I started this post about six months ago and part of the reason was to use the Gospel of Thomas as an illustration of various early Christian groups originating independent of one another. Unfortunately, I don’t recall exactly where I was going with that so instead I’m going to talk about what I find most fascinating about the Gospel of Thomas; simply that it may provide a window into very early Christianity.
Before I get started on that a quick review of what seems to be the most prevalent scholarly thinking on the development of the Canonical Gospels is in order. New Testament scholars generally believe that the Synoptic Gospels; Mark, Luke and Matthew, originated from two main sources. One of these consisted of oral stories circulating about Jesus’ life, accounts of what he did. The second is some source, commonly identified as the Q or Quelle source, which contained a list of Jesus’ sayings. These stories and sayings were then combined to form the Synoptic Gospels. 1
The Gospel of Thomas has been among the most analyzed, critiqued and written about of all Apocryphal works. It is unlike any of the Canonical Gospels as it provides no details of Jesus’ life. It is a sayings gospel. The Gospel of Thomas includes 114 quotations from Jesus. Nothing more, nothing less. 2 The Gospel was only recently discovered among the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945 however once it was analyzed historians realized that they already possessed fragments of it in Coptic from Oxyrhynchus, dated from before 200 CE. 3 The version found at Nag Hammadi dates from the early fourth century.
There is some debate about the date the Gospel of Thomas was written and this is pretty important. The Nag Hammadi version is believed to have consisted of an early version which had been added to over the years, resulting in a final version which became more widely disseminated from around 140-200. The interesting point for me within this context is the earlier material which some historians believe originated in the early second century while others believe it may have been written earlier, perhaps as early as about 40. I find the argument for an early date persuasive (to be fair, at this time I have not read a detailed explanation of why it may be later).
One argument for the possibility of an early date for GT is when we compare phrases from Thomas to those in another Gospel. Helmut Koester writes, “If one considers the form and wording of the individual sayings in comparison with the form in which they are preserved in the New Testament, The Gospel of Thomas appears to have preserved a more original form of the traditional saying(in a few instances, where this is not the case, the Coptic translation seems to have been influenced by the translator’s knowledge of the New Testament gospels), or presents versions which are independently based on more original forms.” 4 Bart Ehrman writes, “Many of these sayings are pithier and more succinct than their canonical counterparts. Is it possible that Thomas presents a more accurate version of the sayings than, say, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (there are fewer parallels to John)- that is, a closer approximation to the way Jesus actually said them?” 5
Here are some examples from Wikipedia where Thomas includes the same general message as one of the canonical Gospels but in a shorter form: 6
Thomas 8: 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!”
and Matthew 13:47-50: “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When 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. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
or Thomas 107: Jesus 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.”
with Luke 15:3–7: Then Jesus told them this parable: “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? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I 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.” 7
Following the same reasoning as the historians I’ve quoted above, to me it’s logical that the shorter, less detailed saying would usually be the earlier one. There’s no law which says this must be the case but it’s much easier to argue that someone took a short saying, the meaning of which confused some folks, and expanded it to make its message clearer than for someone to have taken a detailed, fairly clear message and made it shorter and less clear. Now not every saying in Thomas is paralleled in the New Testament and obviously the proposed earliest date of 140 for the text found in the Nag Hammadi manuscript postdates the writings of the Gospels by half a century or more. However it is reasonable to think that at least some of the sayings included in it were not edited and are very early.
Where the Gospel of Thomas is fascinating is this window it provides (or may provide) into very early Christianity, well before it would have been considered anything more than a Jewish sect, possibly even before Paul’s letters. Where the canonical Gospels are a merging of oral stories told of the life of Jesus combined with his sayings, teachings and parables into a narrative, Thomas is more of a raw form; a component, possibly, of what came to be the Gospels of the New Testament. 8
NOTE: This is a link to an online version of the Gospel of Thomas.
1 Hopefully folks realize this is woefully oversimplified. For example, most of Mark is included in Matthew and Luke, but the latter two incorporate considerable additional material, resulting in some historians’ belief that they must have had an additional source or two. BTW, these three are called Synoptic because they share so much material. John is significantly different.
6 OK, here I have to admit something. Not sure if I should be embarrassed by this or not. When I began writing this post back whenever, I recalled someone having done a very nice job comparing sayings in Thomas with those in the canonical Gospels demonstrating that while they are similar, in many cases those in Thomas were shorter and simpler. I was sure this was in one of the books I’d read on it – my “Apocrypha Collection” includes 13 books and I have more on the Gnostics and other heresies. One of the reasons I’ve taken so long publishing this post is I couldn’t find this comparison. Until today when I Googled the term, “Gospel of Thomas Comparison Matthew” which took me to Wikipedia. I’ve not used it as a source before but we use the tools we are given (I’m still convinced this is in a book I have here, someplace). Anyway, take that for what it’s worth. I categorize Wikipedia as useful for quick reference but not dependable (IOW I like to double check what it says – then again, I’d give someone the same advice if we were talking about me). But since Wikipedia uses me as a source, I suppose it’s time I return the favor.
8 I think it’s important to note that the Gospel of Thomas was found among Gnostic documents and there are hints of a Gnostic emphasis on secret knowledge in it, enough that early Christian writers such as Hippolytus, Origen and Eusebius consider it heretical. However these hints are subtle compared with texts such as The Apocryphon of John. To me Thomas fits in the category of, “not Gnostic but something which contains material which is appealing to Gnostics.” Of course then there’s the discussion of what exactly we mean by the terms “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism,” is this another “ism” which has become so generalized as to be virtually useless, etc. I’m not going there, not today anyway but if you want to, Meyer(2005) discusses this scholarly debate in his introduction, pp x-xiii.
Ehrman, Bart, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2003). ISBN: 978-0195-14183-2
Ehrman, Bart, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2003). ISBN:978-0195-14182-5.
Ehrman, Bart and Plese, Zlatko, The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011). ISBN:978-0-19-973210-4.
Hennecke, E., Schneemelcher, Wilhelm and Wilson, R. McL., eds., New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and Related Writings, Volume 1. Trowbridge, Wiltshire: Redwood Press (1973). ISBN:978-0-334-01111-8.
Meyer, Marvin, trans. & ed., The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus: The Definitive Collection of Mystical Gospels and Secret Books about Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperCollins (2005). ISBN: 978-0-060-76208-7.
Pagels, Elaine, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Random House (2005). ISBN:978-0-375-50156-2.
Robinson, James M., ed., The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume. New York: HarperCollins (1990). ISBN:978-0-06-066934-8.
Wikipedia, Gospel of Thomas, page last modified August 19, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Thomas (last accessed August 26, 2013).