Is the Gospel of Thomas a Valuable Source for the Historical Jesus?

The Gospel of Thomas is a Gnostic text dated to the first half of the second century CE. The Gnostics were a religious group that believed human beings to be divine souls trapped in the ordinary physical world.

The Gospel of Thomas (henceforth referred to as GoT) is perhaps the most widely known and controversial text produced by this group. What should we make of this text? This article will briefly argue that the GoT should not be considered alongside the four canonical gospels as equal or superior in terms of value in its attestation to the historical Jesus and his sayings.

The GoT has been brought to attention through the efforts of the Jesus Seminar, a small group of biblical scholars, who have presented several controversial views about this text. One such view is their dating the GoT in the first century, which is the period the canonical gospels were written. This view is expressed in The Five Gospels produced by the Jesus Seminar but has not gained any form of consensus in general New Testament scholarship. In here lies the first issue, which is that the GoT is dependent on the much earlier canonical gospels of New Testament. It is therefore considerably later. Sayings 10 and 16 in the GoT are said to be redactions of Luke 12:49, 51-52, and Matthew 10:34-35. It also 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 to be influence from the Gospel of Matthew on the GoT in sayings 13, 14, and 44, and from Luke on sayings 33, 65, and 104. This suggests that the author of the GoT (who was not Thomas the original disciple) is writing at a later time than when the canonical gospels were produced. In fact, the GoT is significantly removed from the life and death of Jesus by roughly a century or more. This should give us pause when we compare the value of the GoT to that of the earlier canonical gospels.

Second, there are considerable differences between the philsophical and theological outlooks between the canonical gospels and the GoT. Salvation, on the 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, the GoT contains “hidden” or “secret” knowledge that can lead one to salvation. As Jesus 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). Such is in contrast to what we find in the canonical gospels, which raises the question as to how accurate the sayings ascribed to Jesus in the GoT are.

Further, there is a lack of history in the GoT that is problematic when compared to the canonical accounts. The GoT is first and foremost a selection of some 114 sayings (logia) ascribed to the historical Jesus. But compared to the canonical gospels, there is a lack of travel scenes and references to cities or towns like Galilee or Jerusalem. The canonical authors evidence a greater familiarity with the time and place of Jesus.

There are also considerable differences in the portrayal of the historical Jesus. The author of the GoT omits many details that we would expect of a writer familiar with the historical Jesus and the events surrounding his ministry. The author of the GoT provides no description of Jesus’ Passion narrative, death, and resurrection. It is also uncertain if Jesus’ activity in the GoT takes place before or after his resurrection. There are many sayings and teachings in the GoT that find no parallel to the canonicals as in, for example, presenting Jesus 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 the GoT and the canonical gospels; 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 Jesus in MarkMatthew, and Luke. Instead, the GoT teaches that the kingdom is already here on Earth while the earliest gospel, Mark, has Jesus saying that the kingdom of God is yet to come with power (9:1). The GoT is not at all eschatological, as having something to do with the concluding events of history. The author does not believe that Jesus’ teachings have anything to do with the future, which marks a huge difference between it and the canonical gospels. The general rule of thumb is that the earlier the source the more likely it will be historical. Here we should trust the representation(s) of Jesus in the canonical gospels before we give the nod to the GoT.

In brief, we have observed just a few reasons why we should not consider the GoT as equal or superior to the canonical gospels in terms of value in its attestation to the historical Jesus and his sayings. First, the GoT is considerably later and a whole century removed from the historical Jesus. Second, there are considerable differences in theology between the canonical gospels and the GoT and, third, there are striking differences between their portrayals of the historical Jesus. Given that we should treat earlier sources with primacy, we should view the GoT as less reliable than the canonical gospels.

 

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