The Gospel of Thomas and Early Stages in the Development of the Christian Wisdom Literature / Alexei Siverstev

Posted by on Mar 15, 2016 in Library | Comments Off on The Gospel of Thomas and Early Stages in the Development of the Christian Wisdom Literature / Alexei Siverstev

Abstract: This work addresses the theological background of the Gospel of Thomas and its relationship to personified wisdom tradition on the one hand, and to the Syriac Christian tradition of the divine redeemer on the other. The Gospel of Thomas shares a number of unique characteristics with the Syriac literature of the second and third centuries C.E., such as interest in personal asceticism as a means to attain divine wisdom, personal deification, and view of Christ as a state of being most clearly expressed in the man Jesus, but also accessible to his followers. All of these characteristics distinguish the Gospel of Thomas from the personified wisdom tradition, which in some cases explicitly rejects them (the Gospel of John). On the other hand, the Gospel of Thomas is organized as a collection of independent sayings (logoi sophon) pronounced by Jesus, while the third-century Syriac writings usually have a poetic or semipoetic form (The Hymn of the Pearl, the Odes of Solomon). In addition, despite significant similarities, the theological message of the Syriac literature appears more “mature” and articulated than the doctrine of the Gospel of Thomas. One may conclude that the Gospel of Thomas belongs to the early stages in the development of Christian doctrine that would eventually evolve into a full-fledged theology in the later Syriac texts. Its message was either redefined in Syriac tradition of the divine redeemer or rejected as a result of adaptation of personified wisdom tradition by the mainstream church.

The attempt to analyze early Christian writings as a part of the wider genre of wisdom literature has led to a major breakthrough in the field during the last several decades or so. The idea that at least some of the earliest parts of the gospels belong to the genre of wise sayings now has [End Page 319] considerable support among scholars and has already been used as a methodological tool in a number of form-critical studies. 1 Among other texts, the Gospel of Thomas has received a great deal of attention precisely because its genre has been recognized as that of wisdom sayings (logoi sophon). 2
On the whole, there is a strong tendency in modern scholarship to distinguish between at least two stages in the formation of sayings traditions in early Christianity, and their respective theological backgrounds. The best summary of the first stage can be found in Helmut Koester’s words about the theological message of the Gospel of Thomas:
Faith is understood as belief in Jesus’ words, a belief which makes what Jesus proclaimed present and real for the believer. The catalyst which caused the crystallization of these sayings into a “Gospel” is the view that the kingdom is uniquely present in Jesus’ eschatological preaching and that eternal wisdom about man’s self is disclosed in his words. 3
In general this first stage can be characterized by the absence of explicit identification of Jesus with personified Wisdom, as well as by the lack of apocalyptic or judgmental pronouncements against “this generation.” It tends to be edifying in its content, using moral admonitions as the major means of conveying its religious message. The “mythological” stratum of this stage is somewhat undeveloped, at least in comparison with the second one.
During the second (polemical) stage, a number of sayings were introduced that imply identification of Jesus with Sophia, thus developing a functional unity between the two of them which had already existed in potentia at the first stage. The overall tendency of this layer would be towards the creation of a “mythological” image of a supernatural Jesus, who is identified with the heavenly Wisdom rejected by “this generation.” This tendency is accompanied in turn by a much more bitter and pointed [End Page 320] polemic against society, the polemic heavily loaded with apocalyptic overtones and directly connected to the rejection of Jesus and his disciples. 4
In other words, the second stage exemplifies one of the variations of the so-called wisdom myth widely attested in other writings of the Second Temple period and early rabbinic Judaism. This theology, however, appears to be secondary in our particular case, and largely resulted from the unfavorable circumstances in which early Christian communities found themselves. This leaves us with the obvious question as to the nature of the original theology of the first layer of the Christian sayings tradition. Unfortunately in most of the studies there is no clear sense of what exactly this theological message could have been. One has the sense that the first stage did not have any particular “mythological” background comparable to that of the second stage, but rather is to be viewed as merely a radical preaching of moral values.
The goal of this paper is to show that the Christian sayings tradition in itself had a profound “mythological” significance. This mythology was, however, significantly different from what we call “the personified wisdom theology,” and had a life and history of its own. It would be useful to refer now to another group of writings which has striking similarities with the Gospel of Thomas and which is often used as a decisive proof for its later provenance, namely, the Syriac Christian texts of the second-third centuries C.E.
Recent decades have witnessed significant leaps in the study of Syriac Christianity. While some of the most daring expectations proved to be unjustified, the pool of Syriac literature still remains a gold mine for the student of early church history. It had been noticed long ago that, until well into the fourth century, the area of eastern Syria (meaning first and foremost Edessa and its neighborhood) remained out of the scope of “mainstream” orthodox Christianity. The predominant influence in that area came from such “heretical” groups as Gnostics, Manicheans, Encratites, and Jewish Christians. A considerable number of Syriac Christian texts stem from this very period, roughly confined between the late [End Page 321] second and early fourth centuries C.E. Hence there is reasonable hope that one can find in this literature early theological vestiges, otherwise purged from the main body of Christian writings. 5
The likelihood of finding interesting data significantly increases when one approaches the Gospel of Thomas. According to the dominant scholarly view, the Gospel of Thomas in its present form was composed in Syria, while the exact place or even region still remains an enigma. Thomas appears to be the apostolic figure particularly revered in the churches of Syria, while the name Judas Thomas or its redundant form Didymos Judas Thomas is attested only in the East. It seems that the very identification of the disciple named Thomas with Judas occurs only in Syriac tradition, but holds there with remarkable persistence. 6
In addition to these general considerations, G. Quispel was able to identify parallels between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron of Tatian, conventionally dated around the end of the second century C.E. In a number of readings, the two works agree with each other against the canonical gospels, thus pointing to a common source or mutual influence. 7 While the Diatessaron remains the most convincing source for Syriac parallels to Thomas, Quispel also found traces of the gospel in several other Syriac texts of the third and fourth centuries. 8 In addition, there have been various attempts to prove that the original language of Thomas’ composition was Syriac. As a whole they have not been successful, but there is still a possibility that some expressions in the text are borrowed from Semitic languages. 9
Indeed the similarities between the Gospel of Thomas and Syriac Christian writings are so significant that they are often considered to provide [End Page 322] grounds for a late dating of the former (third century C.E.). 10 Without going into the details of the whole debate, there is at least one indication that demonstrates a diachronic rather than synchronic relationship between these ideas and theological notions. The similarities between the Gospel of Thomas and the Syriac literature lay in the realm of content, rather than in their formal characteristics. In terms of form, in fact, the Gospel of Thomas is absolutely distinctive when viewed against the background of the Syriac literary output.
The Gospel of Thomas represents a collection of random sayings strung together without any single unifying plan underlying the composition as a whole. The closest parallels are, of course, the biblical book of Proverbs and the mishnaic tractate Pirke Avot. Similar collections appear in the book of Ben-Sira, the Wisdom of Ahiqar, and recently published Qumran sapiential texts. However, this genre, which is amply attested in Hebrew and early Aramaic literary tradition, is virtually unknown in Syriac literature. The only exception is the so-called Letter of Mara bar Serapion. 11 Still, this document has always stood somewhat apart from the “mainstream” of the Syriac literary tradition. It is conventionally dated to the second century C.E., thus serving as one of the earliest examples of Syriac literary production (the bulk of which stems largely from the late second-fourth centuries C.E.). On the other hand, this genre is never attested again later on. Thus the “Letter of Mara bar Serapion” shows that, first, collections of random sayings were not unknown in the Syriac Orient during the second century C.E., and, second, that they were relatively quickly replaced by other more elaborated genres.
The most prominent of these genres was poetry. Its earliest examples (the Hymns of Solomon, and the Hymn of the Pearl) are dated to approximately the third century C.E., and thus possibly reflect the next stage in the development of Syriac literature. While no considerable research has been done so far in respect to the antecedents of Syriac poetry per se, studies of contemporary Hebrew poetry have demonstrated its considerable indebtedness to earlier wisdom texts to such a degree that one can speak of direct continuity between them. 12 We can easily imagine that much the [End Page 323] same development took place in Syriac literature at approximately the same period of time. This would explain in turn both the similarities in content and the differences in structure between the Gospel of Thomas and later Syriac works. They stood on a direct chronological line in terms of formal literary development, while displaying significant conservatism in terms of their content. Based on these observations, it would be probably safe to maintain that the Gospel of Thomas took its final shape in the second century C.E. in about the same time when the “Letter of Mara Bar Serapion” was written.
Thus we have basically two traditions whose affiliation with the Gospel of Thomas have been recognized already in modern scholarship. One of them is the Personified Wisdom tradition, which first had been developed in the Second Commonwealth Jewish literature and later accepted by mainstream Christianity. The origins of an “impersonal divine Redeemer” tradition are not so clear, but it is abundantly reflected in the Syriac Christian writing stemming from the second-third centuries C.E. 13 The goal of what follows is to find an appropriate place for the Gospel of Thomas vis-à-vis both of them.
The Image of the Human Body
Early Syriac Christianity has long been credited as a cradle of later monasticism in some of its most extreme forms. 14 Tatian, who is the earliest representative of the Syriac tradition known to us, appears in the patristic literature as a founder of the Encratite heresy, famous for its practices of self-mortification. While it is not altogether clear whether he indeed started any significant movement of his own, Tatian definitely should be seen as one of the typical examples of Syriac ways of thinking, shocking as they were to his Western “orthodox” neighbors.
In his apologetic treatise Oratio ad Graecos, Tatian gives the following [End Page 324] explanation of the ultimate function of human bodies: “The bond of flesh is soul, but it is the flesh which contains the soul. If such a structure is like a shrine, God is willing to dwell in it through the spirit, his representative” (or. 16.21-24). In other words, the function of the human body is to become a dwelling place for God, to accept God inside.
A similar approach and terminology can be found in another Syriac text of the third century C.E., the Acts of Thomas. In his sermon addressed to a woman of high standing, Thomas summarizes his message in the following words: “Acquire purity, and take unto you temperance, and strive after humility, for by these three cardinal virtues is typified this Messiah, whom I preach. For purity is the temple of God, and everyone who guards it, guards His temple, and the Messiah dwells in him.” 15 Predictably enough, the woman asks Thomas to pray so that God “may come upon me, and that I may become a holy temple and He may dwell in me.” 16 Severe mortification of the body and asceticism become the main practical implications of this quest for holiness for both “Thomas” and Tatian. According to the church fathers, Tatian was famous for his repudiation of wine and any kind of sexual union between men and women. The dissolution of marriages and condemnation of what are considered to be lawful sexual relations becomes the predominant (to the point of obsession) theme of the Acts of Thomas.
The physical means for turning one’s body into God’s “dwelling place” presupposed a belief in physical bodily transformation. At the same time, they presupposed the belief in some kind of realized eschatology, in which the bodily transformation should occur here and now, and not in some indefinite eschatological future preached by the mainstream church. Determined asceticism of this kind was deemed to bring an immediate redemption of a personal nature. It is interesting that, in Syriac literature, the idea of communal eschatology remains undeveloped pretty much through the end of the fourth century, and is completely replaced by the theme of immediate salvation through practices of individual self-mortification.
The other imagery which bears exactly on the same theme of bodily transformation deals with the idea of “stripping down” one’s old body. In his article, “The Garments of Shame,” J. Z. Smith has persuasively argued for the baptismal setting of this motif. 17 It seems, however, that the [End Page 325] baptismal application of this image presupposed some deeper theological explanation.
When Tatian describes his conversion to Christianity, he uses a remarkable phrase to describe his final decision to become a Christian: “Now that I have apprehended these things I wish to strip myself just as children” (or. 30.16-17). 18 For Tatian the desire to “strip myself just as children” came as a result of his intellectual conversion, when his soul was “taught from God” upon reading the Bible. He talks about his conversion in terms of obtaining divine wisdom: “I was persuaded because of . . . the easily intelligible account of the creation of the world, the foreknowledge of the future, the remarkable quality of the precepts and the doctrine of a single ruler of the universe” (or. 30.7-11). One cannot fail to notice that “stripping down one’s body” becomes the final stage in the process of intellectual quest for divine wisdom. Understanding of the divinely ordained universal order was traditionally one of the main goals in wisdom literature, and as such it is reflected in Tatian’s words. Thus the wisdom roots of his behavioral experience of “stripping himself down” become all the more obvious. 19
The same blend of the quest for divine wisdom and the imagery of “stripping oneself down as a child” constitutes one of the most prominent themes in the Gospel of Thomas: [End Page 326]
His disciples said: “When will you become revealed to us and when shall we see you?”
Jesus said: “When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then [will you see] the son of the living one, and you will not be afraid.” (Thom. 37)
The double parallelism between this saying and Tatian’s phrase (disrobing and children imagery) is obvious. In both cases “garments” apparently refer to human bodies which are to be changed in order to reach a new level of intimacy with God. For Tatian, however, this act stands as a part of the ascetic rendering his body into a suitable temple for God on the one hand, and as a result of true understanding of God’s wisdom on the other. The negative attitude towards the body lurks behind another saying from Thomas, which exhibits various similarities to saying 37:
Mary said to Jesus, “Whom are your disciples like?”
He said, “They are like children who have settled in a field which is not theirs. When the owners of the field come, they will say, ‘Let us have back our field.’ They undress in their presence in order to let them have back their field and to give it back to them.” (Thom. 21)
The same basic imagery of children and undressing is present here, as in the saying above, but now we have a conflict between children (disciples of Jesus) and the owners of the field. No matter how much one would like to read Gnostic tendencies into this story (owners as archons, etc.), it is clear that disrobing here means giving away the regular human body to the one to whom it belongs, i.e., to the rulers of this world. In saying 37 the “disrobing just as children” was required for seeing Jesus without fear, meaning that the revelation is conditional upon physical change of oneself. It seems that we are very close to Tatian’s idea of converting one’s body into a pure temple through stripping away the old one by mortification of the flesh.
For Thomas as well as for Tatian, bodily transformation comes as a significant part of the quest for wisdom. The revelation of Jesus which the disciples seek in saying 37 apparently means revelation of wisdom. But in saying 4 the notion of wisdom is even more explicitly connected to a child: “Jesus said, ‘The man old in days will not hesitate to ask a small child seven days old about the place of life, and he will live. For many who are first will become last, and they will become one and the same.’” In other words, becoming a child is crucial for obtaining divine wisdom, and as we have seen “to become a child” means for Thomas [End Page 327] “to strip away one’s body” or “to disrobe.” 20 The same holds true for Tatian.
One can find a kind of synthesis for everything that has been described here in Ode 25 from the Odes of Solomon, originating from third-century Syria:
And I was covered with the covering of thy (God’s) spirit; 
And I removed from me the garment of skins.
For thy right hand lifted me up, 
And removed sickness from me.
Here the “garment of skins” is replaced by “the covering of God’s spirit,” signifying the dwelling of God in a purified human body. Two systems of images, disrobing oneself and rendering oneself into a pure temple, are thus correlated. There is no mention of wisdom in this poem, but in other odes of the same cycle the quest for God’s wisdom plays a paramount role.
It seems that at this level all these texts share the same theological pattern. The human body is seen as a potential temple for God. The procedure of rendering it a temple is symbolically designated as “disrobing” and “becoming a child.” The quest for God is paralleled by the quest for God’s wisdom, the two of them being different sides of the same coin. Thus, accepting God inside oneself means automatically partaking of God’s wisdom. It is not clear, however, whether the demands for rigid asceticism which were so prominent for Tatian had been already present in the Gospel of Thomas, or represent a secondary development of earlier ideas.
The position of the Gospel of Thomas vis-à-vis asceticism is not easy to determine. On the one hand, there are a number of sayings that discourage the disciples from following conventional ascetic practices (Thom. 6 and 14). On the other hand, an equal number of sayings endorse fasting, even if only under certain circumstances (Thom. 27 and 104). The famous saying about becoming “passers-by” (Thom. 42) can be read as also referring to some sort of asceticism and/or itinerancy. As a whole, the sayings of Thomas may already reflect two stages in the development of one and the same tradition. At the first stage, fasting was frowned upon as a conventional means of common piety (like prayer and giving alms), while at the second stage it became increasingly viewed as a means of [End Page 328] bringing down the divine presence and fulfilling realized eschatology on the individual level. With Tatian and his followers the latter tendency reaches its acme. It advocates ascetic destruction (or radical transformation) of this world on the scale of individual human beings in pretty much the same way as the second layer of Q envisions and prophesies its apocalyptic destruction on the scale of human society. This, however, means that ascetic practices were read into the original tradition, rather than presupposed by it. I believe that here we have a clear example of the development of this basic theological notion over the course of two centuries. We see how the more “primitive” theology of Thomas develops in the early Syriac literature without, however, losing its original kernel, but rather being interpreted in new terms. 21
The difference between this motif and the view of Jesus as personified wisdom needs to be stressed. Our texts are much more interested in the followers of Jesus than in Jesus himself. The personality of Jesus is very blurred, while the main goal of all of these texts is to provide readers with the means to attain divine wisdom and accept God inside themselves. Jesus is important as long as he can give his followers instructions about how to achieve this realized eschatology. He becomes the perfect example of a pure temple in which God dwells, and the goal of his disciples is to follow this example. On the other hand, it is the individual uniqueness of Jesus which is crucial for “Jesus as personified wisdom” tradition. He actually is the personified wisdom of God, and the goal of his followers is to hearken to his teachings, not to become his alter ego. 22
Jesus is not Unique: Twins of Jesus
One of the most striking characteristics of the Acts of Thomas is that it develops in some detail the idea of Thomas as Jesus’ twin. Most clearly the relationship between the two of them is highlighted in the description [End Page 329] of Thomas’ first successful attempt at ruining a marriage on his way to India. The story runs like this:
And when all had gone out and the doors were shut, the bridegroom lifted up the veil of the bridal chamber, that he might bring the bride to himself. And he saw the Lord Jesus in the likeness of the apostle Judas Thomas, who shortly before had blessed them and departed from them, conversing with the bride, and he said to him: “Did you not go out before them all? How are you now found here?” But the Lord said to him: “I am not Judas who is also Thomas, I am his brother.” 23
Afterwards Jesus preaches abstention from sexual intercourse to the couple and converts them to Christianity. In this story he is almost explicitly identified with Thomas. The identification becomes even more pronounced if we recall that, in all other cases, it is Thomas who carries out similar tasks, and Jesus is never explicitly mentioned again. At the same time, the preaching of Jesus is not different in its content from that of Thomas, while one could reasonably expect it to be so, if the rigid distinction between Jesus and his disciple were indeed maintained. It seems that Jesus in particular is introduced in the way he is during the first mission of Thomas to foreshadow the following missions and to suggest that also in them he is present behind Thomas’ preaching. At any rate, the literary ambiguity in the interactions between these two main characters speaks for itself, and it is intended at the very least to prevent the reader from drawing clear borders between the two of them.
The theme of Jesus’ twin becomes even better articulated in the so-called Hymn of the Pearl, included in the Acts, but apparently predating it as an independent composition. The hymn describes in a highly symbolic way the whereabouts of a messenger (Jesus? Thomas?), having been sent by his royal parents to find and capture the pearl, held by a snake. The messenger, however, forgets his royal origins and gets captured in the low world. His family sends him a letter which awakens him and allows him to fulfill his mission. Upon capturing the pearl, the messenger makes his way back, and is welcomed by his parents and their court, and gets back royal robes that he left at home when he departed.
The symbolic significance of changing one’s garments is obvious in light of what we have said above about stripping down one’s clothing. But in the Acts of Thomas it becomes an event of crucial importance. Before the messenger left his parents they made an agreement with him: “if you go down into Egypt and bring the one pearl, which is in the midst of the sea [End Page 330] around the loud-breathing serpent, you shall put on your glittering robe and your toga […] and with your brother, who is next to us in authority, you shall be heir in our kingdom.” Now, if we assume that the messenger stands for Thomas, as he apparently does, who is his brother? The latter is never explicitly mentioned again in the hymn, but one wonders if he is Jesus. If so, according to the plot, Jesus and Thomas are equal as sons of royal parents. Jesus does not appear to have any special function as a redeemer or the unique son of God. He is one among many, who make their way from this world (Egypt) to their true home in heaven.
But this is just the beginning. When Thomas (or whoever the messenger is) fulfills his mission, he gets back his heavenly robe. The story runs as follows:
And because I did not remember its fashion, for in my childhood I had left it in my father’s house, on a sudden, when I received it, the garment seemed to me to become like a mirror of myself. I saw it all in all, and I too received all in it, for we were two in distinction and yet again one in one likeness […] And it was skillfully worked in its home on high […] and the image of the king of kings was embroidered and depicted in full all over it […] And I saw too that it was preparing to speak. I heard the sound of its tones, which it uttered […]: “I am the active in deeds, whom they reared for him before my father; and I perceived myself that my stature grew according to his labors.” And in its kingly movements it poured itself entirely over me, and on the hand of it givers it hastened so I might take it.
The only reasonable conclusion from this somewhat enigmatic speech is that the garment in fact is Jesus (or the heavenly brother of the messenger). If we accept this conclusion, it means that, first of all, the personality of Jesus is significantly blurred, or, more precisely, is not important. Jesus appears as a state of being rather than a historic figure or even the personified Logos. He is a garment (no more, and no less) which the believer can put on himself upon completion of his earthly mission.
The believer in turn is seen as a real “brother of Jesus” or his twin. 24 He [End Page 331] recognizes himself in the robe as in a mirror, and puts the robe on. Thus the distinction between the two of them totally disappears. The messenger (Thomas) becomes Jesus and the son of God (royal father in the hymn). In fact, the notion of Jesus’ twins (Thomas, and theoretically everybody who partakes of “real wisdom”) not only does away with the uniqueness of Jesus as personified wisdom, or the son of God, but it calls into question the importance of Jesus as a historical character. Those who are able to partake of the divine wisdom are born from above, and in this respect they are equal to Jesus, who, as I have said, represents a state of being rather than a personal entity.
The image of disrobing thus receives additional significance. The royal robe which the messenger puts on at the end of his journey was left for him in his father’s house in his childhood. Thus his change of clothes almost exactly parallels the idea of “disrobing as a child” in Tatian and the Gospel of Thomas. The messenger returns to his proper heavenly mode of existence which he left in order to get the pearl and which is symbolized by his childhood. As a result, the overall symbolism of disrobing or bodily transformation can be understood from a new perspective. The putting on a new body or the acceptance of God into oneself should be understood verbatim. The believer indeed transforms his body through deification. He is able to do it precisely because Jesus is not unique, having twins, or “multiple personalities,” since the historical personality of Jesus is only vaguely defined. All this comes as a result of the quest for true wisdom, which the believer can now embrace. 25
Saying 84 in the Gospel of Thomas constitutes almost a commentary on the scene of self-recognition by the messenger in the robe offered to him. In fact, the whole significance of this saying can be grasped only in the light of the hymn: “Jesus said, ‘When you see your likeness, you rejoice. But when you see your images which came into being before you, and which neither die nor become manifest, how much more you will have to bear.’” Does he mean here, that he is the real image of a believer, as it is explained in the Acts? It seems that the saying becomes fully understandable if we bear in mind the significance accorded to finding one’s true self in the Hymn of Pearl. Here Jesus tells his followers that they should see their preexisting images in apparently the same way as the messenger did when he saw himself in the robe/Jesus. This in turn could [End Page 332] lead to the conclusion that the idea of heavenly twins stands behind the otherwise enigmatic message of this saying.
On the whole, it seems that the Gospel of Thomas owes much to the concept of Jesus’ twins as it is reflected in the later Syriac tradition. As well as with the “disrobing,” the parallels exist not merely on the level of content but even on the level of shared imagery and language. Sometimes incomprehensible sayings of the Gospel make perfect sense as soon as we juxtapose them with the theological perspective of the Acts. It is then fair to suggest that the Gospel of Thomas would maintain that Jesus was not unique, and even more, that his historical personality is not what really matters. The real importance of Jesus is that he serves as an example of how one can become the son of God in the most plain sense of the word. Jesus symbolizes a state of being and he encourages his followers to reach this state themselves.
On the other hand there are unmistakable indicators that in the Hymn of the Pearl we are dealing with a more advanced mythology (if not theology) than in the Gospel of Thomas. Instead of the separate and seemingly disconnected sayings of the Gospel we encounter an elaborated myth coined in the form of a didactic poem (saga?). Its symbolism becomes much more abundant and excessive, compared to that of the sayings. Little remains from the previous genre of wisdom sayings. The overall enigma of the message persists, but now it is expressed through the convoluted interplay of the symbolic narrative, rather than through mysterious sayings of the sage which need to be interpreted. As a whole, while the basic message and most essential imagery are preserved in both cases, the Hymn of the Pearl represents a new “mythological” elaboration of the earlier tradition in a way comparable to that of the personified wisdom tradition. Unlike the latter, however, it appears to preserve the core of the message relatively untouched. 26
Personal Deification: Christ as a State of Being
The Acts of Thomas are not unique in seeing in personal deification the ultimate goal of the seer who seeks divine wisdom. Even more explicitly, this idea is articulated in the so-called Odes of Solomon and in Tatian’s [End Page 333] Oratio ad Graecos. In both cases the notion of deification is tightly bound up with the acquisition of wisdom, and, in fact, equated with the latter. 27 In a most succinct way this idea appears in the third ode:
I have been united (to the Lord), because the lover has found the beloved, 
Because I love him that is the Son, I shall become a son.
Indeed he who is joined to him who is immortal, 
Truly will be immortal.
While the language (and especially the idea of love as the main attribute of relationships between God and man) of this passage may to a certain extent remind one of the Gospel of John, as well as of the Johanine epistles, its theology is somewhat different. Nowhere in John would one find the idea of a believer becoming Jesus himself to a degree that erases any difference between two of them. The opposite is true, and the Fourth Gospel is especially remarkable for its consistent emphasis on the rigid boundaries of Jesus’ identity, clearly different from that of his disciples. 28 It is also interesting that the idea of immortality here becomes derivative of individual deification. Basically it sounds as though “you yourself will become god, and that is why you will not die.” In fact, this type of theology may shed additional light on the peculiar stand of Paul’s opponents in 1 Corinthians on resurrection as something that has been already accomplished (in connection with supreme wisdom as something that has been already achieved). The same line of reasoning could have perplexed and discouraged the recipients of 1 Thessalonians when some from their community died prior to the second coming (1 Thess 4.13-18).
In a number of odes, the author who recites them, at a certain point, starts speaking with the Christ’s voice. 29 I doubt whether we can find any other similar phenomena in early Christian literature. There is not any formal sign in the text that would mark a transition from one person to another. In fact, it is presupposed that it is actually one and the same [End Page 334] person, who, up until this verse, was a human being, and now continues speaking in his divine capacity. In modern English translations, Christ’s speeches are introduced with the words “Christ speaks,” but nothing in the original text parallels this insertion, which somewhat misleads the reader and blurs the original point made by the text. Apparently this very moment is seen by the author as the culmination of his quest for divine wisdom, which has been finally achieved.
Tatian gives a less poetical account of basically the same concept, coined now in philosophical terms: “The celestial Word, made Spirit from the Spirit and Word from power of the Word, in the likeness of the Father who begot him made man an image of immortality, so that just as incorruptibility belongs to God, in the same way man might share God’s lot and have immortality also” (or. 7.6-10). Again, immortality becomes a result of individual deification achieved in this life, and thus wholly pertains to realized eschatology. Salvation and/or damnation become matters of the here and now, not of the Pauline unspecified future “resurrection from the dead.” 30 The idea about humanity’s participation in God’s nature is explicitly stated. In fact, the distinction between the divine Logos and human beings is deliberately blurred by using the same terminology in order to describe two of them. The Word is said to be made , “in the likeness of the Father,” and immediately afterwards humankind is described as , “the image of immortality,” which means basically the same thing. Both thus are created in the image of God and humanity is supposed “to share God’s lot.” In other words, while it is not explicitly stated, humankind is virtually identified with the Logos in a way that runs contrary to the main theological notions of the Gospel of John, which is especially noticeable because of the (deliberately?) shared terminology.
Another passage from Tatian elaborates his idea of individual deification and provides a further link to the Gospel of Thomas. According to [End Page 335] Tatian: “we have knowledge of two different kinds of spirits, one of which is called soul, but the other is greater than the soul; it is the image and likeness of God (). The first men were endowed with both, so that they might be part of the material world, and at the same time above it” (or. 12.18-21). Here the same thesis about the divine part of human beings is repeated, but now it is associated with the human condition prior to the Fall. According to this statement (and to what follows) Adam had possessed the qualities of God before he committed sin. Then they were taken from him, and the quest for wisdom implies claiming them back. 31
One can compare the following saying: “Jesus said, ‘Adam came into being from a great power and a great wealth, but he did not become worthy of you. For had he been worthy, [he would] not [have experienced] death’” (Thom. 85). This statement is enigmatic and deliberately obscure, but if we agree that “a great power and a great wealth” mean basically the same as “the image and likeness of God” in the more philosophically oriented rendering of Tatian, then its theological basis becomes more transparent. Unlike Adam, who lost his original semidivine status, the disciples of Jesus (and the followers of Tatian) are expected to get it back and keep it, and that is why they are more “worthy” than Adam. It is also remarkable that for both Tatian and Thomas immortality becomes a kind of trademark of divinity. As we have seen in the earlier example from the Oratio, it is precisely immortality that renders humans participants “in God’s lot.” Again with Thomas immortality becomes the main definition of the exalted condition of humans, lost by Adam but reclaimed by Jesus’ disciples. Such a degree of parallelism not merely in major theological concepts, but even in the technical means of their expression, is hardly incidental, and it points at the very least to a shared cultural/social setting and school of thought. 32 [End Page 336]
More direct and clear examples of individual deification are not lacking from the Gospel of Thomas as well. I will start with one of the most extensive, as well as obscure, passages from the Gospel:
Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like.”
Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a righteous angel.”
Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.”
Thomas said to him, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like.”
Jesus said, “I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.”
And he took him and withdrew and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?”
Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up the stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.” (Thom. 13)
The question posed by other disciples to Thomas is obviously one which anybody who reads this saying is likely to wonder about, and the answer to it can be found again in the Gospel of Thomas.
Thom. 108 is decisive for our argument. It reads: “Jesus said, ‘He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.’” One immediately recalls “because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring of which I have measured out” in Thom. 13. The same imagery of drinking water is central in both cases and it most probably conveys the same message of deification. The latter is stated explicitly in Thom. 108 and it is implied in the words said by Jesus in the middle of the conversation in Thom. 13: “I am not your master,” the plain meaning of which is “we are equal to each other.” 33
Moreover, in both cases deification represents the means to acquire divine wisdom. In Thom. 13 it is coined in the typical Gnostic fashion of esoteric wisdom revelation for the elect, adding suspense to the narrative. In Thom. 108 Jesus plainly states that “the things that are hidden” (a common designation for wisdom in at least the Qumran sapiential [End Page 337] literature) will be revealed to the one who becomes him. Thus in Thomas individual deification becomes a final step in one’s quest for wisdom in essentially the same way as it does for Tatian or the author of the Odes of Solomon.
At the same time the first text contains one important definition missing from the second one. While in Thom. 108 Jesus is the main (and the only) source of revelation, in Thom. 13 he is merely the one who “has measured out the bubbling spring,” definitely not the spring himself. This seeming trifle actually represents another challenge to the idea of Jesus as personified Wisdom. He is not personified wisdom himself, but he is rather the one through whom divine wisdom pours out into this world. He is the vehicle of revelation rather than revelation itself. This picture of Jesus fits perfectly with the somewhat impersonal vision of Christ in the Acts of Thomas (and especially in the Hymn of the Pearl). It also corresponds to the overall reluctance of Tatian to personify Christ–a reluctance so marked that it is not always clear if he speaks of the personified or impersonal Logos (let alone Jesus as a historical character). As a matter of fact, two sayings in the Gospel of Thomas directly attest to this particular theological perspective:
His disciples said to him, “Show us the place where you are, since it is necessary for us to seek it.”
He said to them, “Whoever has ears, let him hear. There is light within a man of light, and he lights up the whole world. If he does not shine he is darkness.” (Thom. 24)
Here the distinction between Jesus as a man and a somewhat impersonal state of being is made very explicitly. It is not the historical personality of Jesus that matters and that is to be sought after, but rather the impersonal divine presence that makes Jesus who he is, but which is equally available to his disciples if, of course, they are ready to accept it. 34 According to this type of theology, the man Jesus became a pure temple [End Page 338] for God, accepted God in himself (deification), and, as a result, turned into a channel for communicating God’s wisdom. This, however, is very different from the idea of Jesus as personified wisdom (while one can easily follow the line of development between these two types of theology). The major difference is again the notion that Jesus was not unique. He showed his followers an example of how one should build oneself up in order to reach the depths of God’s wisdom, but essentially he was a man like anybody else, and so anybody else can become God.
We can now summarize the results of this paper in a more or less coherent way. The Gospel of Thomas perfectly fits the theological agenda of early Syriac literature of the second-third centuries C.E., sharing with it not only an overall theological perspective but also technical language and symbolism. In both cases Jesus is perceived as a human being, who was inhabited by God and thus deified. The essence of his message is that his disciples can reach the same state of existence. The divine part of Jesus is usually understood impersonally and it is by no means identified with Jesus as a historical character. As a result, the interest in the historical Jesus by proponents of this theology was secondary at best. It was the message about Jesus’ experience that was really important, and his wise sayings could fulfill this role. In a sense, their status was indeed the one of traditional wisdom pronouncements, if we agree that the goal of, e.g., the book of Proverbs was to supply one with instructions for behavior in everyday life. The difference was that, in traditional wisdom literature, the goal of this life was a sober existence in agreement with God’s laws about the universe, while in Thomas the goal was individual deification. How and when this shift in the understanding of wisdom occurred is another question, and deserves a separate study.
At the same time one should always bear in mind that the Gospel of Thomas and early Syriac literature represent consecutive stages in the history of a single theological idea. The Syriac writings represent the [End Page 339] second and the more mature stage in the development of the notion of personal deification. Among the most prominent formal changes, the shift from collections of wise sayings to poetry (or, in the case of Tatian, to philosophical treatise) should be mentioned. In some respects, changes in content corresponded to those in form. The creation of more or less cohesive poetic texts led to the shaping of more or less elaborated mythology about the itinerant redeemer, most fully developed in the Hymn of the Pearl. The story became more “mythopoetic” both in its form and content. Simultaneously, the theology of personal deification was developed in the direction of ascetic practices, quite in agreement with the overall spiritual tendencies of late antiquity. Thus, while the third-century Syriac writings preserved a considerable part of the early theology, they also reflect significant developments which occurred since the Gospel of Thomas had been written down.
The idea of Jesus as personified wisdom could exist in parallel with, or be an early attempt at taming, personal deification theology. It is important, however, to see that originally the two of them were clearly different if not directly opposed to each other. The very emphasis on the significance and uniqueness of wisdom as personified in the historical Jesus ran contrary to the major postulate of the deification theology, namely, that the heavenly Jesus is a state of being, which was most fully displayed in the historical Jesus, but which is by no means limited to him. As a result, the whole notion of discipleship had to be changed from following the example of Jesus through self-deification, to the more modest quest for heavenly wisdom uniquely revealed in Jesus. It seems that at least in the Gospel of John the idea of Jesus as personified Logos developed as a direct response to and rebuttal of deification theology.
If we accept the hypothesis of Thomas’ early provenance, it gives us a key to understanding what could be labeled “prepersonified wisdom” mythology in early Christianity. It remains to be seen whether the same cluster of ideas can be discerned in other branches of the early Christian movement (I have specifically in mind the Pauline churches and their theology). However, it seems fair to maintain that, prior to the development of the personified wisdom tradition, early Christian groups had already possessed a theological doctrine with a clearly articulated mystical kernel. If accepted, this conclusion could significantly contribute to our understanding of the genre of saying traditions and its theological setting.
Alexei Siverstev is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University
1. J. Robinson, “Jewish Wisdom Literature and the Gattung, LOGOI SOPHON” in The Shape of Q: Signal Essays on the Sayings Gospel, ed. J. Kloppenborg (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 51-58. For methodological use of this approach, see J. Kloppenborg, The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).
2. For a summary of the discussion about the relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the canonical gospels, see F. Fallon and R. Cameron, “The Gospel of Thomas: A Forschungsbericht and Analysis,” ANRW II.25.6 (1988): 4213-24. See also S. Patterson, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (Sonoma: Polebridge Press, 1993).
3. H. Koester, “The Synoptic Sayings Source and the Gospel of Thomas” in Shape of Q, 50.
4. This type of two-stage approach has been most fully developed by J. Kloppenborg in respect to the Q Sayings Gospel in his Formation of Q (for the summary of major points see his “The Formation of Q and Antique Instructional Genres” in Shape of Q). There is a considerable tendency, however, to discern a similar two-stage process in the formation of the Gospel of Thomas. See, for example, W. Arnal, “The Rhetoric of Marginality: Apocalypticism, Gnosticism, and Sayings Gospels,” HTR 88 (1995): 471-80 and S. Patterson, Gospel of Thomas and Jesus, 198 (cf. Helmut Koester, who seemingly avoids any stratification attempts in his works on Thomas).
5. For a discussion of various aspects of early Syriac Christianity, see R. Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975). J. Segal, Edessa: “The Blessed City” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970).
6. For a summary of the discussion and bibliography, see Fallon and Cameron, “Gospel of Thomas,” 4227.
7. G. Quispel, “L’évangile selon Thomas et le Diatessaron” in Gnostic Studies II (Istanbul: Nederlands Historisch-Archaelogisch Instituut te Istanbul, 1975), 31-55. Idem, Tatian and the Gospel of Thomas: Studies in the History of the Western Diatessaron (Leiden: Brill, 1975).
8. G. Quispel, Makarius, das Thomasevangelium und das Lied von der Perle, NovTSup 15 (Leiden: Brill, 1967). See also the articles in his Gnostic Studies II.
9. A. Guillaumont, “Les semitismes dans l’Evangile selon Thomas: Essai de classement” in Studies in Gnosticism and Hellenistic Religions Presented to Gilles Quispel on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday (Leiden: Brill, 1981), 190-204; contrast K. Kuhn, “Some Observations on the Coptic Gospel According to Thomas,” Mus 73 (1960): 317-23.
10. For a summary of this approach see H. Drijvers, “Facts and Problems in Early Syriac-Speaking Christanity” in East of Antioch (London: Variorum Reprints, 1984), 157-75.
11. For publication and English translation see Spicilegium Syriacum Containing Remains of Bardesan, Meliton, Ambrose, and Mara bar Serapion, ed. W. Cureton (London: Rivingtons, 1855), 70-76.
12. See Cecil Roth, “Ecclesiasticus in the Synagogue Service,” JBL 71 (1952): 171-78 (cf. A. Mirsky, Piyute Yose ben Yose [Jerusalem: Mosad Byalik, 1977], 27-29). See also M. Weinfeld, “Traces of Qedushat Yotser and Pesuke de-Zimra in the Qumran Literature and in Ben-Sira,” Tarbiz 45 (1975-76): 15-26 (Hebrew).
13. During recent years the somewhat naïve fascination with the Jewish roots of Syriac Christianity has become much more sober and balanced. See H. Drijvers, “Syriac Christianity and Judaism” in The Jews among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, ed. J. Lieu et al. (London: Routledge, 1992), 124-46. I believe that it would be premature at this point to assert Jewish origins for the wisdom tradition of early Syriac Christianity (contrast J. Charlesworth, “Les Odes de Salomon et les manuscrits de la mer morte,” RB 77 [1970]: 522-49).
14. A. Voobius, A History of Asceticism in the Syriac Orient (Louvain: CSCO, 1958).
15. Acts of Thomas 86.
16. Acts of Thomas 87.
17. Jonathan Z. Smith, “The Garments of Shame” in Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978), 1-23.
18. The phrase in question reads as following: . In her recent edition of the Oratio M. Whittaker translates it as “therefore now that I have apprehended these things I wish to ‘strip myself’ of the childishness of babyhood,” taking as accusative singular (Tatian: Oratio ad Graecos and Fragments, ed. and tr. Molly Whittaker [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982], 55 and explanation of the translation on pp. 84-86). The translation seems very problematic to me, since it is not altogether clear how she translates the preposition which is crucial for the correct rendering of the phrase. The usual meaning of it in Koine Greek would be “just as,” and I do not see any compelling reason not to follow this translation in our case. My own translation then would be: “Now that I have apprehended these things I wish to strip myself just as little children.”
19. The whole passage from Tatian is coined in terminology strikingly similar to that of some Jewish sapiential texts from Qumran. Cf. for example 4Q417 2 i 6-12. The most remarkable parallel here exists between the “foreknowledge” of Tatian and the “mysteries to come” (raze nihyeh) of the Qumran text. In both cases behavioral precepts are seen as part of divinely revealed wisdom and divinely ordained universal order.
20. Cf. also Thom. 46 where “becoming a child” is a condition for acquaintance “with the Kingdom” and apparently presupposes possession of heavenly wisdom as well.
21. For a detailed treatment of this development see P. Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 33-121. The fact that the theology advocated by the Gospel of Thomas became very early ascetically oriented is amply attested by the so-called Gospel of the Egyptians, known from excerpts in Clement of Alexandria. In most cases one can closely follow the development of relatively more neutral sayings in Thomas into clearly ascetic pronouncements in “Gospel of the Egyptians”: Strom. 3.63 (cf. Thom. 114), Strom. 3.64 and 66 (cf. Thom. 79), Strom. 3.92 (cf. Thom. 37 and 21-22, also 2 Clem. 12.1-2).
22. See for example Q 10.22 and its interpretation in Kloppeborg, Formation of Q, 197-203.
23. Acts of Thomas 11.
24. Cf. the following two verses from Ode 7.4-5 (the Odes of Solomon):
He became like me, that I might receive him. 
In form he was considered like, that I might put him on.
And I trembled not when I saw him, 
Because he was gracious to me.
The last sentence of verse 5 especially makes sense if we compare it to the conclusion of Thom. 37, when Jesus says: “when you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then [will you see] the son of the living one, and you will not be afraid.”
25. For a general treatment of clothing metaphors in Syriac literature see S. Brock, “Clothing Metaphors as a Means of Theological Expression in Syriac Tradition,” in Typus, Symbol, Allegorie bei den ostlichen Vatern und ihren Parallelen im Mittelalter, ed. M. Schmidt (Regensburg: Verlag Friedrich Pustet, 1982), 11-38.
26. As a whole this literary development corresponds to the process of the gradual replacement of the sayings genre by narratives as attested elsewhere. See Robinson, “Jewish Wisdom Literature,” 57-58. The “mythologizing” tendency of this process is also reflected in the personified wisdom tradition. See for example Prov 1-9 (esp. 8); Sir 24.1-23; Psalm 154 (=11Q5 xviii 1-16); Sap. Sol. 7.15-8.1; 1 Enoch 42.1-3.
27. The idea of wisdom is especially well articulated in odes 7, 16 and 18. For the decisive role of the search for wisdom in this kind of theology see H. J. Drijvers, “The Peshitta of Sapientia Salomonis,” Scripta Signa Vocis: Studies Presented to J. H. Hospers, ed. H. Vanstipout et al. (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1986), 15-30, and idem, “Solomon as Teacher: Early Syriac Didactic Poetry,” OCA 229 (1987): 123-34.
28. For obvious connections between the Gospel of John and the Odes of Solomon see J. Charlesworth and R. Culpepper, “The Odes of Solomon and the Gospel of John,” CBQ 35 (1981): 298-322. The polemical emphasis of John on the uniqueness of Jesus is discussed in W. Meeks, “The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism,” JBL 91 (1972): 44-72.
29. Odes 8, 10, 17, 28, 30, 36, 41, 42.
30. One should constantly bear in mind the individualistic nature of the message conveyed in these texts. The issue at stake is an individual deification, not a communal one. The message is addressed to a small intellectual elite, searching for divine wisdom, and apparently it was never deemed appropriate for wide dissemination. Tatian in his intellectual arrogance is anything but a democrat. All those converted by Thomas in his Acts belong to the royal court, and he himself appears to be sometimes an aristocratic salon preacher. The Gospel of Thomas praises solitary ones as the most worthy candidates for the heavenly kingdom (Thom. 49 and 75). Apparently the whole theology we are dealing with here was deeply rooted in the idea of individual search for God and his wisdom, and was profoundly aristocratic in its nature.
31. The divine nature of the primordial man is reflected also in the rabbinic tradition, which however showed considerable ambivalence about this notion. See Bereshit Rabbah 20.12 and 21.5.
32. The early Syriac Christian literature had clear scribal characteristics (cf. Tatian’s redaction of the gospels). This may at least to a certain degree justify the position of those who claim scribal origins for the Gospel of Thomas against those who see it as created by itinerant charismatics. See W. Arnal, “Rhetoric of Marginality,” 471-79 and S. Patterson, Gospel of Thomas and Jesus. On the other hand, these two points of view are by no means mutually exclusive. For the scribal characteristics of the Syriac tradition see S. Brock, “From Antagonism to Assimilation: Syriac Attitudes to Greek Learning,” in East of Byzantium: Syria and Armenia in the Formative Period, ed. Nina Garosian et al. (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1982), 17-34.
33. For the development of the same theme coined in almost the same language in the canonical gospels see John 4.14 and 7.37-38. One can notice however the same tendency of John to pinpoint the uniqueness of the historical Jesus as a redeemer, which is especially poignant since the two texts share remarkably similar language. For the comparative study, see H. Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (London: SCM Press; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 113-24.
34. This peculiar view of Jesus’ personality can be defined with the following saying: “Jesus said, ‘It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all. From me did the all come forth, and unto me did the all extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there’” (Thom. 77). Here, unlike in Thom. 24, Jesus is directly associated with the light. However, if we recall the identification between man and Christ in the Odes of Solomon, to the degree that the former is speaking with the latter’s voice, we will see that these two ideas do not contradict each other. The man (like Jesus) really becomes deified, but this does not mean that the divine presence is exclusively confined in him. The contrary is true.
Thom. 77 is remarkably similar to John’s prologue in terms of seeing Jesus as the primary source of everything, but in fact the two of them sound almost like direct polemic against each other. While in John the divine Logos is clearly identified with the historical Jesus, in Thomas the impersonal nature of the divine component of Jesus is pinpointed as strongly as possible. In fact, John sounds like a later adjustment of a theology somewhat close to that of the Gospel of Thomas to a new theological taste. Cf. also John 11.9-10, 12.35-36, and 8.12. In all of them the Johannine tradition sounds like editorial elaboration of what we have in Thom. 24 and 77.