For me, the Thomas gospel entered into my awareness ca 1960 or so, when my parents were involved with a group of spiritual conferences called first Het Oude Loo, and later Het Open Veld. They were mostly international in nature, and hosted at the palace Het Oude Loo, and Queen Juliana was a participant. That world was abuzz with the expectation of the Thomas Gospel, and originally Queen Juliana had given her personal financial support for the acquisition of the Nag Hammadi manuscript through the Jung Foundation, by the Dutch Professor Gilles Quispel. In 1959 the first translation appeared in Dutch, and in the late fifties my parents attended lectures by him.
The expectation that surrounded all of this was of finally having a fresh, new impression of Jesus as he was originally, but some of that expectation was dampened by Quispel's focus on the Gnostic tradition, driven primarily by the fact that the Nag Hammadi library was largely a gnostic collection, and that seemed to make the Thomas gospel part of the second century gnostic religions, many of which were more or less Christian. It was only later that it began to be understood that the Thomas gospel, or at least a kernel of it, must have indeed predated the canonical gospels of the New Testament, since those books all quote the Thomas gospel.
Thomas enters popular cultureMy earliest memories about anything to do with the Thomas Gospel was of my parents going to lectures by Prof. Gilles Quispel, and the buzz that surrounded them. Later, when I lived in the USA, this "buzz" was renewed for me in a way, with the publications (on the same day in 2003) of three books that related to the Thomas gospel in different ways, Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief, and Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, and last not least, Gary Renard's The Disappearance of the Universe. In short, what began in a little side show in Holland in the late 50's and early 60's, now was entering the world stage with three new and very different popularizations. Translations of the Thomas Gospel had been around for a long time, but it was these three books which really made Thomas part of popular culture, to such an extent that the Jesus Seminar even published a book called The Five Gospels, in which they included the Thomas gospel.
That approach of including the Thomas Gospel in the now "five" gospels, was interesting, but controversial on several levels. To church-Christians it was often confusing because the Thomas gospel seemed so different in character, yet it was undeniable that the other gospel writers had copied extensively from Thomas. Conversely it did the Thomas gospel a disservice, because it now began to make that book part of the Christian tradition about Jesus, when the whole point was that ALL specific theological constructs that make Christianity what it is, are absent. Given also that the Thomas Gospel clearly predated Paul, and the others were written after him, it becomes clear that the theological framing of Christianity as such rests with Paul, not with Jesus.
Therefore, the Thomas gospel sort of stood on its own two feet, and considering it separately, and in its proper historical context made more sense than including it with the books of the New Testament. The character of the three books mentioned above is also very interesting in terms of the way the Thomas material entered popular culture - and I am adding some other relevant notes:
- Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief - This is a book by a religion scholar, who is also a Christian, and she struggles with the differences of the Thomas tradition with her traditional beliefs, just at a time when her own personal life crises make all this that much more relevant to her. It is a very personal exploration, but it has scholarly overtones, and the overall framework is clearly from a scholarly point of view.
- Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code - This is a fun book, an adventure story, and the way the Thomas gospel enters the conversation here is as part of material suppressed by the church, and the tone of the narrative very much takes its energy from a certain distrust of and rebellion against the church as an institution that has been withholding information, in order to protect its authority.
- Gary Renard's The Disappearance of the Universe - This book strikes a very different tone. First of all we are introduced to the Thomas material here through the lense of Gary's learning of A Course in Miracles, but coupled with his own inner experience, which includes recollections of a past life as Thomas. Here the teachings of Jesus are fleshed out on an inner, experiential level, based on Gary's work with the Course, and the material from the Thomas gospel is woven into the story in a way that ties in with Gary's past life recollections, but also by showing how consistent the gist of the Thomas sayings is with A Course in Miracles. Hence the connection was made here between the "historical" Jesus from BEFORE Christianity, as he appears in the Thomas Gospel, and the very modern teaching of the Course, which makes it very clear that Jesus is its source.
- My own book, Closing the Circle, explores Pursah's version of the Thomas gospel, and its title reflects the notion that Gary's work "closes the circle" from the pre-Christian Jesus of Thomas, to the modern teaching ascribed to him, A Course in Miracles. Once you can see that connection, Christianity is simply the religion Paul founded, and named after Jesus, but it is his interpretation of the meaning of Jesus and his teaching.
- As a side note, in recent years we have also seen the publication of a facsimile edition of Thomas Jefferson's The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, which was alluded to in Gary's books, with a prediction that it would be entering the main stream in the near future. This "Jefferson Bible," as it is popularly referred to, is interesting, because Jefferson made his selection of Jesus quotes from the canonical gospels, by trying to eliminate any editorializing and focusing exclusively on the quotations, and dropping those that he did not like. One way or another Jefferson's selection shows a remarkable overlap with the Thomas gospel, even while it was produced 125 years before the discovery of the major manuscript at Nag Hammadi.
The Connection of the Thomas gospel and A Course In Miracles
If the foreground of Gary's books, the story line, is Gary's life story and especially his adventures in learning the Course with mentoring by Arten and Pursah--his ascended master-teachers--the content of the story is simply universal, about how we learn the Course. The background is provided by the historical perspective of Jesus then and now, with the important distinction that Jesus was already stripped from his Christian appearance by the things he says in the Course about how his teachings were misconstrued, and Gary's books go one step further, by referring to him as J, in an attempt to defeat the stereotypes that inevitably are associated with his name.
On a deeper level, this "then and now" perspective makes the point of the meaning of the resurrection, namely that Jesus is present to us all in the mind, in the present, and that it is his teachings which matter, not the history around him, and certainly not the theologies that were created in his name, in all flavors and variations. His teaching was and is simple, never easy to practice, because of the resistance of our ego, but always simple.
Now that the triptych of Disappearance of the Universe is complete, we have a very plausible way of understanding the context of the Thomas gospel and how it points us to the unadulterated teachings of Jesus, free of the sediment of later theology, as we learn to appreciate the inner consistency of those teachings with the Course. Most importantly, we learn how to apply them in our lives, for the Course is all about practice, practice, and more practice.