Robert Wolfe: The Gospel of Thomas
- “The single most important non-canonical book yet to be uncovered.”
- “A very important discovery —probably doing more as a single text to advance our understanding of the historical Jesus (and of the transmission of his teachings) than all the Dead Sea Scrolls put together.”
- “One of the most important archaeological finds in the history of New Testament scholarship —every bit as revolutionary for the study of the New Testament as the Dead Sea Scrolls are for the study of the Hebrew bible.”
- “A gospel that understands ‘salvation’ to come from some other means than a ‘risen’ Jesus.”
There are no miracles; no crowds of followers; no temple confrontations.
No crucifixion or resurrection tales; no theology of sin, judgment, hell or redemption.
No misogyny (Salome and Mary are two of the five disciples named); no discussion of founding a church; no talk of a Second Coming; and no pious rephrasing of Old Testament commandments.
For reasons that become clear, there is no talk of a post-crucifixion bodily resurrection, nor any miracle sagas which one could accept only on faith.
The Gospel of Thomas is truly a heretical scripture.
The Gospel of Thomas: The Enlightenment Teachings of Jesus, explores this “heresy”; how the message of Jesus in Thomas differs from the message in the New Testament. The claim: the self-references of Jesus, here, are not to the fleshly person but to the embodied Presence of an enlightened sage or master. And there are striking verses said to have been spoken by Jesus —not found in the Bible —that make sense only within the context of nonduality. Does The Gospel of Thomas record the nondual 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?
We hope you enjoy this adaptation of selections from the book, for this exclusive Nonduality America article:
“Was Jesus influenced by the East?”
While there is no historical evidence that Jesus was influenced by nondual teachings (even from so far away as the East), it is not inconceivable that he was. In fact, there is a possibility that at least some of its principles may have been known to him. Let’s look at how these teachings may have been present in his time and place.
The writer Holger Kersten provided some research to buttress his points (which otherwise are tenuous) in the Penguin book Jesus Lived In India. He attributes “the worldwide spread of Buddhism, even before the pre-Christian era” to the Indian ruler Ashoka, who lived circa 273–232 B.C., and who sent Buddhist missionaries along the Silk Route to as far away as Egypt, Syria, and Greece. The Buddha himself was said to have instructed, “Go, O monks, and travel afar, for the benefit and welfare of many, out of compassion for the world…”
Buddha, like Jesus, had kept on the move, traversing “the entire length of the mid-Ganges basin,” says Kersten.
At various times during the history of Buddhism, “the Indies basin, the upper Ganges basin and the Deccan” were invaded by “Hellenic Bactrians of the 2nd Century B.C., and the Scythians and Parthians in the 1st Century B.C. … The Scythian rulers of the Kushan dynasty themselves encouraged the spread of Buddhism after their own conversion.”
Kersten traced the cross-fertilization between cultures of the East and Near East, centuries before Jesus’ birth, is reflected in the book of Acts (2:9): Parthians (and “residents of Asia”) were among those “staying in Jerusalem,” even after the crucifixion, this New Testament book says.
Similarly, the Quaker Albert Edmunds, a translator who worked with both Greek and Pali texts, reported on research that was available when he wrote Buddhist and Christian Gospels, in 1908.
He noted that a German New Testament scholar had initiated such comparisons before him, in 1867, because “These parallels [between Buddhist and Christian scriptures] have aroused the interest of New Testament scholars…[since they] belong to a world of [spiritual] thought which the whole East had in common.”
Edmunds says that Ashoka (or Asoka) sent Buddhist “missionaries” to five Greek emperors, including Antiochus, Ptolemy and Alexander, between 262–258 B.C.; thus they would have entered Athens, Antioch, and Alexandria. Ptolemy had funded a Greek translation of the Jewish Pentateuch, and reportedly was interested in a similar project about Hindu scriptures.
Cross-culturally, Edmunds said that Greek forces inhabited the Punjab, of the Brahmins, around 110 B.C.
In the 2nd Century B.C., there were “Hindu mahouts on the elephants of the Syrian Army.”
In the 1st Century B.C., the Roman poet Horace mentions an Indian embassy to the first Roman emperor, Augustus, in 17 B.C.—only a short time before the birth of Jesus.
The Greek geographer Strabo noted, according to Edmunds: “at the time of Christ, the intercourse [East/Near East] was at its height.”
And later, Clement of Alexandria, toward the end of the 2nd Century C.E., knew of Hindu “philosophers…who obey the precepts of Buddha.”
In any event, it is noteworthy that the author of the Gospel of Matthew did not suppose that his readers would have any difficulty in accepting the arrival, in Judea, of “wise men” (Magi) from the East, from far enough away to need to navigate by the stars (2:1-12) at the time of Jesus’ birth.
It is interesting, in this natal tale, that the first of those to recognize the true nature of Jesus were from the East.
How unlikely is it that Jesus might have been influenced by teachings that preceded him by centuries? Consider this comparison:
Said to be a contemporary of Jesus, Apollonius of Tyana, an “itinerant sage,” is known to have been an exponent of the teachings of Pythagoras, who was born circa 521 B.C. (about 40 years before Buddha).
After receiving an education in the Greek city of Tarsus, Apollonius then traveled to Babylon, an account says, to study with the Magi. Then he went to India to learn first-hand the teachings of the Brahmans. Returning to the coast of northern Syria, Anatolia and Greece, he lead a circle of disciples as a holy man. He also traveled to Rome, Sicily, Spain and visited the “naked sages” of Upper Egypt. Then he lived for the rest of his life in Asia Minor, and died in 96 C.E. ¹
However, whether Jesus was influenced by the nondual winds of the East, one needs to consider that there have been the spontaneous awakenings of self-realized sages chronicled in widespread places and times throughout written history —from Buddha, as an example in ancient times, to Ramana Maharshi, as a paragon in modern times.
What later became known as gnosis would have been known in Buddha’s times as jnana (ya-na); both mean “knowledge,” in the sense of “wisdom,” and are evidently related words from the same root.
The meaning of jnana, summarized in an encyclopedia, is the “eradication of the ignorance that sees the illusory multiplicity of the world as real, by attainment of knowledge of the Self [Absolute],” which is regarded as “a single fundamental reality,” by the presence of which “there is no real distinction between the soul [or self] and God.”
As has been said by Ramana Maharshi:
“It is due to illusion—caused by the ego, the ‘I am the body’ idea—that the kingdom of God is conceived to be elsewhere.”
And the late Jiddu Krishnamurti, a “spiritual philosopher” who reported a spontaneous enlightenment experience, once made this statement—apparently independently, although it could fit easily into The Gospel of Thomas:
“Under every stone and leaf, that which is eternal exists. But we do not know how to look for it. Our minds and hearts are filled with other things than the understanding of ‘what is’.”
And this is from The Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said, “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”
Where ‘me’ is the eternal All…
¹ Like Jesus, he practiced exorcism and reportedly revived the dead; and, like Jesus, an account of his life didn’t appear until well after his death. His followers and those of Jesus knew each other, and debated their leader’s merits.
What led to writing “The Fifth Gospel” material?
Over the years, I have casually collected material from a myriad of sources that elucidated what can be known of what is called the “historical Jesus”. My interest in the facts of Jesus’ life (and the authenticity of his pronouncements) long predated my introduction to the non-Christian scriptures of the East, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Advaita. After all, I was raised (and baptized at 13) as a Baptist.
When I first came across a translation of The Gospel of Thomas, I wanted to determine how that testament of Jesus’ “unknown” sayings contributed to the overall picture of who Jesus was, and what he had taught.
A friend, a (now deceased) professor who retired to Australia, asked me to write for him–from that unorganized file I had collected —what to me appeared to be the answer to the question of how The Gospel of Thomas informed our understanding of the historical Jesus and his message.
Originally I wrote only the section “Commentary on Verses” which gives my annotation on each aphorism in Thomas.
The next question followed though: If these are authentic sayings of Jesus, why were they not in public circulation until 1945? And another significant question needed to be answered: Why would anyone conclude that they are authentic scriptures?
These questions led to writing “The Fifth Gospel” material.
The value of my compilation, I feel, is that it may be of service in drawing attention to the importance of not relegating the “gnostic” Jesus to a dismissive category. There’s something of invaluable significance that’s been overlooked, so far, in the academic and scholarly biblical discussion. That’s why this manuscript was composed.
During Robert’s travels he has labored as an auto assembly line worker in Detroit, as a carnival worker, a journalist in New York City, on a farm of a Zen community in California, as a landscaper, a financial consultant, a janitor. After living in the Mendocino area for about twenty years he bought a camper van and moved to a property in a redwood forest where he studied the inner life intensely.
Something fell into place there after a number of years, and out of that period of solitude, Robert began writing and sharing his observations on the reality that surrounds and includes us. Shortly afterwards, Robert moved to Ojai, California where he continues to live and write.
A longer memoir that recounts Robert’s nondual journey is available here: “Awakening to Living in the Present Moment”.
You might also like to visit Robert’s website here: Living Nonduality or email Robert: firstname.lastname@example.org