La Incredulidad de Santo Tomás (S. XIV). Iglesia de Sacro Speco, Subiaco (Italia).

Commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas

We reproduce some of the teachings of Kim Nataraja, a good knower of the Gospel of Thomas. Kim Nataraja is an oblate in the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM). A few sources for additional information are also mentioned.

The Gospel of Thomas

The teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas expresses beautifully what we have been talking about. It encourages us to open ourselves to the Divine Reality, to Divine Wisdom. The way to true self-knowledge shown in this Gospel is by truly listening in silent interiority to the deeper spiritual significance of his teaching. Our effort is supported by his all-embracing grace.

The Gospel of Thomas was a product of the still predominantly oral culture of the time of Jesus and the subsequent early centuries. His teaching was primarily passed on by word of mouth. Jesus himself did not write anything down. In the Gospel of Thomas the most frequently recurring sayings of Jesus, which had formed part of this oral tradition, were collected together. There may already have been a Syriac version of them written down as early as 50 – 100 CE. Fifty per cent of the sayings in this Gospel are also found in the Synoptic Gospels.

One of the early Church Fathers, Irenaeus, (2nd century CE), recommended in the interest of Church unity only four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and the letters of St Paul. He chose the Gospel of John rather than the Gospel of Thomas purely out of a personal choice: his teacher Polycarp had been a disciple of John. The Gospel of Thomas was actually at that time much more popular than the Gospel of John, which was considered ‘too Gnostic’. Because of this exclusion the Gospel of Thomas disappeared from sight, until in 1945 an earthenware jar was found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, which contained a mixture of documents; some were in the Gnostic tradition but there was also a copy of the ‘Gospel of Thomas’ considered now by most experts to be very much in the ‘apostolic’ tradition.

The teaching in this Gospel shows us that the emphasis on transformation and realising your true Divine essence was part of the Christian Tradition right from the beginning. In Jesus’ view in the ‘Gospel of Thomas’ God’s light shines potentially in all of us. We are all children of God.

These sayings cannot be taken literally; Jesus’ words are pointers to the underlying meaning. They need to be reflected on, preferably after meditation, when we will understand them intuitively. My remarks are therefore personal reflections only.

One of the saying relevant to what we have been exploring is: ‘Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, ….. then you will enter the kingdom.” (Saying 22) As we have seen, the aspect of our being that allows us to survive, our ‘ego’, is only one aspect of the whole; there is also our essence, our ‘true self’.

Our spiritual journey is about integrating both sides of our being: ‘making the two into one’. ‘Make the inner like the outer’ challenges us to let the divine spark at our core permeate the whole of our being, so that our behaviour is guided by this higher wisdom. ‘Make the upper like the lower’ encourages us to open ourselves to the Divine Light, ‘the upper’, and thus becoming ‘enlightened’, our whole being is thus divinized. And ‘make male and female into a single one’ entails integrating all aspects of our being, including the “male” and “female” aspects of our being, a process Jung emphasized. Then we will “enter the kingdom”, and experience the wisdom and presence of the Divine.”

Kim Nataraja. From The Weekly Teachings Archive WCCM, Year 2 Letter 50.

The unique message of the Gospel of Thomas

On many occasions I have mentioned that faithful perseverance in our discipline of meditation leads to a total transformation of our view of reality and alters our subsequent behaviour accordingly from ego-centred to other-centred.

Of all the Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas is the one that focuses on this transformation. It was originally regarded as a ‘gnostic’ gospel, as it was included in the Nag Hammadi jar – found in 1945 in Egypt- with other known ‘Gnostic’ writings. It was in fact bound together with the Gospel of Philip that is still regarded as ‘gnostic’. For this reason orthodox Christians rejected the Gospel of Thomas out of hand as ‘heretical’, but scholars now feel that it is more ‘apostolic’ than they at first assumed. Elaine Pagels, to whom I am indebted for most of the historical information here, no longer considers the Gospel of Thomas as ‘gnostic’, as explored in her book Beyond Belief, neither does the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

The Gospel of Thomas recounts sayings of Jesus that formed part of the oral tradition current at the time. Some scholars feel therefore that there was not one author (or authors) but a collector and compiler of the most important sayings. Half of them are also found in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. It does not give any details about Jesus’ life, nor mentions his crucifixion and resurrection. It says nothing about the nature of God. In this way it is very similar to the teaching of the Buddha, who also concentrated on what we should do rather than what we should believe. The focus of the Gospel of Thomas is purely on what is necessary to become whole and aware that ‘the kingdom of God is within you’ and that you are a ‘child of God’. It is ignorance of this fact and focus on the material plane with its needs and desires that hides this truth from us.

The date at which these sayings were then actually written down is unclear but it is thought that some of the sayings predate the Synoptic gospels. “Although we do not know where the Gospel of Thomas was written, many scholars, noting names associated with Syria, think it originated there” and may have been written down as early as 50 – 100 CE. (p.39 Beyond Belief).

The Gospel of John was considered ‘gnostic’ in its time and moreover the Gospel of Thomas was more popular; yet John was included and Thomas was excluded. Elaine Pagels tries to explain this fact by comparing and contrasting the Gospels of John and Thomas: “John probably knew what the Gospel of Thomas taught – if not its actual text…what impressed scholars who compared these Gospels is how similar they are. Both John and Thomas, for example, apparently assume that the reader already knows the basic story Mark and the others tell, and each claims to go beyond that story and reveal what Jesus taught his disciples in private……John and Thomas give similar accounts of what Jesus taught privately…and identify Jesus with the divine light that came into being “in the beginning”. Both say that this primordial light connects Jesus with the entire universe. Both characterise him … God’s own light in human form.” (p.39/40 Beyond Belief).

The real difference is this: John suggests that Jesus is unique – God himself revealed in human form – God’s “only begotten son.” But the Gospel of Thomas states that God’s Light shines not only in Jesus, but as a spark in everyone, since we are all made in the image of God. Thomas’ Gospel encourages us to come to ‘know’ God intuitively by listening carefully to the 114 sayings of guidance Jesus gives in this Gospel. For us to grow spiritually he encourages us let go of our attachment to the material plane and in doing so to silence our busy rational mind. Only in that silence can we hear the ‘still small voice of calm’ with our intuitive intelligence, our heart, and grace can enter in and guide our transformation.

The reason Thomas lost out to John is most likely because of this emphasis on personal effort, leading with grace to the actual experience of God, rather than on belief alone. But the Christian mystics over the ages have trodden the path indicated by Thomas and stressed that ‘the image of God’ is within each of us and encouraged us to become aware of its presence through silent prayer. The fact that the Gospel of Thomas was excluded from the Canon may well explain why meditation/contemplation became Christianity’s best kept secret.

Kim Nataraja. From The weekly Teaching Archive WCCM. Year 5, letter 50.

(Adapted from ‘Journey to the Heart- – the chapter on ‘The Gospel of Thomas’).

Gospel of Thomas - Effort and grace

The Gospel of Thomas starts with the saying: “And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.” Thomas sees Jesus clearly laying the responsibility for our salvation on our own shoulders by encouraging us to make the effort to understand and act upon his teaching. The discovery of the Truth lies in a combination of our effort and the grace inherent in his words. The emphasis in this Gospel is therefore on personal endeavour and personal responsibility, albeit aided by grace, to discover who we truly are: “Jesus said, if they say to you, ‘Where have you come from?’ Say to them, ‘We have come from the light, from the place where the light came into being by itself, established itself, and appeared in their image.’ If they say to you, ‘is it you?’ say, ‘We are its children, and we are the chosen of the living father.” Jesus points us therefore in this Gospel very directly to our Divine origin. Again the emphasis is on the presence of God, the Kingdom, being within us and moreover amongst us at every moment: “Jesus said, if your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea’ and then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside you and it is outside you.”

This emphasis on each of us containing within ourselves a spark of the Divine was a belief held by many of the early Church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Origen; it was considered an apostolic doctrine in the first few centuries. But it was also a main tenet of the Gnostics. This may well have been the reason that this view was later discredited and supplanted by the ‘orthodox’ interpretation, which stressed that we were in truth made in the ‘image’ of God, but that in the ‘fall’ this ‘image’ was completely shattered. St Augustine stressed that therefore only by the grace of Christ could we be saved. We ourselves could do nothing, which was the opposite of the message of Jesus in the ‘Gospel of Thomas’. The opposition to Augustine’ view was also expressed by John Cassian in his dispute with him. Cassian based his view of the importance of effort and personal responsibility, as well as the role of grace, on the discipline of prayer, the experience and the teaching flowing from this by the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Cassian’s view was shared by many in these early centuries and by John Main amongst others in our present century.

It is therefore not surprising that finding the true interpretation of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospel of Thomasis similar to the deeply attentive reading of Scripture that Origen stressed: ‘lectio divina’, which according to him both led to and was aided by contemplative prayer. This profound intuitive engagement with the text was considered to result in a meeting with the presence of Christ, and consequently would lead to a true understanding of the spiritual meaning of Scripture. This spiritual understanding, in turn, would lead to a complete transformation of consciousness: a ‘metanoia’, a turning around. Then we would see reality as it truly is, and experience that in our essence we are already one with the Divine through the consciousness of Christ that dwells in our hearts.

But the emphasis on personal effort and deep intuitive understanding, rather than pure belief in the accepted teaching, put the Gospel of Thomas outside the canon of accepted orthodox Scripture of the 4th century with its emphasis on the literal surface interpretation.

Thomas’ Jesus is very aware of the difficulty of the effort required to seeing Ultimate Reality: “The Father’s Kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” The main difficulty being that we have covered over the Divine spark within us by being focused on our material body and its needs: “Jesus said, I took my stand in the midst of the world, and in the flesh I appeared to them. I found them all drunk, and I did not find any of them thirsty. My soul ached for the children of humanity, because they are blind in their hearts and do not see, for they came into the world empty, and they also seek to depart from the world empty. But now they are drunk. When they shake off their wine, then they will repent.”

This Gospel challenges us to let go of our habitual ways of perception dictated by our material being, the ‘ego’, which make us “drunk” and “blind”. We do not need to let go off the ‘ego’ itself, but of the disordered drives/desires that are a product of our survival needs, upbringing and environment. All we need to do is to wake up and discover who we truly are. This same exhortation to ‘wake up!’ and ‘Be alert’ is also found in the Synoptic Gospels. This re-discovery of our true nature is the most important element in our life, although it is not easy: “Jesus said, let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and will rule over all.” It is troubling to realise that the reality we have accepted as the only objective and permanent reality is in fact shaped by the thoughts, images and needs of our material being. But if we persevere, we can part the veil of these illusions and become aware of our true nature and the true nature of reality. The result will then be a real sense of wonder.

Wishing you all a Blessed Easter filled with Light and Joy!

Kim Nataraja. From The Weekly Teaching Archive WCCM. Year 5, letter 51.

(Adapted from ‘Journey to the Heart’ – the chapter on ‘The Gospel of Thomas’).

Gospel of Thomas and Self-knowledge

The Gospel of Thomas emphasizes that to see reality as it is, we need to let go off the unpurified aspect of the ‘ego’, the disordered drives/desires that are a product of our survival needs, upbringing and environment. In other words the false images of ourselves, our ‘personas’, our ‘ego’ masks, our “clothes”: “His followers said, “When will you appear to us and when will we see you?” Jesus said, “When you strip without being ashamed and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample them, then you will see the child of the living one and you will not be afraid.” We need to see through these false images and detach ourselves from them. This is really not so dissimilar to what Jesus said in the Synoptic Gospels: “Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must leave self (i.e. the ‘ego’ illusions) behind.” Only by doing that can our true nature be revealed.

Once we break through the constraints of the ‘ego’, we will be free, no longer imprisoned. A double understanding is needed: firstly the way our ‘ego’, the surface part of our being operates and secondly true self-knowledge of our essential being: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and you are poverty.” Just living in the reality the ‘ego’ weaves, is living in illusion and on the surface – an impoverishment of our true being. Salvation is not seen in terms of becoming children of the Light but of an unfolding awareness of this actual fact. Moreover, Jesus’ teaching affirms us in our ability to do so: “One who seeks will find.”

Most Gnostic writers at that time were profoundly dualistic: the world was often seen as threatening and tempting, basically evil. Thomas on the contrary sees it as permeated by the Divine Light, consequently essentially good. Therefore not only we but all of creation are infused by and embedded in the Light: “Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: From me all has come forth, and to me all has reached. Split the wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” In early Christian theology Christ was seen as the first Creation, the ground of being, through whom all of creation was shaped by God with the aid of the Spirit.

Jesus was sharing his message that the Kingdom, the presence of God, is here and now. To see the Kingdom we not only need to let go off our false surface self, but we also need to become aware, that the attachment of the ‘ego’ to the material world can never furnish us with lasting happiness or sense of security. We and the world are impermanent; all passes away; hence it is a “carcass”. “Jesus said, whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy.” (“Of that person the world is not worthy” is a Jewish saying used when praising someone).

In these sayings Jesus is constantly moving the attention of the disciples from an outside reality – seeking a place – to the all-important inner reality. Where he dwells is on this inner level of spiritual consciousness: “His followers said, “Show us the place where you are, for we must seek it.” He said to them, “Whoever has ears should hear. There is a light within a person of light, and it shines on the whole world. If it does not shine it is dark.” The spiritual world penetrates our material reality; it is not somewhere else.

Moreover, by realising this inner Divine reality, we will help the rest of humanity; our ‘enlightenment’ is to be for the benefit of all. In our deeper consciousness we are at one with everyone and with God.

This emphasis on interconnectedness resonated with Christians then and resonates with us now. We, creation and the Divine are all interconnected. The Divine reality is our transcendent home, the world of Light where all opposites, “motion” and “rest”, are reconciled and transcended: “If they ask you: ‘what is the evidence of the father in you?’ say to them, it is motion and rest”, referring to our ability to transcend the duality of the ‘ego’.

But it is never a case of getting rid of the ‘ego’, but of integrating the purified ‘ego’ with the other aspect of our being, our Divine spark. Then we will be at One within ourselves, with others and with the Divine: “Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower…. then you will enter the kingdom”.

The message of the Gospel of Thomasis therefore essentially about integration. Of the purified ‘ego’ and the deeper ‘self’, the material and the spiritual. We need to remember that we are ‘children of God’, to remember our true divine nature at our core, so that it can permeate the ‘ego’ and our behaviour is guided by both. Thus our whole being is divinised, by opening the material, to the Spirit, the Light. Then we will “enter the kingdom”, and experience the being and presence of the Divine.

Kim Nataraja. From The Weekly Teaching Archive WCCM. Year 5, letter 52.

(Adapted from ‘Journey to the Heart’ – the chapter on ‘The Gospel of Thomas’).