The Gospel of Thomas for Today?

The main theme of the 57th Annual Meeting of ETS a couple of weeks ago was “Christianity in the Early Centuries.” For me one of the highlights was Nicholas Perrin’s brilliant presentation on the Gospel of Thomas, “Thomas, the Fifth Gospel?” (see my posting, 57TH ANNUAL MEETING OF ETS). Perrin argued for a late dating of this Gospel and a Syriac provenance. From a methodological point of view, his arguments appeared to be sound. Within a few days of hearing Perrin, I found myself reading through Ron Miller, The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice (Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publ., 2004), which is an attempt to use this Gospel to forge a spirituality for modern western sensibilities. Miller sees this Gospel as a call to each human being to realize that he or she is the “twin” of Jesus (which he derives from the name of the supposed author, Thomas Didymus, that is “twin”). What this means is to realize that all of us are actually as much God as Jesus is! (p.79-80). Such a remark makes a mockery of the early Christian experience recorded in the New Testament and the works of men like Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons. Alongside such unorthodx remarks are remarkably fatuous statements like “we all derive from a virgin birth” (p.86-87).

Miller, a one-time Jesuit, has a deep hostility towards any expression of orthodox Christianity that highlights the unique deity of the Lord Jesus and upholds his death for sins as the pathway of salvation (p.xii, 81-83, for example). Miller believes that true spirituality—being a “Thomas believer,” as he puts it—must move beyond any such exclusivism and embrace all religions as being true (p.xi, 2, 87). Miller is confident that the Gospel of Thomas contains such an all-embracing pluralism.

Yet time and again, I had the distinct feeling that the spirituality Miller claims he finds in the Gospel of Thomas is shaped far more by post-modern infatuations than by the actual text of this Gospel. For instance, the Gospel of Thomas emanated from circles committed to asceticism and a dislike of bodily existence. Yet Miller believes that he can claim to be wholly in sync with the teachings of this Gospel and also affirm the “holiness” of “sexual desire” and that Catholic parishioners (which he had once been ) should make love before coming to the Mass (p.17-18)! If Miller cannot get such basic worldview issues of the Gospel of Thomas right, how can I trust him in the rest of his interpretation of the Gospel? Let me say clearly that—as the Song of Songs bears witness—sexual desire within marriage is a holy thing. Miller is surely right here. But the Gospel of Thomas simply does not advocate this way of thinking.

Nor am I convinced that the Gospel of Thomas is as pluralistic as Miller believes it to be. Many Gnostic groups—and Miller is right to stress their diversity (p.xii and 125, n.3)—were as exclusivistic as their orthodox opponents. That is simply a fact of history. Of course, Miller may respond by saying that this is simply my personal read of the Gospel. As he writes in the Introduction: “My reading of the Gospel of Thomas may not be that of other scholars in the field and may even disagree with what the original author (or authors) intended” (p.xii). At such a point, though, interpretation becomes thinly veiled eisegesis and real discussion as to the meaning of the text is at an end. Why not come clean and admit that the supposed ancient spirituality of the Gospel of Thomas is only as old as the concerns of western post-moderns?