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The Gospel of Thomas

Thomas Whitley

The Gospel of Thomas is an early christian document (it is not technically a gospel, but that’s a conversation for another day). This document contains 114 purported sayings of Jesus. These sayings vary in content, length, and potential authenticity, with many of the sayings having exact or near-exact parallels in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). It is not this document that I wish to talk about today, though.

Instead, I would like to talk about another “Gospel of Thomas.” That is, my gospel. Now before you rush to get your book of heresies to make sure you called me by the right name, hear me out. What I mean by this “Gospel of Thomas” is my understanding of God, the story of God that I tell through my words, actions, and inactions. We all tell a story, but none of us tell the same story. The four canonical gospels are rather good examples of this not-at-all-unique phenomenon. Many of us claim to have experienced God in one way or another and while we may have similar experiences or while our experiences may have been influenced by the stories and experiences of others, we are, in fact, all different. We understand God differently. We see the world slightly differently. We understand our particular place in the grand scheme of history (or should that be heilsgeschichte?) in different terms. The natural question for some at this point is, “Who is right?” This question of “rightness” is one I received often as a youth minister and in the college classroom when I would present multiple theories about or interpretations of a text. I always respond that “rightness” is not the point. More often than not the texts we read (in the Bible and other ancient religious texts) are not exactly concerned with “rightness.” Most tell a particular story in a certain manner to get across a certain point or to answer a question. These types of stories are called etiologies. The creation narratives in Genesis are etiologies, for example.

In other words, what many christians call “The Gospel” is really just an anthology of hundreds of smaller “gospels,” stories that reveal how a person/group understood the world, their god, and their place in everything. Each of us takes part in this gospel-telling on a regular basis. Just as there are differences between Mark and Matthew, there are differences between my gospel and yours. This, I believe, is something to be recognized and appreciated. No matter how hard we may try we cannot tell the exact same story as someone else (or some other story). We make changes - some minor, others major - in the story as we tell it. Sometimes the changes are conscious, other times they are not. Regardless, we each have a unique story to tell and we are the only ones who can tell it. I cannot tell your story, you cannot tell my story.

Moreover, the message is not complete if just one part is shared. If we just had Mark we would know a decent amount about Jesus’ life, but we would have no birth narratives, no woman caught in adultery, no resurrection narrative. Each component is important to the larger story (historical accuracy notwithstanding). In the same way, our messages are vital to telling the whole story of how God interacts with the world and humanity and how humanity and the world interact with God. The mosaic is not complete without all of our stories.

Your message enhances mine and, I believe, vice versa. We must recognize our shared humanity and actually begin to share it with one another. Our gospels will not always agree, but that is part of the beauty of the greater message.

A mosaic contains many pieces that are different shapes, different sizes, and different colors. The diamond-shaped black piece likely believes it is the epitome of a perfect piece in the mosaic. The yellow square piece adjacent to the black piece likely has the same perspective. We are afforded, though, the opportunity of seeing the whole picture, seeing how each piece goes together to form the whole. Truth be told, it is the differences of each piece that makes the mosaic work.

I have on my desk at home a mosaic drink coaster I got just outside of Amman, Jordan. It is black, yellow, white, and blue (normally I would include a picture, but I’m on the other side of the country right now and my coaster is on my desk back home). If the Jordanian artisan who made my coaster only used black diamond-shaped pieces, the end product would have been completely different and not nearly as stunning.

The same is true, I believe, of our differences. They are essential.

Your gospel is as essential as mine. You tell the “Gospel of Insert Name Here” and I will tell the “Gospel of Thomas.” Together, we will become a work of art more beautiful than we could ever imagine. It will be a beauty, a truth that is beyond our present comprehension and one that simply cannot be accomplished without each of us being fully who we are. Nothing more. Nothing less.

And, for good measure, as the ancient document says, Be Passersby.

Update: Added image of the Gospel of Thomas