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Desert Fathers and Salvation: A Gnostic View From the Gospel of Thomas

Codex II
The Gospel of Thomas, a sayings gospel

Interpreting the Gospel of Thomas

Excerpts from
Bart D. Ehrman...Lost Christianities

p. 59

If understanding these sayings correctly is the prerequisite for eternal life, how are we to interpret them. Few matters have been more hotly debated by scholars of early Christianity over the past several years.

...a majority of the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi are closely tied into one or another of the various forms of religious belief and identity that scholars have identified under the umbrella term Gnosticism. On these grounds, from the beginning, a majority of interpreters have understood the Gospel of Thomas itself as some kind of Gnostic Gospel.... I will be arguing below that there are [Gnostic perspectives] and that can help us explain some of the more difficult sayings of the Gospels.

Gnostic Christians varied widely among themselves in basic and fundamental issues. But many appear to have believed that the material world we live in is awful at best and evil at worst, that it came about as part of a cosmic catastrophe, and that the spiritual beings who inhabit it (i.e, human spirits) are in fact entrapped or imprisoned here. Most of the people imprisoned in the material world of the body, however do not realize the true state of things; they are like a drunk person who needs to become sober or like someone sound asleep who needs to be awakened. In fact, the human spirit does not come from this world; it comes from the world above, from the divine realm. It is only when it realizes its true nature and origin that it can escape this world and return to the blessed existence of its eternal home. Salvation then, in other words, comes through knowledge. The Greek term for knowledge is gnosis. And so these people are called Gnostics, "the ones who know." But how do they acquire the knowledge they need for salvation? In Christian Gnostic texts, it is Jesus himself who comes down from the heavenly realm to reveal the necessary knowledge for salvation to those who have the spark of the divine spirit within.

Let me stress that I do not think the Gospel of Thomas attempts to describe such a Gnostic view for its readers or to explicate its mythological undergirding. I think that it presupposes some such view point and that if readers read the text with these presuppositions in mind, they can make sense of almost all the difficult sayings of the book.

Orthodox Christians vs Gnostic Christians

Excerpts from
Elaine Pagels...The Gnostic Gospels

p. xx

Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from its creator: God is wholly other. But some of the gnostics who wrote these gospels contradict this: self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.

Second, "the living Jesus" of these texts speaks of illusion and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master; the two have become equal--even identical.

Third, orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is Lord and Son of God in a unique way: he remains forever distinct from the rest of humanity whom he came to save. Yet the gnostic Gospel of Thomas relates that as Thomas recognizes him, Jesus says to Thomas that they have both received their being from the same source:

Jesus said, "I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out... He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.

Does not such teaching--the identity of the divine and human, the concern with illusion and enlightenment, the founder

p. xxi

who is presented not as Lord, but as spiritual guide--sound more Eastern than Western? Some scholars have suggested that if the names were changed, the "living buddha" appropriately could be what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus. Could Hindu or Buddhist tradition have influenced gnosticism?
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