Why the Gospel of Thomas Matters: The spirituality of incertainties
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ANYONE seeing this book’s subtitle might be pardoned for thinking that “incertainties” is a misprint. But, in fact, the author has chosen a rare word (found in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 107) to convey a more positive aspect of doubt and uncertainty within a spiritual context.
The author is a Welsh Baptist minister and university tutor who completes, with this volume, a trilogy in spirituality. Previously he has asked whether there is a choice between religion and spirituality, and how one can see the good in unfamiliar spiritualities. Now he pursues such thinking, using the Gospel of Thomas as a means to an end rather than as an academic study of the Coptic text.
I thought that the Gospel of Thomas mattered, particularly when I encouraged Richard Valantasis to contribute a volume on the text, somewhat controversially, to my Routledge series of New Testament Readings in 1997. Gethin Abraham-Williams does not use this, nor Simon Gathercole’s book of 2012, and hardly any other of the recent studies of Thomas, among his sources. But he does address some of the historical and literary issues about the Coptic text in the course of his argument, and his pages are liberally sprinkled with quotations from John Henson’s rather free modern translation (in Good as New, 2004).
The author makes bold and largely unsubstantiated claims. This Gospel gives insights into the Jewishness of Jesus, and how Jesus taught within the specifically Jewish Wisdom tradition. St Thomas is characterised by reference to his four interventions in the narrative of St John’s Gospel. He is not a doubter (Didymus), but he asks critical questions (again in the Jewish tradition). He requires his own authentic encounter, and not secondhand experiences. He is startlingly provocative, believing in a critical process, and being suspicious of both fundamentalism and ritual. On the strength of John’s Gospel, Thomas has links with Lazarus’s family at Bethany: “Let us go, that we may die with him” (11.16).
This book can be appreciated as a refreshing study of ambiguity in spirituality. It is a discursive work, full of anecdotes and modern references, engaging but sometimes wayward. As an introduction to the Gospel of Thomas, however, it is highly speculative, and less than reliable.
Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.