The Gospel of Thomas: Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of
sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. Unless it is merely a collection of
materials that mainly were drawn out of the Biblical gospels, as seems unlikely
for most if not all of Thomas' sayings, then Thomas is the most important
historical source for knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth that exists outside of the
Bible. It is the most significant manuscript ever found for the history of
When was the Gospel of Thomas written?
This is a question hotly
debated by scholars. Many scholars say that it was written at about the same
time, even perhaps somewhat before, the gospels in the bible. Their argument is
that most of the sayings in Thomas show no signs of having any dependence on, or
knowledge of, the Biblical gospels and so Thomas' sayings derive from oral
tradition and not from written Biblical texts. This doesn't seem to have been
possible after the end of the first century when the Biblical texts began to be
authoritative in Christianity. Other scholars find bits of evidence that
indicate that Thomas was indeed dependent, in part, on Biblical texts, and
surmise that the author of Thomas must have edited out almost all indications of
the particular styles and ideas of the Biblical authors. Those scholars date
Thomas in the mid second century A.D.
Who wrote the Gospel of Thomas?
No one knows. The four canonical
gospels and Thomas and other gospels such as the Gospel of Philip (found at Nag
Hammadi) were given their names some time in the second century. Scholars of the
New Testament generally agree that none of the gospels were written by people
who had ever met Jesus of Nazareth during his lifetime. But at a later date
names were assigned to them that were associated with famous individuals in the
earliest church. The name of the person who supposedly wrote the Gospel of
Thomas is given in the first lines of the text as "didymos Judas thomas." The
word "didymos" is Greek for twin and the word "thomas" is Aramaic for twin. The
individual's name was Judas, and his nickname "the twin" is given in two
languages. The canonical gospels mention a man named Thomas and John calls him
didymos thomas. There are also several individuals named Judas mentioned in the
canonical gospels in addition to Judas called Iscariot. The bottom line is that
we do not know who wrote the Gospel of Thomas and we cannot be sure which Judas
mentioned in the New Testament also was nicknamed Thomas.
Where was the Gospel of Thomas found?
Portions of three Greek copies
of the Gospel of Thomas were found in Oxyrhynchus Egypt about one hundred years
ago. They are known as Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1 (Oxy P 1) probably written not much
later than the year 200, Oxy P 654, which can be dated to the middle or end of
the third century, and Oxy P 655 dated not later than A. D. 250 (dating
according to Grenfell and Hunt). A complete version in Coptic (the native
Egyptian language written in an alphabet derived from the Greek alphabet) was
found in Nag Hammadi Egypt in 1945. That version can be dated to about 340 A.D.
The Coptic version is a translation of the Greek version. Most scholars believe
that the Gospel of Thomas was originally written in Syria in the Greek language.
Is the Gospel of Thomas Gnostic?
It all depends on what you mean by
Gnostic. If you mean by Gnostic the belief that people have a divine capacity
within themselves and that they can come to understand that the Kingdom of God
is already upon the earth if they can come to perceive the world that way then
Thomas is Gnostic. But if you mean by Gnostic the religion upon which the Nag
Hammadi texts are based, a religion that differentiates the god of this world
(who is the Jewish god) from a higher more abstract God, a religion that regards
this world as the creation of a series of evil archons/powers who wish to keep
the human soul trapped in an evil physical body then no, Thomas is not Gnostic.
This differentiation is very important, because some scholars reason that if
Thomas is Gnostic (in the first sense) then it is Gnostic (in the second sense)
and, as they believe,Gnosticism (in the second sense) is a second or third
century heresy, they conclude that the Gospel of Thomas is heretical, late in
date, and without very much historical value in regard to Jesus of Nazareth.
What is the basic perspective of the Gospel of Thomas?
It is that
the Kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth now, if people can just come to
see it; and that there is divine light within all people, a light that can
enable them to see the Kingdom of God upon the earth. Further, the perspective
of Thomas is that the Image of God in the beginning (Genesis chapter One) still
exists and people can assume that identity, an identity that is neither male nor
female. The image of God is differentiated from the fallen Adam of Genesis
chapter Two. The Gospel of Thomas advocates that people should restore their
identities as the image of God now, and see the Kingdom of God on earth now.
Thomas reads the first two chapters of Genesis in a straightforward way, there
were two separate creations of mankind; the first is perfect, the second flawed.
Rather than waiting for a future end-time Kingdom to come, Thomas urges people
to return to the perfect Kingdom conditions of Genesis chapter one. For Thomas
Endzeit (the final culmination of things) already existed in the Urzeit (the
primordial creative time of the past).
Does the Gospel of Thomas reflect the views of Jesus?
was once a Q gospel and a Mark gospel. These were revised and combined into a
Matthew gospel and a Luke gospel. So there were four interrelated texts that
testify to a single view of Jesus; that he was a man who predicted the early end
of this world and its violent replacement by a future Kingdom of God. If these
texts have it right, then Thomas is divergent from Jesus' own perspectives. But
there is also a John gospel testifying to the present reality of God's Kingdom
and the presence of the divine in the world. John's gospel, like Thomas' gospel,
focuses on the actuality of the divine in the present. So one must decide for
oneself whether the John/Thomas perspective reflects Jesus' own ideas or whether
Q/Mark and then subsequently the revised versions called Matthew and Luke do so.
What is Q and what does it have to do with Thomas?
If you realize
that Matthew and Luke are revised versions of Mark you will see that an extended
set of sayings are in Matthew and Luke that do not occur in Mark. Those sayings,
it is generally agreed in scholarship, were taken by both Matthew and Luke from
a mid-first century document that consisted of a list of Jesus' sayings. That
document, which German scholars called "Quelle," has come to be known as Q. It
does not exist any longer, but it can be recovered by analysis of Matthew and
Luke (simply put, Q was the written list of sayings that we find both in Matthew
and Luke but not in Mark). Q was nothing more than a list of sayings. The Gospel
of Thomas is also nothing more than a list of sayings. Many of the sayings are
the same, but most of the sayings in Thomas are not in Q. Thomas is the same
sort of thing as Q was but Thomas is not Q. Probably Thomas and Q circulated
separately in the middle or the later part of the first century. Their points of
view are quite different, Thomas stresses the presence of the Kingdom of God
now. Q insists that the Kingdom of God will arrive at some future time.
How Many of the Sayings in the Gospel of Thomas come from Jesus?
knows for sure? If you take the set of sayings that are in Thomas and that are
also in the gospels of Mark or Matthew or Luke (no sayings in Thomas are also in
John) then you have a set of sayings that rather reliably come from Jesus.
Scholars commonly are so influenced by biblical texts that they assume that any
sayings in Thomas that don't sound like sayings in Matthew/Mark/Luke are
therefore not sayings of Jesus. However, it is quite possible that Thomas
retains sayings that the biblical gospels don't retain and, indeed, that Thomas
is more reliable as a guide to the sort of thing Jesus said than the biblical
gospels are. Matthew/Mark/Luke give by and large the same point of view
regarding Jesus as a teacher. Thomas (and to some extent John) gives a somewhat
different point of view. Perhaps Thomas' point of view derives from Jesus
himself. Or, perhaps, not.
Why isn't the Gospel of Thomas in the bible?
We don't know how the
texts in the bible were chosen. Whatever happened occurred principally in the
middle of the second century. However the choices were made, it could well have
been that Thomas was unknown to those who made them. Or there might have been
elements of Thomas that were distasteful to them. Or, given a preference for
narrative biographical gospels, Thomas might have been thought irrelevant. We
know hardly anything about the process of canonical gospel choice.
Will the Gospel of Thomas be added to the bible?
No. The biblical
canon is not open for debate, it is a closed entity. A church that adds Thomas
to its collection of scriptures would move outside the margins of orthodox
Christianity and no well-known denomination has the slightest intention of
adding Thomas to its scriptures.
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