Based on what little I know about apocryphal works, my favorite non-canonical early Christian writing (as if I’d read them) is the Gospel of Thomas. A jewel of the Nag Hammadi library, the Gospel According to Thomas (usually known as the Gospel of Thomas) is a well preserved, early Christian, non-canonical sayings-gospel discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The Gospel of Thomas was found among a collection of fifty-two (52) writings – including gospels claiming to have been written by Jesus’ disciple Philip and an excerpt from Plato’s Republic. Scholars have speculated that the works were buried in response to a letter from the bishop Athanasius who for the first time declared a strict canon of Christian scripture.
A couple of days ago, I suddenly realized the spiritual practices of a Christian fundamentalist friend of mine have been evolving toward Christian mysticism. Admirably (IMHO), he has been meditating regularly for months now. He is not much of a scholarly reader, but I’ve nevertheless been encouraging him to read about Christian mysticism and to check out the most mystical early Christian work I know of: the Gospel of Thomas. (No word so far.)
While mysticism is inherently difficult to describe, Bible readers might find this contrast useful: the most “mystical” of the four canonized New Testament gospels is the book of John. A quick comparison of John with any of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) will reveal its relatively mystical nature.
The first three (3) verses of the Gospel According to Thomas:
These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.
1 And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.”
2 Jesus said, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [And after they have reigned they will rest.]”
3 Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.
When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”
The gist of the Gospel of Thomas is that the Kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth today, right now, if only people could come to see it – and that there is divine light within all people, a light that can enable them to see the Kingdom of God on earth (very mystical, indeed). It seems to elaborate a bit on Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Luke 17:21 where he said that the kingdom of God is “within” or “among you.”
Resources: Gospel of Thomas
- early Christian writings – the best collection I have yet discovered
- the “Scholar’s Translation” of the Gospel of Thomas
- Gospel of Thomas (Wikipedia)