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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas:"Twin" of Jesus

"Twin" of Jesus?

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Introduction

A long-suppressed, long-forgotten form of Christianity in which Thomas was the chief apostle has come to light in recent years. In western Christendom Thomas is known chiefly as the Doubter, the close follower of Jesus who had to touch his master's wounds in order to be convinced that he had really risen from the dead. Among some of the earliest followers of Jesus in the Fertile Crescent, from northern Syria to Egypt, Thomas emerged much more prominently. He was seen as the special confidant of Jesus, recorder of his master's sayings, and, in some sense, his twin. Churches across Asia came to regard him as their founding apostle And in the sayings purportedly recorded by Thomas, Jesus appears as an inspired sage imparting spiritual wisdom to his hearers, not as the Christ, part of the godhead, presented in Paul's writings and the canonical gospels.

In these pages the lore surrounding the apostle in his recently-rediscovered role has been brought together for the first time -- lore that appears in historical records, myths, legends, cultural artifacts, and religious literature, and in modern speculations about their meaning. Much of this material has come to light at a time when many scholars, clerics, and lay people are looking beyond the traditional New Testament -- the texts that church leaders picked out as authoritative some seventeen or eighteen centuries ago -- to the mass of other early writings concerning Jesus and his followers. Many of those writings have been found in the twentieth century. In this view the original selection served purposes -- social, political, theological, ecclesiastical -- that should not be regarded as binding for all time.

In the Syriac-speaking culture of upper Mesopotamia and Syria the apostle was called Judas Thomas. Thomas (Tau'ma) means twin in Syriac, a form of the Aramaic which was the language of Jesus and his followers. And Didymus, a name by which the apostle is also called in the gospel of John, means twin in Greek. Perhaps some regarded the two as blood brothers. Perhaps the twinship was regarded as spiritual or symbolic. Sometimes, as in the Christian Gnostic systems, Thomas seems to be the this-worldly reflection or image of a divine savior-figure, an earthly body inhabited by a spirit like the savior's. In any event Thomas became a focus of special reverence.

Thomas is best looked at in the context of Gnosticism. In the first three centuries of the Christian era both Christianity and Gnosticism took a variety of forms. Sometimes they overlapped considerably (and we can then speak of Christian Gnosticism), sometimes they overlapped slightly, sometimes not at all. Although scholars have not been able to agree on a definition of Gnosticism, the various forms share some basic ideas: The indescribable, unimaginable supreme godhead, which is pure spirit, cannot have been the creator of a world full of evil and misery. Emanations from that Oneness (in a sort of spiritual Big Bang) resulted in a hierarchy of lesser powers, one of which (often identified with the biblical Creator) made the world of matter. Humankind -- part matter, part spirit -- must strive to cast off its gross material element and, as pure spirit, reunite with the One. Gnosis -- knowledge of an intuitive kind about one's true nature, an experience of reality, of the truly true -- leads to this reunion. A messenger or savior (identified by Christians as Jesus) sometimes descends from the godhead to help people achieve gnosis.

These thoughts are usually couched in creation myths in which intermediaries stand between the supreme divine entity and humankind. In some of these Sophia (Wisdom) is a key figure, a feminine aspect of the godhead, engendering the lower god who is maker of the cosmos. The world and human body are usually regarded negatively, or at least as alien to our true nature, things to be liberated from. The savior figure is usually pure spirit, temporarily occupying a body or appearing in the guise of a human.

The Thomas writings include early Syriac texts in which the apostle is either the chief protagonist or an interlocutor of Jesus and recorder of his secret sayings. Three are of most significance. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings, found near Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 -- sayings that Jesus is supposed to have entrusted to his "twin," which are sometimes close to those familiar to readers of the canonical New Testament, but often strikingly unfamiliar. It may have been written as early as the first century A.D., certainly not later than the middle of the second.

Another text is the Book of Thomas the Contender, also found at Nag Hammadi. Jesus again addresses the apostle as his twin and as "one who knows himself." He warns against transitory, this-worldly attachments that distract us from reunion with universal spirit. The third major book, the Acts of Judas Thomas, is an account of the apostle's supposed proselytizing travels and ascetic teaching in "India," a region ill-defined in the Roman world of the time.

In antiquity it became a common practice to ascribe a religious and philosophical writing to someone whose name would confer authority on the text. If you wanted to give weight to what you were saying or writing, a more or less accepted device was to attribute it to Paul, say, or Plato, or Solomon, or the apostle John, -- or Thomas.

There is much pseudonymous writing in the New Testament and a flood of it in writings that were eventually rejected by church authorities as unauthentic, or apocryphal. In these pages, when we read of writings or deeds and preachings of Thomas, we need not suppose that a follower of Jesus called by that name was actually involved. I have occasionally put the name in quotation marks as a reminder to the reader of this uncertainty. What is significant is the fact that those who wrote and read the various writings involving him regarded "Thomas," whether a symbolic or legendary or historic person, as one whose name would add weight to certain stories and teachings or to the claims of some institution. In this sense, there was an important Thomas literature, quite possibly as old as any other writings that purport to give the teachings of Jesus. And many signs point to a grouping of Thomas churches or communities, equally old.

All the Thomas texts mentioned above were first written in Syriac, it is generally thought, and Judas Thomas was the name by which the apostle was known in the Syriac-speaking culture of the upper Tigris-Euphrates valley. Its ancient center was Edessa, now the city of Sanli Urfa in southeastern Turkey, just north of Syria. On the boundary between the empires of Rome and Persia, bitter rivals for centuries, Edessa looked in two directions -- mainly eastward toward the world of Iranian shahs, Zoroastrians, Jewish baptismal cults, worshipers of local civic and fertility deities, and Buddhists and Hindus, but also westward toward the Mediterranean world of Roman rule, Hellenistic philosophy, Greco-Roman paganism, Mithraism, and Judaism and Christianity in their various forms. In both directions rivals to an evolving Christianity were to be found. They are briefly noted in these pages as part of the context for the Thomas movement.

The commerce between East and West -- a traffic in ideas as well as silk and glass and spices -- figures prominently here. Stories concerning Thomas's travels form the bulk of some chapters. Most independent scholars today doubt that he went to any of the places where legend sends him -- to Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Punjab, southern India, Sri Lanka, central Asia, China, Ethiopia, and, in a surprising leap, to South and Central America. But various groups, somewhere, at some time, found it comforting or inspiring or expedient to affirm that the apostle visited certain places and carried certain messages. I suggest possible reasons for their doing so.

There appear to be two somewhat separate but intertwined traditions relating to Thomas as he is depicted outside the New Testament canon: in one he is founder of churches in Asia (the Church of the East, or Nestorians, and the St. Thomas Christians of southern India), in the other he is carrier of a distinctive message of gnosis and wisdom. In the beginning the two roles may have been combined, but the churches claiming him as founder endured for many centuries after the Gnostic message was suppressed. St. Thomas Christians of India are still a vital community today.

I also look at the recent revival of interest in Gnostic and related mystical ideas, with special reference to the writings associated with Thomas. After the discovery of fourth-century books at Nag Hammadi the ancient movement known today as Gnosticism, theretofore known mostly from what its enemies had said about it, could now be studied in the writings of Gnostics themselves. Contributing factors to renewed interest in old mystical systems are Carl Jung's school of depth psychology, Gershom Scholem's studies of Jewish mysticism, and much fuller study of Asian mystical systems since World War II. The lasting influence of Gnosticism on mainstream Christianity is noted.

The Nag Hammadi collection has roused great interest in the world of scholars concerned with biblical studies, history of religions, theology, and ancient languages and history. But most scholarly writing is concerned with the Gospel in isolation from the rest of Thomas lore and the possible relationship of that Gospel to the traditional New Testament. Little of the specialized writing has trickled down to the general reading public. Everyone who has been through high school has probably heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls; relatively few readers, even among the highly educated, have heard of the Nag Hammadi collection. To help fill this gap for general readers is one reason that I have written these pages.

Wary of any who claim to know the mind of God, I am an unlikely person to take an interest in a long-forgotten piece of early Christian history. My active life has centered on international affairs, as journalist, writer, lawyer, government official, and philanthropoid. Long ago I did, nevertheless, become fascinated by the lore involving the apostle Thomas and its ramifications, and by the way it speaks to modern people at a time when speculative thought, in religion as well as science, is marked by greater openness than in the past. Many Western people today, whether they consider themselves agnostics or Christians or Jews, are really much akin to Gnostics, although they may never have heard of the term.

For more than twenty years, on and off, I have pieced together the Thomas story. I have done so as one bringing together, examining and weighing evidence that is available to anyone who takes the time to dig. This is a new mosaic fashioned from available tiles. Scholars are constrained to keep within the confines of the fields of learning in which they are expert and to plow some narrow furrows deeply. The outsider may range more freely (but still, let us hope, responsibly) over many connected fields, and may see a broader landscape with a fresh eye -- with the attendant hazard of missing or misconstruing some features.

I ought to note that in at least two respects the picture of "Thomas" and his message as presented here differs from that drawn by most scholarly experts. Almost all specialists concentrate on supposed Jewish or Hellenistic roots for Thomas (and for Christian Gnosticism generally) and on possible connections with the canonical gospels. Unlike earlier generations of scholars, few nowadays acknowledge that influences from ancient Iran and India might be found in Gnostic writings, although it seems clear that such influences were at work (as I will point out from time to time). Perhaps because serious scholars must set fences to the fields they cultivate, there has been remarkably little traffic between those concerned with Asian systems and those concerned with the origins and nature of Gnosticism, Hellenistic philosophy, early Christianity, and late Judaism.

Secondly, while scholars sometimes mention that the Thomas writings, and Gnosticism generally, have a mystical theme, they seldom develop the thought more fully and look at Thomas in relation to other mystical systems, including those of India. I have tried to put Thomas in the context of broader movements that, for lack of any adequately descriptive term, we may call mystical. The Western mind supremely values rationality and for many the very term "mystical" is unwelcome. That, however, which strikes people as "real" and "true" but which lies beyond the reach of reason and logic is indeed a central element of Gnosticism and of Thomas.

I hope that this account will stir the interest of others who are open to thinking about a very early but long-hidden and long-suppressed strain of the religion that has given its name to the dominant Western culture, who are interested in the history of religious ideas and institutions, who explore the interactions of East and West, who search for possible bases of ecumenism, or who are open to a new, but very old, form of questing.

A few general matters of form and usage should be mentioned.

Many writers today, especially in scholarly circles, refer to the era long called "B.C." (Before Christ) as "B.C.E.," Before the Common Era, and to the era long called A.D. (Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord) as "C.E." (the Common Era). I have retained the older usage, familiar to all.

Gnosticism with a capital "G" refers to the early religious movement, prominent in the first several centuries A.D., now known by that name. With lower-case "g," the term can refer more generally to similar systems emphasizing individual unitive experiences.

"Persia" refers usually to the lands that constitute modern Iran. Parthia, the region southeast of the Caspian Sea, gave rise to a warrior race that ruled Persia, through the Arsacid dynasty, from about 250 B.C. to about A.D. 226. The "Parthian empire" and "Persian empire", covering much the same territory, often included, in addition to Iran, part of the Tigris-Euphrates valley (Mesopotamia) to the west and territories, varying in extent, to the east.

(Among the many available translations of the Bible I have usually referred to that of the respected Scottish scholar James Moffatt, which came from one mind and not from a committee. I have used several of the many available translations of the Gospel of Thomas, often referring to the one by Thomas A. Lambdin; it appears in "The Nag Hammadi Library in English ", a collection of translations that readers will find useful to have at hand. Several translations can be found on the Internet.

Notes follow each chapter. These are not as full as one would find in a more scholarly work, but I have aimed to identify (1) writings that readers might find useful for further reading, (2) at least one source for material that may be found in many places, and (3) the sources of direct quotations.

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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.