Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor

By Halvor Moxnes | Go to book overview

12

ASCETICISM AND ANTI-FAMILIAL LANGUAGE IN THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS

Risto Uro

THOMAS AND EARLY CHRISTIAN ASCETICISM1

One of the most striking features of early Christian history is the vigorous growth of ascetic movements in various geographical and cultural contexts during the first centuries CE. Already in the second century there existed a number of sects and Christian leaders who taught a radical form of sexual asceticism, often called ‘encratism’ by scholars. 2 The most famous of such teachers were Marcion and Tatian, but it is apparent that the ideal of sexual abstinence was widespread in early Christianity and was represented with a variety of severity by church fathers as well as by their opponents. 3 Justin Martyr, for example, though a harsh critic of Marcion, praises Christian continence in his Apology, claiming that there are ‘many, both men and women of the age of sixty or seventy years, who have been Christ’s disciples from childhood’, and yet ‘remain in purity (aphthoroi diamenousi)’. 4

The Gospel of Thomas has often been connected with radical sexual continence due to its world-denying ethos, asexual imagery and anti-familial language. Generally speaking, one can hardly deny that the Gospel of Thomas is an important document for the history of early Christian asceticism. Yet the nature of Thomas’ ascetic traits as well as their relation to first-century Christian traditions are debated issues. To take but two extreme views, according to Gilles Quispel, Thomas’ theology is unambiguously ‘encratite’, which means that the author rejected ‘women, wine, meat, and therefore taught that only bachelors could go to heaven’. 5 An almost opposite view is represented by Stevan Davies, who argues that the ‘abhorrence of sex’ plays no, or at most a minimal, role in the gospel. 6 In his judgment, Thomas is less ascetic than, for example, the Q material, and consequently far less ascetic than the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles or the Desert fathers. 7

Davies’ position has not, however, received much following and the majority of scholars allow at least some degree of sexual asceticism for Thomas. A great number of scholars also suggest that the Gospel originated in eastern Syria, where ascetic tendencies flourished at an early stage among

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