(written March 17; uploaded Aug 9)
Dang, I missed being able to send this out on 3:16 — wouldn’t that’ve been topical! Oh well, St. Patrick’s Day it is, then…
I should also note that I’ll be using the conventions of modern scholarship.*
I’ll be picking up a physical copy of the latest National Geographic, as its cover story “The Journey of the Apostles” has a great bit on “doubting” Thomas, whom tradition has it (and scholarship largely accepts, based on the balance of evidence) travelled to Jewish colonies in India, to proselytize there.
Sadly, when Portugese imperialists got to India around 1600 and discovered a heretical Christian sect with their own holy texts, they kinda had all the bad books burned. Which means that we may never know the literature the relatively-isolated Thomas Christians passed down from generation to generation. (Happily for them, Thomas Christians are still around in India, which hit on the idea of freedom of religion about two thousand years before America’s Founding Fathers made a big deal of it.) A hint of what might have been, comes from the “Jesus Sutras“, a set of Chinese-language Christian scriptures discovered recently in China, dating to roughly 1000 years ago.
Wildly heretical by most Christian standards, they poetically convey the transformative experience the faith has brought so many, over the years. If nothing else, they show the challenges of transposing subtle theological ideas across languages and cultures — something to keep in mind, when we consider that Christianity in Western Europe was a Gentile religion shaped by Latin-language liturgy based on manuscripts translated from Greek, about a Jewish founding community which spoke Aramaic! Suddenly the idea of the Buddha, a skinny Indian, being represented as a portly Chinese fellow, doesn’t seem so farfetched now, hmm? ;)
Now, I have sympathy for Thomas — so much so that Thomas was one of the few “normal” names I pitched for our son, early on — in part because I think he got a bad break with the whole “doubting” Thomas thing.
In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) the Big Three apostles are Peter, James and John. (And Mary, but that’s a different note, maybe for International Women’s Day or something.) While Jesus gives extra attention to the Big Three/Four, and Judas gets his big moment near the end, Thomas and the rest largely put in cameo appearances.
The Gospel of John is very different, coming from a different Christian community in a different area, with different priorities. And one of those priorities was sticking it to Thomas at every turn (hence the doubting-Thomas episode, among others). The Biblically curious only had one side of the story to go on, until a copy of The Gospel of Thomas was unearthed in Egypt about sixty years ago. Thought to’ve been written in a community near John’s community. And taking a few jabs at John’s beliefs about the Christ. Turn the other cheek, indeed…! (This is the primary source for the preceding paragraph.)
So we now have the religious literature of two feuding, neighbouring faith communities, one of which came to overwhelmingly overshadow the other. To use a TV cartoon analogy, John is to Springfield as Thomas is to Shelbyville.
For many scholars, the Thomas Gospel is fascinating because parts of it may predate the Gospels. Among other things, it points to James the Just as the arbitrer of disagreements; he died in the early 60’s AD, while non-fundamentalist scholars tend to date the canonical Gospels to the period of roughly 70 to 100 AD. A healthy-but-not-overwhelming majority of scholars argue that Thomas came later, because other portions hint at the worldview of later-developing Gnostic Christianity. In a sense, it’s a case of whether scholars feel the glass is more half-full (parts of it seem early!) or half-empty (other parts seem late!).
As someone without a horse in the race, but with a chronic fondness for the underdog, I’m partial to the idea that there was an early Christian community espousing at least some of the ideas in the Gospel of Thomas, who didn’t get along with the community where the Gospel of John was written. Which would explain why both sides’ literature contains subtle digs against the other. It wouldn’t be the only case of this happening.
The unflattering depiction of Peter in the Gospel of Mark leads some scholars to think the author of Mark wasn’t a fan. Nor was John, who describes the “Beloved Disciple” in more flattering terms. (Tradition has it that the “Beloved Discipline” is John himself; convenient, eh? :) ) And nor was Thomas. But the fact that all three are uncharitable towards Peter, more or less proves he was an important figure in the early Christian communities. After all, if he was unimportant, why bother? In the same way, the Gospel of John’s criticism of the apostle Thomas suggests that there already existed a community identifying itself with that apostle, which had the “wrong” ideas about Jesus. Since Thomas doesn’t feature much in the other canonical Gospels, that community may have been pretty marginal. Perhaps because it didn’t yet exist…? ;)
It should be emphasized that none of these human foibles diminish in any way the life-changing experience of faith these early Christians were trying to convey in the words and deeds and miracles they recorded. While we live in a scientific era with a strict binary division between fiction and non-fiction, this was not the case when so much of the world’s profoundest religious literature was written. So it’s unfortunate that we moderns tend to get tied down in questions of factual accuracy, when the point of such scriptures is to point to timeless truths, not event-specific ones. A good modern analogy might be the US Declaration of Independence, which says that “all men are created equal”. This is technically untrue — we’re all different in our DNA, socioeconomic background, and so forth — and also overlooks half of humanity, but we accept it based on the deeper truth it points to. So it was for our forebears, and their guiding documents, in an earlier age.
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* funnily enough, one of the conventions is to refer to the authors of the various Gospels as Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, despite the fact that these almost certainly weren’t the authors’ names. And though Matthew gets pole position in the New Testament, Mark was written first (then used as a quasi-template by both Matthew and Luke) hence the order I’m using here…