The Heresy of the Gospel of Thomas: A Jewish Perspective

The Heresy of the Gospel of Thomas: A Jewish Perspective October 30, 2018

That seems like a pretty bizarre title, right? What could an Orthodox Jew possibly have to say about the Gospel of Thomas and the intra-Christian debate over whether or not it’s heretical?

Truth be told, I wouldn’t have had much to say on the matter until last week, when I heard a lecture on this topic from Professor Elaine Pagels, a noted scholar on early Christianity and the Gnostic Gospels.

In her talk, she gave an overview of the Gospel of Thomas, and discussed its themes, influences, and reception by later Christians.

I have no horse in this race, and don’t feel a burning need to defend the traditional “four gospels” of the New Testament against extra-canonical, possibly heretical additional, gospels.

That said, when I look at this dispute from a Jewish point of view, I do get the sense that the “traditionalist” Christians in this fight—those who defend the NT and reject gospels like Thomas—are more in line with the theology of the Old Testament as I see it than defenders of the Gnostics. Let me explain.

Gnosticism, which is expressed in gospels like Thomas, is all about knowing yourself, and how becoming aware of your own sacredness and divinity can help you achieve union with God. “Gnosis” in Greek essentially means knowledge of spiritual mysteries. In the case of the Gnostics, the big “secret” here is that man is essentially divine, despite being trapped in a very physical body on earth. Realizing our own divinity can help us break free of our physicality and commune with God. That’s the idea.

The interesting question here is whether Gnosticism is compatible or continuous with the Old Testament. Genesis 1:26 says that human beings are created “in the image of God.” This is a tough idea to understand, and there are lots of views within Christianity and Judaism as to what this actually means.

Nonetheless, whatever ‘the image of God’ does mean, we do not find later Biblical writers saying that knowledge of the self and of that internal divine image is the key to salvation. In Mark 4:10, Jesus says there is a “secret of the kingdom of God” that is buried within his parables. The Gospel of Thomas claims that this secret is that the kingdom is inside you! You are the sons of God. While Mark says the kingdom will come at the end of time, Thomas says it’s already here, inside us all. Coming to know who we are spiritually, as children of God, links us to our Creator and makes us part of the kingdom.

Again, is any of this Biblically influenced or inspired? I don’t see it. Whether in reading the Five Books of Moses, the prophets, or the wisdom literature, there is almost nothing to be found about self-knowledge and identification as the key to salvation.

Do you really want to know God? I think the OT’s answer is “don’t look inward, but outward.” Receive God’s love, and then give it to others.

“Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.”
(Jeremiah 9:23-24)

Knowing God is about imitating God, and thus getting in touch with His values and attributes through that imitation. Nothing in there is about isolated meditation on your own godliness.

And what do you know, Pope Benedict XVI himself wrote that the entire meaning of ‘imago dei’ is about the capacity to relate to others:

“Its nature as an image has to do with the fact that it goes beyond itself and manifests something that it is not….It is the dynamic that sets the human being in motion towards the totally Other. Hence it means the capacity for relationship; it is the human capacity for God.”

This is what the Law of Moses does, turning us into “other”-focused beings, in fulfillment of our nature. It’s also what faith in Jesus and His grace accomplishes. I don’t think the same can be said for the Gnostic view of man’s purpose in the world. Navel gazing is navel gazing, even if you are a divine being.

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  • Barros Serrano

    Being neither Jewish nor Christian I am not concerned with trying to make Christian writings consonant with their Jewish antecedents.

    What we see in Christian Gnosticism is the influence of Neoplatonic philosophy, which has probably more in common with Buddhism than Judaism.

    We also have evidence suggesting that Mary Magdalene was preaching, was important to the early group of Christians, and was likely Jesus’ consort!

    That is rejected of of hand by Nicaean Christians, who prefer the misogyist patriarchal Christianity which is indeed, sadly, consonant with Jewish tradition.

    But I have to ask, where is Lillith? and where is Mary Magdalene? The misogyny of the Semitic and Roman ancients has been handed down to us, cloaked in religious doctrine.

    In my humble pagan opinion, both of these religions would do well to investigate the source of their misogyny and take measures to rectify it. Oh yes, and that goes for Islam as well.

  • Michael Weiner

    Thanks for the comment, Barros. I’d love to hear more about how and why you think Gnosticism was influenced by Neoplatonism—any articles or books you can name that make this argument well?

    Regarding patriarchy and misogyny, which wasn’t the subject of my post, you’re right that Gnostic texts are more “pro woman” than the four gospels. However, they are also historically inaccurate. Wikipedia says the following (copy it into google to find the citations):
    “In apocryphal texts, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a visionary and leader of the early movement whom Jesus loved more than he loved the other disciples.[100] These texts were largely written long after the death of the historical Mary Magdalene and are generally not regarded by scholars as reliable sources of information about her life.[12][9][101] Sanders summarizes the scholarly consensus “that very, very little in the apocryphal gospels could conceivably go back to the time of Jesus. They are legendary and mythological. Of all the apocryphal material, only some of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are worth consideration.”[101] Nonetheless, the apocryphal gospels have been frequently promoted in works addressed to popular audiences as though they were reliable, often to support sensationalist claims about Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s relationship.[102]

    It’s good to rectify misogyny, but I think that can happen without turning to dubious sources for precedent. For what it’s worth, the four gospels also treat Mary Magdalene with great respect, as an early supporter/follower of Jesus and the first witness of his Resurrection. They just don’t say she was his wife. Nothing sexist about that, per se.

  • Barros Serrano

    Well, we’re left as usual having to await more evidence to substantiate this or that… and we’ll evaluate things based on our preexisting inclinations. Since I am not christian, I don’t care if Christian doctrine or even scripture is overturned, and so it is much easier for me to believe that the accounts of Jesus were “edited”, that the female was purged, and that Mary Magdalene’s role was obscured by the misogynist Romans. Since so much is in modern Nicaean Christianity which is not in the teachings of Jesus, it is not a great leap to believe all of that but of course evidence, proof, is what what satisfy me.

    neoplatonism has the notion of a perfect mind of Creator, the view of which is obscured (as by Plato’s “veil”). Neoplatonists sought to find their way back to “God”, and like Gnostics therefore believed that the truth, “God”, was in each person, but obscured by the various veils.

    This thinking has obvious parallels with that of Hinduism, but is indeed in conflict with Nicaean doctrine. On Youtube there are lectures by a UCLA History Prof https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3Zx-qcNZf4

    That’s the intro lecture. The way science, magic and religion were intertwined, then disentangled, tells us a lot about the origins of Christian doctrine.