The Gospel of Thomas and several related works such as the Book of Thomas the Contender were the product of a community in Galilee or Syria modern scholars call “the Thomas Christians,” and we can call collectively the body of scripture they wrote “the Thomas scripture.” They wrote the first draft of the Gospel of Thomas around the same time as Paul wrote his letters, circa 50 CE, a generation or so before the Gospel of Mark was written.
At the time of Jesus, there was a great amount of diversity of belief among the Jewish people, including about the notion of the afterlife. The Sadducees held to a traditional Jewish view of the afterlife as described in the book of Ecclesiastes 3:19-20: that when a person dies, all of them dies. The Pharisees added to this the idea that upon the return of the Messiah, the righteous would be resurrected from the dead.
Early Christians, like the Essenes and other apocalyptic sects, adopted the Greek idea of the afterlife. According to this teaching, each person has an eternal soul. When a person dies, the soul is guided by a psychopomp to the underworld, where they are judged and sent on to a final destination: a pleasant realm like Elysium for the virtuous, or a fiery realm of punishment like Tartarus for the wicked.
But these were not the only ideas about death and the eternal soul being considered and debated among people of the middle east at that time. Most of the Gnostic communities, due to the influence of Buddhism, professed some degree of belief in rebirth. Rebirth is not quite like the more familiar idea of reincarnation. The idea of reincarnation is that each person has an immortal soul that remains unchanged from incarnation to incarnation. The idea of rebirth is a bit more nebulous: that some of the energy that makes us up is eternal — the eternal breath, or holy spirit (ruach hakodesh or hagia pneuma) — but that the self, or the part of us that identifies as “I,” is not. The “I” dies along with the body and the eternal essence is released back into the cosmos.
The Thomas Christians believed this, but they also taught that Jesus made it possible for the “I” to become immortal and persist after death. This was a privilege granted only to the righteous. Consider for example Saying 60 of the Gospel of Thomas (I’ve slightly interpolated from the translation here):
He saw a Samaritan carrying a lamb and going to Judea. He said to his disciples, “[Why is that man carrying a lamb?]” They said to him, “So that he may kill it and eat it.” He said to them, “He will not eat it while it is alive, but only after he has killed it and it has become a carcass.”
They said, “Otherwise he can’t do it.”
He said to them, “So also with you, seek for yourselves a place for rest, or you might become a carcass and be eaten.”
Rest, or repose, or stillness, as I noted in my commentary on the Gospel of Truth, is used as a way of depicting the process of achieving gnosis with the divine presence by way of quiet prayer and stillness meditation.
The Gospel of Thomas is very concerned with the distinction between being alive and being a corpse; it comes up so often we might consider it a major theme. The idea is that if you die without salvation, your identity will fade and your spirit will be reabsorbed into the world, and you won’t have another shot at achieving eternal life for your selfhood until you are a human again, which may take some time. Consider this excerpt from the Book of Thomas the Contender:
The savior replied, “Listen to what I am going to tell you and believe in the truth. That which sows and that which is sown will dissolve in the fire – within the fire and the water – and they will hide in tombs of darkness. And after a long time they shall show forth [as] fruit of the evil trees, being punished, being slain in the mouth of beasts and men at the instigation of the rains and winds and air and the light that shines above.”
This illuminates the meaning of the stranger sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, such as saying 7:
Jesus said, “Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.”
There is something of an alchemical understanding of spirit at play here. Spirit evolves when beings eat others or are themselves eaten. If a ‘higher’ being eats a ‘lower’ being (with humans being seen as the pinnacle – what else would we expect a human to say?), it transforms the spirit of the eaten from a lower state to a higher state. If a ‘lower’ being eats a ‘higher’ being, the spirit is still transformed from a lower state to a higher state, but all the sadder for the higher being! But if spirit is buried in the earth along with a body, it has to start all over again… being absorbed by the roots of trees and showing forth as fruit. (There must be a metaphorical level of meaning here too, or else why are the trees called evil?)
What goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it’s what comes out of your mouth that will defile you. (Thomas 14; also Matthew 15:11, compare Luke 6:45)
According to the Thomas Christians, the person who is able to achieve immortality in their identity will live on and has a chance to escape from the world, which was constructed as a prison for spirit.
Jesus said, “Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy.” (Thomas 56)