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NAG HAMMADI CODICES- Thomas the contender- by ArchBishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz


MEDITATION – Thomas the Contender- GNOSIS



by ArchBishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz

Introduced and translated by

John D. Turner

The Book of Thomas the Contender is the seventh and last treatise in Codex II of the Coptic Gnostic library from Nag Hammadi. It is a revelation dialogue between the resurrected Jesus and his twin brother Judas Thomas, ostensibly recorded by Mathaias (the apostle Matthew?) at a time just before Jesus’ ascension. It is a literary expression of traditions native to Syrian Edessa about the apostle Jude, surnamed Thomas, the missionary to India. It was likely composed in the first half of the third century C.E. Two products of this tradition have been dated with fair certainty: The Gospel of Thomas, composed ca. C.E. 50–125, and the Acts of Thomas, composed ca. C.E. 225. Both seem to derive from the ascetic, pre-Manichaean Christianity in the Osrhoëne (eastern Syria, between Edessa [modern Urfu] and Messene). The Book of Thomas the Contender seems to occupy a median position between the Gos. Thom. and the Acts in 1) date of composition, 2) relative dominance of the role played by Thomas in these works, and 3) in developing from a sayings collection preserved by Thomas (Gos. Thom.) to a dialogue between Jesus and Thomas (Thom. Cont.), to a full-blown romance centered on the missionary exploits of Thomas (Acts of Thomas). The present Coptic version was probably translated from Greek; the existence of the text is otherwise unattested in antiquity.

The subscripted title designates the work as a “book” of “Thomas the athletes (i.e., “one who struggles” against the fiery passions of the body) writing to the perfect, while the opening lines designate the work as “secret sayings” spoken by Jesus to Judas Thomas and recorded by Mathaias as he heard them speaking. The designation “sayings” does not really correspond to the genre of the work, which is a revelation dialogue. This type of dialogue is unlike the Platonic dialogue in which a conversational process of statement, counterstatement, and clarification leads step by step to the birth of knowledge. It is instead more related to the literature sometimes called eratapokriseis (“questions and answers”), in which an initiate elicits revealed truth from a spiritual authority in the form of catachetical answers to topical questions. Such revelation dialogues are found in many pagan Hermetic and gnostic Christian texts, including many from Nag Hammadi (Ap. John, Soph. Jes. Chr., Dis. 8–9, Dial. Sav., Ep. Pet. Phil.) These dialogues are set at a time between the resurrection and ascension, when the Savior appeared on earth in his true divine form, so that both he and his teaching were available to select apostles in a form unclouded by the sort of materiality which was believed to obscure the spiritual significance of his rather parabolic earthly, preresurrection teaching. This special teaching might consist of enlightening commentary on his darker earthly teaching, or even new revelations to special apostles. As the Savior’s twin, Thomas had a claim to direct insight into the nature of the Savior and his teaching. By “knowing himself,” Thomas would also know the “depth of the all,” whence the Savior came, and whither he was about to return, and thus become a missionary possessing the true teaching of Jesus.

This true teaching of Jesus turns out to be consistently ascetic. Its basic theme or catchword is “fire,” the fire of bodily passions that torment the soul, and its counterpart in the flames of hell: one shall be punished by that by which one sins. Around this principal theme are gathered a number of conceptual oppositions. It is of course the presence of the Savior as the emissary of the light which serves to illumine the eyes to see invisible reality within that which heretofore was only perceptually visible and thus illusory. The treatise thus evinces a Platonic dualism of a radically ascetic stripe, and may be properly considered broadly ascetic rather than gnostic. The gnostic myth of the creation of the world by a divine accident or evil power is neither mentioned nor apparently presupposed, and the dualism of the treatise is much more anthropological (body/soul) than cosmic (the above/below). A more appropriate designation for the doctrine of this work is Christian(ized) wisdom with ascetic application: the wisdom themes of seeking, finding, being troubled, resting, and ruling (cf. Gospel of Thomas, saying 2, etc.) are distinctly present and pressed into the service of an exhortation to the ascetic life by means of a Platonic dualism between the visible-passional-illusory and the invisible-spiritual-real.

There are presently two competing theories concerning the composition of The Book of Thomas the Contender. The more recent one, developed by H.M. Schenke, holds that its underlying source lay in a probably non-Christian Hellenistic Jewish wisdom treatise. Subsequently, in the Christian orbit, this ascetic treatise was Christianized by the substitution of Jesus for the figure of divine wisdom as the revelatory figure of the work, by the addition to the title of the phrase “The Book of Thomas,” and by the attendant recasting of the whole from the genre of expository treatise into the genre of revelation dialogue. That is, the text was dissected into smaller expository sections placed upon the lips of the risen Jesus; these were recast as answers to fictitious questions put to him by the apostle Thomas, which themselves were inserted into the text as pretexts for the ensuing answers of the Savior.

The earlier theory, developed by the author of this article, began with the observation that the actual dialogue between Thomas and Jesus occupies only the first three fifths of the treatise (138, 4–142, 21), while the remaining two fifths (142, 21-end) actually constitute a long monologue of the Savior, in which Thomas no longer plays a role. This and the detection of a transitional editorial seam at 142, 21 suggest that The Book of Thomas the Contender could have been compiled by a redactor from two separate works, the first three fifths from a dialogue between Thomas and Jesus, perhaps entitled “The Book of Thomas the Contender writing to the Perfect,” and the second two fifths from a collection of the sayings of the Savior gathered into a homiletical discourse perhaps entitled “The hidden words which the Savior spoke, which I recorded, even I, Mathaias.” A redactor later prefixed the dialogue to the sayings collection, prefaced the whole with the present opening lines, augmented by the reference to Thomas as the recipient of the secret words and Mathaias as the scribe, but then appended a subscript title designating Thomas as the author of the whole.

While a final decision between these two compositional theories is still awaited, there can be no question that The Book of Thomas the Contender displays the marks of a redactional history. On either view, it represents a new source for the critical investigation of early Christian literature and for the process by which ever new literary genres were adapted for Christian teaching. It also constitutes another instance in a growing body of Christian wisdom literature, with its emphasis on seeking, finding, resting on, and ruling by the truth, and thus escaping the troubles of life.


II 138, 1–145, 19

145, 20–23

The secret words that the savior spoke to | Judas Thomas which I, even I Mathaias, | wrote down, while I was walking, listening to them speak with | one another.

The savior said, “Brother Thomas, while 5 you (sg.) have time in the world, listen to me, | and I will reveal to you the things you have pondered | in your mind.

“Now since it has been said that you are my | twin and true companion, examine yourself and learn | who you are, in what way you exist, and 10 how you will come to be. Since you will be called my brother, | it is not fitting that you be ignorant | of yourself. And I know that you have understood, | because you had already understood that I am the knowledge of the truth. | So while you accompany me, although you are uncomprehending, 15 you have (in fact) already come to know, and you will be called ‘the one who | knows himself.’ For he who has not known himself | has known nothing, but he who has known himself | has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the all. | So then, you, my brother Thomas, have beheld what is obscure 20 to men, that is, what they ignorantly stumble against.” |

Now Thomas said to the lord, | “Therefore I beg you to tell me | what I ask you before your ascension, | and when I hear from you about 25 the hidden things, then I can speak about | them. And it is obvious to me that the truth is difficult to | perform before men.”

The savior answered, saying, | “If the things that are visible to you (pl.) are obscure | to you, how can you hear 30 about the things that are not visible? If the deeds of the truth | that are visible in the world are difficult for you (pl.) to perform, | how indeed, then, shall you perform those that pertain to the | exalted height and to the pleroma which are not visible? | And how shall you be called ‘laborers’? 35 In this respect-you are apprentices, and have not yet received | the height of perfection.”

Now Thomas answered | and said to the savior, “Tell us about these things | that you say are not visible, [but are] hidden | from us.”

The savior said, “[All] bodies […] 40 the beasts are begotten […] … | it is evident like […] … | […] | … this, too, those that are above | […] things that are visible, but [they are] visible 139 in their own root, and it is their fruit | that nourishes them. But these visible bodies | survive by devouring creatures similar to them | with the result that the bodies change. Now that which changes will 5 decay and perish, and has no hope of life from then on, | since that body is bestial. So just as the body of the beasts | perishes, so also will these formations | perish. Do they not derive from intercourse | like that of the beasts? If it, (the body) too derives from intercourse, 10 how will it beget anything different from | beasts? So, therefore, you are babes until | you become perfect.”

And Thomas answered, | “Therefore I say to you, lord, that those who speak | about things that are invisible and difficult 15 to explain are like those who shoot their arrows at a | target at night. To be sure, they shoot their arrows as | anyone would — since they shoot at the target — but it is not visible. | Yet when the light comes forth and | hides the darkness, then the work of each will appear. 20 And you, your light, enlighten, O lord.” |

Jesus said, “It is in light that light exists.” |

Thomas spoke, saying, “Lord, | why does this visible light that shines | on behalf of men rise and set?”

The savior 25 said, “O blessed Thomas, of course this visible light | shines on your (pl.) behalf — not in order [that] | you (pl.) remain here, but rather that you might come forth | — and whenever all the elect abandon | bestially, then this light will withdraw 30 up to its essence, and its essence will welcome it, | since it is a good servant.”

Then | the savior continued and said, “O | unsearchable love of the light! O bitterness of | the fire that blazes in the bodies of men and in 35 their marrow, kindling in them night and | day, and burning the limbs of men and | [making] their minds become drunk and their souls become deranged | […] them within males and females | … […] night and moving them, […] 40 … secretly and visibly. | For the males [move … upon the females] | and the females upon [the males. Therefore it is] 140 said, ‘Everyone who seeks the truth from | true wisdom will make himself wings so as to | fly, fleeing the lust that scorches the spirits | of men.’ And he will make himself wings to flee 5 every visible spirit.”

And Thomas answered, | saying, “Lord, this is exactly what I am asking | you about, since I have understood that you | are the one who is beneficial to us, as you say.”

Again the savior answered and said, “Therefore it is necessary 10 for us to speak to you (pl.), since this is the doctrine for the perfect. | If, now, you (pl.) desire to become perfect, you shall | observe these things; if not, your (pl.) name is ‘Ignorant,’ | since it is impossible for an intelligent man to dwell with a | fool, for the intelligent man is perfect in all wisdom. 15 To the fool, however, the good and bad are | the same — indeed the wise man will be nourished by | the truth and (Ps 1:3) ‘will be like a tree growing by | the meandering stream’ — seeing that there are some who, although having wings, | rush upon the visible things, things that 20 are far from the truth. For that which guides them, | the fire, will give them an illusion of truth, | [and] will shine on them with a [perishable] beauty, | and it will imprison them in a dark | sweetness and captivate them with fragrant pleasure. 25 And it will blind them with insatiable lust | and burn their souls and become | for them like a stake stuck in their heart | which they can never dislodge. And like | a bit in the mouth it leads them according to its 30 own desire.

“And it has fettered them with its | chains and bound all their limbs | with the bitterness of the bondage of lust for those | visible things that will decay and change | and swerve by impulse. They have 35 always been attracted downwards; as they are killed, | they are assimilated to all the beasts of | the perishable realm.”

Thomas answered and said, “It | is obvious and has been said, ‘[Many are … | … those who do not know […] … 40 soul.’”

And [the savior] answered, saying, | “[Blessed is] the wise man who [sought | after the truth, and] when he found it, he rested 141 upon it forever and was unafraid of those | who wanted to disturb him.”

Thomas answered | and said, “Is it beneficial for us, lord, to rest | among our own?”

The savior said, “Yes, it is useful. 5 And it is good for you (pl.) since things visible | among men will dissolve — for the vessel of | their flesh will dissolve, and when it is brought to naught | it will come to be among visible things, among things that are seen. | And then the fire which they see gives them pain 10 on account of love for the faith they | formerly possessed. They will be gathered back to that which is visible. | Moreover, those who have sight among things that are not visible, without | the first love they will perish in the concern for this | life and the scorching of the fire. Only a little while longer, 15 and that which is visible will dissolve; then | shapeless shades will emerge and | in the midst of tombs they will forever dwell upon the corpses | in pain and corruption of soul.” |

Thomas answered and said, “What have we 20 to say in the face of these things? What shall we say to | blind men? What doctrine should we express to these miserable | mortals who say, ‘We came to [do] | good and not to curse,’ and yet [claim], | Had we not been begotten in the flesh, we would not have known 25 [iniquity]’?”

The savior said, “Truly, as for | [those], do not esteem them as men, but regard them [as] | beasts, for just as beasts devour one another, | so also men of this sort | devour one another. On the contrary, they are deprived of [the kingdom] 30 since they love the sweetness of the fire and are | servants of death and rush to the works of corruption. | They fulfill the lust of their fathers. They will | be thrown down to the abyss and be afflicted | by the torment of the bitterness of their evil nature. 35 For they will be scourged so as to make them | rush backwards, whither they do not know, and | they [will recede] from their limbs not patiently, but | [with] despair. And they rejoice over […] | […] madness and derangement … 40 [They] pursue [this] derangement without realizing [their | madness, thinking] that they [are] wise. [They …] | … their body […] 142 Their mind is directed to their own selves, for their thought is occupied | with their deeds. But it is the fire that will burn them!” |

And Thomas answered and said, “Lord, what will the one | thrown down to them do? For I am most anxious 5 about them; many are those who fight them.” |

The savior answered and said, ‘What is your own | opinion?”

Judas — the one called | Thomas — said, “It is you, lord, whom it befits | to speak, and me to listen.” 10

The savior replied, “Listen to what I am going to tell you (sg.) | and believe in the truth. That which sows and that which is sown | will dissolve in their fire — within the fire | and the water — and they will hide in tombs of darkness. | And after a long time they shall show forth 15 the fruit of the evil trees, being punished, | being slain in the mouth of beasts and men | at the instigation of the rains and winds and air | and the light that shines above.”

Thomas | replied, “You have certainly persuaded us, lord. 20 We realize in our heart, and it is obvious, that this | [is so], and that your word is sufficient. But these words | that you speak to us are ridiculous and contemptible to the world | since they are misunderstood. | So how can we go 25 preach them, since we are [not] esteemed | [in] the world?”

The savior answered and said, | “Truly I tell you (pl.) that he who will listen to | [your] word and turn away his face or sneer | at it or smirk at these things, truly 30 1 tell you that he will be handed over to | the ruler above who rules over | all the powers as their king, and he will turn | that one around and cast him from heaven down to | the abyss, and he will be imprisoned in a narrow 35 dark place. Moreover, he can neither turn nor move on account of | the great depth of Tartaros and the [heavy bitterness] | of Hades that is steadfast […] | […] them to it … | […] they will not forgive … 40 […] pursue you (pl.). They will hand | […] over [to …] angel Tartarouchos | […] fire pursuing them 143 […] fiery scourges that cast a shower of sparks into | the face of the one who is pursued. If he flees westward, he | finds the fire. If he turns southward, he finds it there as well. | If he turns northward, the threat 5 of seething fire meets him again. Nor does he find the way to the east | so as to flee there and be saved, for he did not find it in the day | he was in the body, so that he might find it in the day of judgment.” |

Then the savior continued, saying, | “Woe to you, godless ones, who have no hope, 10 who rely on things that will not happen!

“Woe to you (pl.) | who hope in the flesh and in the prison that will perish! | How long will you be oblivious? And how long will you suppose that the imperishables | will perish too? Your hope is set | upon the world, and your god is this life! 15 You are corrupting your souls!

“Woe to you (pl.) within | the fire that burns in you, for it is insatiable! |

“Woe to you because of the wheel that turns in | your minds!

“Woe to you within the grip of the burning | that is in you, for it will devour your flesh openly 20 and rend your souls secretly, | and prepare you for your companions!

“Woe to | you, captives, for you are bound in caverns! | You laugh! In mad laughter you rejoice! | You neither realize your perdition, nor 25 do you reflect on your circumstances, nor have [you] | understood that you dwell in darkness and [death]! | On the contrary, you are drunk with the fire and [full] | of bitterness. Your mind is deranged on account of the [burning | that is in] you, and sweet to you are the poison and 30 the blows of your enemies! And the darkness rose for | you like the light, for you surrendered your freedom | for servitude! You darkened your hearts | and surrendered your thoughts | to folly, and you filled your thoughts 35 with the smoke of the fire that is in you! And | your light [has hidden] in the cloud | [of …] and the garment that is put upon you, you […] | […]. And [you] were seized [by | the hope that] does not exist. And whom is it [you 40 have] believed? Do you [not know that you] | all dwell among those who that […] | […] you as though [you …]. 144 You baptized your souls in the water of darkness! | You walked by your own whims!

“Woe | to you (pl.) who dwell in error, heedless | that the light of the sun which judges and 5 looks down upon the all will circle around all things | so as to enslave the enemies. You do not even notice | the moon, how by night and day it | looks down, looking at the bodies of your slaughters!

“Woe | to you (pl.) who love intimacy with womankind 10 and polluted intercourse with them!

“Woe to you (pl.) in the grip of the powers of your body, | for they will afflict you!

“Woe to you (pl.) in the grip of | the forces of the evil demons! | “Woe to you (pl.) who beguile your limbs with fire! 15 Who is it that will rain a refreshing dew on you | to extinguish the mass of fire from you | along with your burning? Who is it that will cause the sun to | shine upon you to disperse the darkness in you | and hide the darkness and polluted water?

“The sun 20 and the moon will give a fragrance to you (pl.), together with the air and | the spirit and the earth and the water. For if the sun does not | shine upon these bodies, they will wither and perish | just like weeds or grass. If | the sun shines on them, they prevail and choke 25 the grapevine; but if the grapevine | prevails and shades those weeds | [and] all that other brush growing alongside and | [spreads] and flourishes, it alone | inherits the land in which it grows; 30 and every place it has shaded it dominates. | And when it grows up, it dominates all the land | and is bountiful for its master, and it pleases him | even more, for he would have suffered great pains | on account of these plants until he uprooted them. But the 35 grapevine alone removed them and choked | them, and they died and became like the soil.”

Then | Jesus continued and said to them, “Woe to | you (pl.), for you did not receive the doctrine, and those who are […] | will labor at preaching […]. 40 And [you] are rushing into … […] | […] will send [them] down … | […] you kill them daily 145 in order that they might rise from death.

“Blessed are you (pl.) | who have prior knowledge of the stumbling blocks and who flee | alien things.

“Blessed are you (pl.) who are reviled | and not esteemed on account of the love 5 their lord has for them.

“Blessed are | you (pl.) who weep and are oppressed by | those without hope, for you will be released from | every bondage.

“Watch and pray that you (pl.) not come to be | in the flesh, but rather that you come forth from the bondage of the bitterness 10 of this life. And as you pray, | you will find rest, for you have left behind the suffering and the disgrace. | For when you come forth from the sufferings and | passions of the body, you will receive rest | from the good one, and you will reign with the king, 15 you joined with him and he with you, from now on, | for ever and ever. Amen.” |

The Book of Thomas |

The Contender Writing |

To the Perfect (pl.). 20


Remember me also, my brethren, |

[in] your prayers: |

Peace to the saints

and those who are spiritual.

| Small strokes above the line indicate line divisions. Every fifth line a small number is inserted in place of a stroke; the frequency of these numbers, however, may vary in tractates which are quite fragmentary. A new page is indicated with a number in bold type. When the beginning of a new line or page coincides with the opening of a paragraph, the line divider or number is placed at the end of the previous paragraph.

( Parentheses indicate material supplied by the editor or translator. Although this material may not directly reflect the text being translated, it provides useful information for the reader.

[ Square brackets indicate a lacuna in the manuscript. When the text cannot be reconstructed, three dots are placed within the brackets, regardless of the size of the lacuna; a fourth dot, if appropriate, may function as a period. An exception to this rule is the occasional use of a different number of dots to estimate the extent of the missing portion of a proper noun. In a few instances the dots are used without brackets to indicate a series of Coptic letters which do not constitute a translatable sense unit. A bracket is not allowed to divide a word, except for a hyphenated word or a proper noun. Other words are placed entirely inside or outside the brackets, depending on the certainty of the Coptic word and the number of Coptic letters visible.

Robinson, James McConkey ; Smith, Richard ; Coptic Gnostic Library Project: The Nag Hammadi Library in English. 4th rev. ed. Leiden; New York : E.J. Brill, 1996, S. 199


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