Discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945, the Gospel of Thomas is likely the most famous non-canonical gospel. It contains 114 logia (or sayings) attributed to Jesus Christ in the form of parables and short dialogues with his disciples and other people.
The Gospel of Thomas has been the product of many sensationalist claims and theories. The controversial Jesus Seminar, for example, produced a book called The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (1993) and included Thomas alongside the canonical New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Seminar treated the Gospel of Thomas as a primary and early source for learning about the historical Jesus. According to proponents of this view, Thomas was written as early, if not before, the synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and would therefore provide an earlier or even more genuine presentation of the historical Jesus. However, this is a minority position within scholarship; New Testament scholar Dale Martin explains,
“Most scholars would say it is written before the year 200 [C.E.]. Some scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas goes all the way back to the first century and may even be as early as Mark, Q, or even earlier. The majority of scholars don’t believe that, the majority of us believe that the Gospel of Thomas was first written in Greek in the first half of the second century, so between 100 and 150. But we don’t really know, it’s just a complete guess” (1).
If one accepts the majority view of a later date for this text, then it no doubt proves a valuable source for a second century version of early Christianity and how a specific group of Christians viewed the historical Jesus. But as Martin observed, we cannot have much confidence regarding date of authorship. This is because unlike the canonical gospels the Gospel of Thomas lacks historical narrative as a sayings gospel. Most scholars are able to date texts from history on the basis of their historical narrative, but this is not possible for Thomas. However, although most scholars date Thomas somewhere between 130 and 200 CE, the possibility cannot be dismissed that some of its sayings could date back to the historical Jesus. Regarding authorship, Christ’s original disciple Thomas, who is depicted in the canonical gospels (he adopts the role of an important character in a resurrection story from John but is only listed in the names of the disciples in the synoptics), did not author this text. Instead, Thomas is a later document attributed to the original disciple Thomas.
Similarities and Differences to the Canonical Gospels
There are some similarities between the canonical gospels and the Gospel of Thomas. For example, in Thomas, Christ compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed (saying 20), which is similar to the earlier synoptic gospels, although the synoptics contain a longer version of this same saying (Mark 4:30-32, Matthew 13:31, Luke 13:18-19). Thomas includes parables found in the gospels, such as of the Sower (saying 9), the Wedding Banquet (saying 64), the Tenants (saying 65), and of the Lost Sheep (saying 107). There also seems influence from the Gospel of Matthew on Thomas in sayings 13, 14, and 44, and from Luke on sayings 33, 65, and 104. Saying 13 of Thomas has Christ asking his disciples to “Compare me to something and tell me what I am like”, which sounds similar to Mark 8:29 where Christ asks the disciples “Who do you say I am?” Saying 8 on the “wise fisherman” who cast his net into the sea and managed to draw enough fish to fill his net is probably derived from the author’s knowledge of Luke 5:1–11 and/or John 21:11.
Despite these similarities, most, if not all, of the sayings do not seem to agree completely with the wording found in the canonical gospels. This has led some scholars to suggest that Thomas is an independent source to the canonical gospels, possibly even earlier and containing more primitive sayings. Most other scholars are instead of the view that Thomas’s author probably had knowledge of the canonical gospels and thus included some of their sayings in his own text, which means Thomas’s own sayings are developments of the more primitive sayings from the gospels. Some experts in this field, such as April D. DeConick, have argued that Thomas represents layers of tradition, with an early kernel and later attributions (2).
However, the differences between Thomas and the canonical gospels are too prominent to ignore and this is largely because of Thomas’s Gnostic elements, of which the text includes a number. Although “Gnosticism” and “Gnostic” are debated categories in scholarship (they are seen by many as more of a modern typological construct as opposed to descriptors of historical reality), we will use them here to refer to the theological belief of groups from the second to fourth centuries who typically held the physical world to be evil and the spiritual realm good. Salvation, on this Gnostic view, comes through secret knowledge of the spiritual realm, which liberates the soul from the physical world in which it is imprisoned. In light of this perspective, Thomas contains “hidden” or “secret” knowledge that can lead one to salvation. As Christ purportedly says, “The kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father” (saying 3). Other sayings also seem to hint at a distaste for the physical body (112).
Also important to note is that the text lacks some obvious Gnostic themes common in other Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Judas. There is an omission of celestial beings such as Aeons and Archons that were created by a Supreme God, which somewhat complicates our picture of Thomas.
The Historical Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas
There are some striking omissions in Thomas of what one would expect of a writer familiar with the historical Jesus and the events surrounding his ministry. The Gospel of Thomas provides no description of Christ’s Passion narrative, his death, and resurrection. Nothing in the text hints at these. It is also uncertain if Christ’s activity in Thomas takes place prior to or after his resurrection. We also find a Christ who is very different to the canonical gospels on several levels. There are sayings and teachings in Thomas that find no parallel with the canonicals as in, for example, Thomas’s presenting Christ as teaching the kingdom of God to be the indwelling of light in all things, within people and outside of them, and that when people actualize this inherent ability to perceive through this primordial light, they will perceive the world to be the kingdom of God (saying 3). One would be incredibly hard-pressed to find anything similar to these words in the canonical gospels. Consider a further disparity between Thomas and the synoptics; the passage in Thomas reads,
“His disciples said to him, “When is the kingdom going to come?” Jesus said, “It is not by being waited for that it is going to come. They are not going to say, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and people do not see it” (saying 113).
Here there is no notion of a future coming kingdom, which is taught by Christ in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Instead, Thomas teaches that the kingdom is already here on Earth while our earliest gospel, Mark, has Christ saying that the kingdom of God is yet to come with power (9:1). As such, Thomas is not at all eschatological, as having something to do with the concluding events of history. The author does not believe that Christ’s teachings have anything to do with the future, which marks a huge difference between it and the canonical gospels.
In the synoptics we find Christ’s engagements and interactions with several women. In a particularly memorable case, we find that Christ first appears to his women followers then to the male disciples when he had been resurrected from the dead. Many scholars acknowledge how counterintuitive the gospel authors’ decision was to have Christ first appears to women as opposed to his male disciples. This is because of the patriarchal culture of first-century Palestine in which a woman’s testimony was basically worthless. It is therefore very difficult to explain this away other than to accept the basic premise that Christ valued the testimony of women, which, it can be argued, is in contrast to his views on women in response to Simon Peter in the Gospel of Thomas; saying 114 reads,
“Simon Peter said to them, “Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “See, I am going to attract her to make her male so that she too might become a living spirit that resembles you males. For every female (element) that makes itself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.””
This doesn’t seem much like the Christ of the canonicals who was believed to have appeared first to his women followers. Neither does it sound like the Christ who reached out to vulnerable and unnoticeable women, such as Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:35-43) and the grieving widow (Luke 7:11-17). Consider also that the Christ of the synoptics held women as exemplary models of faith, such as the poor widow who offered coins to the Temple treasury (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4). These examples could be expanded, but it is clear that the Christ of the canonicals is vastly different to the Christ of Thomas.
It is also important to acknowledge that some of the sayings in Thomas puts in the mouth of Christ are difficult if not immune to interpretation. Consider the following two sayings,
“Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human” (saying 7).
“Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom]” (saying 22).
No-one actually knows what the author is trying to have Christ teach his disciples here because there is no context to these sayings. It is possible that saying 22 has something to do with the author’s desire for unity, but this is just a guess and we just do not know due to the obscure and impregnable nature of these sayings.
Historical Reliability and Exclusion From the New Testament
The Gospel of Thomas’s reliability is brought into question for several reasons. A significant issue is that it is preserved on a single Coptic manuscript from the Nag Hammadi Library. This manuscript dates to the fourth century CE. The fewer the manuscripts the far less confident textual critics can be that the one they have represents the original. They simply do not have other manuscripts to draw comparisons.
As noted already, Thomas has not historical narrative and lacks connecting it to the historical events of Christ’s ministry within first-century Palestine. In New Testament scholar John Meier’s view, that the Gospel of Thomas, like the other non-canonical apocryphal gospels, offers scholars any new information on the historical Jesus is “largely fantasy” (3).
But why isn’t it in the New Testament alongside our canonicals? One reason is that the four canonical gospels were already in early circulation prior to Thomas becoming widely known. A papyrus dating to the third century CE (P.45 of P. Chester Beatty I) contains the four canonical gospels and the book of Acts (a follow up to the Gospel of Luke). Thus, at the time the Gospel of Thomas was beginning to circulate the four canonical gospels were already known. It does not seem that the early church wished to include more than these four.
Further, the Gospel of Thomas received a great deal of criticism from early church writers, including big names such as Origen, Eusebius, Jerome, Ambrose, and others. These writers refer to the Gospel of Thomas and claim it to have been a forgery produced by heretics. Although we cannot have absolute certainty that these church writers were referring specifically to the Gospel of Thomas as there were several “Thomasine” texts in circulation, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Book of Thomas the Contender, they do demonstrate opposition to including any more texts in the gospels than the four canonicals.
The Gospel of Thomas is an important text no less, because it evidences the diversity of early Christianity. It is because of Thomas and the other canonical and non-canonical gospels and writings that scholars prefer using the term Christianities (plural) rather than singular Christianity as a way to capture the religion’s diversity. As Dale Martin concludes, the “Nag Hammadi discovery was really very, very exciting because it greatly increased our knowledge of some forms of Christianity as the only thing we knew about them was by orthodox writers condemning it” (4).
1. Yale Courses. 2009. The Gospel of Thomas. Available. [08:50]
2. DeConick, April. 2007. The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation: With a Commentary and New English Translation of the Complete Gospel. A&C Black. p. 8-10.
3. Meier, John. 1994. A Marginal Jew. New York: Doubleday. p. 5.
4. Yale Courses. 2009. Ibid. [07:10]