Did Jesus Have a Twin?
A lost gospel has trigged a major debate—some Christians have no problem with the idea that Jesus had siblings, but is it possible that he had a twin?
In the late nineteenth century British archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt were excavating an ancient trash heap near Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, when a young boy discovered a fragment of papyrus that included sayings of Jesus. The discovery made headlines all over the world: a new, previously unknown early Christian gospel had been uncovered. Other versions of text would be unearthed, and the reassembled document has come to be known as the Gospel of Thomas.
It is distinctive, among many other reasons, for its opening. The book begins with the lines “These are the secret words that the living Jesus spoke, and the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote them down.” Some Christians have no problem with the idea that Jesus had siblings, but is it possible that he had a twin?
The idea at least, is early. While there were different versions of the book floating around in the early church, the Gospel of Thomas is dated to between 60 and 140 CE, making it as old as the canonical gospels. The Gospel of Thomas almost beats you over the head with the twinning language: the apostle is called Didymus Judas Thomas and both Didymus and Thomas mean twin in Greek and Aramaic, respectively. In other words, Jesus is calling him twin-twin. The scribe’s actual name is Jude but the scene envisions Jesus dictating special revelations to his “twin.”
The language of twinship isn’t just found in this “lost” Christian text. Charles Stang, a Professor of Early Christian Thought at Harvard Divinity School, told The Daily Beast that “The Gospel of John refers to the apostle Thomas as ‘the Twin’ (didymos) three times (11:16, 20:24, and 21:2) but never explains what exactly Jesus means.” According to Stang, some early Christians understood this to mean that Thomas was one of Jesus’ brothers and “for reasons that are not known, they landed on Jesus’ brother Judas” (this is not Judas Iscariot, the guy that betrayed Jesus).
While orthodox Christians deny that Jesus had any siblings at all, much less a twin, there was an ancient form of Christianity, known as Thomasine Christianity, which believed that Judas Thomas had a special relationship with Jesus. Just as Christians based in Rome might identify with the Apostle Peter, these Christians, who were largely based in the Middle East, traced their origins back to Thomas. There are a cluster of texts attributed to this Judas Thomas the Twin including the Gospel of Thomas and another text known as the Book of Thomas the Contender. A third text, the apocryphal Acts of Thomas tells the story of Thomas’s missionary activities after the resurrection. Thomas is sold into slavery by Jesus (and you thought your siblings treated you badly) and uses his skills as a carpenter as he travels East as far as India.
But was Judas Thomas Jesus’s biological twin from whom we could derive Da Vinci Code style genetic material, identify family members, and even create clones? No, this isn’t sci-fi. But the truth is that the divine twin is about something much more significant. “It seems to me,” said Stang, “that this is not about a literal, physical twin, but the name of some sort of special spiritual relationship between Jesus and Thomas.” If you’re rolling your eyes at the idea of a ‘special relationship with Jesus,’ then fingers off your cursors. The Gospel of Thomas, Stang argues, is about something more esoteric than you might find in church.
In his book Our Divine Double, Stang argues that the notion of Judas Thomas as Jesus’s twin is a reference to a deeper philosophical concept, that of the divine double. The divine double is the idea that as individuals our “selves” are not all that we are. There is another divine self, a double, if you will, that never descends from the transcendent realm into the material human one but that we can discover, if we try. There are a variety of different ways to describe this “double” we might call it a twin, companion, or alter-ego.
Alternatively, like Plato or the Golden Compass we might call this double a daimon. At his trial Plato described his daimon as “something divine or spiritual” that began speaking to him as a child and discouraged him from acting unwisely. Many readers of Plato have rationalized this daimon into something more banal like our conscience but Stang is unconvinced.
The idea of the divine double, is found in other related traditions. The third century prophet Mani, the founder of the dualistic religion Manicheism, had a spiritual encounter with his twin when he was twelve years old. He describes this twin as “that most beautiful and greatest mirror-image of myself.” The revelation came from an angelic being that was called “the Twin… meaning Companion” and “when [Mani] completed his twenty-fourth year, the Twin came to him saying, ‘The Time is fulfilled for thee to come forth and to give the summons to they cause.’” And, at this point, Mani became a prophet and founded a religion that spread throughout the Roman empire into Persia and China.
The notion of the divine double, however, is not just for apostles, religious founders, and world-famous philosophers. Stang says that the Gospel of Thomas imagines that the relationship between Thomas and Jesus is available to anyone who correctly interprets the secrets of the text. Stang told me, “For me, the evidence of Judas Thomas the Twin of Jesus in early Christianity points to a much larger pattern in ancient religion that I call the ‘divine double,’ by which I mean a belief that every person has a divine counterpart, twin, or alter-ego. To encounter one’s divine double is to embark on a path of deification, becoming divine or even a god.”
While Stang generously notes that not all scholars agree with his interpretation of the Gospel of Thomas, he has heard from readers of other texts and traditions who see the same concept operating elsewhere in religious literature. “The upshot” of all of this, he told me, is that if you can awaken this innermost core of being then “You become simultaneously yourself and the living Jesus, one and two … a divine double.” In other words “you're divine, because Jesus is your innermost self; awaken that innermost self and you can live a divine life, never tasting death.” This particular ancient Christian theory of deificiation would come to be replaced in the fourth century, but it offered Christians the opportunity to become divine.