CLINTON — Back in 1945, two men were digging into a cliff in Egypt and accidentally came across an old jar that to their disappointment, didn’t contain gold, but instead a series of books.
Those documents are what are known to modern religious scholars today as the Gospel of Thomas — a series of sayings interpreted as coming from Jesus — and studying, then developing his own interpretation of the sayings, became a passion for one local retired mental health counselor.
William G. Duffy, 77, of Harding Road, has studied and written about the Gospel of Thomas for more than 36 years, and from his influence on previous studies and interest in Buddhist and Hindu culture, has come to interpret the gospel as being understood in a "non-dual" context.
His book, “The Hidden Gospel of Thomas: Commentaries on the Non-Dual Sayings of Jesus,” is now available on Amazon and through Barnes and Noble booksellers.
“The analysis I employed in my book was literary analysis,” Duffy explained. "In other words, I treated this gospel as if it were a long and obscure poem. That's important for people to know. It's not a comparative study. It looks for meaning within the work itself as suggested by its philosophical assumptions, word and phrase patterns, and internal clues."
Duffy grew up in Cortland, his family having moved there from Connecticut in 1948, although he was born in Washington, D.C. He attended Catholic school from grades 1-12, and then enrolled as an English major at Syracuse University.
Duffy actually worked in the mental health field in Cortland, Syracuse, and Oregon. He lived in Oregon for 25 years before moving back to the area to be with his sister, Barbara, about three years ago.
"Back in the early 1980s, I got interested in New Testament scholarship, and my own spiritual odyssey had been all over the place,” Duffy reflected. “I was raised Catholic, but got into all sorts of other things. I studied Buddhism and Hinduism…in addition to biblical scholarship, I was interested in the philosophy of non-dualism, which is more common to Eastern religions."
"Wherever you find mystics, you find people searching for oneness with God or Jesus — their main concern is acquiring that oneness with the divine,” the author continued. “So I was very interested in this, and studied Buddhism."
At the time of his developing curiosity, Duffy said he was working at Syracuse University and as an alumnus, could conveniently make several trips to the college library using his library card. There he read various scholarly papers and journals, and came across a journal that talked about the Gospel of Thomas.
“The title of the journal was something like, ‘The Fourth Gospel…’ it sounded like a new gospel had been found,” Duffy said. “It said at the bottom of the manuscript that it was found in 1945 in Egypt, and it was found along with various other documents — mostly gnostic writings — and found in a jar, that came to the attention of some scholars."
During his research, Duffy said he learned through the scholars who had studied these documents, that the Gospel of Thomas could be considered a lost gospel.
“When the early church fathers wrote about early heiracies and the history of the church, they mentioned this (gospel),” said Duffy. When it was discovered, “scholars had a chance to see what’s in this gospel. In it is a collection of about 114 of Jesus’ sayings. It took a while to be translated into English, but in 1959, it became accessible to speakers of English, and all sorts of people had different ideas of what it meant."
Duffy said he feels the texts were written in a cryptic style intentionally and deliberately, so that the reader needed to “work on them,” or decipher their own interpretation of the meaning.
"They weren’t immediately understandable, they had to think about it,” the author said. “There were all sorts of opinions on what these sayings meant. Some were familiar from the New Testament, but not exactly the same. They were sort of stripped-down versions — they didn’t have explanations of what they meant. It’s not like the New Testament where Jesus performed miracles, or the crucifixion happened, and there was no mention of the resurrection. It’s really a wisdom gospel."
What became of particular interest to Duffy were the sayings — about half that were found — that were not in the New Testament.
“I started purchasing books as people were just starting to write about the Gospel of Thomas,” Duffy said. “In 1979, Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University, wrote a book about it and it became a best-seller, attracting a lot of attention to the gospel, particularly by foreign groups. And her work in Nondualism looked familiar to the Nondualistic writings I’ve read."
In spirituality, Nondualism, otherwise known as non-duality, means "not two" or "one undivided without a second.” Nondualism primarily refers to a mature state of consciousness, in which the dichotomy of I/Other is “transcended," and awareness is described as "centerless" and "without dichotomies."
In further explaining Nondualism, “We may see other people as being separate from ourselves, and all of these things are struggling for dominance, or to survive — there’s always a struggle in the world. Time is that way as well — we go from past, present and future in separate times — minute-to-minute, everything is separate. What mystics and holy men throughout history have said, is when they achieve enlightenment and break through that barrier of dualism, they report that everything seems like one — a feeling of oneness,” said Duffy.
"They become one with all of life and all of God. They claim an overwhelming feeling affected everything, and then everything changes for them,” he said. "To acquire that understanding and experience that oneness, you have to have a very quiet mind and have to achieve stillness where there’s no interference of thought, or judgment at all. For some people, it comes on its own and when they don’t expect it, and don’t particularly think along those lines. It also happens to people who particularly work with it, and tend to clear their minds as much as possible. It’s a state of mind."
And the person who wrote the Gospel of Thomas, appears to have achieved this “oneness” with God, the author said.
“It’s the main message that’s seen in the sayings,” he said. “It calls it the ‘Kingdom of the Father,’ and it’s something you experience."
For example, Duffy said saying 22 refers to Jesus seeing infants being suckled and said to his disciples that the infants are like those who enter the Kingdom.
“And the disciples ask, ‘So then we should be infants to enter the Kingdom?,’” Duffy described. “The saying was actually about the innocence of the infants and closeness they had with their mothers, because they’re not thinking of anything. They’re just attached to their mothers, and that type of closeness to their mothers is the closest everyone will ever come to entering the Kingdom."
Then the saying said, "Jesus replied, ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside, and outside like the inside…and when you make male and female a single one, so the male is not male and female not female, when you make an eye in place of an eye…then you enter the Kingdom,” the author said. “The Gospel of Thomas is full of metaphor — it’s an abstraction. You can’t see it deliberately, and you can’t understand something that’s literal. In our realm, it doesn’t make any sense…It was meant to get an understanding of what he meant by oneness…It wasn’t saying you should attempt to be anywhere in between or assexual, it was saying male and female has meaningful dualities. Therefore, the only meaning there is, is the meaning you give to it."
Oneness, Duffy further explained, was the gospel writer’s experience with God and all creations, and while “we’re still in bodies and in this world,” people can only get a sense of that (oneness), and others only get close enough to experience that.
"In the Bible it says, 'I’m in the world, but not of the world,'” said Duffy. “The saying here in 22 is — it may seem like we’re in the world, but it’s an illusion. The truth is we’re of the (one) Kingdom."
The Gospel of Thomas, “doesn’t talk about behavior — good or bad, or that you should or shouldn’t do this. Everything is written to encourage the reader or listener to accept this oneness experience,” Duffy said. "Not only are we created equal, since there is no separation, we’re an extension of God, rather than something created outside of God."
Another saying explains that God is not present way up in heaven — that heaven is not some place — rather that “God is all around you and right in front of your face. You see him with internal vision, rather than with worldly eyes,” said Duffy. The second part of the saying says, “when you come to know yourself then you will become known, and you will realize you are the ‘sons of the living father,’ but if you don’t, then you will dwell in poverty and it’s you that is that poverty."
Also in the Gospel of Thomas, “Jesus was the son of God, but so is everyone else — it doesn’t set Jesus out as someone special, just someone who was pointed to and understood the truth, something like an older brother, rather than God himself,” Duffy said. “God is all around."
Even the biblical saying, “love thy neighbor,” is mentioned in the Gospel of Thomas, but is interpreted in a different way.
In the gospel, "Jesus said love your brother like your soul, and protect him like the pupil of your eye,” said Duffy. “In the Bible, Matthew, Mark and Luke said love your neighbor as yourself. Love your neighbor is something that came out of the Old Testament."
In the Gospel of Thomas, “It’s the same praise, but the entire quote is, 'do not seek vengeance or bare a grudge against other people,” the author explained. “The phrase, 'pupil of your eye,' appears in the Bible, but not in connection with love your neighbor. In the Saint James version of the Bible, it’s the 'apple of your eye,’ but that’s not from the original Hebrew…In the Coptic version, it was a part of the body you want to protect. Your brother’s eye is also your eye — you want to protect what he sees and experiences — you want to protect that because you are him, there is no separation. If you don’t” protect what ‘he’ sees, “it will weigh on your heart and there will be a part of you that feels unloved as well. The way to love yourself is to love everyone so there is no conflict, fear or guilt involved."
As to why the Gospel of Thomas had most likely been buried thousands of years ago, Duffy said it was done most likely to protect or hide the scriptures.
"It was during a time when Christian monasteries were in Egypt — in the area where the gospel was found — there was monastery not too far away. There’s speculation that whoever buried these books was under pressure to hide or get rid of them. Word came down from Alexandria (in Greece), that all books, except for those accepted by the church fathers as being of the New Testament — those not approved by the early church — were to be destroyed,” Duffy explained. "Then not until 1945, tribesmen were digging in the side of a cliff when they broke a jar open and immediately golden dust particles flew out. They thought they found gold, and were immediately disappointed that they found books. They brought them home and then left, and their mother started using them as fuel for their stove until she stopped. So there were actually about a dozen of these books found, and now they’re in the Coptic Museum at Cairo — all have been photographed and studied. There’s even a small section from Plato’s Republic in there."
When Duffy finally retired in 2007, he started writing about the Gospel of Thomas. His process involved slowly reading each saying and first reading others books and writings about the specific sayings.
“When I would write about a saying, I would first read what all the other scholars had to say and think about it, then maybe sleep on it, and then the next day, I’d write, ‘I think this is what’s important there…,’” the author described. “There’s a pattern here, and I recognize this particular word mentioned” quite often, “and then I would look for the translation."
Duffy said it was a challenge deciphering some of the meanings of the texts because the gospel had undergone so many translations. The Gospel of Thomas was originally written in Coptic, which was the “common man” language of Egypt at the time. Coptic was eventually replaced by Arabic.
At the time the Gospel of Thomas was originally written, it was also the Roman period of Egypt, therefore many people spoke Latin at the time, or even Greek, which was the language of business, Duffy said. So while the Gospel of Thomas was in Coptic, there were many “loan words” that were in Greek.
Therefore, the author said it was a painstaking process deciphering which words may have worked best when translating the texts, whether it be the original Coptic words, or the Greek version, or translation.
At the age of 77, Duffy admits there’s no plans for writing another book. He hopes to continue his work on the Gospel of Thomas, however, through discussions on his online blog, as well as through scholarly essays and journal writings.
“Eventually I hope to do something online — produce some videos of the translations,” he said. “I’ve done a Power Point presentation, and now all the sayings are there. I’m a little disappointed I couldn’t go out and have a proper party to introduce the book” because of COVID-19, “but I’m excited that it’s out there."