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God Within Us

The communities and schools of thought that were all lumped together as ‘Gnostic’ have a wide range of different ideas and teachings. Some were misogynistic and preached complete abstinence from all pleasure; others were libertine and gender-egalitarian. But there are a few points of commonality. The most important of those is the teaching that within each of us there is a piece of the divine presence.

In many versions of the myth, our spirits are pieces of a goddess – usually named Sophia – who has been kidnapped by the archons (the rulers of this world) or otherwise fallen under an enchantment and forgotten who she is. The Secret Book of John and the Hypostasis of the Archons are two Gnostic texts with classic renditions of this myth. The tale begins with the archons making a clay statue modeled after the perfect spirits (the aions) of whom they had gotten a glimpse. They can build the clay model but they can’t make it move; the only thing which brings the clay figure to life is when the spirit of Sophia or The Mother is breathed into it. But then, since the clay body now possesses spirit which they themselves don’t have, making it superior even to them, the archons become jealous and seek to trap the spirit by creating the illusion that it lives in a beautiful garden.

This is the tomb of the molded body with which they clothed the human, the fetter of the flesh. He is the primal one who came down and the primal partition. But it is the Thought of the primal light who dwells in him who awakens his thinking. …

The Chief Ruler took him and placed him in paradise, of which he said, ‘It is a delight for him’ but really so that he might deceive him. For their delight is bitter and their beauty is licentious. Their delight is a deception and their tree is iniquity. Their fruit is an incurable poison and their promise is death to him.

This belief, that human beings possess a divine spirit temporarily deceived into forgetting its nature, distinguished the Gnostics from most other Christians of their time, and certainly from all of them since Augustine. It is not compatible with the idea of original sin, or the later idea of total depravity. If there is a part of you that is divine, it is not God that does the work of reconciling you to the divine presence, it is you — and that reconciliation is not the crossing of a great gulf, but merely the cultivating of awareness of that which part of you already knows. If there is a part of you that is divine, then you are not fundamentally broken, but fundamentally okay.

It’s interesting though how different schools of Gnosticism took this idea down different paths of reasoning when it came to morality. One path led in the direction of deep ascetic worldly denial; another led in the path of heady amorality; and a third group took a middle way.

The Thomas Christians compared the physical body to a garment which the soul wears.

Jesus said, “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample them, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.” (Gospel of Thomas 37)

The Hymn of the Pearl is another writing preserved by the Thomas Christians, a parable of a prince sent to Earth to retrieve a pearl. But the prince falls under an enchantment. He forgets his royal heritage and lives as a slave to the world’s ruler, wearing only rags. It is only when he is reminded who he is that he is finally able to discard the rags in which he was clothed and complete his task of retrieving the pearl.

Many of the Gnostics took these beliefs to mean that denial of worldly pleasure was the holiest course. They developed a morality of restriction, in which the life of ascetic denial is holy, which leads in predictable directions, such as the hostile misogyny found in later Gnostic writings such as the Exegesis on the Soul.

This text is essentially a commentary on scripture, developing the idea of the reincarnating soul comparing it to a wandering prostitute who couples with many bodies. The tone is misogynistic, which is not surprisingly coupled with a strong moralizing tone and promotion of an ascetic way of life. The text is a little unusual in that draws from the Prophets as well as the New Testament and Homer, but this underscores the syncretic nature of Gnosticism.

As long as she was alone with the father, she was virgin and in form androgynous. But when she fell down into a body and came to this life, then she fell into the hands of many robbers. And the wanton creatures passed her from one to another and […] her. Some made use of her by force, while others did so by seducing her with a gift. In short, they defiled her, and she […] her virginity.

Other Gnostics, such as the libertine Carpocratians, believed that morality of restriction was another way of letting the flesh rule you. None of their writings have survived, but we have a (somewhat polemically described) summary of their beliefs recorded by Bishop Irenaeus:

[T]hey maintain that things are evil or good, simply in virtue of human opinion. They deem it necessary, therefore, that by means of transmigration from body to body, souls should have experience of every kind of life as well as every kind of action (unless, indeed, by a single incarnation, one may be able to prevent any need for others, by once for all, and with equal completeness, doing all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of, nay, which we must not even conceive in our thoughts, nor think credible, if any such thing is mooted among those persons who are our fellow-citizens), in order that, as their writings express it, their souls, having made trial of every kind of life, may, at their departure, not be wanting in any particular.

The Valentinian school eschewed both extremes, following the argument of Aristotle that every virtue is a rational mean between two vices, which are extremes:

it is possible to fail in many ways … while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult- to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult); for these reasons also, then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue;

For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect…

For the Valentinians, the archontic prison was much more devious than simply “enclosing spirit in a prison of flesh” — the mind was the starting point and the ending point for their investigations. The mind is the source of error, following fear and and hate and falsehood down pathways of erroneous logic — but is also the source of the solution, capable of following truth and wisdom and applying correct logic. Salvation then depends on learning how to discern error from truth, which is not a kind of wisdom that can be encapsulated in a myth or a set of pithy principles. Any idea or concept can be misused or misapplied or taken to an extreme. One must raise one’s mind above (metanoia) the traps of logic and error.

Because there is only one way to be right and many ways to be wrong, it follows that there is ultimately only one wisdom, and we can see clues of this in many faith traditions. Also, this truth should in every way match what we find in natural observation of the universe. When we investigate nature we should not find patterns there which reflect a different order from the things we believe – or else our beliefs must be mistaken, since truth and nature are reflections of the same cosmic ordering principle — the same Logos.

The difficulty of belonging to a faith tradition was illustrated in the Letter of Ptolemy to Flora, an epistle from one student of Valentinus to another, which namely is this: that in any doctrine, the truth is intertwined with falsehood, and we must contemplate each teaching to ascertain whether it is truly the teaching of Logos or merely that which was written by a man in pursuit of a particular goal.

For if the Law was not ordained by the perfect God himself … nor by the devil…, the legislator must be some one other than these two. In fact, he is the demiurge and maker of this universe and everything in it; and because he is essentially different from these two and is between them, he is rightly given the name, intermediate.

And if the perfect God is good by nature … and if the one who is the opposite nature is evil and wicked, characterized by injustice; then the one situated between the two is neither good nor evil or unjust, but can properly be called just, since he is the arbitrator of the justice which is his.

Rebirth in the Gospel of Thomas

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)