The Human Journey
The Axial Age

Post-Axial Thought

Jesus the Teacher

Pages 12

Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 654
A page from the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1. The Gospel
of Thomas. Contains most of the Sayings 26-30 plus
77b, 31-33. In Greek; late second/early third century

Dr. Pagels goes on to say: “This, I suggest, is the symbolic meaning of attributing the “Gospel of Thomas” to Jesus’ “twin brother.” I don't think the statement was meant to be taken literally, as if Jesus actually had a twin brother. I think it is meant to say, in effect, that “You, the reader, are the twin brother of Christ, when you recognize the divine within you, then you come to see, as Thomas does in this gospel, that you and Jesus are at a deep level, so to speak, identical twins.”

According to Elaine Pagels, the Gospel of Truth, also discovered at Nag Hammadi, also refers to the potential within the human spirit, when it says: “You are the children of inner-knowledge...Say, then, from the heart that you are the perfect day, and in you dwells the light that does not fail.”

Another of these texts, the Gospel of Philip, makes the same point more succinctly: “Don’t seek to become a Christian, but a Christ.”

“Jesus said: Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person and the hidden things will be revealed to that person.” (The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus, Saying 108, Marvin Meyer).

Jesus aimed to provoke self-knowledge and enlightenment. Wisdom is not something that can be just consumed and Truth cannot be understood prematurely; hence the teaching is described as “secret”.

After the incident from the Gospel of Thomas quoted above, Thomas tells the others that he cannot tell them what Jesus said, because: “you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and consume you.” In other words, they are not ready to understand and if he tells them they will be envious and resentful of him, and these sentiments will harm them. 

Similarly focusing on the necessity of preparation, Saying 14 continues: “Jesus said to them, ‘If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.’” Again, the disciples are not ready to perform these activities without harming themselves. They first need to become humble and free from hypocrisy: able to act without rewarding themselves by feeling “good” or “holy”. Similarly with dietary practices: “When you go into any region and walk about in the countryside, when people take you in, eat what they serve you and heal the sick among them. After all, what goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it’s what comes out of your mouth that will defile you.”

Jesus was a teacher whose unquestionable mission was to restore the spiritual nature and function of his faith, the Jewish faith, which had once again declined into empty ritual, worldliness and corruption. “Think not that I am come to abolish the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Matthew (5:17-18).

Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 654
A page fragment from the
Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 654. The
Gospel of Thomas. Contains
fragments of Prologue plus Sayings
1-7 in Greek. Middle/late third century.

In this endeavor, like all true spiritual leaders, he was uncompromising; should his actions and words involve politics, or have political consequences, then so be it, but, like the great Axial prophets and teachers before him, his aim was spiritual revitalization – a “new kingdom” in which those who listened and followed could fulfill their potential and destiny.

He taught at a time when, because of Rome’s imperial domination, the Jewish experience of religious ideals melded with their politics. Rome instituted social stratification right through society, leading to systematic injustice for the many people on the bottom rungs. Jesus directed his message to them, the poor and destitute: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is heaven’s kingdom.” (The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus, Saying 54, Marvin Meyer).

Jesus was against the abuse of power wherever he saw it, not only out of compassion and empathy for the many, many downtrodden, but because while people are dominated, restricted and crushed, as so many were, they cannot assume responsibility for themselves and their actions. Hence, they are unable to fulfill their spiritual potential as human beings. This was where his healing was perhaps most needed.

So he broke with all ties to any kind of exploitation or abuse of power: social ties, institutional ties, and even with his own family ties. “Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be a disciple of me, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters and bear the cross as I do will not be worthy of me,” he says (The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus, Saying 55, Marvin Meyer).  Families, too, were hierarchical, ruled by a paternal chauvinism that held their members down.

Many Jews sought the literal Kingdom of God on earth; Jesus taught that alignment with “the father’s kingdom” was the individual’s spiritual aim and purpose. “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘Look, there it is.’ Rather the father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” (The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus, Saying 113, Marvin Meyer). People do not see it because we have not developed the capacity. (“Whoever has found oneself, of that person the world is not worthy.” The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus, Saying 111, Marvin Meyer.) To be like Jesus, one must learn, as the Middle Eastern proverb has it: “To be in the world, but not of the world.”

Like the Axial sages, the kingdom of god that Jesus spoke of was achievable here and now through one’s own efforts, actions and thoughts, and that was all that mattered.  He taught through direct communication, to anyone who would really listen “Let those who have ears, hear” – that the kingdom of god was possible for everyone who relinquished all ties to anything and anyone that did not lead to a greater understanding and love of God.