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The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas is not typically mentioned whenever the life of Jesus is studied. Among a majority of people, the book would likely bring about a quizzical look and a “What?” for a response. But in circles of scholarly study, the Gospel of Thomas, considered to be a Gnostic work, is an often deliberated and debated work because of its content and what the information contained in it means to those who read it. Who exactly wrote this gospel? Can it be held in the same light as the traditional four gospels we find in the New Testament? What were the differing views on it when it was first written and what are these views today? The Gospel of Thomas will be dissected to see what exactly was behind its writing, who its intended audience was, and what, if anything, can be learned from it that holds any significance today.

In 1945, the Gospel of Thomas was among several ancient documents found in Egypt in the town of Nag Hammadi located in the upper region of the country. In much the same way the Dead Sea Scrolls would be discovered three years later, an Arab peasant, while digging for fertilizer, stumbled upon an earthen jar that contained dozens of these ancient documents. The authorship of Thomas was, at first, attributed to Didymus Judas Thomas, also known as “The Doubter”, one of the original 12 disciples. The book introduces itself by saying it contains “the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas recorded” and the original rendering has been dated between A.D. 140 to A.D. 200, while possibly being written in Syria in the Greek language. Thomas has 47 parallels to Mark, 40 to the controversial source document, “Q”, 17 to Matthew, four to Luke, and five to John (Funk 15).

It was (and still is) considered a very important Gnostic document because of some of the more esoteric and secret sayings of Jesus it contained. The most generous dating has Thomas being composed in A.D. 50-60 (Funk 548), even before the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the Gospel of John would have been written. A date that early would, of course, suggest that the sayings of Jesus would be a very accurate record and there would be little doubt that Didymus Thomas, as the gospel itself states, would be the author. However, because the majority of biblical scholars date Thomas well into the late second century, a little more digging under the tell of history has to take place to uncover the layers of reasoning behind the wide gap in the dating. The significance is greater than meets the eye.

If there is a problem with the Gospel of Thomas that draws red flags, it is how distinct its view of Jesus is from that of the four canonical gospels. It is literally littered with sayings that are from the Gnostic school of thought. Gnosticism, derived from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge”, was one of several heresies the first-century church had to contend with. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd Ed., Gnosticism is defined as “the doctrines of certain pre-Christian pagan, Jewish and early Christian sects that valued the revealed knowledge of God and of the origin and end of the human race as a means to attain redemption for the spiritual element in human beings and that distinguished the Demiurge from the unknowable Divine Being.” The Demiurge is “a deity in Gnosticism, Manicheeism, and other religions who creates the material world and is sometimes viewed as the originator of evil.”

It was the propagation of belief of placing Jesus the man apart from the Christ he claimed to be, in a dualistic nature, that the early church fathers and before them, the apostles John and Paul, confronted, writing to their followers not to have anything to do with these people because they were chasing after “hollow and deceptive philosophies” (Colossians 2:8). The main beliefs in Gnosticism are 1) the body, being matter, is evil and is to be contrasted with God and 2) salvation was to escape from the body, but it was not achieved by faith in Jesus Christ, but by some special knowledge (hence the term “Gnostic”) that was secretive and not available to everyone. It’s not exactly clear what type of “knowledge” was required to obtain salvation, but it is clear that it was not the “knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), which Peter instructed Christians to grow in. It was only upon the final understanding of this “knowledge” that redemption took place and apparently did not have to do with being born anew by the Spirit of God (John 3:3). A citation from saying 83 of Thomas unveils the heart of Gnostic philosophy: “The material world is lifeless, but one who sees it as such has transcended it.” Early Gnosticism could be called a “you-come-to-us” religion. A person will transcend this evil material world when he gains the knowledge that it really is evil. It is not difficult to understand why the church felt this was a threat since it usurped the authority that was only to be found in Christ. Quite fascinating to see is how mysterious and clandestine Gnosticism keeps the Gospel of Thomas. Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, says that “especially notable is the hermeneutic in Thomas whereby anything in the Jesus tradition that is too clear or univocal or too particular an application is omitted, since Thomas is meant to be a collection of Jesus’ secret, esoteric and eternal sayings” (282, n. 19).

Even so, how the Gospel of Thomas and Gnosticism are viewed today varies considerably than from the original 1,900 years ago. Today, Gnosticism has come to mean just about anything (Groothuis 74). And Thomas is still one of the documents at the center of it. Gerd Theissen, professor of New Testament at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, says it “reflects a Gnosticism in the state of growth, without a developed cosmology, doctrine of aeons, etc., which can be explained as a further development of a gnosticizing tendency which is inherent in the wisdom tradition” (40).

The New Age Movement is a primary home where Gnosticism finds its rest. This is a perfect environment for it to thrive since the “divine spark” that Gnosticism said is in every man, is right on track when speaking of the New Age belief that anyone can be their own god. From the infamous Jesus Seminar, to Unitarians, religious humanists and modern day Gnostics, the Gospel of Thomas, because of its content, is more apt to be accepted by these groups as words that Jesus actually said. The other gospels will either be rejected as unreliable or interpreted through a transcendentalist worldview, instead of taking the Scripture as is. A reason for this rejection of traditional Scripture, many of transcendental thought cite, is that the early church hierarchy suppressed Thomas and manipulatively kept it secret for as long as it could. The only writings the church included in its canon were those that fit into the church’s theology. But can the four gospels and Thomas, along with other documents such as the Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Phillip, and Gospel of the Hebrews, all be correct?

Today’s scholars either do not give Thomas any credence over the canonical gospels, or while they may view the study of Thomas to be useful in trying to understand the world of Jesus, the canonical Gospels, especially the Synoptics, are the earliest resources for learning about the historical Jesus and therefore the most reliable (Witherington 50). This is because a large portion of biblical scholarship date Matthew, Mark, and Luke from the early to late 60’s A.D. and John to about A.D 90. Randel Helms, professor of literature at Arizona State, says there is “a large body of early Christian literature, some in the Bible and some not, and all of it must be taken into account if we wish to understand early Christianity” (100). This is true, but only to a certain extent, because Thomas invariably derives much of its content from the canonical gospels. Theissen makes the point that “when the agreement between the sources is all too great, we assume that they are dependent on one another. When the sources contradict each other all too sharply, we have to conjecture that one (or more) distorts reality heavily and is valueless” (18).

As far as orthodox Christianity is concerned, Thomas would fall into the category of contradiction. Bruce Metzger, the well-known Bible scholar from Princeton University has said of Thomas that “to take it up now, it seems to me, would be to accept something that’s less valid than the other gospels” (Strobel 68). Space does not permit a deep analysis of the canonicity of Scripture, but it is important to know that the church in the fourth century A.D., when it was carefully considering what writings should make up the Canon, did not exclude these other books because of a political agenda but simply because the Gospel of Thomas . . . is virtually never considered to be written by the apostle Thomas himself (Groothuis 107). The Canon is/was nothing more than a list of authoritative books that, by the time it was officially put together, were already recognized by Christians at the time and from the earlier centuries A.D. The apostle Thomas, having knelt before the risen Christ, declaring “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) would thus have not seen Jesus as a guru or reincarnated master, (as is the New Age description of Jesus today) but as his resurrected Master to follow and obey. As a result of that experience, according to church tradition, Thomas traveled all the way to India to preach the gospel and was martyred there and a memorial is in the place where he died to this day.

The Gnostic document dug out of the ground in 1945 was actually a 5th century version of the Gospel of Thomas written in the Coptic language. This document, falsely ascribed to the apostle Thomas, contains 114 separate sayings attributed to Jesus, largely without any narrative framework connecting them (Blomberg 36). Coptic was an Afro-Asiatic language of the Copts and survives only as a liturgical language of the Coptic Church. An interesting parallel is that Thomas was thought to be revered as an apostle in the Syrian and Coptic Church (Funk 20). Both churches have been accused of holding to the belief of monophysitism, similar to Arianism, (the belief that Jesus was of only one nature with the Father), but these churches have denied that charge or that they ever held the view in the past. Whether this has any connection to Gnosticism and the Gospel of Thomas is unclear other than the fact that Arianism and Gnosticism were two heresies dealt with by these churches.

Much like what occurred in the early life of the church, there is conflict between the church and outside forces that seek to spread or justify Gnostic influence. The Jesus Seminar, made up of 74 members of differing religious backgrounds, has stated that, “the evidence provided by the written gospels is hearsay evidence” (Funk 16) and makes the claim that John’s gospel was opposed as heretical by the early church (Funk 20). The presuppositions of the Seminar, however, do not allow for any Jesus who performed miracles, claimed to be God, or rose from the dead. These statements would therefore fit like a glove because the Seminar, like those in New Age circles, try to twist history to fit their own perspectives, actually undermining the beliefs of Christians and any work the church of today tries to do. The implications are enormous because if Thomas is accurate, then the church has been caught up in a 2,000-year old lie. That is what is truly underneath the reasoning for advocating Thomas as a legitimate gospel. The Jesus Seminar, to its credit, in voting on what Jesus actually said, does not attribute many of the sayings in Thomas as authentic to Jesus.

But the fact that Thomas is even put on the same pedestal as the other four gospels suggests a desire to see the content of Thomas promoted. The evolution of Gnostic thought has brought this about and demanded of the church to “come clean” about its “sins” of withholding information that proves that Jesus really did teach the philosophy of seeking and finding the knowledge that would free people from the evil material world. The intended audience was, of course, Gnostic, and those behind the writing of Thomas, promoting Gnosticism, either came up with an authentic text or inserted portions of Gnostic teaching into an already completed work. Some in New Age circles will make the claim that Thomas knows “the Christ both as the Self, and the foundation of individual life” (Groothuis 110). This also fits into the Gnostic belief that Jesus and the Christ were two separate entities, Jesus being the man of flesh and the Christ being the spiritual nature.

From reading Thomas, though, it is clear to see that the work was drawn from the original gospels, including John, and from material from the theoretical sources of Q, M and L. For example, Thomas 44 has Jesus saying, “Whoever blasphemes against the father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven.” Aside from a textual addition of blaspheming the Father, the words are nearly identical in Luke 12:10. This picture of Jesus will not fit with the more radical modern portraits of Jesus because those tend to arise from a questionable use of later extracanonical data to provide firm historical data about Jesus (Witherington 201). Other authorities, along with Witherington, verify the notion that whatever authentic material Thomas may convey concerning Jesus, the text from the Nag Hammadi shows signs of Gnostic tampering (Groothuis 112).

If this is the case, we should err on the side of caution to even call Thomas a gospel at all, even though the title “gospel” is used more for identification than actually specifying it as “good news.” No narrative of Jesus’ life and whom he interacted with, his crucifixion, his burial, or his resurrection is mentioned in Thomas, adding an air of suspicion to the text that should draw out even more discretion. Along with not including these narratives, Thomas takes the liberty to make Jesus’ words resemble the Synoptic gospels by adding to them, deleting from them, combining several references into one or by changing the sense of a saying entirely (Groothuis 110). Consequently, this would be ground for dismissal of Thomas as a legitimate source for discovering the authentic Jesus. As much as some scholars would like to admit, the Gospel of Thomas, like other Gnostic writings, simply do not portray a Jesus whose words rose from historical circumstances, but a Jesus that is very fragmented. Frankly speaking, a lot of things in Thomas simply do not fit to what we know of Jesus' life. Without the linking narratives of Jesus’ deeds and the events of the last days of his life, it is a document worthy of study only for the purpose of showing how it does not stack up to the canonical Gospels. Biblical scholar Raymond Brown concludes the matter nicely by saying that from Thomas’s “works we learn not a single verifiable new fact about Jesus’ ministry, and only a few new sayings that might plausibly have been his” (Groothuis 115).

© Copyright 2001 Kedric Webster
All Rights Reserved

Works Cited

Blomberg, Craig L. Jesus and the Gospels. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1997.

Funk, Robert W., et al. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Polebride Press, 1993.

Groothuis, Douglas. Revealing the New Age Jesus: Challenges to Orthodox Views of Christ. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

Helms, Randel McCraw. Who Wrote The Gospels? Altadena, CA: Millennium Press, 1997.

Mack, Burton L. The Lost Gospel: The Book of “Q” & Christian Origins. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993.

Strobel, Lee. The Case For Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998.

Theissen, Gerd and Annette Merz. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Witherington III, Ben. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.