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The Gospel of Thomas

 

Question & Answer

 
Q: By A Reader
 
How important and relevant is the Gospel of Thomas in our continuing search for the real Jesus? How does it help us to interpret his message and mission?
 
A: By Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox
 
Dear Reader,

My experience is that there are two ways to approach the Gospel of Thomas.  One is simply to pick up a current translation and read it with the heart as one would a mystical text or a lectio divina reading.  The second is to read what scholars say first (such as Funk and the Jesus Seminar people in their translation and running commentary in The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?).  The first reading will be more magical.

But the second reading will probably be more grounded while subtracting somewhat from the magic of the first reading.  When the scholars finish with the text, there really is not a lot left other than some sayings that are very close to sayings we already know from the four gospels.  For example, of the 114 sayings, Funk and Company recognize only 36 as being certainly from Jesus and many of them only partially so.  Many sayings are already familiar from the Beatitudes or from familiar parables and kingdom of God sayings with slight variations from the four gospel versions. (Though # 113 is especially rich.)

Those sayings not attributed to Jesus can nevertheless contain rich wisdom such as these wonderful “I am” teachings:

#77.  “Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things.  I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained.  Split a piece of wood: I am there.  Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”  The “I am” sayings add to those in John’s gospel which also are not those of the historical Jesus.  They are wisdom sayings, however, just as many sections of the four gospels are not from Jesus’s lips but do house wisdom.

There are provocative gender sayings which are not primary texts either such as # 114.  In short, the book introduces us (once again) to the complexity of the sparse early sources of Christianity.  Combinations and layers of texts from diverse sources mixing.

Scholars stress how the gnostic tradition infiltrates the text in many instances and alert us to be careful of its dualism and overidentification of evil with matter and the body for instance.  A good warning to heed indeed!  Such passages take us far indeed from Jesus’s much more earthy and integrated worldview of spirit and matter.

Just because few sayings can actually be ascribed to Jesus does not mean there is not wisdom there.  After all, much of the Gospels’ words attributed to Jesus were not his words but this need not distract from the wisdom that is there.  I have always marveled at how confident early Christians were in their own spiritual experiences that they did not  hesitate to put words into Jesus’s mouth!

So there is much in the Gospel of Thomas that can inspire and uplift and challenge us, whether it is traceable directly to the “real Jesus” or not.  The spirit Jesus let loose by his teachings and presence continues to inspire many (including great mystics like Hildegard, Eckhart, Julian, etc) and we derive much benefit from reading them with heart as well as head.  Why not the Gospel of Thomas also?

~ Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author
Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox holds a doctorate in spirituality from the Institut Catholique de Paris and has authored 35 books on spirituality and contemporary culture that have been translated into 74 languages. Fox has devoted 45 years to developing and teaching the tradition of Creation Spirituality and in doing so has reinvented forms of education and worship (called The Cosmic Mass). His work is inclusive of today’s science and world spiritual traditions and has awakened millions to the much neglected earth-based mystical tradition of the West. He has helped to rediscover Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas. Among his books are A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality JourneyMeister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior For Our TimesHildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our TimesStations of the Cosmic Christ; Order of the Sacred EarthThe Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times; and Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic – And Beyond. To encourage a passionate response to the news of climate change advancing so rapidly, Fox started Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox – See Welcome from Matthew Fox.

Review & Commentary