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October 28, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Anil Nair

Justice, not Pope and pomp

Thomas the apostle, called Didymus (the twin) in the Gospel of John, but mentioned by all the evangelists. He was impulsive enough to offer to die with Jesus on the way to Bethany, but dubious about where Christ was going and the way there (John 11:16 and 14:15). Above all he is remembered as the apostle who refused to believe in the Resurrection unless he actually touched the wounds of the risen Christ (John 20:25-28), an attitude for which the Fathers both blamed him for his lack of faith and thanked him for his scepticism which was the occasion for reassuring future generations of believers with his confession of Christ's divinity.

There is much uncertainty about his missionary work after the Pentecost. One tradition placed it among the Parthians but another, more persistent, placed it in India, where the Syrian Christians of Malabar claim they were evangelised by Thomas who was killed by a spear and buried at Mylapore near Madras. An ancient cross of stone marks the place where his body rested, before its translation to Edessa in 394 CE.

The Indian connection with St Thomas was so well accepted that in the ninth century King Alfred of Wessex sent alms not only to Rome but also to India to St Thomas and St Bartholomew. ~~~ The Oxford Dictionary of Saints.

Is it possible to depict Jesus Christ as a non-Christian? Blasphemous as it might seem the answer, pretty much, is yes. The universal relevance of his sacrifice and the witness he bore -- ironically, the exact reasons cited by evangelists intent on widespread proselytisation -- make him transcend denominations and, arguably, even a Church.

That is certainly the way the earliest followers of Jesus viewed him: a roving sage who preached about, and suffered a cruel death for, a full acceptance of one's fellow human beings, no matter how disreputable or marginal ( Jesus said: ''Show the stone which the builders have rejected. That one is the cornerstone''). That was before Jesus became Christ -- the anointed one, the promised messiah -- and the early movement got subsumed into a cult of Christ, largely gentile and centred on the cross and the resurrection, a cult that became known as Christianity.

The Gospel of Thomas --- originally in Coptic and discovered in instalments along with the Nag Hammadi fragments in Egypt in the early decades of this century --- has interesting implications in this respect. For centuries it was rumoured to exist but the Church branded it apocryphal. Even now after decades of painstaking and exhaustive research by formidable New Testament scholars in the United States and Europe -- which has conferred on the Thomas Gospel and the related Q (Q for quelle, German for source) Document the status of original archives from which the Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Luke, Matthew and that of John widely drew upon -- the Church, at its most charitable, still considers them non-canonical.

This gospel is basically a collection of the unvarnished sayings of Jesus, without interpolations by any editor or redactor, well-meaning or otherwise. The philosophy one culls from it is very different from the dogmatic and -- as many would vouch -- oppressive faith that later grew up in Christ's name ( Jesus said: ''When you disrobe without being shamed, and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then [will you see] the Son of the Living One, and will not be afraid'' [37] ) . It contains no reference to Jesus'sdivine status, the virgin birth or the resurrection. It is an account of his ministry with mention of his many parables and miracles.

While the Thomas Gospel clearly emphasises the passion of Jesus it's aeons removed from advocating an atonement doctrine, a theology based on sin and the guilt about it. Moreover, instead of projecting some perennially deferred promise of paradise the implication throughout is to seek heaven on earth itself. ( They said [to Jesus]: ''Come, let us pray today and let us fast.'' Jesus said: ''What is the sin that I have committed or wherein have I been defeated? But when the bridegroom leaves the bridal chamber, then let them fast and pray.'' [104] )

This gospel reflects little evidence of a formal creed or a central authority and even less of such Roman Catholic frippery like the need for a supreme pontiff to shepherd the souls of the faithful flock. It does not lay down rules to serve as an enforcer of morality. Instead it serves as a distilled reminder that the core of a genuine morality is to make a gift of everything, of one's very self if need be. It's a commandment that only a few have followed -- a Francis of Assisi, a Teresa of Avilla or closer home, an Alphonsa of Bharananganam -- but one that remains compelling nevertheless.

Each parable in this gospel revolves around material dealing with specific theological problems ( sitz im leben or 'life situations' as the scholar Herman Brauer puts it) facing particular communities. The parables in the gospel had grown like pearls, from simple core aphorisms (probably Jesus's actual words) into longer contextualised narratives.

It is pertinent to probe why the earliest Christians in India -- evangelised by the apostle Thomas by their own admission -- were not in any profound way influenced by this particular gospel. It is absurd to claim that they were not in possession of it, for surely it existed more conspicuously in the oral tradition than in the written form.

There is of course paucity of material regarding the early Christians in India which thus proves or disproves nothing. In the medieval period, however, coinciding with the first European incursions into India, there is some evidence of local Christian communities in south India fighting an already rearguard action in defending their own turf, first theological and soon ecclesiastical.

Notable among these is the Synod of Diamper [Udayamperoor] in the seventeenth century that saw parish representatives across Kerala actively oppose papal diktats on issues ranging from the use of the vernacular instead of Latin in the recital of holy Mass to the interpretation of various scriptures. The small concessions that the natives won in this Synod were, however, the beginning of the end where their independence was concerned, because the setback was to provoke the Church in Rome to doubly renew its efforts in bringing them to heel.

Then followed the classic process, as described by Dr Elaine Pagels in her famous book, The Gnostic Gospels, whereby the 'sapiential' bedrock of Jesus's saying as internalised by the local community yielded to a polemical stratum with apocalyptic overtones that reflected the community's increasing sense of besiegement from its orthodox competitors. This in due course led to a narrative stratum consisting of moral fables -- which echoed the community's and its theology's imminent absorption by the orthodox, who preferred simple stories to disturbing introspection.

In this background, does the Gospel of Thomas have any relevance for present-day Christians, irrespective of whether or not they claim Thomist origins? Certainly yes, if they have any integrity.

This is an era when any sensitive and rational person will find it an embarrassment to speak of the ''goodness and love of God'' as proclaimed from the pulpits and with such shameless regularity from priest to Pope. The prevalence of sheer injustice in manifold aspects of everyday life would provoke any good Christian to question the benevolence if not the very existence of God.

Mind you, question and not conclude. Something in the spirit of Louis De Berneires, who said: ''He [God] has still failed to appear in court, and we construe His absence either as non-existence, hubris, apathy or an admission of guilt. We miss Him, we would dearly like to see Him going to and fro on the earth, but we admire tyranny no longer, and we desire justice more than we are awed by vainglorious assertions of magnificence.''

Vainglorious assertions of magnificence --- add pomp and Pope to that and the Gospel of Thomas takes on a new meaning.

Anil Nair

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