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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