Gospel of Thomas

From Academic Kids

The Gospel of Thomas, completely preserved in a papyrus Coptic manuscript discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, is a list of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Some of those sayings resemble those found in the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), but other sayings were unknown until its discovery.

Unlike the four canonical gospels, which employ narrative accounts of the life of Jesus, Thomas takes the less structured form of a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus and brief dialogues with Jesus and some of his disciples reported to Didymous Judas Thomas (whose name means the twin Judas the twin) without being embedded in any narrative nor worked into any philosophical or rhetorical context.

When the complete text was found, in a Coptic version, it was realized that three separate Greek portions of it had already been discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in 1898. The manuscripts bearing the Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas have been dated to about 200, and the manuscript of the Coptic version to about 340. Although the Coptic version is not quite identical to any of the Greek fragments, it is believed that the Coptic version was translated from a prior Greek version.


Confusion with other works

The Gospel of Thomas is distinct and unrelated to other apocryphal or pseudepigraphal works Acts of Thomas, and the work called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which expand on the canonical texts to describe the miraculous childhood of Jesus. When Hippolytus and Origen (ca 233) refer to a "Gospel of Thomas" among the heterodox apocryphal gospels, it is unclear whether they mean the Infancy Gospel of Thomas or this "sayings" Gospel of Thomas.

In the 4th century, Cyril of Jerusalem mentioned a "Gospel of Thomas" in his Cathechesis V: "Let none read the gospel according to Thomas, for it is the work, not of one of the twelve apostles, but of one of Mani's three wicked disciples". Very little trace of Manichaean dualism can be detected in this "sayings" Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, which is agreed to be simpler, less legend-filled, altogether a less consciously literary document.


There is currently much debate about when the text was composed, with scholars generally falling into two main camps: an early camp favoring a date in the 50s before the canonical gospels and a late camp favoring a time after the last of the canonical gospels in the 90s. Among critical scholars, the early camp is dominant in North America, while the late camp is more popular in Europe (especially in the U.K. and Germany).

The early camp

The early camp argues that since it consists of mostly original material and does not seem to be based on the canonical gospels, it must have been transcribed from an oral tradition. Since the practice of considering oral tradition authoritative ended during the 1st century, the Gospel of Thomas therefore must have been written before then, perhaps as early as around 40. Since this date antecedes the dates of the traditional four gospels, there is some claim that the Thomas gospel is or has some connection to the Q gospel —the name for an unknown, theorised text (or oral verse) which may have spawned gospels of Matthew and Luke known today.

The early camp argues that about half of the material in Thomas has no known parallels to the New Testament, and at least some of this material could plausibly be attributed to the historical Jesus, such as saying 42 "Be passers-by."

The early camp also notes that Q is almost universally regarded by secular biblical scholars as the most parsimonious explanation for the synoptic problem and is widely regarded to be the earliest written text of Jesus' teachings. It has been hypothesized that Q exists in 3 strata, termed Q1, Q2, and Q3, with the apocalyptic material belonging in Q2 and Q3. Secular biblical scholars have identified 37 sayings that overlap between Thomas and Q, all of which are conjectured to be in either Q1 or Q2 and none of which included the latter, apocalyptic material of Q3. Hence, Thomas shows little or no knowledge of Q3, did not incorporate or was not aware of Q3. The Q layers of Q1 and Q2 are thought to predate the four gospels. Hence the Thomas Gospel is thought to be early.

The central argument of Elaine Pagels Beyond Belief (2003) is that there seems to be conflict between the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas. According to Pagels, certain specific passages in the Gospel of John can only be understood in light of Thomas-like sayings, ideas, traditions, philosophical beliefs, and community, whether or not precisely represented in the present Gospel of Thomas itself. The most famous example in the Gospel of John is of "Doubting Thomas," which Pagels interprets as rebuttal for the Thomas community. Pagels' interpretation of John logically requires that Thomas-like ideas or a Thomas-like community, if not the present Gospel of Thomas, already existed when John's gospel was written. An unsympathetic evaluation of Pagel's book can be found here (http://reformedperspectives.org/files/reformedperspectives/new_testament/NT.Gross.Matthew_BeyondBeliefbyElainePagels.html).

Another argument for the early camp is that there is overlap between Paul's epistles and Thomas. The authentic corpus of Paul's epistles, which include 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians are universally regarded by secular biblical scholars as predating the canonical Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. There are overlaps between teachings found in Paul and in Thomas that are not found in the canonical Gospels, (nor independently attested by them), and that Thomas therefore may have drawn on a common sayings pool that was drawn upon both by the canonical gospels and by Thomas. According to this theory, Paul was drawing on sayings that were widely recognized to come from Jesus, some which are uniquely preserved in Gospel of Thomas.

The early camp argues that if Thomas knew of the New Testament, including the Pauline epistles, and if it is thought that Thomas showed gnostic tendencies, then it is surprising that he did not take the opportunity to include many verses that would have supported such "gnostic" theology, which are present in the canonical New Testament, such as John 8:58 "Before Abraham was born, I AM." The Gospel of Thomas did in fact include a great deal of material unparalleled in the New Testament. It, however, lacks distinctive terms from second century Gnosticism such as archons, pleroma, aeons, demiurge that would be expected from a product of historical Gnosticism: this is seen by some as another justification for an earlier date of authorship.

The late camp

The late camp, on the other hand, dates Thomas sometime after 100, generally in the early and mid 2nd century, but a few argue that Thomas is dependent on the Diatessaron, which was composed shortly after 172. Since the Greek fragments of Thomas found in Egypt are typically dated between 140 and 200, the ultra-late, post-Diatessaronic position remains a small minority, even within the late camp.

The main argument put forth by the late camp is an argument from redaction. Under the most commonly accepted solution to the Synoptic problem, Matthew and Luke both used Mark, as well as a lost sayings collection called Q, to compose their gospels. Sometimes Matthew and Luke modified the wording of their source, Mark (or Q), and the modified text is known as redaction. Proponents of the late camp argue that some of this secondary redaction created by Matthew and Luke shows up in Thomas, which means that Thomas was written after Matthew and Luke were composed. Since Matthew and Luke are generally thought to have been composed in the 80s and 90s, Thomas would have to be composed later than that. Members of the early camp respond to this argument by suggesting that second-century scribes may have been the ones responsible for the Synoptic redaction now present in our manuscripts of Thomas, not its original author. Both camps agree, however, that the fluidity of the text in the 2nd century makes dating the Thomas very difficult.

A related argument is that Matthew and Luke independently incorporated their own local traditions into their gospels in addition to the traditions they obtained from Mark and Q. These local traditions are usually known as Sondergut or special material. Proponents of a late Thomas note that Thomas parallels not just the shared material in the Synoptic gospels, but also the special material found in each one of them. The late camp concludes that accessing this diverse set of materials, including local traditions, would be much easier after the canonical gospels were circulating rather than before. Those who argue for a later date for Thomas also call into question the apparent assumption of those within the "early camp" that "sayings" material is necessarily earlier than full-fledged gospels that include narrative.

The last major argument for Thomas's being later than the New Testament is on a History of Religions analysis. In particular, it is argued that Gnosticism is a later development, while the earliest Christianity, as evident in Paul's letters, was more Jewish than Gentile and focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus more than his words. In this connection, it is observed that the Jesus of Thomas does not seem very Jewish, and that its current form reflects the work of second-century Gnostic thought, such as the rejection of the physical world and women (see Thomas 114). Graham Stanton, (The Gospels and Jesus 2002, p. 129) finds in Thomas a Gnostic document: "removal of the Gnostic veneer will never be easy."

Those in favor of an early date, on the other hand, counter that Thomas reflects very little to none of the full-blown Valentinian gnosticism as seen in many of the other texts in the cache of manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi. In fact, some point out not all of the Nag Hammadi texts are gnostic; for example, one of the texts is a paraphrase of Plato's Republic, which predates gnosticism by centuries. It is also noted that gnosticism was a fluid belief system containing both new elements and old, and that material identifed as "gnostic" in Thomas may have been current as early as 50. As for the focus on the cross that Thomas lacks, early daters contend that Thomas belonged to an early form of Christianity, exemplified by Q, that concentrated on the sayings of teachings of Jesus. If one is a skeptic of Q, however, like several leading scholars in the U.K. (see Farrer hypothesis), this argument is less probative.

The Gospel of Thomas and the canon of the New Testament

The fact that the Gospel of Thomas does not seem to have been considered for the New Testament is considered by some as an indication of its being of a later date—had it actually been written by the apostle Thomas, they argue, it would have been at least seriously considered by those in the century immediately following Jesus' death. This opinion is more popular among Christians who accept a divinely-inspired New Testament canon as an article of their faith—especially those considering themselves fundamentalist or evangelical Christians.

However, in the first three centuries of the Christian Church, there was no firmly established New Testament canon that was universally recognized. The New Testament canon as it is now was first listed by St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in 367, in a letter written to his churches in Egypt. That canon gained wider and wider recognition until it was accepted by all at the Third Council of Carthage in 397, nearly four centuries after the events they purport to relate. This was done under the command of emperor Constantine, when he convened the Council of Nicea. Even this council did not settle the matter, however. Certain books continued to be questioned, especially James and Revelation. Even as late as the 16th century, theologian and reformer Martin Luther rejected the Epistle of James.

It should be noted that information about the historical Jesus itself was not a singular criterion for inclusion into the New Testament Canon. The canonizers chose to include many books that contain neither much information about the historical Jesus nor teachings from the historical Jesus, such as the Epistles and the book of Revelation.

The Gospel of Thomas may have failed to be included in the canon of the New Testament because:

  • It was deemed heretical
  • It was deemed inauthentic
  • It was unknown to the Canonizers
  • It was thought to be superseded by the narrative Gospels
  • It belonged to a branch of Christianity outside the triumphant Athanasius circle.
  • Its emphasis on individual spirituality apart from the Church was deemed anathemical to the interests of organized religion.

The philosophy of the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas is mystical—it emphasizes a direct and unmediated experience of the Divine. Jesus is presented as a mystagogue, a teacher of Divine mysteries, much as he is presented in the Gospel of John. While the emphasis in John is a balance between his miracles and his words, the emphasis here is exclusively the words of Jesus. A discovery of the interpretation of those words is what allegedly brings about enlightenment. The Gospel of Thomas records this as one of Jesus' sayings: "He who discovers the interpretations of these secret teachings shall never taste death" — and this secretness is in stark contrast with all the Church teachings and Canon. The theme is paralleled in John; however in John, salvation is understood as salvation from Eternal Damnation, and does not depend on any secrets.

Unlike John, which distinguishes belief in Jesus from unbelief, the Gospel of Thomas premises salvation on an enlightened understanding of one's true identity — an image of oneself as divine.

In John's Gospel, Jesus is the "only begotten son" of the Father (John 1:3). In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus is quoted as saying that "the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it." This too can be interpreted as Jesus' attempt to bring enlightenment through his teachings that man's existence is not as much material as it is spiritual — hence his claims to his own divinity came with an implied stipulation that this "divinity" was not limited to himself, rather belongs to anyone who is born-again spiritually. This again is a stark contrast with Christianity.

Elaine Pagels argued in Beyond Belief that, while this strand of Christianity died out, many great Christian mystics independently derived ideas similar to Thomas, from Meister Eckhart to Teresa of Avila to Saint John of the Cross. Mainstream Christian scholars, on the contrary, find fairly clear distinctions between the basic ideas of these Christian mystics and the author of the Gospel of Thomas.

The Gospel of Thomas's importance and author

The Gospel of Thomas is, in any case, one of the earliest accounts of the teaching of Jesus outside of the canonical gospels and so is considered a valuable text. Some say that this gospel makes no mention of Jesus' resurrection, an important point of faith among Christians. A minority opinion, however, interprets the opening words of the book, "These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down" (Nag Hammadi Library translation, 2d. edition, ISBN 0-06-066935-7) to mean that the sayings are being presented as the teaching of Jesus Christ after the resurrection.

Some scholars consider this gospel to be a gnostic text, since it was found in a library among other, more clearly gnostic texts. Others reject this interpretation, because Thomas lacks the full-blown mythology of Gnosticism as described by Irenaeus of Lyons, ca 185 or recognized by modern scholarship. Still other scholars see evidence of increasingly gnostic redactions over time when they compare sayings in the New Testament with parallel sayings in the Greek versions of the Gospel of Thomas (ca. 200), and sayings in the Coptic version (ca. 340). No major Christian group accepts it as canonical or authoritative.

The gospel is ostensibly written from the point of view of Didymus Judas Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus (who appears in the Gospel of John as "doubting Thomas"). It claims that special revelations and parables (recorded in the text) were made only to Thomas. However, the gospel is a collection of sayings and parables, which contains no narrative account of Jesus' life, something that all four canonical gospels include.

This Gospel is important for scholars working on the Q Gospel, which, like Thomas, is thought to be a collection of sayings or teachings. Although no copy of Q has ever been discovered, the fact that Thomas is a sayings Gospel is taken by some as indication that the early Christians did write collections of the sayings of Jesus, and thus they feel it renders the Q theory more credible.

The Gospel of Thomas and the historical Jesus

Modern scholars use three criteria to determine what the historical Jesus may have taught: multiple attestations, dissimilarity, and contextual credibility. Many modern scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas was written independently of the New Testament, and therefore, is a useful guide to historical Jesus research.

By finding those sayings in the Gospel of Thomas that overlaps with Q, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Paul, scholars feel such sayings represent "multiple attestations" and therefore, are more likely to come from a historical Jesus, than sayings that are only singly attested, such as the vast majority of the material in John.

The Gospel of Thomas has also been used by Christ mythicist theorists such as Earl Doherty, author of 'The Jesus Puzzle', and Timothy Freke, author of 'The Jesus Mysteries', that Christianity did not originate with a historical Jesus, but as a Jewish adaptation of the Greek mystery religions. The collection of teachings attributed to Jesus represent part of the initiation to the mysteries of their religion.

The Gospel of Thomas is regarded by some individuals as the single most important find in understanding early Christianity outside the New Testament. It may attest to extraordinary diversity in early Christianity, and very different understandings of Jesus. It also may offer a window into the worldview of this ancient culture and a window of the debates and struggles within early Christianity, and its relationship and split with Judaism.

Differences between translations

In translating ancient texts, often the meaning of words is revealed only in abstraction, and must be transliterated, after being translated, in order for the meaning to be addressed. This is the case with all translations, as each reveals the limits and changes of languages, in the divergent tasks of; being sufficiently descriptive, and being easy to use in common speech. In the Thomas Gospels, the 66th is one famous example of how translation often differs subtly in its proper transliteration.

66. Jesus said, "Show me the stone that the builders rejected: that is the keystone." - From the "Scholars Translation" - Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer.
Compare the above, transliterated, to the below, literal translation:
66. Jesus said, "Teach me concerning this stone which the builders rejected; it is the corner-stone." - Brill edition.

The use of the word "corner-stone", in the Brill edition, is inaccurate for the meaning, and the correct word is "keystone", as in the Patterson-Meyer translation. To understand the difference, we must think through the parable for its intended meaning. As in all Christian parables, the deeper meaning reflects a moral story; In this case, by the analogy of constructing of an arch:

In selecting stones for the arch, the most odd-shaped, useless stone is rejected, and cast aside. The builders select the cornerstones first; they must be strong, squarish blocks and must serve well as the foundation. As each separate pillar is built to the top, the stones are chosen for their slight curvatures, to bring the tops of the columns together.
Finally, the keystone must be selected. It must be of a particularly acute angle to accommodate the characteristics of each of the two arch halves: According to Jesus's parable, it is the stone which was first rejected, by the initial estimations of the builders, and only when the rest of the pieces are in place do they see their mistake.

Comparison of The Gospel of Thomas to the New Testament

The Gospel of Thomas does not refer to Jesus as "Christ" or "Lord" as the New Testament does, but simply as "Jesus." The Gospel of Thomas also lacks any mention of such classic Christian doctrines as Satan, Demons, The Second Coming, sin, or signs. It includes several parables similar to ones found in the canonical gospels that contain themes including Hell, eternal damnation, Heaven, the Kingdom of God, miracles (instructing his followers to heal people), and salvation.

The Gospel of Thomas does not list the canonical twelve apostles, though it does mention James the Just, who is singled out ("No matter where you are you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being"); Simon Peter; Matthew; Thomas, who is taken aside and receives three points of revelation; Mary; and Salome. Though here Mary Magdalene and Salome are mentioned among the disciples, the canonical Gospels and Acts only mention men, but make a distinction between "disciples" and the inner group of twelve "apostles" — a Greek term that does not appear in Thomas — with varying lists of names making up the canonical twelve. Despite the favorable mention of James the Just, generally considered a "pro-circumcision" Christian, the Gospel of Thomas also dismisses circumcision: His disciples said to him, "Is circumcision useful or not?" He said to them, "If it were useful, their father would produce children already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become profitable in every respect."

Compare Thomas 8 SV

"And Jesus said, The person is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among them the wise fisherman discovered a fine large fish. He threw all the little fish back into the sea, and easily chose the large fish. Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!"

with Matthew 13:47-50 NIV:

47"Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Note that Thomas makes a distinction between large and small fishes, whereas Matthew makes a distinction between good and bad fishes. Furthermore, Thomas version has only 1 fish remaining, whereas Matthew's version implies many good fish remaining. The manner in which each Gospel concludes the parable is instructive. Thomas version lacks verses 49-50, the commentary of the apocalyptic end of the age.

Another example is the parable of the lost sheep, which is parallel by Matthew, Luke, John, and Thomas.

This is the parable of the lost sheep in Matthew 18: 12-14 NIV

12"What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.

This is the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15: 3-7 NIV

3Then Jesus told them this parable: 4"Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

This is the parable of the lost sheep in Thomas 107 SV

107Jesus said, The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine and looked for the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep, 'I love you more than the ninety-nine.'

This is the parable of the lost sheep in John 10: 1-18 NIV

1"I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice." 6Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them. 7Therefore Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[1] He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. 11"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me-- 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father--and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father."

Gospel of Thomas scholars

This is a list of scholars or intellectuals who either have committed significant scholarly work in Gospel of Thomas studies, or have commented on the Gospel.


  • Guillaumont, Antoine Jean Baptiste, Henri-Charles Puech, G. Quispel, Walter Curt Till, and Yassah ˁAbd al-Masīh, eds. 1959. Evangelium nach Thomas. Leiden: E. J. Brill Standard edition of the Coptic text

External links

de:Thomasevangelium eo:La evangelio de Tomaso fr:vangile de Thomas it:Vangelo di Didimo Thoma nl:Evangelie van Thomas ja:トマスによる福音書 pl:Ewangelia Tomasza pt:Evangelho de Tom fi:Tuomaan evankeliumi sl:Tomažev_evangelij sv:Tomasevangeliet zh:多馬福音


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