It’s December of 1975. We’re boating down the Nile River from Cairo to a small village called Nag Hammadi. Right in front of us is a grubby camel driver named Muhammed Ali. (No, not the great prize-fighter) Ali is digging in a cave with his two brothers, searching for nitrate-rich fertilizer, but what they find is worth a lot more: Manuscripts from the first century!
This began a search for more and more documents by archeologists and historians, combined with both smuggling and intrigue that would rival the “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Finally, in 1990, an American professor at Claremont University in California, Dr. James Robinson, published the first English translation of the Nag Hammadi Library full of several gospels that never made it into our Bible. One of these gospels is a remarkable collection of the “Sayings of Jesus” called: the Gospel of Thomas. It’s remarkable for several reasons:
First, there’s a very good chance this gospel was the first one written — probably just 20 years after the death of Jesus and maybe by eyewitnesses, unlike the other four gospels. Secondly, among the 114 sayings, there are no miracles, no resurrection, no ascension, no talk about the “next life.” Jesus talks only about what’s going on today in people’s lives.
But an even more remarkable aspect, for me, is the “Jesus Image” it portrays. It’s not the Messiah of the Synoptics, and it’s not John’s portrait of God Incarnate; and it’s not the anti-Semitic Christ that Paul preaches. No, this is a traveling Jew, a peasant who has become a very radical, outspoken teacher; a man who sees the folly of whining over another man’s riches and the insanity of following the idiotic interpretations of the Temple priests.
In Saying No. 39, Jesus says: “The Pharisees and the Scribes have received the keys of knowledge, but they have hidden them.” Now we know where Matthew got those quotes about 50 years later when he has Jesus saying: “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; you lock up the Kingdom of heaven from people” (Matt.23:13). I am amazed when I see a “Thomas Saying” repeated either word for word or paraphrased in Matthew and Luke. But the biggest surprise for me was Saying No. 53. Here is Jesus saying something that is not repeated in any of the four gospels. It’s a saying I cannot believe Jesus would even think of saying: “If circumcision were worthwhile, their father would beget them already circumcised from their mother. Rather, true circumcision in the spirit has become completely useful.”
It is simply inconceivable to me that the Historical Jesus could have said this. This sounds an awful lot like Paul: “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything” (Gal. 5:6). We see these additions and redactions occurring in the later gospels (i.e. Matt. 16:18), why not in the gospel of Thomas? Paul was writing his epistles around this same time and he could have inserted this himself.
The Gospel of Thomas was not included in the final list of New Testament books by Athanasius in 367 C.E., but that didn’t matter; thousands of Christians had read these sayings for 250 years and believed them to be “the gospel truth.” And by the fourth century, Christianity had abandoned Judaism completely.
The Gospel of Thomas is a fantastic contribution to our meager understanding of the Historical Jesus and, like all ancient documents, (including the rest of the Bible) it leaves us with plenty of questions and the wonderful opportunity to grow in our search.
Dr. Bill Cummings blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.