The gospel of Thomas

Gospel of Thomas

Sometimes we can use language to paint ourselves into a corner. For example, Catholics can’t be gnostic or agnostic.

What was so wrong about the Gnostics?  As I understand it, some were okay and some weren’t.

If we think church division began with the reformation, we have to think again.

Even in St Paul’s day the followers of Jesus were divided.

Paul was like a sheep-dog, rounding them up, barking, occasionally nipping at their heels.

By the second century there were over 80 groups claiming Jesus and his teachings in varied ways.

Some groups were prominent:  Montanism was charismatic and apparently a bit fanciful; Arianism rejected the divinity of Jesus; Gnosticism was more about heart than head.

Gnostic, meaning “knowing” was at one time, an acceptable way of reflecting on scripture.

Similar to our “lectio divina” it was based on prayer and intuitive understanding with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Clement of Alexandria called mature Christians “true gnostics” because they had come to a deeper understanding of their faith.

It was said that scripture was the meeting ground for their deep encounter with Christ

I like that definition.

There was, however, another branch of Gnosticism that was negative and dualistic in its teaching.

It called the body a tomb – soma sema – and made a clear division between spirit and matter.

So where does the Gospel of Thomas fit?

Originally it was regarded apostolic, and it stood alongside the Gospel of John.

Both contain the private teachings of Jesus handed down orally by the disciples.

When the Emperor Constantine called orthodox bishops together in 325, the Council of Nicaea established a common creed and doctrines, including the four gospels favoured  earlier by bishop Iranaeus.

It seems Iranaeus had chosen the John gospel because it had been a favourite of his teacher Polycarp.

Once the selection of books was established, all other writings, including the Gospel of Thomas, were labelled heresy and had to be destroyed.

That roughly, briefly, is the history.

Last century, the Gospel of Thomas turned up in the Nag Hammadi scripts found in upper Egypt.

It has been dated as one of the earliest gospels, possibly earlier than Mark, and now Biblical scholars tell us it is apostolic.

Elaine Pagels, an authority on the Gospel of Thomas matches the mystical sayings of Jesus with passages in the canonical gospels, especially John and Mark.

Which is very good news for those of us who have been surreptitiously enjoying the Gospel of Thomas.

But generally, the Church doesn’t share this enthusiasm.

I wonder why.

Perhaps the problem lies with the last verses of the Gospel of Thomas.

Here, the disciples are having a cultural grouch.

They tell Jesus he needs to get rid of Mary of Magdala because a woman is not worthy of the Way.

Jesus tells them he will give her the authority of a man so that she can be one with them.

Perhaps Pope Francis has read this.

Whatever, he is correct in his appellation of Mary of Magdala.

She was one of the apostles.

  • Joy Cowley is a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and retreat facilitator.

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