Sunday, June 21, 2009
Among the discovered texts was a copy of the Gospel of Thomas, written in Coptic. Of later origin than the Greek fragments (Oxyrhynchus, dating circa AD 200), this Coptic version (written circa AD 350-400) is however a complete text.
Perhaps it is because of its inclusion in the Nag Hammadi corpus that the Gospel of Thomas has been associated with Gnosticism, thus with heterodoxy. But a close study of the text would show that the Gospel of Thomas is as Gnostic as the Gospel of John. It is esoteric and somewhat dualist but lacks the Gnostic mythology and theology of, for instance, the Hypostasis of the Archons.
Why did the fathers and the council which produced the biblical canon reject the Gospel of Thomas? A first obvious, albeit sophomoric, reason may be that the text was not known by the time of the formation of the Muratori canon (circa AD 180) hence its exclusion.
Another and more accepted reason is that the Gospel of Thomas belongs to a category of texts called "wisdom literature." It is a collection of sayings, uttered by Jesus and gathered up by Thomas and his school. It presents an image of Jesus, not as the messianic savior, not as the incarnated Word, not as the son of God, as the canonical gospels do, but as a teacher, a wise man, a spiritual master. As far as the Church is concerned, a gospel which doesn't reflect the kerygma isn't worthy of the title "gospel" and doesn't deserve to be included in the canon. This is certainly what happened to Thomas, let alone to the Gospel of Philip.
A third reason for the exclusion of Thomas from the canon--and it is a reason which follows from the one above--is the lack of passion narrative. Albeit inspired by the Holy Spirit in their decision making process, the fathers who developed the biblical canon had a clear agenda: to fight heresy and the heterodox teachings of certain Christian groups such as the Marcionites (followers of Marcion), the Docetists, the Gnostics, etc. The passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus stood as the basic of the orthodox sense of Christian mythology. They ensured the reality of the life and death of the Son of God, at once real God and real man. The Gospel of Thomas lacking a passion narrative was not a strong enough source, a reliable enough witness to be included in the canon.
Do all these reasons for the exclusion of the Gospel of Thomas constitute a basis for heterodoxy? Not really. The litmus test for orthodoxy is whether or not the ideas expressed in a particular text reflect the general teachings of the Church. What are then the basic principles expounded in the Gospel of Thomas? We can divide the text into two main categories: the "source" sayings and the original Thomas sayings.
The "source" sayings or the Q parallels are those sayings which come from an unknown yet common source (or "Quelle" in German, hence the term "Q") borrowed by both Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels. Those sayings are wisdom sayings such as "Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom" which developed into the Sermon on the mount/in the plain in the Synoptics.
The other category of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are unique to the text and they give it its esoteric overtones. The principle behind them is however one which is found in the canonical gospels: "the kingdom of God is within you." The teachings of Jesus are thus "gnostic" (gnosis being knowledge) in that they help the believers/listeners discover or know the true meaning of their existence, of their origins, and lead them back to that state, the state of illumination, which is of course God. At that level, the Gospel of Thomas resembles the Gospel of John. Both are mystical, esoteric gospels. But neither one is truly Gnostic.
Now that the Church at large has transcended its original concern with christological heresies, it is perhaps time for Christian ecclesiastical bodies to rehabilitate the Gospel of Thomas, to try of understand it in the context of recent biblical scholarship and to use it for teaching.
Friday, June 19, 2009
Not to side with either side in particular, it would, however, be impossible not to give credit to the feminist camp and to their analysis of the situation; the New Testament record alone supports their premise. Women were, from the inception of the Christian movement, actively involved in its welfare. For example,
1 - Some of Jesus' followers were women, and what is more, prominent and wealthy women (see for example Mark 15: 40-41 and Luke 8: 1-3).
2 - The Book of Acts, which deals with the development of the Christian movement in Jerusalem and with the missions of Peter and Paul, also speaks of influential women, both of Jewish and Pagan roots. For example, we hear of a certain Mary, the mother of John Mark (possibly the author of the Gospel of Mark) who ran a house church in Jerusalem (Acts 12: 12). We also hear of the conversion of Lydia, a prominent business woman in Philippi, who upon hearing the message of Paul was baptized, as well as the rest of her family, and supported the Christian effort.
The Book of Acts, as well as many of the Pauline Epistles mention the particular offices held by women in the earliest Christian Church. Acts 21: 9 notes that Philip (the evangelist) had 4 unmarried daughters who were prophets.
3 - Paul in Romans 16: 1 calls to our attention Phoebe the deacon, one of the three holy orders, along with presbyter (priest) and overseer (bishop). Paul, on several occasions (Romans 16: 3, 1 Corinthians 16:19, even Acts 18: 2), mentions Prisca (or Priscilla) and her husband Aquila, traveling preachers and fellow tent-makers like Paul.
More examples can be found without leaving the Canon of Scripture, pointing to the reality of a female presence in the life of the early Church, from running house churches (since the Church with its many edifices was not yet established) to serving as deacons to prophesying. However, other more tangible records of the role of women are not as readily available as scholars would like.
Yet in his essay On the Veiling of Virgins (written circa AD 204), the early Church father Tertullian wrote:
It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church; but neither (is it permitted her) to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to say (in any) sacerdotal office. (Chapter IX)
By letting his audience know what is not permitted of a woman to do in church, Tertullian is shedding some light on the very role of women. By addressing these issues, he is confessing that these forbidden actions occurred. Women did baptize, teach, preach and said the office. In other words, women functioned as deacons, priests and bishops. And that was perceived as a great problem by Tetullian.
This quote is very revealing. It points us to a particular direction in our assessment of the formal part played by women in the early Christian Church. However, scholars must continue to dig for more tangible information. Where exactly did women function as ordained ministers? Under what conditions? When did they cease to perform these functions?
The debate has only begun.