Gnosis in the School of St. Thomas

Thomas J. McFarlane

March 1998

Abstract: This paper examines the nature of gnosis contained in the writings of the school of St. Thomas. After an introductory discussion of the historical context of gnosticism in general and an overview of the characteristics of the main streams of gnosticism, we focus attention on two scriptures associated with the school of St. Thomas: The Gospel of Thomas and The Book of Thomas. From an analysis of various sayings of Jesus contained in these scriptures, we develop an understanding of gnosis as a form of nondual transcendental knowledge that involves a radical transformation of identity and a liberation from suffering and death. Finally, we discuss the possible significance of gnosis to modern consciousness.

Historical Context of Gnosticism

Gnosticism is a religious movement which emerged and developed during the period from about 100 to 400 AD in the Hellenistic cultures of the near East. Although there were many religious, philosophical, and mythological systems flourishing during this time (e.g., astrology, Neoplatonism and Hermeticism), Gnosticism is of particular importance and relevance to modern Western inquiry because of its close relationship with Christianity. Indeed, Christianity and Gnosticism were indistinguishable in their earliest phases, and became separated only later as the Church dogmas were established and Gnosticism was declared a Christian heresy.

The emergence of Gnosticism, Christianity, and the various other religious movements during this time can be understood as a climactic phase of a transformation in Western human consciousness that began around 400 BC. Prior to this time, human identity was associated with the mortal and ephemeral aspects of reality, and immortality belonged only to the gods. Upon death, a ghostly shadow of the individual self was tossed down into an underworld and dissipated. Human identity, however, was largely a group identity rather than an individual identity. Thus, despite the annihilation of the individual, the human was provided with a sense of salvation as part of a collective consciousness. Because human identity was primarily collective, the relationship between humans and the gods was primarily a relationship of the group with the gods.

Around 400 BC, a radical transformation in human consciousness began to take place in the West. Fundamental to this transformation was a shift from a collective human identity to an individual human identity, together with a transformation in the nature of the individual from a mortal creature to an immortal soul. Upon death, the individual soul is released from its mortal body and returns to its fundamentally divine nature. The sense of human salvation, therefore, was provided not through identification with a group and its relationship with god, but through identification with an immortal soul present within each individual and its connection to the eternal divine. As a result, human consciousness began a radical introversion that demanded a detachment from all ephemeral aspects of the human being. In order to bring about this detachment and radical disidentification from all mortality, Gnosticism presented a negative view of identification with the human body and the entire created world, together with an emphasis on attaining salvation through a knowledge (gnosis) of the immortal self within each individual.

Gnosticism and The School of St. Thomas

Early Gnosticism is conventionally divided into two streams, classical Gnosticism and the school of St. Thomas. These two early streams were later integrated and further developed by Valentinus, whose school represents a prominent stream of later Gnosticism. Classical Gnosticism is associated with various central texts of a group calling themselves Gnostics, i.e., individuals having knowledge (gnosis) of god.

Because each Gnostic recognized the immortality of the self, they were naturally distinguished from those whose identities remained identified with the mortal body and the group consciousness. Thus, although the Gnostics distinguished themselves as a group from others, their group identity was not primary, but a secondary result of the fundamental identification of each individual with the immortal soul.

As a consequence of their radical reorientation to human identity, the Gnostics had an equally radical revision of human origins. In contrast to a story centered on the historical origins of a group of mortal creatures (e.g., Genesis), the Gnostics had a story centered on the metaphysical origins of individual immortal souls. The fundamental cause of human suffering according to the Gnostic story is not due to an expulsion of the group from a land of paradise, but to an exile of the individual soul from the spiritual realms into the material world. The entire created world, and hence its creator, thus becomes viewed as evil.

The Gnostic myth also describes the exile of the soul in the material world as a form of bondage or enslavement to the body, a type of ignorance or forgetting, and as a state of being asleep. A central distinguishing feature of the Gnostic myth is the call from the spiritual realms that reminds or awakens the soul to its true identity. The call is also symbolized by a savior or messenger from the spiritual realm who liberates the enslaved soul from suffering by bringing knowledge (gnosis) of its true nature. This savior is identified as Jesus in The Gospel According to Thomas, and The Book of Thomas, two fundamental scriptures in the school of St. Didymus Jude Thomas (the so-called twin brother of Jesus).

Gnosis in The Gospel of Thomas and The Book of Thomas

The Gospel According to Thomas and The Book of Thomas present Jesus as a teacher delivering the liberating knowledge of gnosis. Through an examination of these texts we find particularly clear and provocative statements concerning the nature of gnosis. Perhaps the most provocative of these is the opening statement in The Gospel According to Thomas:

Whoever finds the meaning of these sayings will not taste death.[1]

Jesus, therefore, presents in these sayings a message which, if we can understand it, will free us from death.

Jesus symbolizes the liberating knowledge of the spiritual self. As he himself declares:

I am the knowledge of the truth.[2]

This knowledge in the form of Jesus is addressing Thomas, his worldly 'twin' who has forgotten his true identity. As we read these sayings, we can thus understand Jesus to be our own true self, our twin, speaking to us from within:

Since it is said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself, and learn who you are, how you exist, and what will become of you. Since you will be called my sibling, it is not fitting that you be ignorant of yourself.[3]

The essential key to obtaining self-knowledge and liberation from death, therefore, is an examination of our identity and a questioning of who we really are.

Because our bodies are obviously mortal, any liberation from death must involve a disidentification from the body and anything else that is ephemeral. Our ignorant identification with the body effectively binds us to the death of the body, like prisoners in Plato's parable of the cave who mistake dark shadows for reality:

Woe unto you captives, for you are bound in caves! ...You do not think about where you are, nor have you understood that you dwell in darkness and death...The darkness rose for you like the light, for you surrendered your freedom for servitude.[4]

Like Plato, Jesus also likens the ignorant state of the prisoner with a forgetting:

Woe to you who put your hope in the flesh and the prison that will perish. How long will you forget and suppose that the imperishables will perish?[5]

Putting hope in the flesh is equivalent to thinking that the ephemeral is eternal, while supposing that imperishables will perish is equivalent to thinking that the eternal is ephemeral. Jesus has thus provided us with an important clue to the cause of our bondage: a confusion of the permanent with the impermanent.

In addition to questioning and examining our identity and discriminating between the permanent and the impermanent, Jesus instructs us to detach ourselves from the world by abstaining from it:

If you do not fast from the world you will not find the kingdom.[6]

An immediate result of fasting from food is to know just how attached one is to food. By fasting from the entire world, therefore, one comes to know the extent to which one is attached to, or identified with, anything ephemeral and subject to death. One then fully recognizes that the entire created world is impermanent and subject to death:

Whoever has known the world has found a corpse.[7]

Jesus, who symbolizes the light of living knowledge shining in the darkness of the dead world, calls out to us to remember our true origin and leave behind our identification with worldly things:

The visible light shines for your sakes not so that you might remain here, but so that you might depart.[8]

His promise to us is the promise of a kind of knowledge that is not of the senses or even the mind:

I shall give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, and what has never arisen in a human mind.[9]

The knowledge of gnosis is thus neither conceptual nor perceptual. It is a third type of knowing, i.e. gnosis, that does not involve any separation of the knower and the known:

When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and will understand that you are sons of the living father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and it is you who are that poverty.[10]

Gnosis, which frees us from worldly poverty and returns us to the kingdom of heaven, not only transcends the separation between knower and known. It also transcends other dualities. As Jesus says,

The kingdom is inside you, and it is outside you.[11]


When you make the two into one and make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner and the above like the below...then you will enter the kingdom.[12]

In the kingdom revealed by gnosis, therefore, all dualities of knower and known, inner and outer, above and below, are transcended. In other words, gnosis is nondual knowledge transcending all forms of conceptual and perceptual knowledge of the world and anything impermanent. Because it transcends all duality, gnosis is at once self-knowledge and knowledge of the depths of all things:

He who has not known himself does not know anything, but he who has known himself has also known the depth of all.[13]

Because gnosis is nondual, he who has known the depth of all is identified with all. As Jesus says,

I am the light that presides over all. I am all: it is from me that all comes, and to me that all goes. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.[14]

In gnosis, therefore, the transcendent source of all things is identified as immanently present in all things as well. The duality between the ephemeral world of creation and its eternal source, therefore, is not actually a metaphysical position that gnosticism maintains. Rather, the duality serves as a device to assist in the transformation of consciousness. As an antidote to our mistaken attachment to outer things, the Gnostic teachings instruct us to redirect our attention inward and away from its habitual outward flow.

Although gnosis is, on the one hand, described as a type of knowledge that we can gain, it is described in some places as already being present:

What you look for has already come, but you do not know it.[15]

The kingdom will not come by expectation. One cannot say 'here it is' or 'there it is'. Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread upon the earth, but people do not see it.[16]

The truth of our being, in other words, already is and always will be just what it always has been. Gnosis, therefore, is nothing more than recognizing what has always been the case. We do not actually leave the earth and enter a separate kingdom, but recognize that the kingdom is already here. We do not actually attain gnosis, but remember that we have always had this knowledge. We do not actually shed our mortality and become immortal, but realize that we already are immortal. By listening to the call that awakens us to what already is, we remember our identity with the uncreated source of all things.

Blessed is the one who stands at rest in the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death.[17]

In summary, gnosis presupposes a radical and profound examination of our individual identity that involves a discrimination of the impermanent from the permanent and a detachment from the former. The result of this examination is gnosis, a nondual knowledge of ones true identity with both the transcendental origin of creation as well as with all created things themselves. As a result of this profound transformation of identity, the individual is liberated from the suffering and death caused by the former identification with a mortal body.

The Modern Significance of the Gnostic Call

The Gnostic call was largely silenced by the early Church fathers who declared Gnosticism to be a Christian heresy. Now, after nearly 2000 years, this voice from antiquity is again being heard. Although the Church today has little power to suppress the Gnostic call, the materialism pervasive in our modern culture deafens many of us to its message. Is the Gnostic call merely an artifact from our distant past that has no relevance to our modern consciousness? A similar question can be asked of the fundamental claim of mystics from many religious traditions of the world. Like the Gnostic Jesus, these mystics testify to a form of nondual transcendental knowledge that liberates the individual from death and suffering. Is this chorus of mystics singing the truth in vain to a deaf and ignorant world, or are they merely making irrational and superstitious noises irrelevant to an enlightened scientific world?

It is not difficult to see that our modern consciousness is imbalanced to the point of being self-destructive. The human identity has become extremely limited and isolated to the individual. At the same time, it is limited to the physical body to such a degree that any metaphysical identity is either denied or simply ignored. As a result, the loneliness and lack of meaning that results from our isolation compels us to take refuge in material sources of happiness and contentment. Due to their ephemeral nature, however, we are only partially and temporarily satisfied by these material sources. This dissatisfaction then leads us to a larger sense of deprivation and desire for more materials. The result is a culture based on unsustainable and increasing consumption of limited environmental resources, which will inevitably bring us to a global crisis. There is something seriously wrong with modern consciousness.

But is the message of the mystic, and the Gnostic call in particular, any more sane? If so, is it at all relevant to our present situation? If we are to be honest and unbiased, we must give due consideration to the Gnostic call before deciding whether or not it is true. We must test it in our own consciousness as we might test a scientific hypothesis in the laboratory. Only then can we know for sure if its radical claims are true, for if we are imprisoned in a cave, mistaking appearances for reality, then we can never know it until we attempt to look behind the shadows. And if the Gnostic call is authentic, then it would have profound relevance to our present predicament. What could be more relevant to a human life than knowing the real nature of human identity and the ultimate truth concerning death?

Woe to you who put your hope in the flesh and the prison that will perish...Your hope is set upon the world, and your god is the present life. What you destroy is your own souls.[18]


[1]Gospel of Thomas, saying 1. (all translations below of the Gospel of Thomas and the Book of Thomas are by Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, Marvin W. Meyer, The Secret Teachings of Jesus, and/or John D. Turner, The Gnostic Society Library,
[2]Book of Thomas, 138:12
[3]Book of Thomas, 138:7-10
[4]Book of Thomas, 143:21-31
[5]Book of Thomas, 143:10-12
[6]Gospel of Thomas, saying 27.
[7]Gospel of Thomas, saying 56.
[8]Book of Thomas, 138:24-27
[9]Gospel of Thomas, saying 17.
[10]Gospel of Thomas, saying 3.
[11]Gospel of Thomas, saying 3.
[12]Gospel of Thomas, saying 22.
[13]Book of Thomas, 138:16-18
[14]Gospel of Thomas, saying 77.
[15]Gospel of Thomas, saying 51.
[16]Gospel of Thomas, saying 113.
[17]Gospel of Thomas, saying 18.
[18]Book of Thomas, 143:10-15