Thomas, Jefferson, and Stewardship

The featured Essay in the current issue of Harper's, Erik Reece's "Jesus Without The Miracles: Thomas Jefferson's Bible and the Gospel of Thomas," would be an arresting read at any time, but in coming at the time of national thanksgiving it packs an even mightier punch. Briefly, Mr Reece, the lapsed son and grandson of Baptist ministers, traces an unexpected connection between the version of the Gospels that Thomas Jefferson knocked off by removing everything miraculous and entitling the result, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, on the one hand, and the Gospel of Thomas, an non-canonical writing, probably older than the canonical ones, that was unearthed in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These documents are far too concerned with what Jesus said to be called "Christian." Christianity is a carapace built around the figure of Jesus that also obscures him; it stands in the same relation to Jesus as one of Tutankhamen's glorious coffins does to the young king's mummy. Χρίστος - "Christ" - is the Greek translation of "Messiah," something that Jesus did not claim to be. It represents the fabulous constructions of Paul and his followers. Most important doctrines, from the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception through Original Sin and the Resurrection, completely lack the authority of Jesus' word. They are the mainstays of a formidable institution that has served a majority of Westerners well enough while crushing and maiming those who question its authority, which it claims to derive directly from God, in the person of Jesus. I doubt that Jesus would have much good to say about its non-charitable operations.

It is not surprising that the Gospel of Thomas was declared to be heretical in the second century, and that copies of it were ordered to be burned. It is not surprising that the Apostle Thomas's best-known appearance in the canonical gospels, at John 20:24-29, discredits him as lacking faith in Jesus' resurrection; at the time that the Gospel of John was written, the Gospel of Thomas was probably still in circulation and increasingly disputed. These are not surprising because the Gospel of Thomas, like The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, is wanting in miracles. It is, literally, a list of things that Jesus said - which, by the way, makes it more difficult to read with pleasure than the New Testament's stories. As a book of precepts, it parallels things that Jesus is quoted as saying in the four canonical gospels, but it throws in a few rather mystical-sounding maxims, such as this one that Mr Reece quotes:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you will kill you.

In an Introduction to The Gospel of Thomas, Thomas O Lambdin's translation of which is printed in The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James M Robinson (Harper & Row, 1978), Helmut Koester, comparing Thomas to "Q," the hypothetical source (Quelle) from which Jesus' teachings were drawn by the evangelists, writes,

Whereas "Q" emphasized the eschatological expectation of the future coming of the "Kingdom of God," The Gospel of Thomas in its oldest form, stressed the finding of wisdom, or of the "Kingdom of the Father," in the knowledge (gnosis) of oneself (cf. saying 3), guided by the sayings of Jesus.

Here is Saying 3:

Jesus said, "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. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.

What it comes down to is a distinction between wisdom and faith. The Gospel of Thomas counsels reflection; the Gospel of John demands belief. The first book relates Jesus' sayings. The second pretty much suppresses them, focusing entirely upon Jesus' self-identification as the Son of God. Thomas is about how to live, John is about Jesus and how to die. Christianity is about death and Jesus. It is not about what Jesus said. That's why generations of intelligent people have wondered why the Christian religions are so at odds, sometimes, with what Jesus himself said.

For Erik Reece, the relation of Thomas to John parallels the relation of Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Hamilton.

The difference between Jefferson and Hamilton is the difference between a version of Christianity based on Jesus' life and death and Resurrection, and one based on his teachings. Or to put it another way, it is a difference between where on locates basileia tou theou - the kingdom of God. Is it, as Luke's gospel says, "In the midst of you" (17:21), or is it, as John's gospel claimed, a reward saved for the sweet hereafter? To live by Jesus' teachings would be to live virtuously as stewards of the land; it would be to create an economy based on compassion, cooperation, and conservation; it would be to preserve the Creation as the kingdom of God. Jefferson was proposing a country of countrysides, a pastorale in which we would want to live; Hamilton was giving us a nation of factories from which we would want - perhaps in the end need - to be saved.

As John triumphed over Thomas, so did Hamilton's vision prevail over Jefferson's. But neither victory needs to be permanent, and now that the Gospel of Thomas is back in at least limited circulation, it is possible to conceive of a Jeffersonian vision for the nation that accords with the teachings of Jesus.

The word that has lingered in my mind as I've thought about Mr Reece's essay is "stewards." Increasingly, I see myself as called upon to act as a steward, at least for all the learning that has passed through my restless brain. I am trying to conserve and develop a wholesome view of the world. Mr Reece writes,

So when I first discovered the Gospel of Thomas about a decade ago, I was shocked to find a version of Christianity that I could accept and one that, moreover, could serve as a vital corrective to my grandfather's view that we live helplessly, sinfully, in a broken world.

If the world is already broken - as Augustine certainly believed - if matter is inherently evil, then there's nothing that human beings can do to make it worse. Strip-mining, scorched-earthing, ethnic cleaning - these can all be for the good if they promote our salvation. Belief in a wrathful deity can justify any atrocity, as we have seen century after century since Jesus, despite his very explicit condemnation of violence. Belief in loving God can justify most self-indulgences, despite Jesus' pronounced austerity and dread of materialism. I believe that the world is a good place that can be made better. I believe that human life (not human afterlife) is valuable in itself, in every instance, and that there is no end to the good things that we can do for one another. I am not proposing that we all run off to a big commune or any other utopian scheme. Simplistic ideologies of equality have caused at least as much harm as good since the passage of our Constitution in 1787. Unlike Jesus, I don't advocate any radical changes. What I urge is that, while you are giving thanks today for whatever blessings you may have received (even if only the blessing of life), you consider yourself as the steward of such resources as are in your care. We have been lucky in America; let's not prove the right-wing idea that people don't take care of things that they haven't worked for. Let's pay attention, and bring forth that which is in us. (Thanksgiving 2005)

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