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Review on "The Gospel of Thomas: The Enlightenment Teachings of Jesus "
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Review By Paula Marvelly  On 4/5/2011 2:36:44 AM

In 1945, a peasant boy called Mohammad Ali unearthed a clay jar, near the town of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, in which were thirteen papyrus leather-bound books, containing in total 52 texts. Written in Coptic (an ancient Egyptian language) about fifteen hundred years ago, the texts are translations from earlier works written in Greek. Focusing on a diverse range of subject matter – creation mythology, discussions on the nature of the soul and reality, hagiography of the apostles and the teachings of Jesus – they are now collectively known as the Nag Hammadi Library. More specifically, they belong to a branch of theological doctrine, which scholars term Gnosticism; taken from the Greek work, gnostikoi (meaning ‘insightful’ or ‘intuitive’), their wisdom is drawn from the contemporaneous mystical traditions of India, Persia, Egypt and ancient Greece.

It is believed that these texts were widely known in their day but the Roman Emperor Constantine (known for boiling his wife alive as well as murdering his own son) had other ideas about their future. In 325 CE, he convened the Council of Nicaea where the official texts of the Bible were decided upon: those texts that were deemed acceptable we now know as the New Testament; those texts that supported the Gnostic position were burned (and those who disagreed with the Emperor’s decision were exiled).

Of all the Gnostic texts, the one which encompasses the ‘enlightenment’ teachings of Jesus the most profoundly is The Gospel of Thomas. At the very beginning of the tract, the writer announces the immortal phrase, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death’ (p.155). (Indeed, such a statement could suffice as an introduction to the entire canon of Gnostic scripture.)

The Gospel of Thomas: The Enlightenment Teachings is essentially composed of two main sections: a general critique, entitled ‘The Fifth Gospel’; and a commentary on the verses of the gospel themselves, entitled ‘Nondual Perspective’.

The ‘Fifth Gospel’ section presents the Gospel of Thomas in its textual, sociological and historical context, comparing its significance to the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Moreover, Wolfe investigates the contentious issue as to whether Jesus was influenced by the teachings of the East:

‘While there is no historical evidence either way, at this point, that Jesus was conversant with Buddhism or Hindu spiritual precepts, there is historical support for its possibility through both the Greek and the Roman interchange with spiritual emissaries from as far East as India even during Jesus’ lifetime’ (p.26).

Another main theme concerns Jesus’ insistence that the ‘Kingdom of God is within you’, rather than depending on a ministry for salvation, and being in direct contradiction to conventional religious dogma of his time:

‘Reportedly persecuted by religious authorities, his parables veiled his spiritual teachings; there are indications that he spoke more openly with a select few […] That Jesus might have reserved his deepest spiritual knowledge for those seekers who were most sincere – and to have transmitted it directly in private – is not surprising. The Vedic teachings were disseminated orally for centuries before their availability in writing, and are believed to have originally been reserved for the initiate […] The Gospel of Thomas designates itself a “secret” text. And scholars have been drawn to it because it portends, as [Elaine] Pagels has put it, “other dimensions of meaning,” with sayings, “as cryptic and compelling as Zen koans”’ (p.54).

The second section of the book, ‘Nondual Perspective’ is by far and away the more compelling. Focusing on the text of the gospel itself, Wolfe offers a nondual interpretation of Jesus’ words:

‘The self-references of Jesus, here, are not the fleshy person but to the embodied Presence of an enlightened sage or master. And there are striking verses said to have been spoken by him – not found in the canonical texts – that make sense only within the context of nonduality’ (p.147).

Unlike the exoteric teachings expressed in its canonical counterparts, the Gospel of Thomas is an esoteric expression of nondual wisdom, emphasizing the importance of the one whose consciousness is immersed in, and identified with, the All:

‘“It is I who am the All … From me did all come forth and unto me did all extend”’ (p.151).

Moreover, Jesus urges his listeners to seek the ‘unfailing and enduring treasure’ and that, ‘whosoever finds himself is superior to the world’ (p.154); furthermore, he holds out this promise:

Jesus said, “He who will drink from my mouth will become like me [who am the All]. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him’ (p.154).

And in similar vein as the Vedic tenet, Tat Tvam Asi, or Thou Art That:

Rather, the kingdom of heaven 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…’ (p.168).

Jesus also emphasizes the fact that the time for ‘enlightenment’ is now, not some far off time when one’s affairs have been put in order:

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who had much money. He said, ‘I shall put my money to good use so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouse with produce, with the result that I shall lack nothing.’ Such were his intentions, but that same night he died. Let him who has ears hear”’ (p.178).

At the end of the book, in the final short Appendix, ‘Minds Changed’, Wolfe reflects on changing attitudes to the Christian teaching:

‘ […] what Jesus taught – which was of real meaning in his life – was not about founding a new religion, a church riddled with priestly mediators between “sinful man” and forgiving God. This corruption of his message was long suspected…’ (p.204).

Indeed, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library has pointed to the fact that, ‘the age-old promulgation of enlightenment, by an enlightened master, evidently predated the establishment of Talmudic Judaism and Christianity’ (p.205). Without doubt, therefore, the suppression of the Gnostic gospels irrevocably changed the course of history and the way in which Jesus’ message has been interpreted over the centuries, something that is only being acknowledged in recent years.

Robert Wolfe is an accomplished writer [advaita-academy.org hosts many of his articles]. In this particular offering, he has made use of exhaustive research, which does him much credit. In the world of academe, a thesis of such magnitude (challenging the bedrock beliefs of Christendom no less) cannot be taken lightly on board.

The book is sustained with copious and pertinent quotations from esteemed commentators and critics throughout, thus rendering a convincing and well-presented discourse; such a serious and academic approach to the subject is a refreshing change and much needed contribution, in contradistinction to the glut of New Age books that try and put their eccentric and fallacious interpretations onto the past.

This can make for a challenging read in parts, in particular the first section of the book; however, one can only respect the effort and hard work involved. Indeed, Robert Wolfe’s work only serves to contribute to the growing body of knowledge that is restoring the worth and spiritual import of such a profound Gnostic text that is the Gospel of Thomas.

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About this book

Does The Gospel of Thomas record the enlightenment teachings of Jesus—and were they left out of the New Testament for that reason? Do conventional understandings of Thomas miss its real significance? How does the message of Jesus in The Gospel of Thomas exemplify the ancient teachings of nonduality? After more than a millennium of being lost in an Egyptian desert, the Gospel, and the uncensored message of Jesus, finally might be heard in the modern world.

Robert Wolfe Order from amazon.co.uk

Karina Library PressISBN
9780982449127Date Of Publication