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Stefanus
30th March 2010, 21:08
by Geoffrey Clarfield

In the Bible we read that Jesus once said, “One who seeks will find, and for one who knocks it will be opened.” Such wisdom has supported the faith of millions of Christians for almost 2,000 years. For most of the faithful this and other sayings are part and parcel of Jesus’ divine nature. Other admirers of Jesus have accepted his words, but rejected the supernatural phenomena that are reported in the Gospel narratives. One of the most controversial of these admirers was Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States.

Jefferson believed that for more than 1,500 years the words of Jesus had been obscured by the original editors and later interpreters of the New Testament. He decided to edit out every supernatural aspect of the Gospels, leaving the bare narrative of Jesus’ life and death and everything of note that he said. In 1820 Jefferson presented a few close friends and family members with a text that he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.

I have spent part of this pre-Christmas season reading an online version of the document. It is an austere intellectual tract, very much in the spirit of the deism of so many 18th century men of letters. In this version of the Gospels there is no miraculous birth. Jesus is not described as a deity of any sort. There are no angels, there are no miracles and there is no resurrection. There is not a shred of anything supernatural in what has come to be called Jefferson’s Bible.

Jefferson was confident that every Christian scholar and theologian was wrong and he was right. But he kept the text hidden from the general public because publishing it would have triggered an outrage. That’s why the text languished in the private papers of Jefferson’s descendants until it was finally rehabilitated as a historical curiosity, published and made available to the wider American public in 1895.

Jefferson’s Gospel describes a religious teacher who is dedicated to a cluster of basic values. These include an intolerance of hypocrisy, recognition that the world’s material and materialist values are not part of the Kingdom of God and a host of moral exhortations that tell us to be just, work toward peaceful resolutions of conflict, live modestly and give out of generous motives. Jefferson he believed that Jesus was the greatest moral teacher who ever lived.

Jefferson’s Gospel would have become a curious footnote in the intellectual history of 18th century thinkers had it not been for recent archaeological discoveries that have turned the world of biblical scholarship and Protestant belief and practice upside down. While the U.S. Congress was giving out copies of Jefferson’s Bible, two intrepid Englishmen were digging up fragments of ancient papyrus in the sands of Egypt at a site called Oxyrhynchus. Between 1897 and 1903 Grenfell and Hunt found fragments of a manuscript dated between AD 130-250. They were Greek fragments of an ancient version of the Gospels. One of the fragments says, “These are the… sayings… the living Jesus spoke… also called Thomas.”

Until that time scholars of Christianity had been aware of the previous existence of a manuscript called the Gospel of Thomas, as it had been denounced by the third century AD Christian theologian Hippolytus. No doubt it had been destroyed after the first Christian emperor Constantine had established by decree the final text of the New Testament in the third century. This eventually resulted in the adoption of the Nicene Creed by his newly declared Christian Roman Empire. A few decades later the Bishop of Alexandria sent a letter to Egyptian Christian monks asking them to destroy their now “heretical” manuscripts. The Gospel of Thomas was one of these banned books, so the monks hid it near the Nile. It was discovered by Egyptian peasants who brought them to the world of scholarship just after the Second World War.

Stevan Davies is one of the world’s scholarly experts on the Gospel of Thomas. He believes that it may have a first century origin, suggesting that it existed at the same time that the four Gospels were being edited. Davies believes that the content of the Gospel of Thomas preceded these gospels and that many of the sayings and parables in the Gospels came from the Thomas manuscript. They may even constitute the original words of Jesus.

The Gospel of Thomas is a more radical version of Jefferson’s Gospel. In Thomas there is no historical narrative whatsoever. There is a conspicuous absence of miracles; no loaves and fishes, no bringing Lazarus back from the dead, no resurrection. There are also no high priests of the Temple handing Jesus over to the Romans and no crucifixion. The Jews are not the bad guys and there is only one mild criticism of Pharisees in the entire text. Instead, we are confronted with a tantalizing set of sayings and commentary that bares a curious resemblance to the writings of the Chinese Daoist mystic Lao Tzu. Yet some of the overlap with sayings found in the New Testament is uncanny. Some scholars suggest that the Gospel of Thomas is the first historical manifestation of the sayings of Jesus.

I am intrigued by the Gospel of Thomas. It seems to be about a mystical struggle to get in touch with the sacred that is in all of us. It asks us to look inward and find the kingdom of God that is inside us. One does not have to be a Christian to contemplate this journey. In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, Do not tell lies and do not do what you hate, for all things are plain in the sight of heaven. He also tells us to Love your brother like your soul, guard him like the pupil of your eye. Most strikingly he tells us, If those who lead you say to you ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you ‘It is in the sea’ then the fish will precede you. Rather the kingdom is inside of you and it is outside of you.

The Gospel of Thomas is a dynamic text. It is one of those discoveries that are not only changing our view of the past but our conceptions of who we are, and what we may become. It is worthwhile holiday reading.

The Gospel of Thomas (http://www.wendag.com/forum/pages.php?pageid=6)