This class will explore over some ten weeks the Gospel of Thomas recently brought to light in the treasure trove of largely gnostic compositions stumbled upon by an Arab peasant, quite by accident, in 1945 in Egypt. The Gospel of Thomas(only one of a number of non-canonical gospels) contains the sayings of Jesus purportedly recorded by the disciple Thomas. We will explore the sayings themselves, make comparisons with the four gospels of the New Testament, all of which will allow us to enter into discussions concerning mystery religions then prevalent offering formulae for personal salvation through various rites and wisdom traditions, especially in communities in Alexandria, Egypt, where both Christian thinkers and Jewish philosophers of a neo-platonic mind set attempted to fill in the gaps, so to speak, of the four gospels whose authority and faithfulness church tradition has consistently upheld. The text of the Gospel of Thomas has become widely available in print (The Gospel According to Thomas, Harper-Collins, ed. James M. Robinson) and on the Internet: (http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/gosthom.html). Two other books widely available and of particular interest are The Gnostic Gospels (1985) and Beyond Belief (2003), both by Elaine Pagels. The latter book offers an intriguing and plausible – but by no means convincing – theory that speaks to a dynamic relationship she believes exists between the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas.
Significant descriptions or portions of twelve ancient texts that meet the criteria necessary to be considered an early (indisputably written before the end of the second century) gospel have been preserved from antiquity. Six early gospels are attested by manuscripts from the second century or shortly thereafter: Matthew, Luke, John, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, and an “Unknown Gospel” (P.Egerton 2).
Six additional early gospels are attested by patristic citations from the same time period: Mark (Irenaeus), Secret Mark, Gospel of the Ebionites (Irenaeus), Gospel of the Nazareans (Eusebius), Gospel of the Hebrews (Clement), and Marcion’s gospel (Irenaeus).
Turbaned midwives attend the infant Jesus in this oil painting of “The Nativity” (c. 1425) attributed to the Netherlandish artist Robert Campin. According to the Proto-Gospel of James, an early—but noncanonical—Christian text, Joseph summoned the women to assist at Jesus’ birth. One midwife, named Salome, questioned Mary’s virginity, the gospel continues. She swore, “Unless I put (forward) my finger and test her condition, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.” Fire consumed the incredulous midwife’s hand as she tested Mary until an angel instructed her to touch Jesus to be cured. In Campin’s painting, Salome displays her healed hand.
The earliest written source we have for the ox and the donkey is the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which scholars date to about the year 800, yet these animals were carved in stone on a fourth-century Roman sarcophagus lid, now part of the pulpit of the Church of St. Ambrose in Milan.
Isaiah 1:3 “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel
does not know, my people do not understand.”
Another representation of the Nativity in a large-scale Byzantine fresco (c. 1175) in the Church of Karanlik Kilise in Turkey is interesting not only for its two midwives, but for locating the birth of Jesus in a cave and including an ox and a donkey. The nativity site, not pinpointed by the evangelists, is most often a stable in Western art, but in Eastern art, it is usually a cave. Nor are the familiar animal creche figures, so ubiquitous today, found in the canonical gospels.