“One mind there is, but under it two principles contend.” – Philip K. Dick Tractates Cryptica Scriptura
The process of deciding what constitutes Christian doctrine and what are the remnants of previous traditions was summed up well by Elaine Pagels when she writes in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, “What survived as orthodox Christianity did so by suppressing and forcibly eliminating a lot of other material.”
This can often be revelatory for those who believe that Christianity today exists in the same form as in its first centuries.
This position is also expounded upon by Earl Doherty in his book The Jesus Puzzle and in his argument that a wisdom tradition existed and influenced the development of early Christianity, “…but in conjunction with the Greek Logos concept in the Hellenistic tradition of the period. Indeed, even Jewish personified Wisdom by Paul’s time had been influenced by the Greek Logos, as we can see in the Hellenistic Judaism of Philo and an Alexandrian document about to be examined.” (1.)
The Gospel of Thomas has perplexed scholars and believers alike since its discovery as part of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945. We also have fragments dating back even earlier coming from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri in Egypt. Arguments have raged as to whether the sayings encompass traditional Christian thought at all, and even Gnostics have expressed doubt when the sayings are included in generalizations as being Gnostic, Christian or Platonic.
Scholars now believe that the original, core sayings were composed somewhere between 40AD and 140 AD which could in effect place them even earlier than the canonical Gospels. Perhaps the truth of the matter can be reconciled for now by the thinking of Robert Van Voorst who believes that although it could have been written down in the 2nd century, the oral tradition on which it is based is much older. (2.)
Of course, this leaves conventional Christianity in somewhat of a bind as The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus making some very unusual statements more in line with Hermetic or alchemical thinking. In fact, some of the sayings from the Gospel of Thomas are positively shamanistic: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
If these sayings attributed to Jesus were from older more ancient traditions then they should encompass a philosophy that was already known and existent at the time. They should reflect esoteric thinking which we now understand to have been part of mystery schools and oral spirituality.
Writing in The Pagan Christ, Tom Harpur describes the tradition as thus, “Many of them were pre-existent, pre-historic, and therefore certainly pre-Christian. They were collections of Egyptian, Hebrew and Gnostic sayings, and therefore cannot stand on their own as evidence that the Jesus of the Gospels ever lived as a man or teacher.”
He goes on to write, “These sayings were all oral teachings in the ancient Mysteries ages before they were written down.” (3.)
So, what can we glean from the Gospel of Thomas that might be construed as older, as shamanic and reflecting the mysticism of the mystery traditions?
Quite a lot, in actual fact.
We can find examples of the holographic nature of reality which shaman describe. We can find descriptions of the Hermetic and alchemical ‘as above, so below’ maxim and we can find specific instruction to go within in order to find the eternal.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that, as Andrew Phillip Smith writes in The Secret History of the Gnostics, “All of the surviving copies of Thomas, in Greek and Coptic, were found in Egypt.” (4.)
Could The Gospel of Thomas incorporate a much earlier alchemical and shamanistic world view which informed the esoteric thinking of ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean region?
After all, the word alchemy comes from the term Al Khem which means ‘Black Earth’ and was the ancient name for Egypt.
One of the most enigmatic sayings from The Gospel of Thomas and a good example of the parallels with the shamanic world view is saying number 22.
Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, “These infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom.”
They said to him, “Shall we then, as children, enter the kingdom?”
Jesus said to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom.”
Here we have a clear example of a mystery teaching incorporated into Thomas and a saying that links us back to the ancient Pyramid Texts. This notion of the unification of opposites incorporates the ‘great work’ of alchemy and the goal of enlightenment which is the transformation of the self.
Another major and overlooked parallel is described by Jeremy Naydler in Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts when he writes, “Unlike historically more recent, and therefore more familiar, accounts of visionary mystics, the Pyramid Texts do not have a narrative form.” (5.)
This has been one of the frustrations for Christian scholars who struggle to find uniformity in the Gospel of Thomas. Maybe the solution is to forget about linear uniformity altogether and accept that this collection contains sayings from various traditions which, over time, were placed together in order to suit the groups who read them.
When scholars struggle with saying 114 from Thomas and try to overcome its misogynistic appearance perhaps a return to the esoteric and alchemical subtext may untangle the transformative secret of its words.
“Simon Peter said to them, “Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “See, I am going to attract her to make her male so that she too might become a living spirit that resembles you males. For every female (element) that makes itself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
We can then understand the saying as something that hints at inner polarities coming together and intimations of the same unification as saying 22.
But is there a lineage that can connect such teachings?
Maybe part of the solution lies with the Mandaeans, who claim descent from Seth, son of Adam and as Gerard Russell writes in Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, “…connect the present day with the distant pre-Christian past, the funerary banquet of the Mithraists and the Egyptians, and the teachings of the Manichees.” (6.)
But if we accept, as Jeremy Naydler argues, that The Pyramid Texts were not funerary at all, then the Mandaean ceremonies, which are still secret, may be about something else entirely, where the soul is not transformed after death, but while the person is still living.
This then echoes many of the unification themes in Thomas and provides a link between the shamanism of Egyptian mysticism and a Gnostic sect who trace their origins to the Middle East and ancient Babylon at the time when The Pyramid Texts were written.
In the Pyramid Texts, Osiris must die in order for Horus to be born, but Horus is Osiris in the same way as the female is made male and the two are made one, and the inside like the outside as we read in the Thomas sayings.
As Naydler goes on to say about the Pyramid Texts transformative exegesis, “Only when it is seen that the two gods can also correspond to two different existential phases, or states of consciousness, of one and the same king, is it possible to grasp the potential initiatory significance of their relationship.”
Of course, the persecution of various groups and sects meant that many esoteric teachings became lost and fragmented over time. The amalgamation and mistranslations make it difficult to arrive at any certainties. However, as new scholarship is continuing to find, there is a deeply rooted relationship between Gnosticism, Hermeticism and new revelations about Egypt’s shamanic mysticism.
“Do not be unaware of me O God,
Know me, for I know you.
Do not be unaware of me, O God.
Of me, it is said: “The transitory one.”
Do not be unaware of me, O Ra.
Know me, for I know you.
Do not be unaware of me, O Ra.
Of me, it is said: “Great One who is destroyed.”
Utterance 45. The Pyramid Texts.
Jesus said, “Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you. For there is nothing hidden which will not become manifest.”
The Gospel of Thomas. Saying Number 5.
This brings uncomfortable reassessments in some instances but it also allows us to believe that something timeless and transformative has been at the root of spiritual traditions around the world.
Sometimes the cultural and ceremonial differences have masked this very truth but sometimes it has been the very exploration of these differences which has uncovered the common shamanic essence.
© David Halpin 05/02/2016
Van Voorst, Robert (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: an introduction to the ancient evidence. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. p. 189.
The Pagan Christ Tom Harpur P140
The Secret History of the Gnostics Andrew Phillip Smith P.73
Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts Jeremy Naydler P. 311
Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms. Gerard Russell