How important was the death of Jesus for the first Christians? Were there Christians around who didn't know about Jesus' death? Where there Christians who did not give it redemptive value?
It has been asserted that the Gospel of Thomas does not know about the death of Jesus by so many scholars so many times in the research literature for so many years that it has been assumed as a fact. And this fact has led these same scholars to argue for Thomas' alternative position on redemption - that it merely requires a cognition of Jesus' words and the truth they provide about spirituality. This view about spirituality developed before the Cross theology came on the scene, and is akin to the message of the wisdom literature in Judaism.
The Gospel of Thomas, however, does know about Jesus' death, which is explicitly referred to in saying 55 - "And whoever does not hate his brothers and sisters and carry his cross as I do will not be worthy of me." This is one of those fine examples of the fragmented nature of communal memory, a nature which assumes that the audience knows a bigger story. The only way that this saying makes any sense is as a reference to Jesus' death by crucifixion. The people who used the Gospel of Thomas knew the story of his death.
But how did they interpret it? This is where we run into trouble if we continue to think in terms of Western Christians - either Roman Catholics or Protestants - who are quite sure that the meaning of his death was a sacrificial atonement. In early Christianity, there were several ways that his death was understood theologically, the sacrificial was only one of them, and it wasn't the one that the Gospel of Thomas preserves.
What is particularly striking about the Thomasine version of this popular saying is that it emphasizes the imitation of Jesus - "as I do." In the literature produced by the eastern Church Fathers, there was an interpretation of Jesus' death that emphasized imitation. His death was understood to represent the moment when Jesus had conquered his body of passions, had crucified his body of desire and temptation, had left behind the world and all of its attractions and connections.
Clement of Alexandria, for instance, thought that the ultimate example of the achievement of the state of passionlessness was Jesus' crucifixion when he completely separated the passions and pleasures from his soul. Clement says that this is "what the cross means." In overcoming his passions, he struggled with the "spiritual powers," the demons who invade the soul, who impress passion upon it (Strom. 2.20). In this way, "our life was hung on the wood of the tree so that we might believe" (Strom. 5.11). The person who sees Jesus' victory over his passions is supposed to emulate him. "Bearing about the cross of the Savior," this person "will follow the Lord's footsteps, as God, having become a holy of holies" (Strom. 2.20). We have to "crucify our own flesh" just as Jesus did his flesh (Frags. 1.4; Strom. 7.3). There is no salvation by nature, only by obedience when the person voluntarily separates his or her passions from the soul, when he or she is victorious, he or she will be sent on to one of the mansions reserved in heaven after death (Strom. 4.3; 6.14; 7.3; 7.12).
There are many reasons to think that this is the interpretation that the Christians responsible for the final version of the Gospel of Thomas held. The Gospel of Thomas speaks over and over again about the need to renounce the world, the body, and its pleasures, even forsaking family and marriage for the life of the single person or celibate.
Saying 1, "Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not die," points toward study and meditation on Jesus' words, but it is not proverbial wisdom the seeker is after. The eastern Fathers are quite clear that imitation of Jesus alone is not enough to be redeemed. There is a life praxis that must be put into place which includes intellectual study that eventually unfolds into a contemplative life that leads to an immediate mystical apprehension of God and one's divine Self. The study part of this life includes meditation and study of scripture, the notes of one's master or teacher, and the acquisition of knowledge "transmitted unwritten" from the teacher to the student. In this way, "the soul studies to be God." This praxis is all over the eastern literature, but since we are talking about Clement as our example, read Strom. 1.1, 1.6, 2.11, 6.1, 6.7, 6.8, 6.14; Exh. 11, for a few sound bites.
So the Gospel of Thomas does not represent an alternative form of Christianity that has no knowledge or no interest in Jesus' death, a Christianity that based redemption on proverbial wisdom. The Gospel of Thomas did in fact know about Jesus' death, and it did in fact have an interpretation of it. But it is not one that Western Christians are familiar with. It is an interpretation that is applied to a praxis of righteous living, daily struggle with the vices that wish to rule us, study of scripture and the teachings of Jesus, and contemplative activities. All of these in combination were meant to overcome the body, to crucify it as Jesus did, so that the soul can be released and journey to a vision of God and his embrace.
It is this mystical understanding of Jesus' death that I hold up this afternoon.