayings
of the historical Jesus for personal reasons. Of course,
one should have little confidence in any master in the first place, but on the other hand,
everyone is free to judge the nature of the master from the nature of his sayings.
In my personal interpretation I regard the sayings not as any community rule or instruction,
but as intended towards individuals; otherwise these Jesus’ words would not carry any
significance beyond the time and place when and where they were spoken for the first time.
However, the Coptic Thomas text is of special historic importance, especially for
the scholarly imagination of Christian origins (Cameron, 2004).
Cameron states that the significance of Thomas should not be measured against
any currently hold significance of the existing gospels or against
the dominant paradigms concerning the study of Christian origins. In my view this should not
only apply to the historical approach to this subject, but also to the way how to interpret
Thomas’ subject matter from a spiritual perspective. Analyzing Thomas while looking at it
through a cultural-anthropological lens (or studying it from a certain paradigm, as scientists
would say) will provide cultural-anthropological answers; using a
socio-political lens will provide socio-political answers, an a historical lens historical answers.
Although the value of such studies cannot be denied by someone looking for a religious
significance in Thomas’ Jesus sayings, they will not provide the ultimate answers about
their specific significance for the religious life, which is always personal.
One may try and explain reasons for any teaching, but some teachings may just be less
bound up with contemporary circumstances than assumed by the model one uses to
explain them. I would be very curious to hear with what the social sciences would come up
to explain why the Buddhist Sangha system, without much difference from its beginnings,
remained in place for over 2500 years - can't be a changing world, must be something else.
The social sciences may explain why the Buddha 'succeeded' and Jesus 'failed', while the
content of their message was quite similar.
If the criticism of riches indicating that socio-economic tensions were factors in their
development (Theissen,1978) is a sociological truism, does it also apply to the Buddhist
tradition, where the same criticism can validly be explained from 'ideological' considerations,
whereas entering into Buddhist monkhood today has only marginally to do with material
wellbeing? Why should the motives for similar teachings of the wisdom teacher Jesus
differ so fundamentally from those of the wisdom teacher Gautama , whereas their goals
may have been rather similar? And this is just one feature of the teachings.
However, in case of Theissen, he also notes: it is important to note that the poverty to be found
among the lower classes is not sufficient in itself to explain the social and religious movements
in Palestine during the first century; and also: sociological explanations only apply to typical
features and not to individual cases.
Arnal (1995) wonders whether social settings encouraged, allowed or rather were the
consequence of ideological constructs of various types (such as religious, I suppose).
However, in his paper Arnal concludes strong effects from a deprived social system among
the rural people in lower Galilee on the phrasing of the early texts, and finds the social
circumstances even more likely to explain similarity between early Q and early Thomas
layers than their mere recourse to similar sources. (Here I cannot but observe how various
scholars have been wrestling with this issue, as at different places they draw conclusions
or present suggestions which hold a rather high degree of incompatibility! Fredriksen (2000) e.g.
sees no reason to consider...... "economic deprivation and political oppression
as an operative context for Jesus' mission").
To increase the plausibility of such conclusions, one would like to see them accompanied
by an explanation why social distress should have been dealt with primarily by way of religious
ideology, and such only among small groups of people, who in addition found it necessary to
write it all down. Even if this would be true when larger, settled communities had taken Jesus'
teachings into their community heritage, it does not explain the sayings of the historical man.
To state that everything social was inherently religious in early Palestine may be true for the
established order, but hardly explains that Jesus teachings would be
revolutionary in various ways, except for its identification with that established order.
Furthermore, one should realize that scientific exploration is driven by hypotheses,
which are either to be falsified or verified by the gathered data. The power of scientific
findings lays in their validity of predicting the future. However, history sciences lack
such opportunity, which is reflected in the variety of opinions held by various scholars
in the field - interpretation of sayings of the historical Jesus are no exception, whereas
scholars even contradict themselves sometimes.
In the realm of the religious, scientific data (let alone hypotheses) lose a lot of their
validity - facts cannot always to be treated as belonging to the same category as value.
When we look at the sayings through an eschatological lens, we are apt to find
eschatological meanings, if our lens is that of Cynicism then Jesus was at least
Cynic-like, e.g. ( I think that there are more differences than similarities between
Jesus and his contemporary Cynics - if any, Sophists, or Rabbi's. There were quite a few
of these around, but what made Jesus so outstanding was likely that what he did not have in
common with them). On the other hand, the stance that biblical data, and only those,
are to be taken as historically truthful including everything supernatural they contain (Boyd, 1995),
raises more questions than it provides answers, and cannot reasonably be taken as a valid
method to criticize those who take rationality as their point of departure, however feeble
their hypotheses may be.
So, in reading or studying Thomas’ Jesus from a spiritual perspective,
might one not better empty the mind completely from all pre-conceived ideas and even ‘facts’
regarding the figure of Jesus and his teachings. This is not an easy exercise, especially
when one eventually comes from a Christian background. However, it is conditional to forestall
any interpretation biasing towards prevailing ideas or convictions. If we don’t, we will
soon end-up not only by interpreting them biased towards a socio-historic-politico-.....framing,
but by calling the sayings ‘strange’, ‘incomprehensible’, ‘secret’,
‘hidden’, ‘illogical’, ‘bizarre’, ‘nonsensical’, ‘esoteric’, or even ‘blasphemous’, in
the same way as happened in Jesus' own time. The 'secret' may well be
to let the sayings work for themselves in you. After all, whatever tool you would use
to analyze Thomas, as Mack (2006) says: Jesus [was]....confronting people,
not institutions, with which I fully agree.
By now the notion that Jesus taught within the so-called Hebrew wisdom tradition likely
has lost ground, whereas from his aphoristic sayings it obvious
that quite a few of the regular wisdom subjects are conspicuously missing (Crossan, 1983).
Patterson (1993) argued that the wisdom tradition generally served the interests of
the status quo, whereas this cannot be said of the early Jesus' sayings. Although Jesus did not
rebel against Judaism, he did not comply with religious and consequent social
regulations it imposed, and was therefore seen as a defector of the system, which
brought him quite some hostility from the establishment (Breech, 1983). Also, Jesus
cannot be held as being an OT prophet, who used to speak in the name of God. Crossan (2012)
notes: the phrase "thus says the Lord"....appears in the prophetic books over 350 times.
The historical Jesus did not seemed to have used such phrasing.
How close can we get to the authentic sayings of the historical Jesus?
During the past decades much work has been done to try and get an answer to this question,
but uncertainty remains as does dispute among expert scholars. As a lay person,
I find the “layering” of Q (Kloppenborg, 2000, 2008; Mack, 1993) and that of the Gospel
of Thomas (DeConick, 2005) convincing enough to assume that the Q1 layer in Q, and
the “kernel sayings” in Thomas are as close as we can get at the moment. Both
collections likely originated as oral saying collections. Both these oldest layers can be
traced back to the first decennia following Jesus death, but they are not identical.
Although there is some overlap, not only do Q1 and kernel-DC Thomas differ in the number
of sayings, the phrasing of similar sayings is sometimes substantially different, with
consequently quite different meanings. To Thomas also applies what Mack (1993)
says about Q: the instructions in Q were couched in curious aphoristic discourse, addressed
to individuals, and recommended strange public behavior.
So, where to go by in the first place?
There are some arguments in favor of considering Thomas less affected by secondary
editing. Besides, the Q gospel has never been found as such, while the Thomas gospel
has. The structure of Thomas as a sayings gospel indicates that it not only was so in the
beginning, but used to serve that function long after its origination, while Q as we know
it was already available in written form to the canonical gospel writers. Important is to
realize that both early Q and "kernel" Thomas can be read as spoken to individual hearers.
Jesus addressed individuals, not societal structures, although he made it completely clear
with whom his sympathy abided. This is one hypothesis on which the
interpretation of the sayings is based.
AJ Dewey concluded:
The Jesus of Thomas may be the “closest” Gospel image
whereby one can get to the historical Jesus.
Thomas may have best preserved the ‘feel’ of the oral tradition of Jesus;
moreover, it may have better kept alive the historical Jesus’ vision and challenge of
the kingdom, which is a present and effective reality in people’s lives
How to crack the secret code?
Some have suggested that the Gospel of Thomas indicates the need to employ special and
even ‘secret’ formulae, or special skills for the right interpretation of the ‘hidden’ sayings,
without which the realization of the ‘kingdom within’ cannot be achieved. Their argument is
that the sayings themselves are without any practical directions on how to proceed. Although
they require some or even a lot of second thought, this is not the case. AJ Dewey states
that the key is: …..to ride the waves of riddling, to begin to meditate the puzzling
with one’s own understanding (Dewey, 2004).
I have taken the liberty just to do that, and found very clear indications in the sayings on
how to proceed. Where indicated, I will end the comment with
a question relevant to this point with an answer such as can be deduced from that particular saying.
Overall, the way to realizing the kingdom within is this: living your life the way you would live
as if the kingdom would already have been realized! The kingdom is not an agent to look for by an
activity we call seeking. With Kitaro Nishida (1921) we could say: the idea that there is an
agent of activity apart from the activity itself comes from thinking that the opposition between
unity and its content indicates two independent realities.
Seeking the kingdom and realizing or finding it are one and the same thing. It is living the way
indicated in the sayings, and although it may be difficult in the beginning, once started one will
realize that this yoke is not as heavy as it looked like in the first place.
In fact there is no difference between the kingdom and living in the actual world,
provided life is lived the proper way!
Although the right way to go is very clearly indicated in
the sayings, on the fundamental nature of its end, which is realizing the kingdom,
Thomas' Jesus largely remains silent.
Apart from the Vedante-like non-duality in Thomas’ Jesus’ teachings, what strikes
me most is not so much its additional Buddhist inclination as its strong ‘ZEN-like’ flavor.
ZEN was a philosophy that is often considered to be a result of 'the marriage' between
Chinese TAO-ism and Buddhism, which both had been around at Jesus’ time for
about five-hundred years. So, it is not impossible that Jesus learned from Vedante and
Buddhism, either by wandering preaching radicals who, by the existing trade routes
visited the Levant. The cosmopolitan city of Alexandria might have been such place,
which was also "the headquarters of syncretism" (Angus,1924).
We can also not exclude the possibility that Jesus went eastwards for
a longer period of time and learned these philosophies in the places they were practiced.
What might be taken as a hint at Jesus' likely absence from his home town for quite
a while are Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55-56, and Luke 4:22, where his towns folk wonder
whether he really is the one they hold him to be (or, priory knew?) and according to Mathew
wondered: where then did this man get all this?- why would they have
wondered when he had been around all the time? We cannot exclude the possibility that
Jesus went eastwards for some time, and when he did, he might have done so with his
"twin brother" Thomas, who later went there again alone.
However, although the germs from which ZEN later developed were already present in
the early Buddhist teachings, ZEN as such was not around two-thousand years ago but
eventually developed from contact between Buddhism and Taoism, whereas
TAO-ism was practiced quite some distance away, even from the Indus valley.
(Taoism owes part of the formation of its identity, as a fully structured and organized religion,
to its face-to-face encounter with Mahāyāna Buddhism. .. One and the same body of material is
set in both Buddhist and Taoist frames. Not only are some Buddhist sutras strongly impregnated
with Taoist elements, but indeed we find that they have precise Taoist counterparts...
The mid-Tang period (7th-8th centuries) seems to have been the golden age for this scriptural
mix-and-match game that was played out between Buddhism and Taoism - Mollier, 2008).
Whether Jesus indeed studied in eastern regions, we presently do not know for certain,
but even if he did, the “ZEN-like” position in his sayings were the product of his
own as a masterly, religious visionary. And because his interpretation as reflected in
Thomas antedates the development of ZEN, we might well say that ZEN developed towards
a similar stance as Thomas’ Jesus had already taken hundreds of years earlier!
When thinking of similarities between the meaning of Thomas' Jesus' sayings and
other traditions, we have to take both form and substance into account, and should also
not forget that Jesus was educated as a Jew in a Roman-Greek era.
Quispel (2004) also admitted the strong Buddhist impression Thomas leaves, but he was
convinced that all what Thomas meant in that respect could be explained from developments
within "Western cultural history". However, we have to realize that the Buddhist way of
thinking on various basic themes had already been in place for over 500 years at Jesus' time,
and most quotations to sustain the idea of an independent "western" development of the
Buddhist-like thinking are from after the time travelers or traders could have been in
contact with Buddhism and other Indian ways of thinking. Trading between the Levant and
part of India had been there from long before the rise of Buddhism (McEvilley , 2002;
Cunliffe, 2008). Therefore, one may wonder how "independent"
ancient Greek and Eastern thinking really did develop.
On the other hand, we may realize that various teachings in varying periods may have
independently have been hinting in their own way at similar aspects of reality, as also
noted by Breech (1983): ...in Jesus' sayings and parables he disclosed dimensions of reality
that are not historically determined in toto, dimensions that have also been grasped,
in part, however fragmentary and obscurely, by others - novelists, poets, and
philosophers, in subsequent periods an different cultures.
Similar to the Buddha, who proclaimed independence from the Brahman priests and the whole
of their cult to achieve personal salvation or whatever you may call it (freedom from suffering), enlightenment), Jesus proclaimed a way independent from the teachers in the synagogues,
and the priests and followers of the rules, rites and rituals of the Hebrew temple cult. We should
observe the fundamental difference between the Vedic cult and the Buddha's new,
liberating teaching, which not only opposed the cult practices but its whole underlying
philosophical and religious system, including its pantheon of gods and demons. There where
the Buddha referred to demons, divine creatures, or anything supernatural, he only did
so with the aim to connect to the mind of his hearers. This makes us wonder whether
Jesus had something similar in mind regarding the Hebrew religious system. However, this
would mean that he not only objected to the temple cult's purity rites
with all its embarrassing social consequences , but also the "grand orchestrator" behind
the screen, the Hebrew God. This may sound absurd, but we should not forget that in
Thomas we don't find a Jesus attributing any authority to the Hebrew God, and as far as he
speaks of the kingdom, either followed by of heaven, the father, or God, the kingdom in itself
is used as a metaphor of something Jesus nowhere defines. Some scholars even hold the
introduction sentence at the beginning of the parables (the kingdom is like........) as a later
addition by those who did not know to make what of Jesus' sayings (Breech, 1983; Hedrick, 1994).
This might have been one of the reasons that the Hebrew authorities as well as Jesus'
family were outraged, and thought he had lost his mind. Borg (1995) states that Jesus
taught a subversive and alternative wisdom.
As (similar to the Buddha) Jesus never advocated a mediating institution nor others
for personal liberation, it is actually a shame that there are so many who think they
need both, whereas it is an even greater shame that there are those who propose
themselves as divine mediators and conditional to other people's salvation. Thomas’ Jesus
would likely not have agreed!
Also similar to Buddhist practice was the ascetic wanderings
of Jesus with which there are more similarities to be found than between Jesus'
manifestation and that of Cynics. According to Borg (1995) Jesus likely practiced a form of
wordless contemplation or meditation, which Borg considered not simply an Eastern tradition,
but....central to the Jewish-Christian tradition as well. Borg uses this as an argument in
favor of the idea that the way Jesus acted does not need any explanation from
outside the Hebrew tradition.
If Jesus is marked as a "marginal Jew" it is so because he no longer felt at home with
neither Palestine nor with the total of Hebrew religion, whereas this marginality
also applies to that side of him, which also allows him to be
considered as a "marginal Buddhist".
Thomas’ Jesus' negative theology of silence, however, had much more
difficulty to develop because of the current religious stance in early Palestine at that time,
which was both fundamentally dualistic and strongly governed by rules, rites and ritual,
elements Jesus definitely rejected in the sayings. It is a shame actually, that at the end
of the first century people constructed institutions in his name which were founded
on the very rules and regulations he so vehemently rejected!
Although he sought to coalesce the teaching of his vision with conventional religious beliefs
of his time, we now know that finally he succeeded only marginally.
From his sayings we may see that he himself sensed that already
(see sayings 4,23,61,62,65,66,73,74), yet, he had no intention to stop to
cast fire upon the world, and .......... guarding it until it blazes. (saying-10),
even not if it would finally cost him his life.
However, now holding Thomas in hand,
we realize that the master's marginality
is merely something to smile about.
any constructive suggestions are welcome.