If you were filming it, you’d have to cast someone like Matt Damon in the role. It is 1975, an we are in a jeep. Sitting on the dangerous “village-side” is the biblical scholar James Robinson in an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones. Across from him, wearing Robinson’s own clothing as a disguise, is Muhammad Ali al-Samman. He is in disguise because of a long-standing blood feud between his village, al-Qasr, and the neighboring village, Hamra Dum, a blood feud that claimed al-Samman’s father, led he and his brothers to murder the murderer, that left a bullet-wound in his own chest. They are entering Hamra Dum turf, going to the foot of a cliff where, thirty years earlier, al-Samman was digging fertilizer for his sugar cane field when he dug up a sealed clay jar.
He did not open it at first, fearful that it might contain a djinni. When it finally was opened and discovered to only contain old books, it was roughly treated, with some of the texts used to start the oven by al-Samman’s mother before the remaining texts eventually ended up in the hands of antiquities authorities. There were a number of codices, books of bound papyrus, all written in Coptic, an ancient alphabet that used Greek letters and a few unique characters to write the spoken Egyptian of the time, the tongue of the Pharaohs. There were ancient Christian tracts, a fragment of Plato’s “Republic,” and a peculiar collection of Sayings of Jesus attributed to Didymos Judas Thomas.
There had been ancient references to a Gospel According to Thomas, but no such text existed. With this Coptic translation of an older Greek text in hand, scholars would realize that they had had scraps of Thomas since the late 19th century, discovered in a refuse heap of ancient papyri at Oxyrhychus.
Just as the Dead Sea scrolls would provide insight into one sect of the Ancient Hebrew faith, so the Nag Hammadi library, as the collection would come to be called, would provide insight into one strand of early Christianity. And it is truly weird.
The Gospel of Thomas has no biography, no narrative, just sayings, like the Wisdom literature of that age. Some of the sayings are familiar, some unique. The strangest, at least in my opinion, is Saying 7, which reads: Jesus says: “Blessed is the lion that a person will eat and the lion will become human. And anathema is the person whom a lion will eat and the lion becomes human.”
At least this particular saying seems to be wholly manufactured, a product of a later age in early Christianity , the era of hermits in the Egyptian desert, where the lion was a symbol for the human passions the ascetics were seeking to tame. But many of the sayings show up in other gospels.
The apostle Thomas has traditionally been associated with the ancient Christian community in Syria, a community that survived two millennia and the rise of Islam, but is rapidly being destroyed. Other traditions have Thomas continuing east, maybe as far as India. This is, of course, all legend, no more easily verified than the claims that Peter went west. And speaking of Peter and Rome, the name Jude or Judas is listed among the brothers of Jesus, along with James the Elder, not the son of Zebedee and brother of John, but another James, who would go on to lead the Jesus community in Jerusalem. Original virgin birth or not, it is clear from scripture that Mary had other children, all of which leads to the intriguing possibility that Thomas is a brother of Jesus.
The understanding of Jesus presented in the Gospel of Thomas does not cohere with what came to be accepted as Christian belief, is not orthodox. Remember, the root “ortho” means straight or right, so that orthodontists make teeth straight and orthopedists make bones straight or right. Orthodoxy means right or straight belief, an obsession of the developing Christian faith and very different from its Hebrew origins, where orthopraxy, or right practice, was the emphasis. For the ancient Hebrews, what you did was more important than what you thought.
Of course, defining orthodoxy would be done in the traditional way. The one who had the ruler with the biggest and most brutal army on their side was the winner every time.
Even if we find the process that produced orthodoxy problematic, even if we have strayed from some orthodox beliefs, even if we find some of what is considered orthodox incredible, literally not credible or believable, still, most of us would find the strand of belief represented by the Gospel of Thomas to be weird. It has a hint of Gnosticism, an often misused term for a way of thinking that sometimes crossed over into Hebrew belief and early Christian belief, a way of thinking that saw the world through the lens of dualism, a war of light and dark, with the key to individual salvation being a sort of enlightenment obtained through secret knowledge, or gnosis.
Even if we reject the way of thinking associated with the name of Thomas, it gives us insight into today’s story. Just as the role of John the Baptizer and the role of the Pharisees in the gospels reflects later tensions between these communities and the followers of Jesus, so the portrayal of Thomas as “doubting” likely has more to do with competition between the understanding of Jesus associated with his community and what would eventually become orthodox belief. In other words, it might not have happened, and if it did happen, the story is certainly being told aslant, to make Thomas look bad. After all, we don’t call Peter “Denying Peter,” probably because his way of understanding Jesus prevailed.
Thomas, who walked with Jesus, is no doubt just as shattered as the rest when he saw this man to whom he had committed his life brutally executed. He is grieving, in shock, and even if he weren’t, his skepticism is completely reasonable. The other disciples are behind a locked door when Jesus appears. Thomas is out in the world, a world they understood as extremely dangerous. Would any of the remaining ten have believed if they had not seen it themselves?
Jesus, of course, teaches orthodoxy and orthopraxis, right belief leads to right action. Many branches of Christianity would eventually divorce the two, and today many American’s Christians have abandoned Christian conduct altogether in the pursuit of racist and nationalistic political power, just as Germans did 85 years ago. But today’s text still begs the question: Can you believe something you have not experienced?
There are those who believe Satan put dinosaur bones in the ground to tempt us away from the clear word of God expressed in Genesis. There are those who believe that humans didn’t land on the moon at all, that the entire affair was ginned up in a television studio. There are those who believe that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary was planned by the Obama Administration as an excuse to seize everyone’s legally-owned weapons of mass murder. Given these insanities, I’m more than willing to excuse Thomas a little disbelief.
But I also make dozens of decisions a day to believe in things I have not experienced. I believe James Robinson’s story about a ride in a jeep during Ramadan with an Egyptian peasant involved in a blood feud. I believe that the medicine I take actually does something. I believe that there are electrons and protons and neutrons and even sub-atomic particles like quarks and the newly confirmed Higgs Boson, sometimes called the God particle, though I cannot see these things, and really don’t understand when a physicist tries to explain the quantum.
I believe that God is good and we are meant for love and creativity and transcendence, though there seems to be plenty of evidence to the contrary.
I don’t need to experience harassment, mansplaining and blatant discrimination to believe it when women tell me about their lives.
Not only do I choose to believe the experience of women when they tell their stories, I also make a choice not to tell women how to tell their stories, for authorizing their stories would just be one more act of patriarchy, an acting out of power. I don’t tell women how they should feel. I respect the right of women to tell their own stories, to frame their narratives, to have their own voices in demanding equality. I will not be the cliché male who seizes the wheel and refuses to ask for directions. I will travel with women and follow women if invited, but I will not take control.
I choose to believe what African-Americans tell me of their experience in America. I choose to believe the stories of fear and grief. To be sure, there is ample empirical evidence to support their claims of systemic racism. But I will never experience the terror black parents feel when their teenage son walks out the door, for I am white, male, visibly marked with privilege in this culture.
I have nothing to gain by choosing this path, the path of honoring African-Americans by letting them tell their own stories and letting them tell me where I can be most helpful in creating a world that includes them and that does justice, loves kindness, embraces humility. I have nothing to gain but salvation in following the command of Jesus to love the least, to go where people are most broken, to offer love and forgiveness, not judgment and stones. For if I do not care for the least, I am following a false God, and if I do not forgive, scripture tells me I will not be forgiven.
So many in America today go through school harassed by the football team and by Christians. When they get out of high school? Well, at least the football team isn’t a problem anymore.
Will you hear their stories? Will you allow them to tell you what they need to feel welcome?
On the other hand, I choose not to believe the narrative that says extending opportunity and equality to those who have been at the margins, Jews and African-Americans and Non-Christians and the LGBT community and women somehow turns those who have had power and privilege into victims. Life is not a zero-sum game, nor is love.
Of course, this operates on a very personal level, plays out in every interaction. Do you choose to believe that people are basically good? I know that runs counter to our Calvinist heritage, but it is the choice I make. And yes, I’ve been caught off guard at times as a result of this assumption. Do you believe that everyone deserves an opportunity to thrive?
When you were a child, you thought as a child. As you grow, you are given a terrifying responsibility. You get to decide what to believe, what to think. You get to decide what story will frame your actions.
Do you have to experience something to believe it? Obviously not. We take dozens of leaps of faith each and every day. Most never even rise to the level of consciousness, we’ve been so shaped by our belief. The burden of choosing what to believe is so terrifying, that many turn to the loudest and most certain, choosing blind belief over personal responsibility, even as they drive over a cliff.
If we are challenged every day to decide what to believe, if we choose to believe things unseen, and we do, how do we judge our belief? What orthodoxy will lead to orthopraxy?
There are ways to evaluate our beliefs, of course. Scripture is full of them. You shall know them by their fruits. Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly, though it is worth noting that human justice is retributive and divine justice is restorative. Love God the most, love your neighbor in ways that are selfless, but don’t forget to love yourself too, for you are loved by God.
Are your ways of believing motivated by love or by fear? Do they serve others, or only yourself? Do they lead you to praise God and embrace creation? What will you choose?
When I was a child… but I am no longer a child. I am responsible for what I choose to believe, for the consequences of those beliefs.
Maybe the real Indiana Jones-style daring-do happens when we engage the world and one another with an open heart, an open mind, open arms. When we choose to believe that God is good and all are called to repentance, restoration and love.
I believe that an un-credentialed Hebrew rabbi changed the world. That he spoke truths about divine love. That he touched people and they were never the same agin. That he still does.
The Lord is risen indeed. Believe it. Alleluia.