Understanding Heresy: On the Old Testament in the Gospel of Thomas and the Apostolic Fathers

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It is hard to say what the author of the Gospel of Thomas thought of the Old Testament, for the simple reason that he ignores it, entirely. On the other hand, the embrace of the Hebrew Scriptures – as God’s testimony concerning His beloved Son – was the hermeneutical and theological basis of the rule of faith that distinguished the Apostolic Fathers and the Christian tradition from early heretics.

The Origin of the Gospel of Thomas

Since the Gospel of Thomas was discovered at Nag Hammadi at the close of WW2, it has generated a steady stream of scholarly interest, and scholars such as Bart Ehrman have had no trouble popularizing their text critical observations–which the lapsed and disaffected have been all too ready to receive. 

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Scholars continue to debate the origins of the text, with the controversy settling on the date of composition. More often than not, the scholars that want an early provenance are those that want it to represent the original deposit of the faith, which was later corrupted by the Christian tradition, just as those that battle for a late date want it to be a subsequent aberration.

But whether the text was late or early (and we must always speak tentatively on such matters), there is no doubt that it represents a vision of Jesus’ life and ministry at odds with the Apostolic Fathers (and the canonical Scriptures).

The Principles of the Gospel of Thomas

The text of the Gospel of Thomas is a haphazard compilation of pithy sayings, supposedly from Jesus, and without narrative context. The difference between the Gospel of Thomas and the Apostolic Fathers can be described materially with respect to several important theological matters including creation, embodiment, tradition, church, and history. In the Gospel of Thomas:

  • creation is the realm of mutability, contestation, and suffering. Salvation is defined as spiritual and noetic, the transcendent and rational overcoming of base physicality (79).
  • bodies are husks which must be stripped away, and the fertile female body is to be despised above all–it must somehow be transmuted into a spiritual and masculine form (114).
  • it seems that Christ merely appeared to take on human flesh: the elect who saw Jesus perceived the Father in the form of a divine apparition that imparted knowledge which enables the elect to transcend their own physicality and therefore physical limitations (15).
  • the Church, in this case, is not a historically extensive corporate body marked by a visible structure and embodied sacramental practices (14), but is rather a gathering of “solitary and elect” hearers who distinguish themselves as those who alone repose in the Master’s true teaching (49).
  • And in all of this, it becomes clear that history plays little positive and formative role, since the goal of the true religion Jesus imparts through these sayings is to transcend and overcome it.

The Old Testament in the Gospel of Thomas and Marcion

It is hard to say what the author of the Gospel of Thomas thought of the Old Testament, for the simple reason that he ignores it, entirely

If we look downstream of the Gospel of Thomas, we can see that this lack of attention soon became outright rejection. The antitheses we see in the Gospel of Thomas–spiritual and physical, heavenly and creaturely, divine and human, Old Testament and New–were presupposed by Marcion of Sinope, who is known to history as the founder of the church that despised the Old Testament.

Marcion taught, in his Antitheses, that the creator Demigod of the Hebrew Scriptures had been overcome by the God and Father who appeared in the form of Jesus the Christ in order to give elect souls liberating knowledge. By the time we come to the third century text, which was also uncovered at the gnostic library of Nag Hammadi, The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, we encounter not just dismissal but outright ridicule: Adam and the Patriarchs in this case are but “laughingstocks.”

The Old Testament in the Apostolic Fathers

Turning now to the Apostolic Fathers, we can begin by noting that, contrary to the Gospel of Thomas, they take for granted that salvation is the redemption of creation rather than its overcoming; that bodies provide no obstacle to salvation but are rather integral to it; that Tradition and it’s visible, ordered Church are the protector and dispenser of the Gospel; and that this Church is enfolded within a larger history of the world which is the outworking of a Divine plan.

For the Gospel of Thomas and the heretics the Old Testament is a hull full of useless artifacts which do nothing but weight and slow the ship down; for the Apostolic Fathers and the Christian tradition, on the other hand, it is ballast which keeps the ship on course and allows it to weather the worst of storms. Yet it is not merely the source which provides the doctrinal basis for the traditional Christian claims regarding matters such as the integrity of bodies etc. It is, rather, the substance of the Christian faith itself, as fulfilled and enacted in the life and death of Jesus the Christ.

The Old Testament in Irenaeus

To see this we need to look no further than the first great theologian of the patristic era, Irenaeus of Lyons, a man who, as a disciple of Polycarp, can be linked directly to the Apostolic Fathers. When Irenaeus sets out to teach the Christian faith in his Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching (which was discovered only fifty years before the Gospel of Thomas) he does not, as we might expect, teach his catechumens the great doctrines of the Christian faith; rather he walks them through the Old Testament.

The laws, the events, and the figures that comprise them, in this case, are no mere precursor to the Christian story. In Book I Irenaeus simply describes the stories of creation and the fall, the patriarchs and the prophets, and gives a brief summary of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, which he offers as the fulfillment of promises given to Abraham and to David. Book II follows up this material by digging into particular ways Christ’s ministry and passion can be discovered within the words of the Old Testament text.

The Old Testament and the Rule of Faith

The embrace of the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s testimony concerning His beloved Son was the hermeneutical and theological basis of the rule of faith that distinguished the Apostolic Fathers and the Christian tradition from early heretics. Even a cursory glance at subsequent heresies–some of which continue on to this day–confirms, more often than not, that they share the early heretical disdain for the Old Testament.

It is my conviction that groups which fall amuck with the Christian doctrine of Creation, the doctrine of bodily resurrection, and Chalcedonian Christology, or end up with little positive role for the visible Church and doctrine of Providence might have alleviated these errors with a robust understanding of the place of the Christian Old Testament in theology and practice. Further consideration, I suspect, would prove this to be true with respect to other crucial matters as well.

Yet the value of the Christian Old Testament is not merely that it serves as a rule in this negative sense. The ruled use of this collection of writings promises not merely the avoidance of error but, as words which testify to our Lord Jesus Christ, fullness of life. As Christ, the light of the world (Jn 9:14) shines his light upon it the Old Testament becomes, for the Christian, “a lamp unto [their] feet and a light unto [their] path” (Ps 119:105). In these troubled times, all those who aspire to pass on a robust, durable vision of the Christian faith to their contemporaries and their children can ill-afford to ignore it. 

An Invitation

As Director of the Robert Webber Center I’d like to invite you to join us for this year’s Common Roots conference, which will be held in Ambridge, PA, from June 8-10. The topic of this year’s conference is the Old Testament and Christian catechesis and will provide participants with the chance to wrestle with what it means to catechize the Old Testament within specific ministry contexts such as preaching, adult education, liturgy and music, adult education, children’s ministry, k-12 education and homeschooling. Flyer, which includes registration details, appended below. Click here for more info!

Published on

April 12, 2023

Author

David Ney

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is the Associate Professor of Church History at Trinity Anglican Seminary and the director of the Robert E. Webber Center.

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