Click to change style:  Subtle | Plain

St. Thomas and me

Like everything else in my mystical development, I warmed up to the Gospel of Thomas slowly and cautiously. At first, I rejected it out-of-hand when I read saying 114, which offended me as sexist and completely out of character for Jesus. I didn't bother to learn what the mystical interpretation of “male” and “female” might be in that passage, and I was still of the opinion that every verse had to be “authentic” for any scripture to be worth something.

That changed as later as I began (slowly and cautiously) exploring Christian mysticism. I actually read the entire gospel, and I found that Thomas made a much more favorable impression on me. And later still, as I began spiritual practice and meditation, it seemed to be almost screaming the obvious, yet still remained beautifully enigmatic and mysterious. There's an almost literal feeling of depth in so many of the Thomas sayings, a sense that the meaning just keeps on going on deeper and deeper, level after level, and can never be exhausted. (The only other scriptures I can compare it to in this feeling are the Gospel of John, the Tao Te Ching, and some koans in the Mumonkan.)

The Missing Mystical Voice

Most books on Thomas are not very useful for journeyers on the path. They tend to be either scholarly, awkwardly-worded translations with dull commentaries on what may or may not have been Gnostic beliefs, or Church history (from various biases) or Coptic grammar on the one hand, or else sloppily-written, vague musings on the other.

I've long felt that almost all Christian thought, and “Jesus scholarship” in particular, is plagued by a dearth of serious mystical input. Everyone seems trapped in the quest for intellectual certainty, knowing what exactly Jesus did or didn't say, and did or didn't do. The ultra-liberal Jesus Seminar is simply the mirror image of entrenched Fundamentalism. Both sides (and most who are in-between), are mired in thinking that having the facts means having “True” Christianity.

The truth is that mystics understand mystics, and others cannot. Elaine Pagels made a great effort in her book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, yet to anyone on the path, it's apparent that in spite of her years of scholarship on the Nag Hammadi gospels, she still seems an outsider, looking in on something that she admires, but cannot follow. I mean no disrespect to Dr. Pagels—she's simply in the same position as the overwhelming majority of adults on the planet. Factual knowledge can't transcend the ego—there must be a willingness to be utterly changed by that Reality which is beyond the mind, beyond concepts, and yes, beyond belief.

Fortunately, Leloup's excellent translation (and excellent meditative commentary!) is now available in English. In the Introduction, he writes:

Pope Gregory I said that only a prophet could understand the prophets. And it is said that only a poet can understand a poet. Who, then, must we be in order to understand Yeshua?

There simply isn't a more succinct way of putting the problem into words.

Leloup also avoids needless controversy over the dating of Thomas, perceived conflicts with the canonical gospels, or debates about authenticity.

Might it be that our task is to read all the gospels together, seeing them as different points of view of the Christ, different points of view that exist both within us and outside of us? . . .

Leloup is also careful in his qualified use of the word gnostic. By “gnostic,” he means having an emphasis on gnosis as “a consciousness that arises directly from knowledge of ourselves, of the 'Living One' within us.” He goes on to emphasize that this gnosis is non-dualistic, and not to be confused with dualistic gnostic traditions or Manichean Gnosticism.

The book consists of two parts: first, the complete text of Thomas, with Coptic original on the left-hand pages, and the Leloup-Rowe translation on the right. It's a beautiful and readable format. Following that is the commentary, in which each entry reprints the saying under discussion, and offers several relevant Biblical references. Then follow the comments, which Leloup describes thus:

What I propose is not so much a commentary on these words of Yeshua of Nazareth as it is a meditation that arises from the tilled earth of our silence. It is my belief that it is from this ground, rather than from mental agitation, that these words can bear their fruit of light.

The translation

The translation is fresh, alive, and radiant. Unlike the majority of versions which attempt a word-for-word literalism, this feels more like “dynamic equivalence,” somewhat like the New International Version or Jerusalem Bible. Moreover, it's translated by someone who is on the path which Jesus describes, so this translation is informed by the transformation of which the gospel speaks.

Compare a traditional translation of the prologue and first saying:

These are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke. And Didymos Judas Thomas wrote them down.

And he said: "Whoever finds the meaning of these words will not taste death."

with this:

These are the words of the Secret.
They were revealed by the Living Yeshua.
Didymus Judas Thomas wrote them down.

Yeshua said:
Whoever lives the interpretation of these words will no longer taste death.

This translation's genius becomes apparent even in this short section. Leloup emphasizes that the words are about the Secret (the great Secret of Life) whether or not they were words kept secret, which other translations have emphasized. And where the scholars write “finds the meaning,” Leloup gives us “lives the interpretation.” (It makes me think that “living the teachings of Jesus” would be probably the best practical definition of Christianity we could have.)

In addition, “will no longer taste death,” instead of “will not taste death,” suggests that we are already tasting it, as we have pain, confusion, sickness, and dukkha in all its forms.

In his meditations on Saying 2, Leloup takes its references to seeking, finding, being troubled and upset, marveling, and “reigning over All” as “the major stages of gnosis,” and gives a simple, but insightful overview of the mystical path. His comments on Saying 3 are not only an insightful gloss on the passage, but a brilliant essay on non-duality, and the centrality of love in the transformation. (See sidebar.)

Leloup's arrangement of the material is ideal for everyone reading Thomas. Newcomers to Thomas might very well just want to take it all in a single sitting, and the presentation of the whole gospel up front is suited to that purpose nicely.

Those who have already come to see Thomas as a significant text worthy of deep reflection will benefit from the one-saying-at-a-time arrangement with his meditative commentary. I, for one, intend to go through Thomas slowly, taking in just a passage or two a day before meditating. This edition has transformed my view of Thomas from simply a very inspiring ancient gospel, to a part of my adventure in awakening. Maybe it will do the same for you!