Doubting the Gospel of Thomas (Part 2 of 3)

Gospel of Thomas page

A page from an old Gospel of Thomas manuscript

This is the continuation of a post that I pieced together from a forum discussion I had with a religious skeptic named Michael, but who gave himself the handle “Heathen Gnostic”. This particular thread has to do broadly with historical manuscripts and the canon of the Bible and more specifically with the Gnostic “gospels”. (I should note that the Gospel of Thomas (GTh) is not really a “gospel” at all, since that term is used to refer to a particular sort of narrative literature, and GTh (as you will see in Part 3) has no narrative structure.)

We continue, with a response by Michael to one of my earlier statements:

> Of course you can’t. Being a Gnostic means
> you constantly seek knowledge and truth.
> Being a Christian means to not doubt the
> teachings put forth by the Church as True.
> They have intrinsic differences.

Notice that Michael has a rather simplistic understanding of “gnosticism”, which is not totally accurate when talking about ancient manuscripts. Also, we see a hint of his understanding of what Christians believe and why, which I later discovered came from exposure to a lot of Roman Catholic dogma when he was a kid. He obviously feels he is much more open-minded and enlightened.

My response:

“OK, it sounds like we agree that Gnosticism and Christianity are incompatible, but we disagree on the reasons & motivations for the early Church fathers leaving GTh (& others) out of the list of approved texts and the eventual, official Christian canon. I would have to differ with you on your meanings for Gnostic & Christian, though.

Perhaps there is a much looser definition of modern-day Gnosticism that you are referring to. But, if we go back to its origins (as you have advocated elsewhere), Gnosticism meant something quite different. Rather than try to summarize it myself, I’ll include a quote from the book Jesus Under Fire:

‘Gnosticism was an ancient Middle-Eastern religious philosophy with many variations, but unified at least in its commitment to a dualism between the material and immaterial worlds. The creation of the universe, in Gnostic mythologies, more often than not was the product of the rebellion of some ’emanation’ from the godhead. Matter, therefore, was inherently evil; only the world of the spirit was redeemable. Consequently, Gnostics looked forward to immortality of a disembodied soul, not the resurrection of the body. Salvation for them was accomplished by understanding secret or esoteric knowledge (in Greek, gnosis), which most of the world did not and could not know. Hence, the Gnostic libraries contained numerous documents that purported to be secret revelations of the risen Lord to this or that disciple, usually after Jesus’ resurrection.’

As I understand it, the Roman Catholic Church ties spiritual salvation closely to the Church itself and gives equal, if not greater, authority to the R.C. Church (ultimately, the Pope) than to the Bible. Perhaps this is what you are referring to?”

I then gave an explanation for what I believe to be a Biblically-sound description for a true “Christian”. I don’t reproduce it here, because I want to stay on track with the Gnosticism/Thomas thing, but I might include it in another post sometime.

Well, Michael never actually answered that last question. But, he did go back to his assertion about other books being edited out of the official canon of the Bible, because the teachings (e.g., “God is in you”) in these other manuscripts didn’t fit with what Constantine and the bishops at the Council of Nicaea wanted, in order to control their flocks….

Bible with question mark on cover> We won’t know all the writings
> which never made it into the compilation we
> know as The Holy Bible.

My playful-yet-serious response was:

“Isn’t that a little like saying, ‘We’ll never know all the rules & regulations that were never included in the NFL Official Handbook.’? (Is there such a thing?) An imperfect analogy, but I hope you see my point. :-]

Actually, we do know several other works that were disputed over the years or to be used in private, but not public, worship. They include The Shepherd of Hermas (popular among supporters of asceticism), Revelation of Peter, Wisdom of Solomon, Letter of Barnabus, Teaching of Twelve Apostles, Gospel of the Hebrews, Acts of Peter, Didache. Others were disputed but eventually included, e.g., Hebrews and Revelation of John.”

Michael didn’t really have much to say about this anymore, other than accusing me of ridiculing him and trying to diminish & dismiss his point. Sigh! I continued to research and try to give informed, reasoned, & civil answers to his challenges, though it did get frustrating. A few days later, I addressed the issue of whether GTh was written before or after the canonical Gospels. I’ll post that next.


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