In AD 397 at the Council of Carthage, the bishops of the Christian Church, under the direction of the Emperor Constantine, compiled the collection of scriptures we call the New Testament. This collection consisted of gospels, epistles and other writings related to the life of Jesus Christ and his Apostles. Many works did not make the cut at Carthage, either because they were considered spurious or because they did not meet the doctrinal requirements of the Roman Church.
The rejected works became known as the Apocrypha. The Church did its best to root out and destroy these writings, but a number of them survived. One of the survivors is the Gospel of Thomas, one of 53 ancient parchments known as the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in the desert of upper Egypt in 1945, which have revolutionized the study of early Christianity.
The Gospel of Thomas is not a narrative of the life of Jesus, but rather a collection of his reputed sayings and aphorisms. The document was first translated into English from Sahidic Coptic, an Egyptian tongue that succeeded the language of the Pharaohs, in 1959. The Apostle Didymus Judas Thomas is perhaps best known to us today as "Doubting Thomas," because, as the story goes, he refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he put his hand in his lord's wounds.
In this edition, French scholar Jean-Yves Leloup has given us a new translation of the Gospel of Thomas, alongside the original Coptic text, as well as a commentary on each of the 114 logia, or sayings, of Jesus (here called by his Aramaic name Yeshua) that were collected by Thomas.
Here, for example, is one of the shorter logia (singular: logion):
Whoever is near to me
Is near to the fire.
Whoever is far from me
Is far from the Kingdom.
This particular saying demonstrates well that the Gospel of Thomas is both independent of the canonical New Testament and parallel to it. The saying was quoted by a number of early Christian writers, including Origen.
Interestingly, in the Gospel of Thomas (Logion 12), Jesus names his brother James, and not Peter, as Christ's successor on earth. He tells his disciples: "Go to James the Just: All that concerns heaven and earth is his domain." There was in fact a Jerusalem-based Christian church under James's leadership, which eventually lost out to, and was eliminated by, the Rome-based church of Peter and Paul.
The Gospel of Thomas, like the rest of the Nag Hammadi parchments, is an example of Gnostic Christianity, a strain of belief that focuses on the quest for self-knowledge, and on becoming one with the universe and God. This approach was considered heresy by the Roman Church.
Leloup's commentaries focus on these reputed aphorisms of Jesus as examples of Gnostic wisdom, compares them with canonical New Testament materials and presents them as nuggets for personal meditation.
Even those who do not choose to use the Gospel of Thomas for their own self-enlightenment will find this material fascinating. The sayings, presented by Thomas as the actual words of Jesus, offer a different and refreshing glimpse into the early Christian world.
[A version of this review appeared in Mysteries Magazine in 2005.]