I am you
The god Apollo, “the lord of the oracle in Delphi, neither reveals nor conceals, but hints” says Heraclitus (fragment 93). The Greek philosopher is speaking here about the proper method of transmitting knowledge through experience. He himself uses a multi-meaning language of hints in his sayings; and was therefore known as “the dark” or “the cryptic”. It’s no coincidence that the basic insight of his method of “the union of opposites” is close to the approaches of various esoteric teachings throughout history: knowledge which is supposed to enable a wider perspective on reality and reach a consciousness that transcends all dualities.
Through this understanding reality is perceived as a unity that can neither be grasped by analytical thought nor expressed by conceptual-verbal instruments. Instead, man needs to experience reality existentially, with his whole being. The duality of language makes it impossible directly to express a uni-verse where everything is part of everything, and necessitates a modus of unifying opposites and transcending differences: the world is “whole yet not whole, unified yet separated” as Heraclitus puts it. The experience of unity is an experience in which reason and memory also partake, and is usually expressed metaphorically through them. As far as the one who has the experience is concerned, such metaphors are not empty images but signify a deeper and more real layer of existence.
Nevertheless, throughout history, this hasn’t been the only reason for hiding esoteric truths. Secret teachings were transmitted in inner circles and concealed from the public eye both for fear that they might be distorted and out of fear of persecution. Of course, persecution has never been the unique destiny of esoteric circles, but mainly of ethnic and political groups and mass movements which tried to re-monopolize truth. One famous example of this is Christianity, whose leaders changed in one or two generations from persecuted to persecutors.
Christianity was a mass movement, in which it was enough to declare your faith in order to become a member of the group. Yet contrary to this approach of prevalent Christianity, as preached by Paul and his followers, Christianity was in its initial stages an esoteric teaching in every sense. These opposing tendencies – the elitist esoteric and the popular exoteric1 approaches – were in fact struggling for theological dominance until the end of the third century A.D. Early church patriarchs like Clemens and Origenes were still active in an esoteric system of thought that was intended only for the initiates, but eventually this path was discarded and Christianity was established on general faith principles rather than as a knowledge that can be transmitted only to the few.
The discussion which follows takes place in the Gospel of Thomas, which seems to have preceded the canonized gospels but all the same was declared heretical by the Catholic Church. There is more than one reason for this, but at its root is the fact that the Gospel of Thomas presents Jesus not as the Son of God, but as an enlightened master whose words are intended to similarly enlighten his disciples. His teaching is thoroughly esoteric, passed on in the close circle of the few chosen ones who have been initiated into its secret discipline. Indeed, much more than in the canonized gospels, many of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are cryptic and demand context and interpretation. Jesus talks here in metaphors and symbols, allegories and riddles, which put his listeners to a test of awareness. “He who has ears, let him hear!” he says: and he doesn’t talk to the masses but to those individuals who are capable of reaching the epistemic knowledge behind his sayings.
What is this knowledge?
In chapter 13 of the Gospel of Thomas2, Jesus asks his disciples: “Compare me to something and tell me what I resemble”. Simon Peter says, “A just angel is what you resemble,” and Matthew, “An intelligent philosopher”; but Thomas says, “Teacher, my mouth utterly will not let me say what you resemble.”
Jesus tells him: “I am not your teacher, for you have drunk and become intoxicated from the bubbling wellspring that I have personally measured out.”
And he takes him, withdraws with him, and says three sayings to him.
When Thomas returns to his companions, they ask him, “What did Jesus say to you?”
And Thomas answers: “If I tell you one of the sayings that he said to me, you will take stones and stone me, and fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.”
In that epoch, Judea was saturated with millenarian salvation prophecies, and the question of Jesus’ identity also had strong political implications. It was identifying him as the Messiah which finally brought about his death. His disciples are indeed preoccupied with his seemingly hidden identity (see sayings 37, 43, 77 and others), and they ask him about it again and again. On another occasion when they question him directly, he avoids answering, and instead points out to them the futility of any such identification and of any pre-meditated, ready-made answer to this question. The disciples say, “Tell us who you are, so that we may believe in you”, and Jesus answers: “You are testing the face of heaven and earth, and you have not recognized the one who is in your presence!” (91)
Yet in the above story, in form chapter 13, Jesus himself finally raises the question of his identity and asks his disciples, “Who do you think I am? Who is this Jesus?” He certainly asks them here about the way they see him, but on the other hand doesn’t allow a direct answer. Such an answer can only be a label, like “the rabbi”, “the messiah”, and so on. Alternatively, a direct answer may be a direct indicator that doesn’t label, but doesn’t say much either; except “you” or “the one that is here”. The disciples are unable to say what Jesus is. He is nothing but “this”, the one present there with them. Instead, Jesus leads them through the path of links and associations: he asks them to answer with an image that will embody the way they see him.
He doesn’t accept any choice of ready-made labels, because the knowledge he teaches is that direct observation by which one sees a thing for itself, in its unique existence: this knowledge needs to hatch and break free in the disciple as self-knowledge. Jesus is therefore teaching his disciples by presenting them with the nature of this knowledge as an existential riddle by means of images, metaphors, and symbols. He directs them but doesn’t answer their questions, since there is no “correct” answer possible: his words cannot speak for his very being. The “solution” to the problem he presents doesn’t demand identification with some person or virtue, but a saying that exposes a direct cognition.
Consequently Jesus opens up for his disciples the cognitive abyss that stretches between identity and essence, and two of them fall into it right away. Peter and Matthew identify him by means of reduction: they seek in him spiritual wholeness, but see only the reflections of their beliefs and wishes – respectively, justice and wisdom. For this reason their “comparisons” are not authentic and their ideas are borrowed. Peter deems himself a sinner,3 and sees in Jesus a virtuous holy man. Matthew is impressed by the depth of his teaching and sees him as a wise teacher.4
But Thomas doesn’t answer. He refuses to compare Jesus to anything; he doesn’t define or identify him, or at least doesn’t dare to say what he thinks.
Jesus responds only to Thomas’ answer because it is the only one that shows an authentic cognition. He ignores the answers of Peter and Matthew, for, “The person who has in his hand will be given more, and the person who doesn’t have will be deprived of even the little that he has” (41). Thomas is watching Jesus without labeling him, and sees what he sees; the Jesus that exists beyond his characteristics. Therefore, despite the inadequacy of language, existential dialogue between them is possible.
Nevertheless, Jesus is not yet fully satisfied with Thomas’ mode of seeing, and answers him with a parable: “Yes, Thomas, you have arrived at the spring of living water, but you didn’t drink from it with moderation. You drank more than you could contain. You are no longer a ‘student’, for you can recognize and know by yourself; but you are intoxicated, too drunk by the experience, too overwhelmed to comprehend it”. And he takes Thomas aside and tells him three “sayings” that have to do with the nature of resemblance and sameness.
What is this spring? What was Thomas silent about? Jesus, who continues here with an allegorical discourse of teaching and instruction, answers this elsewhere: “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become me; I, too, will become that person, and to this person the things that are obscure will be shown forth” (108). But if what Jesus sees in Thomas is their unity, what more can be said? “You are like me?”
No comparison will do.
Jesus teaches Thomas that awakened consciousness is not necessarily mute: words can carry it, not by separating and defining but through identifying. Speech is indeed empty without direct non-verbal cognition of meaning; but among those who share this kind of cognition, speech is a full vessel. Jesus teaches the master link, the key relation, which is symbol.
Symbol is the sacrament of the word turned into reality: the principle that materializes in all its actual manifestations: Jesus and Thomas well up from the same spring. They are identical in essence.
Jesus shows Thomas the multiplicity in the oneness of essence: “I am in my father, and my father is in me. “5 This is not a metaphor or allegory, but a symbol, a statement about reality: God is in the soul, and the soul is in God. It is not resemblance but sameness of essence: the spring of being is one. In this spirit, he seems to tell Thomas that whoever partakes of this awakened consciousness also partakes of that principle of essence and sameness.
“And he took him, withdrew with him, and said three sayings to him”:
I am the son; I am the father; I am you.
Jesus and Thomas don’t share or partake of the symbol; God doesn’t divide into parts, but is one whole presence which exists in them as well. Each is another realization of the very same principle. Their sameness is essential, but their difference is not. Symbol is the spring, the source of being and life. Symbol is the relation of sameness. Those who are identical one are metonyms of the symbol.
The question of essence is the key question often repeated in Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Thomas. “When you see your resemblance you are happy”, he says to his disciples. “But when you see your images that came into existence before you and are neither mortal nor visible, how much would you bear?” (84). How much can you bear that vision? How much can you bear the understanding of your own essence?
The other disciples are not capable of bearing such cognition; but Thomas is, and therefore cannot possibly be understood by them. The question of identity will remain an enigma for them. They believe in their divided hierarchical world view – in a world of man versus God, I versus you, holiness versus profanity – and cannot see the sameness beyond the differences between things. On the contrary, they sanctify these distinctions and grades, and build on them a religious theory of moral and existential opposites. This faith of the other disciples not only prevent them from seeing essential reality for what it is, but also sanctifies blindness, each along his own special path in the dark: “fools versus wise man” for Matthew, “sinners versus the virtuous” for Peter, and so on.
“What did Jesus say to you?” the others ask Thomas; and he answers: “If I tell you one of the sayings that he said to me, you will take stones and stone me, and fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.” Metonymic identification of the I in God, in the total I that knows no other, can only be interpreted by them as blasphemy. They are liable to stone Thomas as ordained by the law of their “religion”, but such stoning would have truly been defamation of God as a principle of being. The water of life will turn into stones, and the stones – into consuming fire.
Through symbol the word was made flesh (John 1, 14) and through symbol flesh has become word: in the last supper Jesus tells his disciples, “Take this bread and eat, for this is my flesh; take the wine and drink, for this is my blood”.6
In an allegorical reading flesh and blood represent being and essence: Jesus is food for the spirit, the drink that quenches its thirst7. In such a reading we should notice though that his saying is not a parallelism. Bread is the basic food, but wine is not the drink of the thirsty. Jesus’ essence is not compared to water, but to wine; his essence is the alternative consciousness of ecstasy, of being intoxicated with existence itself.
It all sounds metaphorical, but in fact there is no figurative speech here. Jesus doesn’t talk with his disciples about “the wine of the soul” nor about “the bread of life”. He doesn’t link the material with the spiritual, but rather identifies their food as his body, their drink as his blood. The link is a magical one, and the feast turns into a symbol.
Symbols don’t represent, but materialize. This “magical” link is free of interpretation. It doesn’t contain allegory, but metamorphosis. One substance is substituted by another and the sacrificial meal of Passover becomes cannibalistic mysteries whose objective is “and they shall be one flesh”.8 His flesh enters their flesh, his blood enters their blood, and they are one: “He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him” (John 6, 56).
Symbol enables a passage between worlds. It is a magic garden of limbo existence, a twilight realm of metamorphosis. Nevertheless metamorphosis is not necessarily transcendence. To know the symbol is to know it is nothing but a gate.
The problem with religious symbols is that sanctifying them has too often caused their neutralization: one can pass through the gate of symbol to another place, but can also dwell in the gate without going in at all. The church sanctified the symbol, but turned it from a gate into a home. According to Catholic dogma, the Eucharist is not an allegorical representation but an actual realization of the magical link: for the believer the sacramental bread is the body of Christ and the wine is in fact his blood. Partaking of the symbol is therefore an actual experience, and yet fixed as a dutiful cult ritual and therefore inhibiting. The church settled down in the gate and forgot its purpose. The symbol has turned into plain magic, deprived of most of its existential and epistemic links and lacking transcendence.
Sanctifying symbol is inhibiting, but using it is deliverance. Partaking of the symbol means both sharing being and sharing meaning: the symbol materializes, but not only in the food and the body. Jesus offers the symbol in the full range of its existential links, as an epistemic metamorphosis of the whole being. “This bread is my body” is metamorphosis, but also a materialization of consciousness in the perceived reality: the magical link doesn’t only pass through bread and flesh, wine and blood, but also through consciousness and existence.
Beyond the cannibalistic image and the ritualistic meaning it contains, the message in both episodes – Thomas 13 and the Last Supper – is the same: identity is transient, but essence is not. “Jesus” leaves, but Jesus stays. He departs from his disciple and yet doesn’t depart: they share the same single and indivisible essence. “I am in my father, and my father is in me” is a cognitive insight open to everybody.
In saying 77 of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus states this even more explicitly, and identifies nature with the I and with God: “It is I who am everything: it is from me everything has come, and to me that everything goes. Split a piece of wood: I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”
The whole world is a metonym of that consciousness beyond the separate I. Whoever has lost his boundaries of being, anyone without the fence of an I separating him from that all-embracing being and consciousness, is present in every thing everywhere.
Jesus gives his disciples his single lesson, the first and last one. From, “Lift a stone, and you will find me there,” to “Eat: this is my body”, the message is the same; and the same cognition prevails.
Belonging to the outer circle, opposite of esoteric.
Translated to English by Bentley Layton: in The Gnostic Scriptures, SCM Press 1987. Translated to Hebrew by Amir Or: The Gospel According to Thomas, Carmel publishers 1992.
See Luke 5, 8.
See John 7, 15.
See John 14, 10-11.
See Matthew 26, 26-28, Marc 14, 22-24, Luke 22, 19-20.
See John 6, 35.
Genesis 2, 24.
Published 11 November 2005
Original in Hebrew
First published by Helicon 67 (2005) (Hebrew version)
Contributed by Helicon © Amir Or/Helicon EurozinePDF/PRINT