What would a stageplay of the Gospel of Matthew look like if they used the author of the Gospel of Thomas as script consultant? An awful lot like Godspell, I suspect. We watched it yesterday because it was Easter Day, so the local TV stations were running some vaguely Christian programming. As I watched, I kept thinking two things:
- If I didn’t already know about the life and death of Jesus, this would make very little sense
- This reminds me very much of the Gospel of Thomas
Like Thomas, Godspell provides the audience with very little context. A man appears. He blows a shofar and people who are unhappy with their lives follow him. He baptises Jesus (dressed as a sad clown) in the local fountain and they go off to a secluded place where Jesus says things, fairly much a propos of nothing. Strange and probably fairly incomprehensible things if you don’t have the back story. We have no idea of the timeframe in which the teaching happens, no context from within which to understand any of the sayings, no miracles, no narrative at all. All very Thomasine.
I could make reasonable sense of it all because I knew the stories behind the sayings, but otherwise it would have been quite mystifying, I think. This reminded me of Thomas. Like the people in the English-speaking world in the second half of the twentieth century (Godspell’s implied audience), Thomas’ implied readers knew the backstory and therefore had no need of it to make sense of the sayings and anyone who didn’t needed to seek until they found it – not the author’s problem, really. I don’t think this stripped down characteristic helps with the dating of Thomas, despite what a number of scholars want to suggest.
Of course, Godspell then moves out of ‘sayings collection’ mode so that Jesus can be betrayed – in Godspell the movie, by the John the Baptist character – and die and be carried away, but no resurrection here, either. Jesus is simply presented as a teacher – as someone who could be described as the righteous messenger and wise philospher that Peter and Matthew proclaim him to be in GTh 13. The screenplay is much closer to the gospel account than is Jesus Christ Superstar (no tapdancing Herod singing “prove to me that you’re divine – change my water into wine”, no disciples singing “then when we retire, we can write the gospels and they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died”), but it still moves the temptations to the night of Jesus’ betrayal and death and has a number of the people around Jesus saying words that the gospels put on Jesus’ lips. It also adds some material that’s only found in Luke. At the time when Superstar and Godspell were box office stage plays, the churches preferred Godspell because it was closer to the Bible, but they condemned both as not presenting the Gospel fully or accurately. Again, a lot like Thomas and the church fathers, really. And maybe, like the writers of Superstar and Godspell, the author of Thomas wasn’t trying to provide a full, accurate account of Jesus.