Belief in Jesus? – Perrin on Thomas

I am currently reading Nicholas Perrin’s  Thomas, the Other Gospel (London: SPCK, 2007). It’s been on my shelf for ages but something else has always pushed itself to the fore until now.

He begins by outlining his project – the quest for the historical Gospel of Thomas, then outlines the work of Stephen J Patterson, Elaine Pagels and April DeConick,indicating where he agrees and disagrees with their approaches, before (I assume, because I haven’t read that far yet) providing an approach of his own. I have been struck by a number of things that will require some careful digestion, but something that I found really odd was his comment on p 51 that salvation in GosThom “did not, at any rate, involve belief in Jesus”.

I found it odd because the whole of the gospel is sayings of Jesus which, one assumes, the reader who wishes not to experience death must believe. Surely, then, belief in Jesus is as essential a part of Thomas Christianity as it is of any other kind of Christianity? The issue, I guess is belief in Jesus as what?. Thomas requires belief in Jesus as Teacher of Truth, while Apostolic Christianity, at least as it is practised in more Evangelical circles today, requires belief in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

8 thoughts on “Belief in Jesus? – Perrin on Thomas

  1. Judy, interesting post. I think there’s a differences between “believing Jesus about the truth” and “believing in Jesus as ‘the’ teacher of truth”. I don’t know if Thomas pushes us one way or the other, but they are not the same thing. Also, I think you could substitute “Evangelical” for “Proto-Orthodox” and frame it in historical terms rather than contemporary ones.

  2. Mike, I agree that there are differences between “believing Jesus” and “believing in Jesus”. As I thought about this overnight it occurred to me that perhaps Jesus in Thomas might be Source of Wisdom, rather than Teacher of Truth, and that might make a difference.

    Just wondering how you conceptualise the difference? As I see it, to believe that someone is telling the truth doesn’t require any action on the part of the hearer. Having a belief in someone, OTOH, requires the hearer to put what s/he is hearing into practice. So, if I am stuck up a tree and my husband says I should jump down and he will catch me and I won’t get hurt, I can only demonstrate my belief in his ability to fulfil that undertaking by jumping.

    Using this distinction, I think that GosThom is calling for belief in Jesus, in that it begins by saying that whoever finds the interpretations of Jesus’s sayings (as contained in the gospel) will not experience death, so it requires the action of finding the meaning of Jesus’ secret sayings.

    And re the difference between “Evangelical” and “Proto-Orthodox”, yes, point taken.

  3. Judy, I appreciate the post. I would have to agree with Nick that Gos Thom does not really call for belief in Jesus. The entire soteriological program in Thomas is based upon proper interpretation of Jesus’ words but no emphasis is ever put on belief in Jesus’ person (unlike the Synoptic tradition). Of course, I have a number of disagreements with Nick on Gos Thom but here I am siding with him. Looking forward to more on this and I’m planning to link to your discussions.

    Chris Skinner

  4. Pingback: Judy Redman Critiques Nick Perrin « PEJE IESOUS

  5. Chris,

    First, I should point out that I am thinking out loud in this post, rather than expressing an opinion that I would go to the wall over. I am appreciating the interactions.

    I agree that there is no explicit call in Thomas to believe in Jesus’ person, just as there is no attempt in Thomas to convince the reader that Jesus is someone special. The latter seems to be assumed, in that there would be no point in providing a collection of his sayings if he were not the kind of person worth paying attention to.

    It is clear that the author of Thomas did not consider Jesus to be the Messiah, but s/he clearly considered Jesus to be someone whose secret teachings had the power to enable those who understood them not to have to endure death. To commit to the work of finding their meaning requires belief in the ability of the person who said them to know the secret of life. Thus, it seems to me that while the canonical gospels call people to belief in Jesus, Thomas assumes that those who begin the quest for understanding already believe in Jesus.

    Does this make sense?

  6. Judy, what you says does make sense. However, I find it a bit difficult to buy into the assumption that Thomas assumes readers already believe in Jesus. After all, we have no narrative structure, no direct theological propositions, and we don’t even know what genre or theological outlook Thomas represents. In the case of the canonical gospels, the call is explicit and the story bears that out. So, all that to say I’m still not convinced. Looking forward to your interactions with Nick.


  7. Chris, it is the lack of narrative structure, theological propositions, genre or theological outlook that makes me think that Thomas was writing for people who already believed in Jesus. I think it is very difficult to determine what they believed him to be, but the author makes absolutely no attempt to convince the reader that what Jesus said is worth listening to. I find myself wondering why you would go to all the trouble of making a collection of Jesus’ sayings of this length without any “PR” for him unless you knew you were “preaching to the converted.” I find myself in some sympathy with those that suggest that Thomas is a supplementary text for those who are already part of the group of Jesus followers, rather than an introductory text, which I think the canonical gospels, especially the synoptics, probably are.

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