Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

"I Will Become Him": Homology and Deification in the Gospel of Thomas

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

"I Will Become Him": Homology and Deification in the Gospel of Thomas

Article excerpt

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The term "deification," occasionally used though rarely defined, has been employed periodically by scholars as an important concept for understanding early Jewish and Christian forms of transcendence.1 Typically, deification means that a human comes to possess a divine status by sharing in qualities that, in the ancient Mediterranean world, constituted a divine identity. These qualities usually include immortality and superhuman power, but others (e.g., wisdom, virtue) are also prominent.

Deification as a soteriological theory has long had a home in patristic theology but has only fairly recently appeared as an academic category useful for historians interested in an earlier and broader range of ancient thought.2 As a category of thought, deification involves four basic ideas: (1) there is no infinite difference between the divine and humans; (2) divinity is manifested across a range of beings and qualities; (3) humans can participate in these qualities and even share the identity of a particular divine being; and (4) this participation is "realistic" in the sense that humans truly come to be part of the class "god/divine being."3

In this article, I contend that the Gospel of Thomas (hereafter, Thomas) presents an early form of Christian deification parallel to the discursive deification of Jesus in the Gospel of John (hereafter, John).4 Although scholars have recognized that Thomas speaks of an internal divine nature,5 few have used the terminology of deification, and virtually no one (to my knowledge) has holistically expounded Thomasine soteriology in terms of the category of deification.6 Instead, other frameworks have been used.

April D. DeConick, for instance, has approached Thomasine soteriology under the category of "vision mysticism."7 In Christian history, the visio dei has sometimes been associated with deification.8 Deification might also be called a mystical theme, especially when it involves union with a divine being.9 In modern scholarship, however, it is best not to view deification under the category of mysticism, since mysticism is often associated with experiences that are exclusive, individual (or subjective), and nonconceptual, and which involve indistinct fusion with deity.10 To be sure, DeConick defines mysticism in terms of personal, immediate experience of the divine, but Thomas offers something more specific: identification with the divine Jesus.11 In my view, deification (which can manifest itself in political, mythological, Orphic, Hermetic, Christian, and philosophical contexts) bursts the bounds of mysticism and should be viewed as a category in its own right.12

Using the category of deification opens up new vistas concerning how firstand early-second-century Christians conceived of the nature of divinity and humanity, the relation between God and human beings, how humans were thought to share a divine identity, and the role of Jesus in attaining this identity. Deification unites under one umbrella themes in Thomas that would otherwise remain disparate, including the inward light, Christians' preexistence, identification with the Savior, oneness or equality with God, and the transformative ascent to see God. In short, deification offers an integrative framework for thinking about salvation in Thomas and other documents of earliest Christianity.

The argument of this essay is carried out through two simultaneous comparisons: internal and external. Internal to Thomas itself, the divine nature of Jesus is compared with the nature of Thomasine Christians in an attempt to show their implicit and explicit identity.13 Externally, the divine christology of John's Gospel is compared with Thomas's depiction of the ideal Christian to show how the discursive deification of Jesus in John parallels the discursive deification of Christians in Thomas.14 In short, both the Johannine Jesus and the Thomasine Christian share many of the same divine predicates and prerogatives. …

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