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
- accepted the biblical demiurgical proposition that the cosmos was not created as a result of the initiative of the highest God,
- were intensely interested in speculation about the true nature of divinity and the supracosmic realms
- were focussed on the soul’s eventual transcendence of the created order and on patterns of spirituality that would contribute to this goal
- 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.)