Why the Gospel of Thomas Matters
In a world of religious intolerance and bigotry, the case for embracing doubt and questioning through the Gospel of Thomas.
In a world of religious intolerance and bigotry, the case for embracing doubt and questioning through the Gospel of Thomas.
By setting selected sayings from the Gospel of Thomas alongside the disciple's own words from the Fourth Gospel, this book challenges the myth of 'doubting Thomas', arguing that 'incertainty' is an essential element of any authentic faith experience.
In an age of increasing anti-semitism and religious intolerance, it also affirms the importance of the Gospel of Thomas in recovering the essential Jewishness of Jesus.
Far from undermining the Christian tradition of the Church and its canonical scriptures, this book shows how the Gospel of Thomas complements both, inviting the reader to reconsider the healthy significance of the Apostle of the Enquiring Mind.
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This book holds out a welcome handshake to anyone who has ever doubted or questioned their faith. The author shows us that incertainty (his preferred term over the more negative sounding uncertainty) is a very positive attribute: “…truth is only progressively grasped. The process of our spiritual refinement is a gradual one; it is an accumulation of insights that allow us to see a bit more, or to see the same thing differently or more of the same more clearly.” The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in 1945 by Egyptian peasant farmers. It was found in an airtight jar which contained several leather bound papyrus books. Unlike the synoptic gospels it does not give an account of Jesus’ life and teaching but is a set of sayings of Jesus. Helpfully included is a modern translation of the gospel by John Henson so that the reader can explore the gospel themselves. Thomas goes down in history as the doubter, the one who didn’t believe unless he could see it for himself. There are four occasions in John’s Gospel when Thomas speaks, and Gethin uses these to trace how Thomas gradually comes to understand Jesus, which culminates in the collection of sayings. Gethin argues that Thomas challenges the concept of Jesus found in the synoptic gospels - which developed over centuries of by a largely Western Christian Church. Here is a Jewish Jesus, more in tune with the mystical Jesus found in John’s Gospel. This is not a dry book, it is full of insights. It connects us to a character who lived alongside Jesus, who has long been misunderstood, and who shows us that it is good to question. Nor is this just an historical narrative, throughout there are stories from our own times which enrich it. In the final chapter Gethin says “If I have at least shown that incertainty is something positive, then the writing and the reflecting will have achieved their aim.” Mission accomplished I’d say. Christine Clasper ~ Author, Progressive Voices 18
The Gospel of Thomas failed to make it into the canon of the New Testament and consists of a collection of 114 sayings or short parables. Discovered by accident in 1945 in Egypt, the Gospel, especially as provided in the translation by John Henson (Good as New: The radical retelling of the Scriptures, 0 Books, 2004) present a more direct, pithy and apparently authentic voice for Jesus than that to which we are accustomed - for example: "Being alive or dead has nothing to do with breathing and nothing to do with corpses," (verse 11). In this book, Abraham-Williams disabuses the reader of the false historic notion which identifies the disciple Thomas with doubting and skepticism: "Thomas didn't doubt, he questioned and that's a very different matter." Drawing also upon John's Gospel, the author travels with Thomas on a journey to find an alternative route between hard and dispassionate certainty and contemporary, dismissive disbelief. For this third way, he uses the term "incertainty" - an intuitive way of knowing which may not be verifiable SCientifically ("seeing is believing") but is nevertheless sufficiently true to be the basis for living honestly and well. About such knowing, he writes: "Incertainties are not aberrations ... but are the signs of authenticity". As fellow travellers on this journey, the author enlists a diverse group of companions: Pope Francis, Julian of Norwich and the actor Michael Sheen (who interestingly starred in a radical community passion play in Port Talbot). Well-judged quotes from past and contemporary authors are fascinating, helpful and prompt further thinking without ever being overwhelming. Abraham-Williams writes simply and accessibly. As well as being a useful introduction to the Gospel of Thomas, this book assists greatly with answering the vital question: "How might we speak the Gospel into a spiritually infantile landscape which [neverthelessl longs for the God it dare not name?" ~ Ian Fasten, Reform magazine
I have now read and pondered over your book and I heartily congratulate you on it. You put your case effectively and it is cogently sustained from beginning to end and one is left in no doubt about the distinctive contribution by St Thomas to our understanding and appreciation of the role of enquiry in the Christian pilgrimage, and indeed in the religious quest generally. There is always an incompleteness and indeed a provisionality in our profession of faith. Faith, as you insist, can and does co-exist with incertainties. St Thomas’s stress on this is, as I say, distinctive, but I think that the same lesson is to be found generally in the NT. As I read your essay I became more aware that I had met and welcomed this emphasis on struggling with doubts – or incertainties – elsewhere, not least in many contemporary theological reflections. I suppose I first became conscious of the challenge to grapple enquiringly with faith when H D Lewis taught me at KCL about what he called “reverent agnosticism” which is not far away from what incertainties are. ~ Canon David Jones, former Vice Principal, email
It's a beautiful masterpiece to read - a volume of profound ideas. Abraham-Williams is one of our best religious writers. I very much hope the title will be given the publicity it deserves, with penetrating reviews. ~ Aled Jones Williams, Author, email
Half hour discussion programe of the book on Sunday 16 August with Aled Jones Williams and Jill Hailey-Harris, chaired by John Roberts. ~ Author, BBC Radio Cymru
This book can be appreciated as a refreshing study of ambiguity in spirituality. ~ Dr John Court , Church Times
Gethin breathes life into the Gospel of Thomas in a way none before him have dared, and where a less masterful guide could only stumble. I can no longer read this mysterious gospel as an obtuse collection of random sayings; I’ve now been exposed to it as a heart-rending quest for truth and purpose. ~ Lee Harmon, author, historical Jesus scholar, book reviewer, and liberal Christian
In this artfully written and engaging book, Gethin Abraham-Williams brings a wealth of experience and research to the task of weaving a contemporary spirituality marked by incertainty from the rich and paradoxical strands of the Gospel of Thomas. In doing so he takes us on a highly rewarding reflective journey through the world of the (five) Gospels, via Nag Hammadi, to contemporary South Wales and war-torn Syria with numerous other stops in between. The interplay of theology, history and contemporary experience generates much food for thought and spiritual life, with particularly rich insights for inter-faith dialogue and inter-spirituality. This is a truly ecumenical book that is as happy gleaning insight from other faith traditions as from different traditions of Christianity, including those long buried; a deeply pastoral book full of spiritual wisdom. ~ Dr Stephen Roberts, Senior Lecturer in Modern Theology, University of Chichester
I really enjoyed this book. Gethin Abraham-Williams has written a book that is interesting, challenging, and insightful. I loved the mix of personal stories and the arts (literature, poetry etc.) to illustrate some deep theology, which is itself expressed in a lucid manner. He uses a fascinating text (the Gospel of Thomas) that most of us have heard about, but many of us know little about, to shed light on how our faith relates to today’s global, multicultural world. ~ Revd Dr Trystan Owain Hughes, Christian theologian, historian and author
At the Steelman Lectures presented at Wake Forest University in September of 2004, Religion Professor Elaine Pagels argued for a different way of viewing the extracanonical Gospels. Some scholars view them as a way of correcting the errors of scripture, a vehicle for developing a more accurate picture of the historical Jesus. Many church people view them as false teachings, documents that were not included in the New Testament because they did not square with orthodox theology or certain details of the canonical Gospels. Pagels suggested that the prudent course might be to view these other Gospels, specifically the so-called “Gnostic Gospels,” as simply another source of information on Jesus and the Jesus story. Rather than viewing them as all right or all wrong, we might view them as windows into the experience of yet another community transformed by Jesus, and in the process, find wisdom for our path today. Gethin Abraham-Williams’ new book Why the Gospel of Thomas Matters: The Spirituality of Incertainties embodies the very best of what Pagels envisioned by exploring the insights of this particular Gospel. Abraham-Williams treats the text, a translation of which is included as an appendix, with both respect and academic discipline, comparing and contrasting its claims with those of the canonical Gospels. His primary interest, though, is in gleaning key insights that have relevance for our time. Central among these insights is Thomas’ “incertainty,” his unwillingness to accept secondhand faith claims or to profess any belief he does not genuinely hold. Abraham-Williams demonstrates in practical ways how this sort of “incertainty” (a term borrowed from a Shakespeare sonnet) is neither an obstacle to faith nor even a prelude to faith but rather an essential companion of any genuine faith. As but one of many examples, he describes a colleague’s journey with terminal illness. This man’s courage in expressing his “incertainties” about what lies beyond death, even as a person of faith, creates space for others to name their questions and doubts and then link their experience to an ancient text and community of people seeking to follow Jesus in their own way. Why the Gospel of Thomas Matters explores many other insights with contemporary relevance. In this book Gethin Abraham-Williams provides a fresh look at an old Gospel which still has something to say to a postmodern world. ~ Revd Dr Christopher Chapman, First Baptist Church, Raleigh, North Carolina
Passionate, poetic and political, Gethin’s reflection on the Johannine Thomas, the Gospel attributed to him and the challenges we face to live faithfully within a changing world affirms the apostle’s ‘incertainties’, confronted by something as transformative, crazy even, as resurrection. Rightly rejecting the ‘doubting’ label, it models for us beautifully the importance for spiritual maturity of an enquiring mind. ~ Revd Dr Anne Phillips, Spiritual accompanist and former Co-Principal, Northern Baptist Learning Community
'I cannot remember precisely, what led me to include 'Thomas' in 'Good As New', but whatever it was I came to the decision to 'fly a kite'. I am therefore exceedingly grateful to Gethin Abraham-Williams for revealing why the inclusion of Thomas among the Christian scriptures is a 'must' '. ~ John Henson
Half a century ago, the Gospel of Thomas took Christian scholars by storm. Hailed as a fascinating fifth gospel by some and scorned as Gnostic nonsense by others, it is nevertheless agreed upon as a significant find. It captures a style, even after translation that has more of an authentic Aramaic feel than we’re used to from the texts of the New Testament as we have them. Scholars are fully aware of a missing link between Jesus’ original voice and his voice as recorded in the canonical Gospel accounts, and the language of this fifth gospel may be that missing link. Yet, it is frighteningly … uh …different from the gospels we know and love. List Gethin Abraham-Williams among the first crowd. He leans on the fifth gospel’s claims to have been written by the Apostle Thomas, and uses its esoteric spirituality to tease out Thomas’s personality and spiritual struggles. The difference between this gospel and the others is immediately apparent, but Gethin insists that we must let the Gospel of Thomas change the way we read the other four. He positions his new book as the third in his Spirituality Trilogy*; I’ve now read two of the three, and must talk him into providing me a copy of the first! Gethin quotes various sayings in the Gospel of Thomas (it is not a narrative gospel like the others, but a collection of Jesus’ sayings), as translated by John Henson in his Good as New publication. Henson’s translation makes for fun reading, and matches Gethin’s captivating writing style. The two of them form a partnership that brings this oft-maligned “doubting apostle” alive before our eyes. Thomas, insists Gethin, “may be the least understood but arguably the most original of all the disciples. […] He can no longer be written off as little more than a foil to the Apostle Peter’s certainties. Now he exists in his own right as a key witness to the teaching of Jesus and as the apostolic spokesperson for a much more radical stream among the disciples.” Inherent in Thomas’s radical spirituality is the embracing of “incertainties.” Hence Gethin’s subtitle: The Spirituality of Incertainties. But Thomas cracked. Fearful that he would lose his way should Jesus disappear from the scene, he questioned Jesus about his destination. “We don’t know where you’re going,” he whined in John’s Gospel, “so how can we know the way?” It is not a trivial question, but Thomas dares to ask. We should accept the permission Thomas gives us to ask the big questions. And to step boldly into life’s incertainties. Gethin breathes life into the Gospel of Thomas in a way none before him have dared, and where a less masterful guide could only stumble. I can no longer read this mysterious gospel as an obtuse collection of random sayings; I’ve now been exposed to it as a heart-rending quest for truth and purpose. ~ Lee Harmon, author, historical Jesus scholar, book reviewer, and liberal Christian