The only reference to the cross, and by implication to Jesus’ death, in the entirety of the Gospel of Thomas comes in saying 55. This may indicate that communities that revered the teachings in Thomas did not view salvation as coming through the cross, as taught by Christian orthodoxy. After all, statements like “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death” (saying 1) seem to suggest that salvation comes through wisdom, not the cross. And the absence of a passion story could signal that the Thomas community gathered traditions about Jesus’ death from different sources, whether written or oral. What is clear is that in Thomas the emphasis is on what Jesus has to say to the world. This is a far cry from Christian traditions that make it appear that Jesus did nothing but die on the cross for the forgiveness of our sin. In the creed produced by the apostolic tradition, “the life of Jesus has been diminished to a mere comma, a blank space residing quietly between ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ and ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate.’”1 That creed is still recited weekly in some churches. Thomas, on the other hand, focuses on Jesus’ words.
The words of saying 55 do suggest that Thomas recognizes Jesus’ death as inevitable and sees suffering as part of discipleship. They do not, however, say that suffering, whether Jesus’ or our own, is salvific in and of itself. Jesus calls his initial disciples to an itinerant lifestyle that rejects and confronts the values of society, particularly those of the increasingly intrusive Roman Empire. In this period the empire was reshaping social life in the Galilean region where Jesus taught. Anyone who disrupted imperial “progress” was simply crucified. But, in Thomas’ model, salvation does not come about as a result of Jesus’ crucifixion. Rather, by infusing one with a new sense of life that is too powerful to be extinguished by death, salvation leads to a journey toward crucifixion.
Today’s culture bears crosses merely as ornamentation. Thus we cannot hope to understand the challenge saying 55 would have presented to Jesus’ potential disciples. Many had to sever family obligations and reject concerns about parental approval. The humiliation suffered by Jesus and his followers in their quest for true life was difficult even for the unattached. It would certainly have been too much for anyone bound to family who were not on the same path.
Because the Roman Empire executed those being punished for resisting oppression alongside those reviled by their own compatriots, everyone on a cross would be scorned equally. Jesus, for instance, was crucified next to “bandits.” Crucifixion was a display of total domination.2 The Romans added to the shame by humiliating the condemned during and after their slow expirations. Victims were stripped of their clothes and any power they had, whipped and bludgeoned, penetrated, sometimes by more than the nails—emasculated in a society even more patriarchal than our own. The humiliation continued as only a minimal band of Roman soldiers would remain to prevent those being crucified and those who loved them from stopping the trauma and the withering that would last several hours, if not days. When suffering ceased, bodies were left hanging, sometimes indefinitely, as a warning to others who might consider disrupting the “progress” of Roman civilization. And, as a final humiliation, the crucified were seldom, if ever, allowed a proper burial according to religious traditions.
Yet the life and teachings of Jesus that lead to the cross are precisely what Thomas tells us to cherish above all else.