Recent issues of the rival news weeklies Time and Newsweek buzzed with the new-found popularity of early Christian/Gnostic writings. The Gospel of Thomas is, to me, one of the few really thought-provoking among the vast number of extra-canonical Jewish and Christian texts of the inter-Testamental period. I am using the Helmut Koester translation from James Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, Revised Edition (Harper, 1999).
This Thomas is not the “Doubting Thomas” of the New Testament, but the purported twin or brother of Jesus. As alluded to in the previous entry, pairs of siblings play prominent roles in many of the major narratives in the Hebrew scriptures: Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Moses and Aaron, Moses and Miriam. I mentioned the tension between wild and settled, and some of these sibling pairs do seem to symbolize that conflict. But there may be a political dimension as well, and not just with Isaac/Ishmael and Jacob/Esau. The two kingdoms of Israel and Judah continue this pattern into the historical books of the OT. And for the last two thousand years, it is no stretch to see Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism as twins and rivals in this same mold.
There is of course an epistomological dimension as well. Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism and Hellenistic philosophy are all, in a sense, stages upon which the ancient conflict between Egyptian monism and Persian dualism played out. Thomas escapes the dilemma by means of the via negativa. The opening verses describe a radical, extra-temporal inversion:
“(1) And he said, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.’
“(2) Jesus said, ‘Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all.’
“(3) Jesus said, ‘If those who led you say to you, “See, the kingdom is in the sky,” then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, “It is in the sea,” then the fish of the sea will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will come to realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.’
“(4) Jesus said, ‘The man old in days will not hesitate to ask a small child seven days old about the place of life, and he will live. For many who are first will become last, and they will become one and the same.'”
This type of inversion reminds me of the widespread folk motif of a land where everything is backwards or upside-down; the afterlife is sometimes described in such terms. Certain holidays in many traditions (including pre-modern Europe) were celebrated with such ritual inversions, as an attempt to manifest the other world – a literal utopia. The art of comedy arises from this belief complex, in Japan and Zuni Pueblo no less than in ancient Greece.
Is there a layer of utopian comedy in the Bible? If so, it probably begins with Sarah, who laughed in God’s face, and laughed again when she bore a son at an impossibly advanced age: “And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6) The institution of the Sabbath, with all its inversions of ordinary daily practices, is undeniably utopian, though it may or may not be considered comic.
The gnostic imperative of self-knowledge derives from sources more ancient than Socrates; Socrates himself credited the Oracle at Delphi. Bika Reed’s translation of an Egyptian papyrus, allegedly a libretto for an initiation ceremony, finds this idea in explicit practice over 1,000 years earlier. (Rebel in the Soul, Inner Traditions International, 1987.) Although inevitably our judgements are biased by the chance survival of texts, it’s hard not to see Leviticus 19:18 as an important advance. Apropos of yesterday’s entry on Zen, it seems that “Know thyself” should always be twinned with “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Thomas refers again and again to the necessity of seeing like an infant. This obviously goes beyond comic inversion; I can’t help thinking of the Fukuoka quote I brought in for the second entry of this weblog. As most readers are probably aware, Taoism and Zen make much of this motif. References to drunkenness are reminiscent of Taoism as well, though of course Sufism is the direct heir (think especially of Omar Khayyam). From saying 13: “Thomas said to him, ‘Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying what you are like. Jesus said, ‘I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.'” Jesus then takes him aside, we are told, and favors him with three teachings that cannot be expounded, even to the other disciples.
Saying 22 combines all these motifs: “Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, ‘These infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom.’ They said to him, ‘Shall we then, as children, enter the kingdom?’
“Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom.'”