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The Gospel of Thomas: A Fresh Gospel Perfectly Suited for a New Yet Ancient Spiritual Practice
by Dr. Hal Taussig
For the first time, I see the Gospel of Thomas as an evocative resource for people today. The connection between us and this stunning 20th-century discovery is palpable now — for some very specific reasons. It’s time for this gospel to go public! Before I lay out bigger circumstances for us to jump into this engaging gospel from almost 2,000 years ago, let’s take our first little bite of it.
Jesus said, “When you give birth to the one within you, that one will save you. If you do not have that one within you, that one will kill you.” (Saying 70)
Here’s some of what I like about this saying in the Gospel of Thomas. It’s something I’ve never heard from Jesus before. It proposes that I (a man) can give birth to someone inside me.
That to which I can give birth can save me from some of the things I need to be saved from.
Too much candy.
Working too much.
Forgetting my dreams.
It severely warns me about not giving birth.
I like how this surprises me.
It starts me thinking about what will help me give birth.
It asks me to notice what is slipping away from me and needs to be saved.
Saying 70 indicates some new space for the Gospel of Thomas in the public sphere. There is more like this in this gospel.
Strong New Currents
Granted, the Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945, was almost immediately recognized as a new kind of gospel, one in which there was no storyline, just 114 different teachings of Jesus. These 114 sayings caught people’s attention since about half of them were sayings already known from the New Testament, while the other half were more or less brand new to the churches and the public. In its first 60 years, the newly uncovered gospel seemed to be an engaging curiosity. There were no important meanings unlocked to the world. No particularly attractive spiritual paths were found. Nothing made our hearts beat faster in those first 60 years.
But now we are finding some strong new currents in the Gospel of Thomas that offer major help for the way we live our lives: jump-starting fascinating fresh understandings, unfurling an innovative rhythm of spiritual practice, and accompanying key approaches and questions in our time.
What has happened that now allows this gospel to have a clear and open-minded voice for our time?
- Our challenging time thirsts for spiritual depth and freshness. We have little bandwidth for more spiffy advertising jingles or cynical closing down. We know how just buying more stuff or showing how everybody is wrong offers no real hope. The Gospel of Thomas comes with the depth of long ago. But unlike biblical gospels of the same era, this relatively newly discovered document sounds fresh. For our time, it offers a combination of new enough thoughts to surprise and old enough to be mature.
- The Gospel of Thomas has a method and practice from the ancient world that matches the 21st-century longings for a combination of ‘no-long-speeches’ and ‘pointed-and-creative’ wisdom. Notice, for instance, Saying 77’s short and deep answer from Jesus: “Lift the stone, you will see me there. Split the piece of wood, I am there.”
- We are overwhelmed with so much to read and view. The Gospel of Thomas does not want to be read all at once, but asks to be read slowly, indeed meditatively. It offers a chance to turn off a good segment of the constant chatter of rumors, half-thoughts, and anxieties.
- I grant that in these days fewer of us are interested in a steady diet of Bible verses. This gospel offers a curious mix of short sayings that are in the Bible and others that are in the mouth of Jesus, but not in the Bible. I suspect that this new angle of Jesus sayings may provide fresh ideas and practices that are different than conventional church drills.
These four circumstances of our situation today actually add up to a kind of ancient and world-wide spiritual practice that has been lost to most of America. Hardly anyone these days in our culture knows about what for thousands of years has been known as ‘Wisdom.’
A Wisdom Book
Wisdom, as a way through the world, was very much in play in the time of Jesus. Indeed, the Gospel of Thomas is a book of Wisdom. It is probably one of the most classic and clear books of Wisdom of that time with its long list of short sayings. But Wisdom has not been mostly a biblical or Christian way through the world. Even though there are quite a few books of Wisdom in both Christian and Jewish Bibles, Wisdom has been and still is more practiced in Asia and some parts of Africa.
Wisdom is a primary path of the Buddha, whose teachings are mostly collections of short sayings. Confucius, Laozi, and Master Zhang were also major Wisdom teachers in ancient China, and their teachings are now known mainly in collections of sayings. Islamic Sufi teacher Rumi was a primary Wisdom teacher in Persia and Turkey of the 13th-century, and he has drawn new interest for the past 50 years in the United States and Europe.
Wisdom, as a spiritual path, has not been practiced much in the United States. Although some Asian spiritual practices of meditation now provide important guidance and support for Americans, these meditation practices in the United States have focused primarily on silence and body postures. In terms of the Gospel of Thomas, it has mostly been examined by some of the American public interested in the ancient history of Jesus and how much or little the gospel has to do with the Bible. But those conversations have mostly run their course over the last 60 years.
A New Yet Ancient Spiritual Practice
It seems now that there is a real opening for folks to engage the Gospel of Thomas in the ways ancient Jewish, Buddhist, Sufi, Christian, and other Wisdom teachers gave space to ponder sayings, poems, and miniature stories. This would be somewhat different than Christian sermons, Buddhist silent reflections, or ritual chanting. Perhaps it’s closest to Rumi’s poetry or Jewish reflection on Wisdom teaching. The Gospel of Thomas, with a mixture of silence, contemplation, and conversation about individual sayings, opens up new learning for spiritual, but not religious, people. Here the words are open-ended, not particularly suited to be rhythmically chanted, but to be pondered, played with, and read multiple times.
In other words, if you are tired of sermons, tweets, angry rants, overly-sure doctrine, and mindless repetition, you might consider accepting the invitation offered by the Gospel of Thomas to engage in the original practice of meditative reading. Just as some first- and second-century Jesus people did, you can spend five to ten minutes a day contemplating just one saying, letting it roll around in your head and heart and noticing what else it brings into your mind.
Any of the following sayings might prove to be a good starting point for initiating your own contemplative practice.
Jesus said: Let those who seek continue to seek until they find. And when they find, they will be disturbed, and once they are disturbed, they will become awed… (Saying 2:1,2)
When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize that you are children of the Living One. (Saying 3:3)
The realm of heaven compares to a mustard seed smaller than all seeds. But when it falls on the soil that is cultivated, it produces a large branch and becomes shelter for the birds of the air. (Saying 20:1b)
Jesus said, “Love your brother or sister like your soul. Guard each of them like the pupil of your eye.” (Saying 25)
Jesus said, “If they say to you, ‘Where have you come from? say to them, ‘We came from the light, the place where the light generated itself.” (Saying 50:1,2a)
There are many more sayings just waiting for you to ponder in the Gospel of Thomas. Perhaps it’s time to start exploring all 114.
I’ve so enjoyed your podcasts and articles on this website! Thank you so very much. Especially loved the new insights you’ve shared over your study of The Gospel of Thomas. Now I will re-read it practicing the meditative reading which I’ve enjoyed doing the past several years with my weekly Bible Lesson. I hadn’t heard the term “meditative reading” before and so am glad to add that to my vocabulary!
Today I was able to practice the wisdom saying in Thomas of Jesus, “Love your brother or sister like your soul. Guard each of them like the pupil of your eye.” More and more I have come to see every person as a brother or sister. Today someone honked at me while walking under an archway of a hotel for no apparent reason except that she must have been extremely impatient or upset about something. While waiting for the hotel elevator, either the driver or her grown daughter came in. I naturally greeted her as a sister would, saying good morning and she graciously said the same back. Rather than feeling anger, I was so grateful to feel nothing but God’s love for us both. Such freedom comes with love!
Some readers may find Melissa Harl Sellew’s article (“Reading the Gospel of Thomas from Here: A Trans-Centred Hermeneutic”) of interest as another scholar’s experience of the Gospel of Thomas.
Here’s the link: https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:29255/?fbclid=IwAR2plJa4yeWp3ZAJeaM8T5RFjpsqTDdbqAZfOiDeBm0fe7myJ8w-GHOEIEU
You will need to copy and paste the link into your browser.
Responding to Cathryn in San Diego:
Thanks very much the the meditative response of the Gospel of Thomas to those people who were ion the middle of upsetness and impatience.
Responding to Elli Elliott:
Yes, Elli, I too find Melissa Harl Sellew’s article on GThomas and a Trans-Centered Hermeneutic very helpful. Melissa Harl Sellew’s has so much to offer to us over many years.
Thank you, Hal, for these very thoughtful and insightful comments about meditative reading and the Gospel of Thomas. – Melissa