Monday, July 6, 2015

The Gospel of Thomas and the Divine Twin

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Why was an entire "library" of ancient texts carefully sealed in a large storage jar at the base of the steep cliffs of the massif known today as the Jabal al-Tarif, along the banks of the Nile River in Egypt not far from the ancient city of Thebes, sometime during the second half of what we label today as the fourth century AD (the fourth century being the years in the 300s, since the first century AD consists of the years with numbers below 100, such as for example AD 60 or AD 70, causing all the subsequent centuries to have numbers "one higher" than the "hundred multiple" on the year-numbers, which is why the years in the 1900s were the "twentieth century")?

What would be the purpose of carefully sealing an upside-down bowl over the top of the large jar containing these texts, and burying them some distance from the city, underneath the talus at the base of the cliffs?

What was so important about the texts that someone would want to bury them? Were they worried about the texts being stolen? Or was there some other reason?

After this ancient jar was rediscovered in the 1940s (more details about that, along with some maps showing the location of the discovery, are in this previous post), and scholars began to decipher the ancient manuscripts, one possible reason these texts were buried began to suggest itself: these were ancient texts that were not included on the lists of approved writings that church authorities began to publish in the second half of that same fourth century -- and texts that did not make it onto the list of approved writings were no longer safe to have in one's possession (often texts excluded from the approved list were specifically denounced as heretical and spurious by the authorities).

Thus, it is quite possible that someone or some group who personally treasured these texts and their teachings, but did not feel it was safe to keep them in their immediate possession as the pressure against "heretical" texts ratcheted up during the second half of the fourth century, took them up the Nile to the cliffs away from the city and buried them there, fully intending to come back to them at some point in the future.

Apparently they never got the opportunity to go back.

These ancient texts, along with some others that have come to light in more recent discoveries, as well as a very few other fragments and manuscripts that had been found or preserved prior to those found in the jar at the Nag Hammadi, suggest to some researchers a very different history of the early centuries of the Christian church than has traditionally been taught. Some of the evidence can be interpreted as indicating that early teachings very different from what we today think of as "Christian teaching" were forcibly suppressed and driven underground (literally driven "under ground" in the case of the texts buried at Nag Hammadi) during the second, third, and especially fourth centuries, and replaced by an "approved list" of texts and teachings, which were to be interpreted from a primarily literalist perspective. 

In the next few posts, let's briefly examine a few of the ancient texts that were pretty much lost to history for nearly 1,600 years, surviving (as far as we know) only inside that sealed jar buried under the earth beneath the cliffs of Nag Hammadi and safely out of the way for the spread of literalist teachings until that jar was unearthed again in the twentieth century.

When we do so, we will find some teachings which seem to strongly resonate with some of the themes we have been examining recently in our examination of some of the "Star Myths" in the Mahabharata of ancient India, and in the Bhagavad Gita that is part of the Mahabharata. In fact, we will find teachings in some of those long-buried Nag Hammadi texts that I believe have clear affinity with much that is found in the ancient wisdom preserved in myth and sacred stories literally around the world -- and indeed, that is even found in the texts of what we think of today as the Bible (the texts that did make it onto those approved lists), but which are more evident in those Biblical texts when they are understood as esoteric allegory rather than as literal accounts.

Previous posts have presented evidence that the stories of the Bible were not intended to be understood as literal history but as esoteric allegory, and that forcing a literal reading onto them has resulted in an interpretation that is pretty much the polar opposite of their intended teaching -- see, for example, this discussion of the Easter cycle, or this discussion of the specific parts of the Easter cycle between the Triumphal Entry and the Betrayal, or this discussion of the Judgment of Solomon.

The entire "library" of texts that have survived from the discovery of that jar at Nag Hammadi (apparently, not all of the texts found in the jar survived, because when they were first found a few of the texts were actually burned as fuel for a cooking fire, according to stories surrounding the discovery) can be found online here, as well as in print form in various translations and collections (such as this collection edited by Nag Hammadi scholar and translator Marvin Meyer).

Out of that collection, we'll just look at a few passages from a couple of texts over the next few days or weeks. However, those interested in learning more can go straight to the Nag Hammadi texts themselves -- although the passages often appear cryptic at first, sometimes quite strange and alien, and even downright off-putting, remember that they are intended to be understood (I believe) as esoteric allegory and that as such they are intended to convey spiritual truths which our literal or rational mind would "choke on" or reject, but which can often be best absorbed through powerful stories or metaphors.

Remember also that these texts were considered precious enough by someone living in ancient times to bury them, possibly at some risk to themselves, because they couldn't bear to see them destroyed -- and remember as well that the teachings in these texts was apparently considered so dangerous by those trying to spread a different system that these specific texts were literally unavailable after a certain point; they were completely or nearly completely eradicated. 

And, it should be noted, these texts were not marginal or unimportant texts: some of them (such as the one we will discuss in a moment) were mentioned quite often by ancient authors (including literalist Christian authorities, who were denouncing the texts), and so their titles were know to modern scholars even though -- until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library -- their contents could not be consulted (except, in a few very limited cases, in a few fragments that survived, including in one case fragments which survived in a rubbish heap).

One of the most well-known and important of the texts found in that long-buried jar from Nag Hammadi is the text known as The Gospel of Thomas, which introduces itself as a record of the "secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded" (this is the translation version found here, by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer; there are several other versions of English translations available and linked from that location, and it is interesting to read the different translations to try to get additional perspectives on the ancient text). 

This opening line itself offers us some extremely important insights, based on the name "Didymos Judas Thomas" -- the title "Didymos" or "Didymus" for Thomas is also found in the canonical gospel of John (in chapters 11, 20, and 21) and it means "Twin" (as does the name Thomas itself, apparently, but Didymos comes from the Greek word for "Twin" and Thomas comes from the Aramaic word for "Twin").   

Of course, a character specifically identified as a Twin might suggest a connection to the Twins of Gemini, to those who have become familiar with the patterns found in Star Myths around the world, and it is certainly possible that the Thomas character has some connection to the zodiac constellation of Gemini.

However, it is also quite possible that something even more interesting is at work here, something related to the previous discussion entitled "Why divinities can appear in an instant: The inner connection to the Infinite." That post argued that the ancient Star Myths are intended to convey the knowledge to us that even in this incarnate existence, we have inside of us a connection to the infinite: a connection to the divine, what is also described as the "hidden divine spark" or the "god within" (and see other related discussions on this very important subject, such as "Namaste and Amen," or any of the many previous posts about Osiris and the casting down and raising-up-again of the Djed).

How does the character of "Didymos Judas Thomas" convey a related message? The answer comes when we ask, "if Thomas is a twin, who is the other twin in the pair?" After all, that is a natural question to ask if we are reading a story and we are told that a character is a twin, but we are not immediately introduced to the other twin.

Interestingly enough, in another of the Nag Hammadi texts -- and in fact in a text which was bound up together with the Gospel of Thomas in the book-form or "codex" known to Nag Hammadi scholars as "Codex II" -- a text called The Book of Thomas the Contender, we get a startling answer as to who the other twin of Thomas might be (in the esoteric allegory).

In Section II of The Book of Thomas the Contender, which is called "Dialogue between Thomas and the Savior," we read these words in a sub-section regarding the subject of ignorance and self-knowledge:
The savior said, "Brother Thomas, while you have time in the world, listen to me and I will reveal to you the things you have pondered in your mind. Now, since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself, and learn who you are, in what way you exist, and how you will come to be. Since you will be called my brother, it is not fitting that you be ignorant of yourself . . ."
Did this text just say that the Savior addressed Thomas as "my twin"?

Yes, that is what was asserted in this text. Now, if you are one who wants to interpret literally ancient texts about what the Savior said, then you are probably going to reject this text as being heretical. If you try to take this text literally, it will cause big problems with other texts, such as the scriptures describing the birth of the Savior (in which it is never said that he was born as one in a set of twins, for instance).

But, if you are not troubled with a need to force every ancient scripture into a literal mold, and if you believe that they were not intended to be understood that way, then you can ask yourself what this assertion that Thomas was the twin of the Savior might mean -- what it might have been intended to convey.

As you did so, you might remember that in other ancient mythologies, most notably perhaps in Greek myth, there are sets of twins in which one twin is divine or immortal, and the other twin is human and mortal. These Thomas narratives in the Nag Hammadi texts seem to be resorting to this same metaphor: we have a divine twin ("the living Jesus" as he is called in the opening line of the Gospel of Thomas, and "the Savior" as he is called in the Book of Thomas the Contender), and we have the mortal counterpart, the human twin: Thomas, the one who writes down the sayings for us, which he received from the divine twin.

Now, as we saw at the end of the preceding discussion regarding the "inner connection to the Infinite," there is a passage in the wisdom-book of Proverbs which declares "there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother." As that post argued, and presented evidence from myth (particularly myths in which a god or divine being appears instantly, which also happens to be one of the characteristics of the risen Christ) this teaching may well be trying to convey to us the knowledge that our connection to the infinite, to the realm of the gods, is not external to us: it is within us already.

The metaphor of a divine twin and a human twin, such as the Gemini Twins in Greek mythology of Pollux (divine) and Castor (human), may well be referring to just such a concept or teaching. Expressing it in this way can convey this truth to us in a powerful, metaphorical, esoteric manner.

If that is the case, then what we see here in the Gospel of Thomas (and in the Book of Thomas the Contender) may well be conveying the very same truth, just in a slightly different form than it is found in (for example) the Greek myth of Pollux and Castor. In the Nag Hammadi texts mentioned here, Jesus is the divine twin and Thomas is the human twin, but they are not in fact two different entities. This is a teaching about the "Christ within" (which is a teaching also found in the writings of the apostle who called himself Paul, a name which the Reverend Robert Taylor points out is very much linguistically related to Pollux and to Apollo).

We are already, perhaps, getting a sense as to why these texts ended up buried in a large jar in a secret location, where the authorities who had declared such teachings to be "heretical" could not find them and destroy them.

There is much within the Gospel of Thomas itself to back up the interpretation that has been suggested above. In future posts we may have occasion to examine a few more of them, but for now let's just look at another metaphor, offered as a saying of Jesus, found in section 109 of the Gospel of Thomas.

There, in the translation of Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer, Jesus says:
The (Father's) kingdom is like a person who had a treasure hidden in his field but did not know it. And [when] he died he left it to his [son]. The son [did] not know about it either. He took over the field and sold it. The buyer went plowing, [discovered] the treasure, and began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished.
This is a very interesting metaphor, and one that suggests that the "treasure" of the infinite is buried away deep inside us like the treasure in the story that lies buried under a field, which can remain there our entire lives without our knowing it. But it is something which we actually already have, if we just knew.

The scriptures appear to be trying to break through our ignorance on this subject, to tell us that we already are connected to something that is actually inexpressible in its infinity (that cannot be quantified or defined or even named, as the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching declare, and that thus lies beyond all the quantifying and labeling and chattering of the part of us that we call our mind).

Thomas is telling us the words of Jesus, but perhaps "Thomas" received these sayings from a divine source that was not external to him (though none the less divine and none the less real for that). In fact, we should not think of the Gospel of Thomas as being about some "twin" who lived thousands of years ago: as Alvin Boyd Kuhn advised us in a passage quoted in several previous posts, we won't understand ancient texts unless we realize that they are about us. Each and every individual soul that incarnates in this world is, according to such a reading, like Thomas: a twin to a living infinite inner divinity, possessed of a friend that sticketh closer than any "external twin" (as close as literal twins are to one another, this twin is even closer).

This teaching is also portrayed in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita, with Arjuna and his companion and divine charioteer, the Lord Krishna (as well as in the episode in which Durga appears before the battle: see videos here and here and additional discussion here).

These are not the messages that are traditionally drawn from the scriptures of the Bible when they are approached with a literalist hermeneutic (because literalist readings necessarily start off by seeing the characters in the text as primarily external to us, since those characters are understood to be literal-historical figures). But they are messages which resonate strongly with all the other myths and sacred traditions of the world -- and they are in fact the messages which I believe these texts were intended to convey to us, before something happened and that message was all but wiped out, around the period of time that the Nag Hammadi library was being sealed away.