The Gospel of Thomas is no doubt the single most important early Christian text to be recovered in the monumental Nag Hammadi collection unearthed in the Egyptian desert in 1945. As the text once again re-entered general circulation beginning in the late 1970s (its existence in early Christianity is well attested by the church fathers, but most people assumed it had vanished forever), scholars were at first dubious. Because it seemed so different in flavor from what was at the time recognized as “orthodox,” the first gambit was to dismiss it as a later, gnostic interpretation of Jesus. But further research kept pointing in the direction that this gospel was indeed early and that it preserves some of the oldest authentically attested teachings of Jesus. According to Rice University Professor April deConnick (one of the leading contemporary Thomas scholars), the core text is almost certainly at least as old— if not older — than the four gospels comprising the canonical New Testament.
While Thomas shares a roughly two-thirds overlap of material with the canonical tradition, what makes it feel so distinctly different (perhaps even off-putting) is that it belongs to the sophiological, or Wisdom, stream of Christian tradition. It has none of the biography and narrative you find in the other gospels, and its slant is not toward miracles and healings; it is purely and simply a collection of Jesus’ transformational sayings. But as you allow these paradoxical sayings to slowly sink in, you realize that you are actually gaining a much more complete take on Jesus; you see more clearly where he is coming from—and headed toward. And this expanded picture of his foundational metaphysics confirms that his is indeed, first and foremost, a master of conscious transformation.
The Gospel of Thomas consists of 114 short sayings—or logia, as they are known (logion is the Greek term for a saying or aphorism.) Virtually all the “difficult teachings” from the canonical gospels are represented here—in a context that makes their meaning much easier to grasp—plus a selection of the beatitudes and parables, and many teachings that appear nowhere else. Taken together, they flesh out the picture of Jesus’ teaching, passionately and relentlessly, around the themes of “singleness” and non-duality.
Who wrote it? Was it actually the apostle Thomas, one of the original twelve of Jesus’ male disciples, who has gamed notoriety in the biblical tradition as “Doubting Thomas?” This cannot be proved, but nor can it be dismissed out of hand; most scholars at least agree that its provenance is most likely Syrian. Thomas is traditionally remembered as the apostle who traveled east to Persia and India, and the teachings in this collection have a distinctly “eastern” feeling to them in their emphasis on the unification of consciousness. Unlike some of the advaitic teaching of the East, however, they set forth a vision of wholeness in which this physical plane is neither a mirage nor a trap, but an integral part of divine reality with a unique and indispensable role to play. “Singleness”— Jesus’ vision of what we would nowadays call non-dual consciousness — is achieved by mastering that role.
At any rate, tucked away within this enigmatic little gospel are 114 of the most subtle and profound teachings of Jesus— Whoever transcribed them was certainly one of his most advanced students. Since this gospel is still fairly unknown terrain not only for non-Christians but for most Christians, I will offer here a small sample of his most striking teachings here, grouped together under their major topical headings. All of these sayings begin with the phrase “Jesus says.”
If you are searching,
You must not stop until you find.
When you find, however,
You will become troubled.
Your confusion will give way to wonder.
In wonder you will reign over all things.
Your sovereignty will be your rest.
Jesus’ teaching in this version is no doubt longer than you’re familiar with from the Bible; the other gospels stop with “seek and you shall find.” But here Jesus lays out several additional steps to create a complete taxonomy of the spiritual search. Seeking leads to finding, yes, but the result of that finding is typically to plunge you into confusion and disorientation as the new information rattles the cage of your old paradigm. Only gradually, as you can make room for what Thomas calls “wonder,” does a new universe begin to knit itself together around you, and you come to rest on a new foundation. Until the next go-round, that is. It’s paradigm-shifting all the way.
“Blessed is the lion whom the man devours, for that lion will become man. But cursed is the man whom the lion devours, for that man shall become lion.” (3)
When the man devours the lion, the animal nature has been brought under the control of our human reason and conscious choice. When the lion devours the man, the animal instincts win out, and that person “devolves” into a lower form.
The teaching here relies on the classic Wisdom schematic of “the great chain of being.” As we evolve toward the divine, we integrate and carry with us the consciousness gained at lower levels of being. We do not “destroy” or dissolve our lower nature (images that have so dominated the spiritual journey in the West); it is not a question of warfare. Rather, we integrate the energy of the animal intelligence so that “lion” gets to become “man.” A part of us does not die so that another part of us can live. The whole of us dies at one level so that the whole of us is reborn at another level.
“When you are able to make two become one, the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, the higher like the lower, so that a man is no longer male and a woman female, but male and female become a single whole; when you are able to fashion and eye to replace an eye, and form a hand in place of a hand, or a foot for a foot, making one image supercede another—then you will enter in.”
Certainly nondual consciousness has everything to do with being able “to make the two become one.” In the first part of this teaching, Jesus describes what the world looks beyond the distortion of that insistent “bifocal lens” of the egoic mind that mechanically splits our field of perception into paired opposites—inside/outside, male/female, and so forth. This kind of reuinfication can only happen once we have transcended egoic perception; it is in fact synonymous with this transcendence. But what is the result of this unification? The second half of his teaching takes us not into sunyata, emptiness but into an astonishing fecundity, as new forms Once one reaches the causal point where all forms converge in oneness (and in this gospel Jesus frequently refers to that point as “the light”), immediately the grand dance of manifestation begins all over again—but this time, you are its master (or at least its conscious servant)
“Be Passers-by.” (variant:“Come into being as you pass away.”)
This shortest of all the logia yet makes a powerful point about the relationship between the horizontal axis and the vertical axis. In the realm of time, we are “passing away.” Yet the passage through this realm also gives us the chance to come into being in that other realm; it provides some essential food for the journey if we know how to recognize it and work with it. Time is an indispensable element in the fermenting of that “elixir of being.” But only insofar as it is consciously wielded.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you will kill you.”
Here again, the accent is on integral development and the bringing into manifestation what would otherwise remain unarticulated. Whatever this spark of consciousness or name of God that lies at the heart of our being, our role in this human plane is to bring it into form and fullness. If we fail to do so, it is not just a failure to germinate: the thing actually turns on us and destroys us from within. This, incidentally, is exactly the point Jesus is making in the familiar parable of the talents in the canonical gospels, another of those notoriously “hard teachings” (Matthew 25:14; Mark 4:25, Luke 9:12).
“I am the light shining upon all things.
I am the sum of everything,
For everything has come forth from me,
and towards me everything unfolds.
Split a piece of wood, and there I am,
Pick up a stone and you will find me there.
In this most Zen-like of sayings, Jesus presents himself as the “suchness”—that quality of pristine awareness underlying and unifying everything the moment the light of one’s awareness falls on it. This saying also sounds elegantly contemporary: a vivid description of what some physicists call “the zero point field,” incorporating dimensions of symmetry, coherence, and purposiveness. But what gives this saying its poetic power is the sharp contrast between “macro” and the “micro.” “I am the sum of everything…” yet “Split a piece of wood, and there I am.” One of my students in the Pacific Northwest Northwest took this logion with him into a work period, and while chopping wood suddenly experienced the world all around him exploding energetically into this divine aliveness. Again, it is all one, but the One expresses itself in the riotous dynamism of the particular.
“Whoever drinks what flows from my mouth will come to be as I am,
and I also will come to be as they are,
so that what is hidden will become manifest.”
In this distinctly Eucharistic logion, Jesus returns to the idea of the food chain: the “eating and being eaten” by which we move from one stage of evolution to another. But here he adds a shockingly intimate reciprocity to the process. We can certainly understand the first part of this saying: whoever drinks what flows from the higher will come also to be higher. That’s how the chain works; the lion whom the man devours becomes man. But what do we make of the second part—“and I also will come to be as they are?” Does this mean that Jesus is “devolving” to our own level? No; he is saying something even more radical than that. Here Jesus steps leaves even the great chain of being behind as he steps out into the unknown. In contrast to virtually the whole salmon-swimming-upstream orientation of the perennial Wisdom—that the way to God is “up,” moving from lower to higher—Jesus here places his entire bet on the process of inter-abiding. I in you, you in me, all in God, God in all. It is not a ladder but a circle that brings us to God: the continuously renewed giving and receiving which in its totally is where God dwells. This kenotic spirituality (self-emptying as the path to fullness) is in my opinion Jesus’ unique and profoundly original contribution to the spiritual consciousness of humankind.
Recommended for further study: Logia 3, 5, 11, 28, 50, 113
Suggested Source: While not technically a scholarly edition, The Gospel of Thomas: The Wisdom of The Twin (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2004) is a wonderfully user-friendly edition for individual or group study. It includes an academic translation, a dynamic (i.e., contemporary and lively) translation, notes, and a set of questions to guide reflection and discussion.