The Human Journey
The Axial Age

Post-Axial Thought

Jesus the Teacher


Painting of the Crucifixion by Hieronymus Bosch
Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
Painting from 1490 by Hieronymus Bosch.

Dr. Hugh Schonfield’s studies lead him to conclude that Jesus was both a genius and a deeply spiritual man whose “ruling passion … was the coming of the ‘Kingdom of God.’”  Schonfield says that for Jesus this meant a time when war and hatred would be banished, and when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. Jesus told the Pharisees that the Kingdom of God would not come by standing idle and watching for signs. The Kingdom of God was right beside them, under their noses, ready to appear whenever they were willing to comply with the conditions which would inaugurate it. Be alive, be alert, Jesus insisted. The goal will not be reached by a sleeping partnership with God.”

According to Schonfield, Jesus was convinced that his own destiny was to fulfill the Messianic prophesies of the Hebrew Bible.  “Nothing could daunt him, neither the cares of life nor the prospect of a traitor’s death. He used the resources of his fertile mind to outgeneral and outwit his opponents, to compel their self-interested schemes to comply with his world-interested purposes.”

In accordance with prophesies, the Messiah would be crucified and then resurrected. Jesus arranged this too. He arranged that his apparent death on the cross be achieved by drugging him – giving him not vinegar and water but something else – so that he appeared dead and would be taken down before death, to rise again after three days. Were it not for the Roman soldier who thrust a lance into his side, which may well have prematurely killed him, he would have succeeded in his mission.

Professor Schonfield’s conclusions were written in 1965 in The Passover Plot. Over the ages many scholars and philosophers have contemplated the idea that Judas was required to carry out his actions so that Jesus could die on the cross, and hence fulfill the prophesies. It is fascinating to note that the recent translation of a papyrus from The Gospel of Judas appears to confirm that Jesus did indeed plan his own arrest, if not his apparent death.  “You will sacrifice the man that clothes me,” Jesus tells Judas, and acknowledges that Judas “will be cursed by the other generations.” This fragmentary document clearly asserts that Judas had a degree of understanding greater than the others present, and that his action of betrayal was in obedience to a direct command of Jesus himself.

There is reference to a “Gospel of Judas” by the early Christian writer Irenaeus of Lyons, 2nd Century CE, who, in arguing against Gnosticism, called the text a “fictitious history” (Refutation of Gnosticism, bk. 1 ch. 31). His major work, Against Heresies, which appeared around the year 185 CE, included a strong presentation and defense of Orthodox Christian dogma and denounced any text that did not support it. This campaign against what was called “heresy” continued until the time of the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, when orthodox Christianity became an official religion.

Through Irenaeus and others writing at the time, we know that early Christian communities developed independently with virtually no interaction between groups. Unlike the present time, Christian religious beliefs and practices were often very different from one another and a good number of gospels circulated.  “Yet by A.D. 200, the situation had changed. Christianity had become an institution headed by a three-rank hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons, who understood themselves to be the guardians of the only ‘true faith.’” (The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels).

Map of Nag Hammadi

The suppression of documents outside the approved canon most likely led to the burial of 52 texts by early followers of Christ. They were found in 1945, on the cliff at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, hidden most likely by people who feared condemnation as heretics. They were not available in English until 1977, when at last we were able to learn and understand more about Jesus the Teacher.

Jesus the Teacher
As Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, says in The Gnostic Gospels – the name given to this collection of texts – Jesus  “speaks of illusion and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding.

The Gospel of Thomas is invaluable for anyone wishing to understand what Jesus taught. Unlike the four Synoptic Gospels it contains no narrative, Jesus performs no physical miracles, fulfils no prophecies. “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos (the Twin) Judas Thomas recorded” it says at the beginning.  Some of the 114 sayings are similar to those included in the previously mentioned Gospels, but given here in a far more comprehensive and authentic voice.  

Nag Hammadi Codex 2
Last page from Codex 2. Gospel of
Thomas, in Coptic.

When in Saying 13, Jesus poses the question similar to the one we asked in the previous section: “Compare me to something and tell me what I am like.”

Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a righteous messenger."
Matthew said to him, "You are like a wise philosopher.”
Thomas said to him, “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.”
Jesus said, “I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended.” And he took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him.
When Thomas came back to his friends they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?”
Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and consume you.”
(The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus, Marvin Meyer).

In this extract, only Thomas perceives and understands the unique and substantive quality of Jesus. He knows that there are no words to adequately express this. Other Wisdom Teachers have described it as equivalent to having, as it were, a separate organ of perception, a permanent “I,” one that is “awake,” has self-knowledge and through that clarity has knowledge of reality. Jesus tells Thomas that he is not his teacher because Thomas has understood and so developed this perceptive faculty himself, he too has Knowledge of Objective Truth: they are “as one.”

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