Sunday, April 24, 2011

"My mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like."

This Easter morning, I'm reflecting on the Gospel of Thomas.  (another translation here. . . and if you like your Jesus with old-timey pronouns, there's this one.)

Among the early Christian writings known as the gnostic gospels (or in mainstream Christianity, the "apocrypha"), the Gospel of Thomas is a remarkable collection of sayings and teachings by Jesus by way of dialogue and parable. There's almost no narrative, and there is most certainly no dogma (which explains in part why these texts had to be eliminated at the Council of Nicea, when the orthodoxy of the religion was being settled). There are many stories and parables that have parallels in the canonical Gospels, but there is a lot of evidence that these gnostic gospels, a library of which was found at a place called Nag Hammadi, were written before even Mark or "Q" --the earliest known writings in the canon, circa 74CE. (A quick shout-out to my Catholic High School experience in Mr. Bruce Hoff's Biblical Archaeology class)

Here are some of my favorites.

6    His disciples asked him and said to him, "Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity? What diet should we observe?"
Jesus said, "Don't lie, and don't do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed."

"I won't tell you what to do or not do. Just live with integrity." Heresy! I mean, come now: you can't build a religion on such calls for individualistic instruction. Sounds almost humanist.

14  Jesus said to them, "If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.
When you go into any region and walk about in the countryside, when people take you in, eat what they serve you and heal the sick among them.
 Again: disregard dietary and other dogmatic restrictions and proscriptions. Just adapt and do your work in the world.

Then there are a few sayings which talk of the call to 'house-jack', subdue, or even kill a 'strong' or 'powerful' man.

35    Jesus said, "One can't enter a strong person's house and take it by force without tying his hands. Then one can loot his house."

98    Jesus said, The Father's kingdom is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in. Then he killed the powerful one.
 Taken literally (as there are would be few with 'ears to hear') this could be seen as a prescription for class warfare, and blood in the streets, even as a way to bring about the "Kingdom".  Problematic for the Church leaders, to say the least.  But, when the powerful man is the ego, which must be annihilated in order for identification with deity (which is the real message, even throughout the Big Four of the canon), the messages become more like Buddhist teachings than anything else. 

For what it's worth, the wonderful contemporary Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote a book entitled Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers (a small excerpt here).  I think a primary link between the two traditions is to be found in these early Christian writings, which didn't make the cut back in the 13th century.

Further, I want to add that--yes, the Thomas of the title is the "Doubting Thomas" of legend. Maybe because Thomas was granted special, secret knowledge from Jesus, he recognized that the physical resurrection was, in a way, superfluous. Hence, the "doubt."  Maybe in this perspective, the resurrection happened in order that those who need a literal experience can have something to hold onto, and perhaps can't handle the mythic implications of the teachings.  Like Mel Gibson, for instance.
At any rate, I like this Jesus better. Happy Easter and God Bless us, every one.

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