New manuscript discoveries continually expand our knowledge of what was actually going on in antiquity. The accommodation of this new knowledge can sometimes require us to create new histories. Yet as a Biblical scholar, I am constantly faced with the fact that our old academic models die hard. Why? Because there is a general resistance to changing previous understandings of the Bible based on the discovery of “new” nonbiblical manuscripts. For one thing, the religious view that the Bible is old, trustworthy and sacred has become a cultural icon in our society. Second, not only are believers invested in maintaining traditional faith, but scholars are invested in maintaining their previous academic opinions.
I have noticed that new manuscript discoveries are often labeled in a way that diminishes their importance, both in religious communities and in the academy. Scholars determine that these manuscripts “post-date” the Bible, allowing them to be tabled. They are called “Gnostic,” by which these scholars mean that they were written by “heretics” who corrupted the scripture and were purged from the Church because they refused to worship the creator god YHWH and instead turned to pay homage to the “one god” who they believed existed beyond the universe.a They are thought of as “forgeries,” a legal term that identifies their authors as criminals who falsely assumed apostolic identities. What this might mean for 2 Thessalonians, Colossians or Ephesians (all claiming Paul’s authorship but likely not written by Paul) rarely crosses our minds, because Biblical letters can’t be forgeries. They are either “anonymous” or “pseudonymous.”
Largely because of this resistance, it can take scholars decades to figure out what a manuscript means and put in place a new model that makes sense of the new evidence. It can take even longer for this new model to become common knowledge, distributed outside the academy.
A case in point is the Gospel of Thomas. It was one of more than 50 texts that were discovered in 1945 by Bedouin in the Egyptian desert and came to be known as the Nag Hammadi codices.b Unlike the canonical gospels, it does not contain a narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry but rather is a collection of Jesus’ sayings, some of which are also recorded in the canonical gospels. It was immediately labeled Gnostic, late, secondary, Biblically dependent and inauthentic. Just as old models die hard, so, too, do first impressions last; today, if you open up almost any general book on the Gospel of Thomas, you will see that this is how it is still described. Yet during the intervening 50 years since it was first published, we have worked very hard to understand this text. We struggled with the Gnostic label for a long time until we realized that the Gnostics weren’t a single group and that the Gospel of Thomas represents none of the various types that did exist (Sethian, Valentinian or any other Gnostic Christian community) because it lacks references to distinctive Gnostic mythologies, including the hallmark feature that the God of worship is not the creator god YHWH, but a god beyond our universe.
If it isn’t Gnostic, then how do we explain the fact that the text has an esoteric orientation, is pro-celibacy, demands that the faithful remain unmarried, and favors a view of the end of the world as “realized” (as many Gnostic texts do)? The Kingdom and the New World are not events of the future, but have already come without anyone noticing.1 So the disciples ask Jesus, “When will the dead rest, and when will the new world come?” Jesus replies, “What you look for has come, but you have not perceived it” (Thomas 51).2 As in the Gospel of John, Jesus has already cast the fires of judgment upon the world.3 Jesus demands that his followers seek visions of God before their deaths in order to have immortality, saying, “Gaze upon the Living One while you are alive, in case you die and (then) seek to see him, and you will not be able to see (him)” (Thomas 59).
Believers will not see Jesus coming with the clouds, as was taught by other Christians. Rather, he would appear to those who remake themselves as children—unafraid and shameless:
His disciples said, “When will you appear to us? When will we see you?” Jesus said, “When you strip 085naked without shame, take your garments, put them under your feet like little children, and trample on them. Then [you will see] the Son of the Living One and you will not be afraid” (Thomas 37).
This teaching invokes the Genesis story in which Adam was viewed as a child before the Fall. In the Gospel of Thomas, to return to the garden as a primordial Adam meant that you had to renounce your body and embrace celibacy. The ideal state necessary for visions of Jesus is a retooled state of the individual, not of the cosmos.
The type of religiosity found in the Gospel of Thomas is not all that unusual. You can find references to it in Biblical and nonbiblical literature. It is nothing more than an early Christian expression of mysticism that developed out of an earlier, apocalyptically oriented Christianity that wished for the immediate end of the world. When the end didn’t happen, the Christians were forced to rethink and rewrite their cherished apocalyptic teachings.
Texts like Luke-Acts (Acts 1:6–8) show us that some Christians chose to delay the end indefinitely by creating a lengthy period of the church and its ministry before the end would be able to come. Other texts like Matthew’s gospel (24:36) rationalized that the end would come, but not even the Son knows when. Still others like John and Thomas collapsed the end into the present, so that the old world ended with the end of Jesus’ life, and the new world began with the church, which was now experiencing all the promises of the kingdom. In the case of the Gospel of Thomas, the Christians were trying to live as they thought they would at the end of time—like the angels in heaven. So they gave up marriage and sex and believed that their bodies were already being 086transformed into the glorified spiritual bodies of the resurrection. Intimacy with God, visions of Jesus, equal status with angels, the new world, life-beyond-death were already theirs.
We can even locate this mystical form of Christianity historically. It is a form that developed in eastern Syria in the late first and early second centuries, a form of Christianity that was an heir to early Jewish mystical traditions and a precursor to later Eastern Orthodoxy. I think that Thomas’s “place” in early Christianity was misidentified originally not because it represents a type of Christianity unfamiliar to the canonical tradition or deviant from it. The Gospel of Thomas was wrongly identified at first because Western theological interests controlled its interpretation within a Western Christian framework that could not explain its unfamiliar, mystical structure. Yet we now know—in part from manuscript discoveries like the Nag Hammadi collection—that there was a multiplicity of groups, beliefs and traditions in the diverse early Christian communities. Scholars who misunderstood the Gospel of Thomas mislabeled it as Gnostic in order to lump it together with other traditions they thought to be strange, heretical and late.
Old models die hard, but die they must.
Author’s Note: This column is based on my research: Seek to See Him (Leiden: Brill, 1996); Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (New York: T&T Clark, 2005); “The Gospel of Thomas,” Expository Times 118 (2007), pp. 469–479; “Mysticism and the Gospel of Thomas,” in Jörg Frey, Enno Edzard Popkes and Jens Schröter, eds., Das Thomasevangelium (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), pp. 206–221.
New manuscript discoveries continually expand our knowledge of what was actually going on in antiquity. The accommodation of this new knowledge can sometimes require us to create new histories. Yet as a Biblical scholar, I am constantly faced with the fact that our old academic models die hard. Why? Because there is a general resistance to changing previous understandings of the Bible based on the discovery of “new” nonbiblical manuscripts. For one thing, the religious view that the Bible is old, trustworthy and sacred has become a cultural icon in our society. Second, not only are believers invested in […]
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Gnostic Christians believed that YHWH, the Israelite God of the Hebrew Bible, was a lesser god who created the world and humans. The one Supreme God, whom the Gnostics worshiped, was a separate god. He was an indescribable and ineffable deity who dwelled outside YHWH’s universe. However, his spirit had fallen into the created universe and resided in the human soul. Only by gaining true knowledge, or gnosis, about the order of the universe and the ascent route back to the one Supreme God could the believer return and be reunited with full divinity. For these Gnostic Christians, Jesus revealed gnosis through his esoteric teachings.