The Gospel of Thomas and the Kingdom of God

The Gospel of Thomas was discovered as part of the Nag Hammadi library in upper Egypt in 1945 as a complete text in Coptic. It had been previously known in fragments of a text in Greek discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt in 1898. It had also been mentioned in the works of the 3rd century church father Hippolytus. The first English translation was published in 1959. This gospel likely originates from Syrian Christianity at the end of the 1st century. Syria was immediately adjacent to Galilee on the north, while Judea was separated from Galilee by Samaria. Jesus was a Galilean, not a Judean. So it seems possible that Syrian Christianity may be more representative of what Jesus actually taught than Judean Christianity. Syria had an established Christian community as early as the 30s AD at which time Paul was making his way to Damascus to confront its Christian Church. The Gospel of Thomas is not a narrative story of the life of Jesus like the New Testament gospels. Rather it is a collection of 114 individual sayings, most of which begin with the phrase: “Jesus said…” Modern scholars believe that it may contain many authentic sayings that originate with the pre-Easter Jesus. It has many sayings that specifically involve the idea of the Kingdom of God.

In the Gospel of Thomas the Kingdom of God is not some place off in the distance or off in time. It is right here in front of us. It is here and now. While this is also suggested in verses from the New Testament canon, nowhere is it as clearly stated as within the Gospel of Thomas. One of its passages says:

His students said to him: When will the kingdom come? Jesus said: It will not come because you are watching for it. No one will announce, “Look, here it is,” or “Look, there it is.” The Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth and people do not see it.

Another passage states:

His students said to him: When will the dead rest? When will the new world come? He said to them: What you look for has come but you do not know it.

The Kingdom of God is not a place. It is a way of seeing the world. It is a direct knowing of reality. The concept of a God that is both transcendent and immanent underlies the Gospel of Thomas. There is no separation between God and the world. Everything is in and of God. Therefore to experience reality directly is to enter the Kingdom of God, and to enter the Kingdom of God is to know God directly. One of the most important passages in the gospel says:

If your leaders tell you, “Look, the kingdom is in the sky,” then the birds of the heavens will precede you. If they say to you, “It’s in the sea,” then the fish will precede you. But the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are the children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty.

Another saying states:

Jesus said: If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you have nothing within you, what you do not have within you will kill you.

And another:

Jesus said: One who knows everything else but who does not know himself knows nothing.

The key point in the Gospel of Thomas is that we have to “know ourselves.” Entering the Kingdom of God is the equivalent of knowing God directly. To know God, we must first know ourselves because God is part of our innermost being. That is the primary message of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas. The gospel also contains a whole series of “Kingdom sayings” that start with “The Father’s kingdom is like…” These are a series of parables whose purpose is to challenge the reader to open up to a broader understanding of God. The gospel also contains many more sayings of a spiritual nature that are worthy of study by the modern Christian.

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