Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My Illiberal Confession

I was reading "The Gospel of Thomas" today in preparation for Thursday's Patristics class.

Why would you assign something like that? my wife asks, as you might ask as well.

In short, to help my students get a handle on the thought, the culture, the setting of Early Christianity, and to know against what the Fathers were reacting, particularly in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

As for my liberalism, let me say this. I consider myself a student of humanity, especially of religious man. I have gained a deep admiration for all sorts of pagans and heretics over the years: love Nietzsche, as you know, admire Siddhartha Gautama, consider Plato the master of those who know, adore Plotinus, feel a deep affinity for Luther, Tertullian, Pascal, Tolstoy, love Philo the Jew, Moses Maimonides, etc., etc. But I have standards. One can appreciate a lot of things that specifically diverge from one's own worldview, but because something is different does not mean that it is admirable, I learned today.

Origen, the great 3rd Century theologian, encouraged his students to read everything, with one exception - the works of atheists. He just considered them so obviously unwise that he thought no benefit could come of it. Now, in those days, of course, atheism was extremely rare. Thus, it was basically considered a sign of stupidity or even madness. Now, my immediate reaction to Origen's statement was disagreement: truth, after all, this liberal  (i.e. me) argues, can be found just about everywhere, if not, in fact, everywhere. After having given my standard sympathetic reading to the Gospel of Thomas, I still stand by my liberalism, but just by a thread. There is some truth in this ancient text. It's just that it's not much more than the scribblings of an idiot, an ancient idiot.

I am not altogether comfortable with this very illiberal conclusion of mine.

The author of the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas was not a religious genius. In fact, he was a buffoon, an 'enthusiast' in the worst sense, just someone who loved to hear the sound of his own voice. One can admire the moral puritanism of Marcion, for instance, but this guy was juvenile and, I believe, disturbed.

A few years ago a movie came out, Stigmata, whose premise was that the Church was doing whatever it could to bury this Gospel of Thomas, "newly" discovered. It was a sort of Da Vinci Code before Da Vinci Code, but without the hype and without the budget. But of course, anyone with an even passing knowledge of Early Christianity knows that this Gospel was not - nor were the many other false Gospels - 'buried.' It was known and simply considered inauthentic.

Here are just some of the hilarious quotes I have culled from that source so that you can decide whether the Church was right not to include it in the sacred canon of Scripture (the numbers that follow the excerpts are the standard paragraph designations):

Let him who seeks not cease seeking until he finds, and when he finds, he shall be troubled. And when he is troubled, he will marvel, and he will rule over all (2)
If you become my disciples and you hear my words, these stones shall serve you. (18)

He who has known the world has found the body, but he who has found the body, the world is not worthy of him (80)

The body is wretched which depends on a body, and the soul is wretched which depends on these two (87)

Do not give what is holy to dogs because they will throw it on the dung heap. (93)

Heaven and earth came into being for James (12)

Show me the stone rejected by those who built. It is the cornerstone (66)
Blessed are you when they hate and persecute you, and they find no place wherever you have been persecuted (68)

If you beget what is in you, what you have will save you. If you do not have it in you, what you do not have in you will kill you (70)

This writer had an uncanny ability to take a passage from Matthew or Luke and while attempting to make it even more profound and mysterious, mess it up badly, thus indicating his total failure to understand the original point. A great example of this would be his parable of the fisherman, which should be compared with Matthew 13:

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
Here, net gain, one giant pearl.
The Gospel of Thomas, offers this by way of comparison:

"The man is like a wise fisherman who threw his net into the sea. He drew it up from the sea; it was full of small fish. The fisherman found among them a large, good fish. He threw all the small fish back into the sea; with no trouble he chose the large fish."

So I am to believe it is wise in fishing that one prefer one fish to a huge net full of fish that also includes that one large fish?

Here, net loss, a whole bunch of fish.

This work ranks as the worst attempt to appear wise I have ever come across.

One last thing. Read the Gnostic writings. If nothing else they will teach you to appreciate how ingenious the authentic canonical writings are and also a great deal about the Ancient World.

Oh, Elaine, for a Princeton prof you certainly do not seem to have many scruples about manipulating the uneducated for a buck.


  1. I confess that in my Gnostic phase, I had a copy of Gospel of Thomas and quite liked it.

    But now I am radically opposed to Gnosticism.


  2. Those quotes made me laugh and Jacob said, "Hey, slow down. I want to read that." He will enjoy your class one day.

  3. Deborah,

    I try to give everything a fair read, but it just sounds like so many half-baked, self-appointed prophets I've run into in my life.


    I will enjoy Jacob! That boy and I have a lot in common, I hate to tell ya.