I’ve been reading outside the lines.
I know, I shouldn’t have.
But in my monthly Gospels read-through I’ve tried reading them in Good as New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures by John Henson, a fairly heretical, thoughtful ex-Baptist minister in the UK. Yes, Henson be a bit radical, and just a wee bit unorthodox – so it’s no surprise that he slipped in the generally viewed as heretical and Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas” between Mark and Matthew (yep, he’s got the Big Four out of order too).
Some of Henson’s background on the Gospel of Thomas:
“The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in 1945 in Egypt among a collection of ancient documents found by accident in an old jar (I was totally expecting “in a old mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnell’s porch”). The assessment of the scholars is that the document, in Coptic, is a translation of an early Christian scripture in Greek, now lost, but known to the early Church, and a matter of controversy…Oddity may account in part for the decision of the Church councils not to include Thomas in their authorized collection of the Scriptures (because oddity is, of course, not to be found in the “authorized collection of Scriptures” sorry, me again). Grant and Freedman, who in the 1960’s introduced Thomas to the English-speaking public, assume that Gnosticism is what Thomas is all about and interpret it accordingly, seeking illumination of Thomas’ meaning from other Gnostic texts of the early centuries. By doing this they ensure a bizarre interpretation of sayings that might otherwise be interpreted in a more intelligible way.”
Thomas has no real narrative, unlike our four received Gospels. It’s only a collection of some 114 sayings of Jesus, similar to what we find in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Just reading “Jesus said” 114 times I found to be a quite emphatic lesson in itself. Whether or not this is Thomas, and whether or not the sayings are authentic, I could only wish that more of our doctrinal summaries would be so emphatically focused on what Jesus said.
Henson suggests our reading Thomas in the context of the four Gospels in our “authorized collection,” which, since that’s what I’m reading these days, I couldn’t help doing anyway once I decided to venture in. I haven’t gone anywhere near the Gospel of Thomas in forty years of walking out my faith, but in this past year I’ve had cancer and chemo and I’ve started line dancing, so why not?
And yes, some of it is odd (weird might even be the better word) – and how much of that can be chalked up to it being an English translation of a Coptic version of an ancient Greek document is an excellent question! Much of it is totally on par with Synoptic Gospel statements and stories. Some of it is new and quite profound. It feels a bit like deleted scenes. And even though the odd statements struck me as, well, odd, I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s not exactly the “oddness” inherent in our received Scriptures – we’re just used to it.
Am I suggesting the Gospel of Thomas be treated as Scripture. Naaaaah. We already have more than enough Scripture. No more Scripture, please! But in the midst of my Gospel reading rhythm it brought me a freshness as I returned to my other much more familiar Friends, for which I am thankful.
So, let me share some of the more meaningful snippets from Thomas which, considering their origin and the character of their namesake, “Doubting Thomas,” perhaps I will dub these posts “doubtful wisdom.”
I like that.
Perhaps that really is the best that any of us, if we are honest, can really presume to offer. We’d like to think of ourselves as repositories of sure and steady counsel, incisive observations, and witty insights but, when it all comes down to it…
…is it not only a doubtful wisdom that we can offer?