INNER CIRCLE: How Paul’s First Epistle Unlocks The Gospel of Thomas

INNER CIRCLE: How Paul’s First Epistle Unlocks The Gospel of Thomas June 2, 2022

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As I’ve been going through the sayings of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas in this weekly blog series, something hit me last night that kept me awake half the night.

Before the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel were written, the Apostle Paul was writing letters to various churches to encourage them in their faith. One of the first of those epistles [as far as we know] is Galatians.

In that letter, Paul encourages the believers to remember something profound whenever they come together. He says:

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal. 3:27-28]

Keeping in mind that, to this point, none of the Gospels had been written down yet, and this statement provides a key insight into what it means to be “in Christ”; namely that we “are all one in Christ…”

If the sayings Gospel of Thomas [or something just like it] were floating around Christian circles at the time of this letter, then Paul’s statement here, that all of us are “one in Christ,” provides the cypher necessary to decode the meaning behind those sayings.

Why? Because the sayings of Jesus in Thomas’s Gospel come without any explanation of the reality behind the statements. Without this understanding, those sayings come across as meaningless gibberish about the inside being outside and the man consuming the lion and all sorts of other metaphorical and highly symbolic language that seems to point nowhere.

Unless you realize that what Jesus is talking about in each of these sayings is that separation from God, and from one another, is an illusion and that everyone, everywhere is eternally intertwined with Christ. Once you see that, then those previously confusing sayings become suddenly illuminated and burst forth with profound meaning.

Now, imagine you live in the First Century and have a copy of the Gospel of Thomas. It’s precious to you because it contains the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. But, for you, most of those sayings are beyond your comprehension. You can’t make sense of what Jesus is trying to communicate. Then, somehow, you come across a copy of this letter from the Apostle Paul to the ekklesia in Galatia. You read this startling statement that everyone is “one in Christ Jesus” and suddenly those sayings in Thomas start to make a lot more sense to you. Separation is a lie. Dualism is an illusion. All are one in Christ and the outward symbols of separation – race, religion, gender, economic status – are dissolved in the reality of our shared oneness in Christ.

That’s why this earliest Christian writing – almost a decade before any of the other Gospels are written down – becomes significant for those who are seeking to understand the meaning of Jesus’s teaching found in Thomas. Because, as far as we can see, this is perhaps the very first time anyone has ever suggested that Christ is the ultimate reality that erases the illusion of separation between God and Humanity, and between individual people.

For a better understanding of the Chronology of the New Testament, let’s see what author and New Testament scholar Marcus Borg says about the timeline of when each book was likely written:

“A chronological New Testament sequences the documents very differently. Its order is based on contemporary mainstream biblical scholarship. Though there is uncertainty about dating some of the documents, there is a scholarly consensus about the basic framework.

 

“It begins with seven letters attributed to Paul, all from the AD 50s:

1 Thessalonians

Galatians

1 Corinthians

Philemon

Philippians

2 Corinthians

Romans

 

“The first Gospel is Mark (not Matthew), written around 70 AD. Revelation is not last, but almost in the middle, written in the 90s. Twelve documents follow Revelation, with II Peter the last, written as late as near the middle of the second century [and most certainly not written by the actual Apostle Peter].

 

“A chronological New Testament is not only about sequence, but also about chronological context — the context-in-time, the historical context in which each document was written. Words have their meaning within their temporal contexts, in the New Testament and the Bible as a whole.

 

“Seeing and reading the New Testament in chronological sequence matters for historical reasons. It illuminates Christian origins. Much becomes apparent:

 

  • Beginning with seven of Paul’s letters illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels. His letters provide a “window” into the life of very early Christian communities.
  • Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product.
  • The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.
  • Reading the Gospels in chronological order beginning with Mark demonstrates that early Christian understandings of Jesus and his significance developed. As Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, they not only added to Mark but often modified Mark.
  • Seeing John separated from the other Gospels and relatively late in the New Testament makes it clear how different his Gospel is. In consistently metaphorical and symbolic language, it is primarily “witness” or “testimony” to what Jesus had become in the life and thought of John’s community.
  • Realizing that many of the documents are from the late first and early second centuries allows us to glimpse developments in early Christianity in its third and fourth generations. In general, they reflect a trajectory that moves from the radicalism of Jesus and Paul to increasing accommodation with the cultural conventions of the time.”[1]

 

What this Chronology of the New Testament also tells us is that the Apostle Paul did not change or influence perceptions about Jesus, because his writings came before – not after – the New Testament Gospels were written.

So, the notion that the Gospels gave us an original notion of Jesus that Paul’s epistles later modified isn’t very likely because those Gospels came much later. If, as some say, Paul’s writings confused or distracted people away from the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount or through his Parables, then that change would have been made before anyone had ever read about those words, not afterwards.

Any influence on the way people understood Jesus, then, would have been made long before any of those Gospels were produced. And since many claim to see a strong contrast between the teachings of Paul and at least some of the teachings of Jesus, whatever influence Paul may have had seems not to have affected the Gospel writers.

But, getting back to our original thought, Paul’s second epistle [Galatians] seems to have introduced a quite novel idea into the theological framework of early Christianity: that we are all one in Christ and that separation is an illusion.

This early concept – as fascinating and profound as it may be – seems to have been something that Jesus himself had already spoken to his closest disciples during his earthly ministry. We see it clearly in the Gospel of Thomas, and we also see it echoed – not only in those earliest epistles of the Apostle Paul, but also in the New Testament Gospel of John where Jesus says:

“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” [John 14:20]

And in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus says:

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” [Matt. 25: 40]

This early Christology which rapidly moved from Jesus as Rabbi to Messiah, to the Son of God, and then finally to the pre-existent Logos who “fills everything in every way” [John 1:1; Eph. 1:23]       may have been initially transmitted through early sayings Gospels like Thomas and the Q document, and by word of mouth [as did most early Christian theology].

After the Gospel of Mark was written down, the other New Testament books that followed were quite likely to have followed this order:

James

Colossians

Matthew’s Gospel

Hebrews

Ephesians

 

Of course, creating a definitive chronology for the creation of the New Testament documents is quite difficult – if not impossible – to do. Scholars and Historians debate endlessly about which came first, or last, or anywhere in the middle. To be clear: there is no one, single, authoritatively reliable chronology for the order of the New Testament. But, we can be relatively certain of at least a few books such as which of Paul’s epistles came first – 1 Thessalonians and Galatians – and which Gospels came first – Mark and then Luke and Matthew, with John’s Gospel being the most recent.

As we’ve already suggested, the Gospel of Thomas, as a sayings text with no doctrinal teachings, no crucifixion or resurrection narrative and no end times or second coming references, is quite likely to have been written down long before the writings of Paul or any of the other Apostolic texts.

If Thomas’s Gospel was already known prior to Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, it’s quite fascinating to see how the idea that Christ eradicates the notion of separation permeated the earliest forms of Christian theology.

There’s also another reason to think that Thomas was in circulation prior to the majority of the New Testament texts: Because it’s very likely that the Gospel of John was written in response to the Gospel of Thomas, which means that it had to pre-date that document.

We’ll explore that in a future episode. Next week, let’s jump into the sayings of Jesus from Thomas and what they have to tell us about the illusion of separation and the Christ in everyone.

[FOOTNOTE]

[1]From the article “A Chronological New Testament”, Marcus Borg, August 31, 2012, The Huffington Post: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/a-chronological-new-testament_b_1823018

[1] From the article “A Chronological New Testament”, Marcus Borg, August 31, 2012, The Huffington Post: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/a-chronological-new-testament_b_1823018

**

Keith Giles is the author of the 7-part best-selling “Jesus Un” book series from Quoir Publishing. His latest -and final book – in this series, Jesus Unarmed: How The Prince Of Peace Disarms Our Violence is available now.  Keith is also the host of Second Cup with Keith [a new solo podcast available now on the Ethos Radio App, for Apple and Android and on Spotify; and the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast [along with co-hosts Matthew Distefano, Dr. Katy Valentine, and Derrick Day], and the new Apostate’s Anonymous podcast with Matthew Distefano.

He and his wife, Wendy, currently live in El Paso, TX.


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