Thomas as “authentic Jesus tradition” – more thoughts

As I was driving to the university this morning, it occurred to me that my response to the notion of Thomas from a Christian theological perspective was just a tad too cavalier. (I am blaming this on jet lag, because I can. 🙂 ).

I am very dubious about our ability to recover the exact words that Jesus spoke. I am more confident that we can recover authentic Jesus content in terms of ideas and teachings, but not necessarily as Jesus said it. What we have available is manuscripts that give us some idea of how various early Christian communities understood Jesus’ teachings. How relevant they are for the Christian church today depends to a large extent on the framework in which they were understood at the time. How close was the framework to that which the Church currently understands as orthodox?

Michael Williams calls into question the usefulness of the term Gnosticism, as does Karen King. Williams suggests that there was a group of people who

  1. accepted the biblical demiurgical proposition that the cosmos was not created as a result of the initiative of the highest God,
  2. were intensely interested in speculation about the true nature of divinity and the supracosmic realms
  3. were focussed on the soul’s eventual transcendence of the created order and on patterns of spirituality that would contribute to this goal
  4. saw nothing un-Christian in these views. (Rethinking Gnosticism Princeton University Press, 1999, 261-262)

He calls this position “biblical demiurgical”. Orthodox Christianity clearly does see something un-Christian in these views and non-canonical manuscripts that come out of this framework are not of much use to the Christian theologian, but I don’t see Thomas as fitting into this category because I don’t see evidence of 1. or 2. in the text. So, if it is not biblical demiurgical/gnostic, is early and is likely to contain authentic Jesus tradition, I think that the Church needs at least to ask questions like: What if the councils of the early Church got it wrong? How different would our practice of the faith look if we added Thomas to our mix of Scripture? Thomas was condemned as heresy by some of the early Fathers, but is there a problem with the text itself or was it with how the communities who held it to be authoritative used it? How important is the tradition of the Church in determining what we believe and how we live today? (Of course, different branches of the Church will answer this last quite differently.)

2 thoughts on “Thomas as “authentic Jesus tradition” – more thoughts

  1. As you can imagine, Williams’ work is challenging to those who currently work with Gnostic myth, archetpype, and aesthetic on a personal and spiritual level. He admittedly has made great strides in criticizing the “monolithic” model of Gn as “Christian heresy” but in my opinion cannot make a real argument for dispensing with the term (I’m with Ehrman on this). Excerpt from an old blog post of mine…

    Rethinking “Williams”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Reasoning

    I have four tools in my toolbox: each are heavy objects with a handle and a sticky label.

    The first is a hammer with the label “hammer”.
    The second is a hammer with the label “hammer”.
    The third is a hammer with the label “hammer”.
    The fourth is a pipe wrench with the label “hammer”.

    As the label is sometimes used improperly, we must conclude that there really is no such thing as a “hammer” and we should dispense with the term altogether.


    We have documented evidence that the Cathars had vegetarian diets, that is to say, diets being identical with that of modern-day vegetarians. However, nowhere in the contemporary accounts of Cathar meatlessness is the term “vegetarian” even used! Therefore we must likewise conclude that the Cathars were not vegetarian because they didn’t themselves use the word.

    Further further;

    Medieval seafarers; upon seeing walruses for the first time, often mistook them for mermaids. Modern science of course knows that many of the attributes ignorantly attributed to mermaids (long hair, lovely singing voice, shell-covered boobies) do not apply to walruses. Therefore we must conclude there is no such thing as a walrus.

    And yes, he really does employ this reasoning to insist that there’s no such thing as us. Instead, we’re “biblical demiurgicals”; a term which is merely an awkward euphemism for “Gnostic”.

    Bart Ehrman says “Doing away with ‘Gnosticism’ entirely would be to fragment our knowledge to such an extent that we can’t know what we’re talking about.”

    Setting Jonas and even Quispel’s framing aside, the common thread among “Gnostic” scripture, myth, and movements was and is soteriological; what makes us free is the gnosis of who we were, of what we have become.

  2. Jordan,

    Thanks for this. The problem that I see with applying the term “Gnostic” to the people who produced the writings that we call gnostic is that this is not the name they gave themselves. Neither is “biblical demiurgical”, but I don’t think that there’s as much danger of anyone thinking that this is how people thought of themselves. I don’t think that you can reasonably apply the label “biblical demiurgical” to GThom as there is no obvious understanding of the presence/work of demiurges in it. It is a narrower term than “gnostic” as we currently use it, and this is, I think, the point that Williams is trying to make.

    The other problem with the term “Gnostic” is that people tend to think of Gnosticism as a monolithic group, rather than recognising that it is a blanket term that covers a significant range of belief and practice. Of course, Christians also tend to think that Islam and Judaism are monolithic although they know that there is a breadth of belief and practice amongst Christians.

    The difference between Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Gnosticism, however, is that all Christians accept the same Scriptures, all Jews accept the same Scriptures, all Muslims accept the same Scriptures, whereas it seems possible that not all “Gnostics” accepted the same Scriptures. I haven’t done enough reading in this area (and don’t intend to in the near future because I don’t have time) to know what status the various gnostic writings had amongst the groups who used them. It seems to me likely, though, that at least some of the gnostic writings had the status of Scripture and that different gnostic groups used different writings to inform their belief and practice. Therefore, I think it is more accurate to speak of Sethians, Valentians etc than to use the label Gnostic as though it were the equivalent of Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

    How contemporary Gnostics choose to name themselves and how they treat the various gnostic writings is another issue entirely and up to them, but I don’t think the name “Gnostic” with an uppercase “G” is a helpful one for studying the movements of the early centuries of the common era. Take away the uppercase “G” and I think the term is useful as a general descriptor of people who, as you say, share a common gnosis-based soteriology which was different to that of the groups that were to become the various strands of modern Christianity.

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