Robbins and Gagné on Thomas

Today, I read two pieces of writing on Thomas – the seventh chapter (“My Mouth is Utterly Unable to Say What You are Like!”) in Vernon K Robbins’ new book Who Do People Say I Am?: Rewriting gospel in emerging Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: W B Eerdmans Pub Co, 2013) and André Gagné’s “Jésus, la lumière et le Père vivant. Principe de gémellité dans l’Évangile selon Thomas” (Apocrypha 23, no. 1 (2012): 209-21). The latter title translates roughly into English as “Jesus, the light and the living Father. The principle of twinship in the Gospel according to Thomas”. I found out about the first from a review on April DeConick’s Forbidden Gospels blog and the latter from a post on André’s blog which he announced on the Nag Hammadi Seminar Facebook page. If you don’t have access to the journal, you can read the text on Scribd from André’s blog, something I really appreciated.

I don’t propose to review Robbins’ book because I don’t have time to read the other chapters at the moment, but if this one is typical, I am very pleased that I bought myself a copy. Because he is looking at what various early Christian communities said about who Jesus was, he compares Thomas to the canon, especially John. He makes a number of points that I had not thought about in this way before He says “Thomas shows us how some early Christians were trying to push their thinking and believing both inwardly and outwardly into regions beyond both time and space. They were in their own way creating speculative or imaginative Christian philosophy” (p 115). And then: “Jesus, then, does not redeem people through his actions, that is, by dying on the cross or performing miracles of healing. Rather, he saves people through the sayings he speaks” (p 116). He notes that Jesus is presented as a righteous messenger, but that he draws attention to what already is (the Kingdom spread throughout the world), rather than what is to come (p 116) and argues that the heavens and earth rolling up described in S111 has nothing to do with the Kingdom. At the time that this happens, the earth will simply cease to exist together with all those who have not “found” the Kingdom, but the Kingdom will continue to exist as it is already existing – a place outside time (p 121-123, 130). He spends some time looking at the significance of light in Thomas and says “In the Gospel of Thomas, all the elect have come from the place of light and will return to the place of light when they seek and find the Kingdom, through the Living One, namely Jesus, who is in their presence” (p 136).

He offers the following as an elucidation of S2:

When people seek until they find within Jesus’ sayings, they will be disturbed when they find. When they are disturbed, however, they will begin to marvel! When they marvel, then they will begin to know the Living One who is in their presence. And when the know the Living One, they will know that they themselves have come from the place of light, they will take off their earthly clothes and return to the place of light, and in the place of light they will dwell in the motion and rest of the Living Father. (p 136)

It was interesting to move from this to Gagné’s article, which also looks at the significance of light. The English abstract says:

Very few studies have engaged in a synchronic reading of the Gospel according to Thomas. But such a perspective contributes to a better understanding of many of the Thomasine logia, as well as an appreciation of the doctrinal particularities of such an enigmatic text. This article is a test case which presents an analysis of the analogous characterization of Jesus, light, and the living Father in the Gos. Thom. The Thomasine tradition portrays Jesus and his Father in terms of twinship. This is what lies behind the similar characteristics of both figures.

He begins with the fact that Ménard, in his commentary, notes the correspondence between Jesus and the Father and suggests that it is a primitive form of modalism, but that since then scholarship has tended to focus more on the history of the redaction of the collection of sayings than on the interpretation of the hidden words it contains. Gagné’s article looks, rather, at the interrelationship between the Father, the light and Jesus. He begins by arguing that the responsibility for finding meaning rests with the reader, not the text and that behind the appearance of disorganisation of the sayings, there may be a certain coherence which the reader must discover in order to find the meaning. He argues that in some places in the text it is possible to see chains of meaning that link sayings to one another (that is, the links are much more significant than simply catchwords) so that we are always in relentless pursuit of wisdom. (p 211-212).

Beginning on p 215, he then looks at sayings 49 and 50 as the jumping off point for examining what at first glance appear to be examples of modalism in Thomas, discussing the significance of the terms ‘solitary’ and ‘elect’. After a careful analysis of the text he concludes that there is therefore no modalism in such statements. He asks whether we should simply give up trying to find some consistency in the Thomasine sayings or could there be another principle at work that could explain the characterization of Jesus as light and living Father (p 220). Clearly, the answer to this rhetorical question is ‘no’. He concludes that:

In logion 108, the revelation of hidden things is promised to those who drink from the mouth of Jesus. Obviously, there is a correspondence between what is hidden and the hidden words in the first lines of Gos Thom. The disciple is transformed by the words of Jesus. When he receives the words (= drinks from the mouth of Jesus), it is then that his own identity is lost in that of his master. Like Didymus Judas Thomas, who is recognized as the true hermeneutic of Jesus, the disciples, too, become a kind of twin of the master.

Logion 106 talks about the manner in which those who give themselves over to the principle of unity become Sons of Man. This unquestionably corresponds to the input of logion 108 where the “son of man” becomes “twin” of Jesus, the Son of Man.

The concept of twinship may be what is behind the characterization of Jesus as the living Father. Jesus is somehow the twin of his Father, so he has the same characteristics. Like their Master, the disciples will also come to demonstrate the characteristics of Jesus, even to the point of carrying the title that is normally attributed to him, “son of man.” (p 221 – my translation without Coptic inclusions because I can’t easily manage either Coptic alphabet or transliterations in WordPress)

Although neither author makes any comment about whether or not Thomas is Gnostic, both their treatments give me a better insight into how it can be seen as Gnostic than do any of the other writing that I’ve read.

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4 thoughts on “Robbins and Gagné on Thomas

  1. Good post, Judy. Thanks for the pointers concerning Gagne’s work & the Nag Hammadi Seminar. I too was referred to Robbins’ book by April’s blog & I’ve purchased it, but not read it yet. There are certainly connections between GTh and aspects of Gnostic doctrine, as your above descriptions & quotes hint. 2 older books which emphasize Gnostic elements in GTh are F,F, Bruce, ‘Jesus & Christian Origins Outside the New Testament’ (Eerdmans, 1977) & Grant and Freedman, ‘The Secret Sayings of Jesus’ (1960). Bruce devotes a chapter to GTh, 49 pages, providing comment on each saying while Grant/Freedman have a 12 page chapter, “The Gnostics and Thomas” that delves into Gnostic theology and make comparisons between GTh & gnostic writings like “Pistis Sophia” throughout their book. You may already have these books included in your bibliography. Sayings in GTh that portray nakedness or disrobing (e.g., 37) seem to be Gnostic.

  2. Pingback: Robbins on his book | Judy's research blog

  3. Beyond the Gospel of Thomas with all of its added illumination of the historical Jesus to supplement Christianity, stands the Sermon on the Mount, our earliest NT stratum which contains our sole original and originating faith and witness of the apostles. Hans Dieter Betz the exert on the Sermon writes: “This source presents us with an early form (deriving from the Jerusalem Jesus Movement) of the (Jesus event) as a whole which had direct links to the teaching of Jesus and thus constituted an alternative to Gentile Christianity (becoming orthodox Christianity) as known above all from the letters of Paul, the Gospels, aas well as later writings of the NT.” See Essays on the Sermon on the Mount by Hans Dieter Betz.

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