Doubting Thomas, Diversity, and Nag Hammadi

St.Thomas, Apostle to India, Stamp from India 1964 15p

A JOKE

St Peter was at the pearly Gates of Heaven when someone arrived. Peter said, “Now, before I can let you in you just have to answer this simple question. How are we saved?”

The newly deceased but eager person replied, “As a Bible believing Christian and a fundamentalist conservative Evangelical Christian that’s easy – we are saved by our faith in the inerrant inspired word of the Bible.”

“Nope!” said Peter, and the candidate was flung off to some place warmer than heaven.

A second person arrived. Peter again said, “”Now, before I can let you in you just have to answer this simple question. How are we saved?”

This person replied, “As a faithful child of the church and a life-long Catholic, that’s easy – we are saved by accepting the guidance of Mother Church and every word of the Holy Father in Rome.”

“Nope!” said Peter, and the candidate was likewise flung off to some place that was very hot.

A third person, newly dead, arrived. Peter asked the same question. The person thought for a bit, and said, “Hmmm. As an Anglican born and bred I have been taught and do believe that we are saved by the grace of God, unearned and unmerited, which in Christ Jesus was reconciling the world to God’s own self.”

Peter was surprised and said, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the rest of God your Father. You have answered correctly!”

And the thoughtful Anglican walked through the gates into heaven. As he did  so he turned and said, “But, you know, on the other hand . . .”

Thomas

Ba-dum-dum! Anglicans are renowned for being able to see every side of an issue, and even creating new perspective which none had seen before. We revel in ambiguity and complexity, and it has sometimes been said that our patron saint is Doubting Thomas. The gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter has the story of Thomas and his doubt:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

The Incredulity of Thomas, by Caravaggio (1601-1602)

The Incredulity of Thomas, by Caravaggio (1601-1602)

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

A Discovery in the Desert

codicesThe desert. 1945. In a pottery jar there is a great discovery of papyrus. But this is not the story of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered a couple of years later, in the Judean Desert, in caves. And the Dead Sea Scrolls were scrolls, – books written on one long piece of papyrus, with text on one side and rolled up when stored. They were written in Hebrew, apparently in the century before the time of Jesus and up until 66 AD/CE. No, this story is about the discovery of some ancient books in Egypt that were codices (singular codex, plural codices) – what we today normally consider books – handwritten on both sides of the papyrus, sewn together and folded over once, and bound in leather. They were found in a place called Nag Hammadi, a village in Upper Egypt, about 80 km northwest of Luxor, or Thebes (which is today a city of over half a million people). It is a small library of twelve volumes, containing 52 separate works. According to epigraphy and dating systems the codices were physically created somewhere in the 4th Century – the 300s. That is the era in which  that Christianity became the religion of the majority of people in the Roman Empire, and when it was legalized by Constantine the Grea,t and made the official imperial religion by his successors. So these books date from the beginnings of Christendom, when it passed from being a persecuted cult to a religion favoured by the powerful. They are all written in Coptic, an old Egyptian language, which died out some centuries ago, but is still used by Coptic Christians in Egypt in their liturgies, as Latin was used by Roman Catholics until the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, or as Old Church Slavonic in used in some Russian Orthodox churches. Although in Coptic the scribes used Greek letters, much as English uses the Latin alphabet. The style of the translations suggest that they were translated from Greek, and, indeed, some of the texts are referred to and quoted by ancient writers, and we have a few fragments of papyrus of the original texts in Greek.

Nag Hammadi map

And what are these works?

They are usually characterized as “gnostic” – that is, supposedly secret teachings that if given to someone would result in their illumination and salvation. According to many scholars the Gnostics were a movement that was part of  early Christianity but ultimately was condemned and disappeared from the historical record. The books of the Nag Hammadi library are their books, and the speculation is that they were hidden in the late 4th century or early fifth century because of persecutions by orthodox, official Christians.

That said, there is another approach to these texts, which is to say that they come from a time when Christianity was much more in flux and more diverse than anyone really imagined. Throughout history clergy and ecclesiastical prelates like to tell simple stories about the origins of Christianity, on the assumption that a complex tale is too much for the simple people in the pews, and might detract from the acceptability of the faith. Thus the declaration is made that the true faith is that which has been taught at all times in all places and believed by all (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est). Thus the dogma of the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Definition of the Two Natures of Christ, the 39 Articles of Religion, the Five Fundamentals, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are read back into the Scriptures and the history of the church, as if these doctrines arose naturally from primitive Christianity. While some may indeed wish to think that, the historical record does not actually bear that out, and as John Henry Newman demonstrated when he was still an Anglican, the only proper way to understand any doctrine, dogma, or proclamation of the Christian faith is to see its development within a historical context.

The scholars who do not see the Nag Hammadi library as “Gnostic” argue that “Gnosticism” is a category created largely by 19th century scholars to include a broad range of heresies identified in the first five centuries of Christianity. While the Nag Hammadi library does contain some pretty exotic and esoteric books by the standards of modern Christianity, to call them “Gnostic:” is to force a category of interpretation on them that doesn’t really work.

The texts – which were indeed lost for well over 1500 years – are clearly associated with Christians.  The titles include:

  • The Gospel of Truth
  • The Gospel of Philip
  • The Gospel of Mary
  • The Acts of Peter

and exotic titles such as

  • Thunder, Perfect Mind
  • The Hypostasis of the Archons
  • The Apocalypse of Adam

The Gospel of Thomas

The end of The Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi Library.

The end of The Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi Library.

However, the greatest of interest is in one text – The Gospel of Thomas. From papyrus scraps in Greek found in another place in Egypt  (Oxyrhynchus) it is known that this was used in the 2nd century – before the year 200. There is a consensus that it is the oldest work in the Nag Hammadi library. It appears to have been written in Greek. It is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, and there is no narrative – no narrative structure as in the four gospels in the New Testament, so no life of Jesus, no scenes by the wayside, no tales of the sea. There is nothing like the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. There is no mention of Jesus being the anointed one of God the Messiah, the Christ. Perhaps most strikingly, there is no passion narrative – no cross, and no resurrection. Jesus simply teaches. Many of the sayings are parallel to sayings of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but are simpler, and rarely have any interpretation or explication.

A Fragment of The Gospel of Thomas in Greek (P. Oxyrhynchus 1, found in 1897)

A Fragment of The Gospel of Thomas in Greek (P. Oxyrhynchus 1, found in 1897)

Scholars fall into two groups about when the original text was written – some say it was written around the same time as the New Testament, sometime in the latter half of the First Century,  and other say some significant time afterwards, in the 2nd century. The scholars who argue for an earlier dating suggest that it is thus an early independent witness to the teachings of Jesus, albeit transmitted and transformed by a Christian community very different from that of which Paul was a member and from that which produced the gospels. They note that a most scholars accept that Matthew and Luke used a “Sayings Gospel” (commonly called Q), and The Gospel of Thomas, while not it, is very much like what the reconstruction would look like. The later dating school, on the other hand, presumes that the significant number of parallels suggests a literary dependence of The Gospel of Thomas upon the four gospels, a relation to the 2nd century Syriac harmonization of the gospels known as the Diatessarion, and that it is thus much later.

Diversity and Charity

What are we to make of all this?

Well, to begin with, one can make too much of it. Most of the texts in the twelve books of the Nag Hammadi library are Christian works, and all of them were read by Christians. Some are exotic, some show signs of thinking that was then and later denounced as heretical, but much of the stuff is pretty normal fare for the times (if not for our own) – there is even a passage from Plato’s Republic in the library, as well as some other classical authors. Although it does not sit well with the four Gospels of the New Testament, the Gospel of Thomas is not a gnostic work, just another text about Jesus that needs to be carefully read if we want to relate it back to the historical Jesus.  The remarkable finding is that after one has done that work there really isn’t anything that remarkable – at best we might have one or two sayings that go back to Jesus that we might otherwise not have – nothing too revolutionary. What is striking to me is the absence of so many things that clearly were part of early Christianity as evidenced by the letters of Paul and the four gospels. The Gospel of Thomas presents a Jesus with no mention of the cross, no ministry of proclamation and healing and exorcism, no sense that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, no sense that he will come to judge the living and the dead, and no resurrection. There is no Christmas, no Good Friday, and no Easter in the Gospel of Thomas.

Among the group of scholars who argue for an early dating of the Gospel of Thomas are those who  believe that the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John were in conversation. Did some disciples, claiming a genealogy of teaching from Thomas , deny the Resurrection? Were their emphases of teaching found in The Gospel of Thomas? Was the passage in the Gospel of John about the doubts of Thomas  written to challenge these supposed followers of Thomas? So they suggest.

I am not convinced about the early dating of the Gospel of Thomas, and so I do not accept this proposal.But what is clear is that by the middle of the Second Century there was a diversity in early Christianity that was previously unthought of. Subsequent to this diversity the power of the Empire was used to enforce uniformity, and ultimately it was the dogma of the Nicene Creed and Chalcedonian Definition of the Two Natures of Christ that prevailed. Retrospectively we can tell who ultimately were judged heretics and who were not. At the time, for Christians living in Upper and Lower Egypt, it was not so straight forward.

The dogmatic teachings of the church were hammered out on the forges of controversy. For that to happen means that there has to be a diversity of opinion, and from the earliest letters of Paul we know that there was diversity and controversy in the churches. For the most part, I think the orthodox came up with the right answers – because these are answers that produce powerful explanations of how God acts in the world, how God is in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own self. It’s why I will prefer the New Testament to the Nag Hammadi library as a source of spiritual teaching and salvation – the New Testament is much richer, and speaks to me in a language that I can sy=till understand twenty centuries after it was written, whereas much that is in the Gospel of Thomas leaves me cold. But rather than pounding people over the head with dogma and doctrine, I would rather be charitable and welcoming of the diversity of opinion, recognizing that no one person has a monopoly on the truth.

Which brings us to the gospel reading today. Thomas doubts, and with good reason. People do not just rise from the dead. And so he says: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And so Jesus is revealed, and he is invited to put his fingers in the holes in his hand, and his hand in his side. His response is, by our anachronistic reading, entirely orthodox: “My Lord and my God!”

As Thomas may have inspected the holes and wounds, so we need to wrestle with these ideas. They may be commonplace now, part of our culture, but to make them ours we need to not only receive them, but to mull them over, meditate on them, critique them, bear down upon the texts more with study, and see what they mean in practice.

The other reason I like the New Testament is that the people who wrote it sought to live the Resurrection – they believed that the same power which raised Jesus from the dead was at work in them. And so they put that into practice. From Acts we read:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

This is pretty radical stuff. Jesus said to Thomas: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. May we wrestle with the Resurrection, acknowledging our doubts with charity and care, and may we know the power of the risen one in our practice as well as our faith. 

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
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One Response to Doubting Thomas, Diversity, and Nag Hammadi

  1. Bob Jones says:

    Hi, I enjoyed your article. You may be interested in this experiment to read Thomas as riddle in the same genre as Sensus plenior. http://sensusplenior.net/wiki/Gospel_of_Thomas

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