Our Scripture reading today has its source in a relatively new work that I invite you to discover. This work is entitled A New New Testament, edited with commentary by Professor Hal Taussig. With this text, we are looking at the discovery of ancient Christian writings in the desert of Egypt in 1945. Over 100 sacred documents were literally unearthed and became known as the Nag Hammadi collection. Many of these texts were found to have been written within the same period as those of the familiar New Testament. Accordingly, Prof. Taussig used that period of time, roughly 25 AD to 175 AD, as bookends for choosing 43 documents to be introduced and read by a diverse group of scholars, ministers, women religious and theological professors. The 19 members of the New Orleans Council met in 2011 to read, discuss and vote on these documents. They selected 10 documents to be included in A New New Testament. These 10 documents were then shuffled with the traditional New Testament writings, organized by thematic categories, and poetically introduced by sections of the Odes of Solomon. Their final product was published in 2013 entitled, The New New Testament.
The 10 Books chosen for inclusion are:
• The Prayer of Thanksgiving
• The Gospel of Thomas
• Odes of Solomon
• Thunder: Perfect Mind
• The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
• The Gospel of Truth
• The Prayer of the Apostle Paul
• Acts of Paul and Thecla
• Letter of Peter to Philip
• The Secret Revelation of John
In the Preface, Prof. Taussig states his intention:
A New New Testament invites the reader onto a serious, inspiring, and well-informed journey into the very early writings of those in the legacy of Jesus. It offers the chance to form new opinions about the earliest traditions of the Christ movements without the demands of later Christian doctrine or church organizations working to overwhelm with dogma or formal interpretations. Selected by a council of spiritual leaders – pastors and scholars, bishops and historians – it also includes new prayers from the first and second centuries, beckoning twenty-first-century readers to encounter and inhabit the meditations and practices of their predecessors.
My intention is to encourage your own theological journey. This new rendition of the New Testament will open doors and windows into your faith, bringing questions and insights. Today we will explore the Gospel of Thomas. I pray these musings will be of service to you and your spiritual journey.
The Gospel of Thomas is the first book presented in A New New Testament. This Gospel is not a story text spinning a tale of the life of Jesus like the familiar Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Gospel of Thomas is simply a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus. Much as we use chapter and verse to refer to Scripture, scholars translating the sayings of the Gospel of Thomas use the Greek word logia in place of “sayings.” The singular form is logion. This is how we refer to the stanzas: Logion 24, or together they are the logia of the Gospel of Thomas. It is a format used for many of the Nag Hammadi texts.
About half of the logia of Thomas are also found in the familiar Gospels of the New Testament. About half are new and open to interpretation. This Gospel is believed to have been written as early as 50 AD which places its composition earlier than the canonical Gospels. The Gospel of Mark is the earliest, written in roughly 70 AD. Written in Greek originally, the manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi are Coptic translations of the earlier Greek texts. Coptic is an early language of Egypt which was later replaced by Egyptian Arabic when the Muslims conquered Egypt.
In Thomas, most of the logia start with, “Jesus said...” as one would expect for sayings of Jesus. But a handful begin with questions posed by others. It is fascinating to notice who asks those questions. Several are attributed to “his followers” or “his disciples”. But some people are named. There are questions by Peter, Matthew, and Thomas, familiar disciples. More surprisingly there are also questions by Mary, Salome, and “a woman in the crowd.” It may seem a small thing, but the presence of women with the men who followed Jesus can be seen as supporting their place among his disciples. Jesus replies to the women as easily as he replies to the men. The Gospels of both Philip and Magdalene also support the claim of women among the disciples. Today Magdalene is recognized as the Apostle to the Apostles because she was the first to be commissioned by Jesus to spread his Good News. More on Mary and Philip later. For now, let’s look at a few of the logia of Thomas.
These Gnostic texts can be very esoteric and challenging to understand. I turn to the translations and commentaries of French theologian and philosopher Jean-Yves Leloup. For me, his insights and creative vision are enlightening and resonate with my own beliefs. The short biography on his website introduces Jean-Yves:
Jean-Yves Leloup is a theologian, French Orthodox priest, Coptic translator, and founder of the Institute of Other Civilization Studies and the International College of Therapists.
Jean-Yves translated the Gospel of Mary Magdalene in 2002, the Gospel of Philip in 2004, and the Gospel of Thomas in 2005. In Thomas, he adds his personal commentary and interpretations of each logion. We will follow his thoughts as we look at a few of those sayings of Yeshua, the Aramaic version of the name Jesus.
Even with the first reading we notice that in the logia of Thomas light is a major theme.
His disciples asked:
“Teach us about the place where you dwell,
for we must seek it.”
He told them:
Those who have ears, let them hear!
There is light within people of light,
and they shine it upon the whole world.
If they do not shine it,
Images of Light are prevalent throughout the New Testament Gospels with which we are familiar. This logion is echoed in other Gospels.
Matthew, chapter 6: The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
Luke chapter 11: Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness.
And the Gospel of John is filled with light. In the first chapter of John we read:
There appeared a man sent from God, whose name was John; he came as a witness – to bear witness to the light so that through him everyone might believe. He was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light. That was the true light which enlightens everyone coming into the world.
In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus speaks plainly about this light:
I am the Light
that shines on everyone.
I am the All.
The All came forth from me
and the All came into me.
Split the wood, and I am there.
Turn over the stone,
and there you will find me.
Jean-Yves interprets this logion, suggesting that “I am the All” has the meaning of unity of all that is human. Jesus is speaking of his manifestation as a human man to be a merging of all that it means to be human, the light and the dark. He incarnates the Divine within the human. Jean-Yves sees the life of Jesus as a model for what we can achieve in our lives. He has a beautiful take on this idea. He writes:
In psychological terms we may say that the Christ is alive in us when we are totally ourselves, excluding nothing of what we are. It is when we are no longer fragmented, no longer made up of more or less well-chosen parts sewn imperfectly together.
The goal of a Gnostic view of life is to turn and see the light within ourselves. The goal is to merge our light and our dark, our male and female, and become a whole human being. We all have the light of the Spirit, to one degree or another. The Gospel of Thomas speaks of ways to remember and to live into the light.
Jesus affirms his embodiment of Light in many verses of the Gospel of John. John 12 in particular speaks of the purpose of the Light of Jesus:
I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.”
Then in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus turns this image around and applies it to his disciples:
If they ask you from where you come,
We were born of the Light,
there where Light is born of Light.
It holds true
and is revealed within their image.
If they ask you who you are,
We are its children,
the beloved of the Father, the Living One.
If they ask you what is the sign of the Father in you,
it is movement and it is repose.
This repose points towards silence, calm vision, emotional rest, and simple observation. Meditation is a practice, whether sitting or moving, that focuses the mind, calming the usual chaos of fear, worries, calculations, and ruminations. We can get caught up in figuring things out, categorizing, working out logistics, planning and organizing. We can get so busy we sometimes don’t find time to actually do what we plan so meticulously. This logion calls us to pause from our movement and be at rest. The “sign of the Father in you” is both movement and repose. Honor the repose. Honor the Sabbath. The image of Jesus as the Light of the World invites us to see that we are light and to the light we will return.
A core teaching of Gnosis is awaking from the illusion of life. We believe that we live in the real world. Another view is that our lives are but a reflection of what is real. Our true being is hidden within our physical body, dominated by our busy mind and distracting emotions.
Blessed are you, the whole ones and the chosen ones.
You will find the Kingdom,
for you came from there,
and you will return.
Jean-Yves comments: “the whole ones” the “chosen ones” translates as “those in solitude.” The idea is that solitude and silence are the conditions in which Spirit will be met. The process of unification with God is something we can practice through meditation – sitting or moving. Seeking to join with God in our heart of hearts, we are best served with silence and solitude. Jean-Yves sees this process as a repetitive practice. He writes:
To be chosen over and over again is to be open to this great wave of Life that is vibrating through us, from head to toe, from birth to death. It is to be One with Alpha and Omega.
An insight I gained in studying Thomas and Jean-Yves’ commentaries centered on what he wrote here, “To be chosen over and over again…” The Gnostic goals, to be one with God, experience total peace, gift another unconditional love and acceptance… these are not a state of being which we strive for and achieve, and then stay that way forever. They are not a one-time thing. These states of grace are something we can experience for a moment. These expressions of love and compassion light our lives like lights on the Christmas tree – multicolored and filtered throughout our lives. Our life experience is a collection of expressions, encounters, images. This is one reason photographs are so powerful; they capture a moment in time, a state of being, giving us the opportunity to relive that moment, to feel that emotion, to smell those cookies again with our beloved.
The condition of human life is complicated, surprising, manifesting wildly in a thousand different ways and events. Instead of aiming for perfection, strive to love, choose love more often. Touch peace, experience peace, become familiar with it, like a favorite blanket or shawl or sweater. Become familiar with it so you can pull it around your shoulders any time you need to.
The heavens and the earth will roll up before you.
The living who come from the Living
Will know neither fear nor death,
For it is said:
Whoever has self-knowledge,
The world cannot contain them.
I invite you to read the Gospel of Thomas for yourself. The translation in A New New Testament is lovely, as is the translation and interpretations of Jean-Yves Leloup. I invite you to put on the reading glasses of the Gnostic and see how these logia might speak to you. Amen.