For several years now I’ve been intrigued by the hypothesis of Dr. Elaine Pagels that the Gospel of John was written as a critique of the Gospel of Thomas. In many of her works, but especially in “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas” she paints the picture of two rival Christian communities; Christian believers who rallied around the apostle Thomas, and another group of Christian believers who rallied around the apostle John.
Looking at the two Gospels which bear their respective names she lifts out some severe differences. Most notably is the suggestion in the Gospel of Thomas that the Light of God is within us. John says ‘no,’ it’s in Jesus.
The part of this hypothesis that most intrigues me is her assertion that each gospel author bases a large part of their writing on differing exegeses of the creation story in the Book of Genesis. While Thomas claims over and over again that the divine can be found from within – because we are all created in God’s image (us and Jesus), John includes explicit references in his prologue to say that while the Light was in the world the Light wasn’t understood, known or received until the Word/ Light became flesh. In other words: the Light isn’t us, it’s Jesus.
Mark, Matthew, and Luke mention Thomas only as one of “the twelve.” John singles him out as “the doubter”—the one who failed to understand who Jesus is, or what he is saying, and rejected the testimony of the other disciples. John then tells how the risen Jesus personally appeared to Thomas in order to rebuke him, and brought him to his knees. From this we might conclude, as most Christians have for nearly two millennia, that Thomas was a particularly obtuse and faithless disciple—though many of John’s Christian contemporaries revered Thomas as an extraordinary apostle, entrusted with Jesus’ ”secret words.” The scholar Gregory Riley suggests that John portrays Thomas this way for the practical—and polemical—purpose of deprecating Thomas Christians and their teaching. According to John, Jesus praises those “who have not seen, and yet believed” without demanding proof, and rebukes Thomas as “faithless” because he seeks to verify the truth from his own experience.
Kindle Text Location 892-99 “Beyond Belief,” Elaine Pagels
Dr. Pagels points out three stories of Thomas that are only found in the Gospel of John – and all of which paint Thomas in a very poor light. The first is when Jesus is headed off to raise Lazarus and Thomas forlornly adds that the disciples should go to that “we should die with him.” Then when Jesus tell his disciples that he is going ahead of them to prepare a place for them, Thomas responds ‘where are you going? How can we know the way?’ And, then when Resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples – Thomas ‘missed the meeting.’ He wasn’t there, and then refused to believe unless he had proof.
Then, when Jesus appeared a second time, this time with Thomas present, Thomas utters the words that would never be found in the Gospel that bears his name: “My lord and my God!”
Therefore if Pagels (and Gregory Riley) are correct, what we find on “Thomas Sunday” in none-other than an ancient reminder of two communities that claimed to be Christian but who differed remarkably when it came to Christology. It should be said that the actual apostle Thomas may not have been the author of the illicit gospel that bears his name, nor the leader of a community that took his name and identity as their own – but the evidence looks good that there was indeed a community of self-proclaimed Christians who really believed that they were followers of the apostle Thomas.
So. . . here’s my thoughts on preaching this Sunday. . .
I hate to break this to you. . . but the crowds that you saw overtaking your pews on Easter Sunday probably aren’t going to all be back this Sunday. In other words, if you’re like most churches, you’ll have a few more vacant pews this week than you did last week.
And, while we all lament that, there is a wonderful opportunity here. I always look on the ‘low Sunday’ attenders as being particularly ‘hard core.’ So, I think a little in-depth sermonic history and theology is well within the bounds of possibility this week.
Go for it!
The Gospel of Thomas – and other ‘secret’ ‘forbidden’ ‘gnostic’ texts have gotten a lot of press in the last decade. There’s just something about ‘something else’ being out there that we weren’t all taught in Sunday School that sounds intriguing, cool, and like the beginnings of a scandal. Like the cookie jar that we were all told to keep out of, there’s something attractive to modern audiences about illicit, heretical writings. And, so I say, go for it!
To take the Gospel of Thomas head-on, to take an opportunity to raise the theological diversity of the ancient Church, AND to take the opportunity to say why in the end the Gospel of John made the cut and the Gospel of Thomas (with all it’s new-age-y ‘stuff’) didn’t – is important.
And, to me, that’s such a better option than one more sermon on how doubting isn’t all that bad anyway. . . it’s the ‘ants in the pants of faith’ . . . blah. . . blah. . . blah.
For further reading:
Elaine Pagels’ book Beyond Belief.
Or, the journal article (available on EBSCO/ ATLA database) Exegesis of Genesis 1 in the Gospels of Thomas and John. Pagels, Elaine H. Journal of Biblical Literature 118 no 3 Fall 1999, p 477-496. 1999.