519: WHY ISN’T THOMAS’ GOSPEL APOCALYPTIC TOO?

“A warm welcome to Zingcreed, a blog dedicated to unplaiting the many strands of contemporary Christianity. Did you know some churchmen/women still reject Thomas’s gospel, even though it tells them more about Jesus’s teachings? Don’t they want to know more about what Jesus taught? Don’t they know that  only 4 gospels made it into the canon of the Greek (NT) Scriptures simply because Irenaeus who oversaw the compilation thought 4 was a sacred number, so God wouldn’t like to see five or more published!? The rest of us will watch the embarrassment on their faces when they eventually catch up with us.

In solidarity,

Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”

Six months ago when I first read Professor Stephen Patterson’s marvellous  book “The Lost Way: How 2 forgotten gospels are rewriting the story of Christian origins” (HarperOne (2014)) I used it as a source for 2 blogposts on Titus and on the apocalyptic writings to be found in the canonical gospels. (Refs below) I am now keeping a promise I made then to explain why gospel-writer Thomas uniquely fails to show any interest in apocalyptical events whatsoever. He doesn’t say that Jesus will come back to earth in a blaze of glory, surrounded by angels and with trumpets blowing. He doesn’t forecast the  mass destruction of cities and the end of civilisation as we know it. No Christian would ever be inspired by Thomas to walk round London’s West End bearing a placard proclaiming “The end is nigh!” (as some do!)

Thomas has left us a priceless treasury of sayings of Jesus. He wasn’t influenced by Paul at all, and he was too far away from Jerusalem to know of its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E., an event which not surprisingly totally traumatised Matthew Mark Luke and John, who lived much closer to those horrific events. They all wrote their gospels during or after the 70-year civil war that devastated the ‘Holy Land’ and looked back through it to what Jesus said and did decades earlier as though looking through a distorting prism. They must have thought he had foreknowledge of the desecration of the Temple and the enslavement and slaughter of the Jews, and they wrote their separate accounts of Jesus with the smell of blood fresh in their nostrils.

In other words, with the best of intentions, they may have put words into Jesus’ mouth. They could have attributed foreknowledge to him that he never had. Jesus’ words were often so paradoxical that they could be interpreted many different ways. Jesus’ martyrdom on the cross was central to the 4 canonical evangelists. Like thousands of Jews and Christians, Jesus died at the hands of the empire.This is why the cross became the church’s story.

The writers of Q and the Gospel of Thomas (the 2 gospels referred to in Patterson’s title) focused elsewhere. The  fate of Jesus was not the point, his message was. (c.f. The Epistle of James which also gives Jesus’ message in full but without barely mentioning his name; it is irrelevant.)
East of the River Euphrates where Thomas lived, the Roman Empire was not a problem. As Patterson puts it (p.249): “The cross was Jesus’ fate but it would not be their own. Theirs was a different kind of struggle. They did not face the wrath of a totalitarian state, their foes were more personal, individual, interior demons. They lived in Edessa, a caravan town, with all the temptations such a place could offer.”
Amongst Edessa’s crass materialism these early Christians developed a kind of asceticism, focusing on the inner life of the spirit. They also took a lot of Plato’s philosophy on board, and their notion that when you die your soul goes to heaven, which came from Plato, became a staple of Christian belief.

For centuries, Christians have built a religion round the death of Jesus, his resurrection, and his eventual return to destroy our enemies in a great apocalypse. But the apocalypse never came and it’s never going to come. The idea belongs to the world of ancient mythology, and it wasn’t a very good idea to begin with. The apocalypse is a common New Testament idea  we should finally give up on. God, it turns out, is not as our forebears imagined him. Even if John, Jesus or Paul entertained such thoughts, they were wrong.

Related Zingcreed Posts:
(i) Apocalypse in the gospels
(ii) Titus destroys Jerusalem
(iii) Q, a hypothetical gospel
(iv) From Hebrew to Hellenist, how the church metamorphosed
(v) Pagan influences on early Christianity
(vi) Ebionites: the residual Hebrew Christians
(vii) Jesus’ communist brother James (i) His life
(viii) The kingdom of God, a kingdom of nobodies and nuisances
(ix) The odd wisdom of the two lost gospels
(
x) 657: Christianity is 2 totally separate religions – Patterson

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