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July 12, 2004

Lucifer Jones & The Gospel of Thomas

I have already come up with the name of my next social project. After I am satisfied with the Black Republican, African American political diversity, & class recognition project that is Cobb's mission, I'm going to take on Christianity. The agent of light in the matter: Lucifer Jones.

Several years ago I met a very unique individual named Kevin Mutschler. Like me, he had an abiding interest in theology and computer science. Unlike me, however, he had gone the whole nine yards because, raised as an evangelical he needed to know that the Bible was truly correct in every way - that it was the blueprint for righteousness. The Jesuits ruined that for me when I was 13. They taught me that there were multiple authors of Genesis, they told me who King James was and the explained the politics at the Council of Nicea. Just fresh after the decisions of Vatican II, I learned at an early age that a great deal of faith is taken on faith. Since I took the life of Christ to be evidence that love actually does conquer all, I didn't worry. Kevin worried. So much in fact that he learned Hebrew and Greek in order to read original texts. I have met few people before or since who have been more sincere or dedicated to uncover the profoundest truths of the Holy Bible. When I last saw him around '99, he was a dedicated Kabbalist. Yesterday I heard a program that stopped me in my tracks and immediately reminded me of Kevin. More than that, I found enough there to urge me to get into this matter myself.

The bringer of this extroardinary news is Elain Pagels.

Her latest book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, is just out in paperback. It's about a religious text that is little known -- the secret Gospel of Thomas, rediscovered in Egypt in 1945. She will explain why it was suppressed by the church and kept out of the cannon. Pagels has been called one of the world's most important writers and thinkers on religion and history. She won the National Book Award for her book, The Gnostic Gospels. Pagels is a professor at Princeton University.

It upsets me that I feel like a contrarian in this, but the Gospel of Thomas instantly reconciles my view of Christianity with my interpretation of Buddhism. It is John that makes Thomas heretical. It is the Gospel of John that makes Christianity authoritarian.

There are several English translations of the Book of Thomas. Here are some pivotal verses from an arbitrary translation:

(03) Jesus says: (1) "If those who lead you say to you: Look, the kingdom is in the sky! then the birds of the sky will precede you. (2) If they say to you: It is in the sea, then the fishes will precede you. (3) Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and outside of you." (4) "When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize that you are the children of the living Father. (5) But if you do not come to know yourselves, then you exist in poverty, and you are poverty."

(44) Jesus says:
(1) "Whoever blasphemes against the Father, it will be forgiven him.
(2) And whoever blasphemes against the Son, it will be forgiven him.
(3) But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, neither on earth nor in heaven."

(48) Jesus says: "If two make peace with one another in one and the same house,
(then) they will say to the mountain: Move away, and it will move away."


Posted by mbowen at July 12, 2004 10:06 PM

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This is interesting--and something I know little about.

Funny you should mention Thomas, because another gospel supposedly is showing up. I think you may like that blog.

I also read recently about a new technique that may be able to read or scan the burned scrolls in Vesuvius. I would love to know what comes out of that treasure trove.

Posted by: chap at July 13, 2004 04:53 AM

Don't feel bad -- it's not just you. Contrarian or not, Thomas rectifies a few answers to nagging questions for me as well.

Then again, my inquisitive nature has gotten me in trouble more times than I can count over the years. I think part of that reconciling is more of a maturity level that some people find themselves coming to.

Contrary to what many evangelicals would insist (and I've been in my share of arguements over that), it certainly is not heretic to inquire and to seek.

Posted by: mhking at July 13, 2004 05:02 AM

There are dozens if not hundreds of non-canonical Christian texts. Of the ones we don't hear about, my favorite is "The Acts of Paul & Thecla."

Faith is what you belive. For me, "God is Love and them that dwell in God, dwell in Love and God in them." 1 John

Posted by: Phil Davis at July 13, 2004 07:16 AM

John is also what makes gnosticism possible. It is a powerful book, but it also skirts dangerously close to what was even then a profoundly troubling heresy.

There is a whole bunch of really great scholarship on the synoptics, but the scholarship on John (at least what I have found) stands, like the gospel itself, apart from the rest, and is difficult to find and even more difficult to read.

Posted by: Scott at July 13, 2004 07:33 AM

may i suggest authors karen armstrong, marcus borg (who has an interesting "portrait of jesus" website: http://www.united.edu/portrait/) and john dominic crossan. sellect titles as you're moved, and draw your own conclusions or heresy (choice)

Be Well

PS: love your blog. can a "liberal" do that?

Posted by: JohnB at July 13, 2004 12:35 PM

Love is non-partisan. We try to keep Tom DeLay away from it.

Karen Armstrong was the first to challenge my orthodoxy, as it was. It is her understanding of the errors fundamentalism which informs mine. I'll check out the others.

Posted by: Cobb at July 13, 2004 12:59 PM

I caught Pagels interview on NPR last week(Terry Gross's show, I think)and this subject really caught interest. I knew that there were other gospels out there that were not included in the canon, but I know nothing about who/what they are. Thanks for the links on this.

Posted by: Sandra at July 14, 2004 06:12 AM

Synchronicity alert: Just as I click the link to see what Cobb has been up to for the last couple of weeks, the doorbell rings. I answer. Federal Express is dropping off my Amazon shipment from last week. Top of the pile? The Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas.

Karasstime, baby.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at July 15, 2004 12:48 PM

How secret can it be? From the Catholic Encyclopedia (1917):

Gospel of St. Thomas

There are two Greek and two Latin redactions of it, differing much from one another. A Syriac translation is also found. A Gospel of Thomas was known to many Fathers. The earliest to mention it is St. Hippolytus (155-235), who informs us that it was in use among the Naasenes, a sect of Syrian Gnostics, and cites a sentence which does not appear in our extant text. Origen relegates it to the heretical writings. St. Cyril of Jerusalem says it was employed by the Manichans; Eusebius rejects it as heretical and spurious. It is clear that the original Pseudo-Thomas was of heterodox origin, and that it dates from the second century; the citations of Hippolytus establish that it was palpably Gnostic in tenor. But in the extant Thomas Gospel there is no formal or manifest Gnosticism. The prototype was evidently expurgated by a Catholic hand, who, however, did not succeed in eradicating all traces of its original taint. The apocryphon in all its present forms extravagantly magnifies the Divine aspect of the boy Jesus. In bold contrast to the Infancy narrative of St. Luke, where the Divinity is almost effaced, the author makes the Child a miracle-worker and intellectual prodigy, and in harmony with Docetism, leaves scarcely more than the appearance of humanity in Him. This pseudo-Gospel is unique among the apocrypha, inasmuch as it describes a part of the hidden life of Our Lord between the ages of five and twelve. But there is much that is fantastic and offensive in the pictures of the exploits of the boy Jesus. His youthful miracles are worked at times out of mere childish fancy, as when He formed clay pigeons, and at a clap of His hands they flew away as living birds; sometimes, from beneficence; but again from a kind of harsh retribution.

Personally, I was kind of hoping the Acts of Philip were real, but it reads like a bad fairy tale.

Posted by: Philip at July 16, 2004 10:49 AM