Gospel of Thomas

Nadia Babich and Hang Nguyen

In 1897, a group of British archeologists on an Egyptian Exploration Fund unearthed a great mass of papyri's fragments from an ancient trash heap at an archeological site known as Oxyrhynchus. Among the different documents, most of the papyri's fragments contained a collection of sayings of Jesus Christ. One of these fragments, POxy 654, had the following inscription: "These are the [secret] sayings, [that] the living Jesus spoke, [and Judas, who is] also (called) Thomas [recorded]" (Kloppenborg et al. 156). POxy 654 as well as the other fragments were recognized by the scholars as the Gospel of Thomas written in Greek.

More than hundred years had passed since the discovery, then in 1945 an Egyptian farmer Muhammed Ali found a large collection of leather-bound codices near the town of Nag Hammadi. This collection of books became to be known as Nag Hammadi library. Among various documents, tracts, and manuscripts, the scholars found a Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas. Today the Greek fragments and the Coptic translation are the only surviving exemplars of the Gospel of Thomas.

The connection between Greek Gospel of Thomas and its Coptic translation was made by French scholar Henri-Chi Puech. According to Kloppenborg et al., "Puech noticed that the sayings of POxy 654 actually corresponded to the Prologue of the first seven sayings of the newly discovered Coptic Gospel of Thomas, the six sayings of POxy 1 to sayings 28-33, and fragmentary sayings of POxy 655 to sayings 37-40". (85) When the junction between the two texts was recognized, scholars began to compare the contents of these texts. After detailed analysis, they concluded that in most cases the identity between the Greek and Coptic versions was word for word. However, because the texts contained some minor differences , they suggested that another Greek recension of the gospel existed from which Coptic Gospel of Thomas was translated.

The discovery of Coptic Gospel of Thomas was a sensation. On the one hand, scholars believed that Matthew and Luke had used some of the sayings of Jesus as their source to fill out the basic outline provided by the Gospel of Mark, which became to be known as Q from a German word Quelle, meaning "source." On the other hand, there was no extent exemplar of such Christian literature genre until the Gospel of Thomas was discovered. According to Kloppenborg et al., the discovery of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas provided scholars with "an example of what many had argued was one of the oldest known forms of Christian literature: the saying's collection." (84). For other scholars, the Gospel of Thomas may have duplicated the form and content in the synoptic gospel. For this reason, the dating of the Gospel of Thomas had been a difficult task to accomplish. Many scholars had set the date near the end of first century or early second century but it's possible that it was written as early as 70 - 80 C.E. due to its primitive form of writings and unparalleled contents.

Another controversy dealing with the Gospel of Thomas is the question about the identity of Judas Thomas, who is also known as Didymus Judas Thomas. The name "Thomas" is an Aramaic word for "twin," and the Greek word "Didymus" means twin. (Koester 79) Based on Puech's observations, the name Didymus Judas Thomas that is found in the Prologue to the Coptic Gospel of Thomas is associated with Christianity, developed in eastern Syria and India. Although some scholars disagree with Puech's ideas, "he thinks the parallel is so striking as to suggest a literary relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thomas." (Patterson 119) For some people, not only was he a missionary, but also as the one of the twelve apostles and even as farfetched as the brother of Jesus. Indeed, Thomas has appeared in the lists of the "Twelve" in Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; and Acts 1:13. In John 20: 24-28, Thomas is referred to as "Unbelieving Thomas" and in John 14:22 of Syrian translation, he is addressed as "Judas, not the Iscarioth." (Koester 79) Based on Koester, Thomas is the representative of Judas, the Twin, and brother of Jesus and James in the Eastern Church traditions. (80) Lastly, Thomas is known as an apostle who knows the secret wisdom of Jesus but no family relationship between him and Jesus.

To most scholars, the Gospel of Thomas is the most extensive and important non-canonical collection of sayings of Jesus. Often, the sayings begin with the words, "Jesus said." Set in an unknown location with no particular audience, there is no mention of Jesus' enemies or his miracles. Occasionally, the disciples ask questions, a literary device to break up the sayings of Jesus. As the collection of Jesus' sayings, the Gospel of Thomas differs from the four traditional gospels in many ways. The content is one of the major differences. The Gospel of Thomas does not contain any narrative stories about Jesus' death and resurrection. Furthermore, it presumes that "Jesus' significance lay in his words, and in his words alone." (Koester 86). As Helmut Koester also points out, "The sayings of the Gospel of Thomas consist for the most part of aphorisms, proverbs, wisdom sayings, parables, prophetic sayings about the 'the kingdom of the Father,' and community rules. 'Wisdom' is the theme of this writing." (80).

As the collection of wisdom, the Gospel of Thomas contains large number of proverbs that reveals the nature of the people, their behaviors, their world, and their lives. It also has parables that focus on the topic of willful poverty. The first set of parables talks about material gain and how one should reject self indulgences and personal gain to live a simple life through self-knowledge, because those who value material possessions like the "buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my Father." (Thomas 64). In the second set of parables, Thomas emphasizes on how one should earn a living and ignore everyday common sense and logic. This category of parables includes the story about a fisherman (Thomas 8), about a merchant (Thomas 76), and about a shepherd (Thomas 107). In Thomas 76, the merchant has made a very bad business decision when he sells all of his merchandise to obtain a pearl , but because of his lack of interest in gaining money and power, he has gained his respect and place with God through the view of Thomas.

However, Thomas' wisdom goes far beyond what may seem to be familiar and obvious. It extends to something that is hidden and must be found. These secrets can only be revealed through careful self searching. Unlike the four traditional gospels, the Gospel of Thomas has three major emphases which are "wisdom speculation, paradise regained, and sexual asceticism," which flow directly from one to another. (Crossan 31).

In the Gospel of Thomas, the wisdom links the themes of creation, wisdom, light, and image. In Thomas, Jesus announces himself as the creator and the light of wisdom. For instance, he says, "I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained." (Thomas 77.1). In addition, Thomas connects the combination of primordial light and worldly image to the believer. In Thomas 50, Jesus says, "If they say to you, 'Where have you come from?' say to them, 'We have come from the light.'"

In passage 49, the paradise regained is strongly emphasized, where Jesus says, "Blessed are those who are alone and chosen, for you will find the kingdom. For you have come from it, and you will return there again." Here Thomas speaks not about "the arrival of the end" but rather about "the return of the beginning." (Crossan 32). Even more important, it says that believers will not only return to the paradise but that they come from it. It stresses about the origin of life and also that "the Kingdom is, like wisdom, both inside and outside of the believer, both an internal gift and a cosmic presence." (Crossan 33).

The third major emphasis of the Gospel of Thomas is sexual asceticism, which flows directly from the second one. It is a "paradise regained in practice." (Crossan 33). By stressing the word "single one", Thomas makes it to be equivalent to "saved one" and says that man was originally a "single one" but became "two." In order for him to return to the original state, he must become a "single one" again. Moreover, Thomas mentions that women may be part of the group if they deny what is feminine and "unworthy" and "make themselves male." "Accepting the life of asceticism meant cropping the hair close, accepting male dress, and in extreme cases, physical emaciation of the extent that the female bodily functions and characteristics all but disappear." (Patterson 154).

These three major themes of the Gospel of Thomas are not present in the four canonical gospels. As a result, the Gospel of Thomas is certainly placed among the other writings of the Gnostics and ascetic literature. However, it is hard to tell which view Thomas shares the most. From the Crossan's point of view, "the gospel is primarily concerned with asceticism rather than Gnosticism or even drawn more and more deeply into its sphere, in itself it still stands on the borders between Catholic and Gnostic Christianity." (31).

Despite all the differences, the Gospel of Thomas has a large number of parallels in the synoptic gospels. Stephen J. Patterson divides them into three major groups: synoptic twins, synoptic siblings, and synoptic cousins. Synoptic twins have very close parallels in the synoptic test but "each version has developed in the ways that are unique." (17). Synoptic siblings, on the other hand, have loose parallels in the synoptic text. They share only "a common structure and outline, a common thought, and sometimes key vocabulary." (18). Finally, the third group, the synoptic cousins, consist of the sayings that "have no synoptic parallels, but which, in terms of traditional form and content, offer no grounds for distinguishing them chronologically or topically from sayings in the synoptic tradition itself." (18).

However, the large number of parallels does not mean that Thomas is dependent upon the synoptic gospels. On the contrary, many scholars have agreed that Thomas presents totally different independent tradition. According to Crossan, there are two major reasons why Thomas is considered to be independent. First, "Thomas itself has no compositional order or sequence and would therefore have had no reason to reorder the sequence of the sayings borrowed from other gospels." (35). Second, "There is little real profit in comparing the context of a unit in Thomas and its parallel within one of the intracanonical gospels, and then arguing which came from which." (36). In addition, the parables and sayings that appear in the Gospel of Thomas are more primitive form than in any of the synoptic parallels.

In short, the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, which has been translated from Greek originals, is a collection of Jesus Christ's sayings without any narration. Along with the sensational discovery, controversies about the date of the Gospel of Thomas and his identity are still unresolved issues among the scholars. The differences between Thomas and the canonical gospels are the fact that most of the sayings are in the form of parables and proverbs that emphasize on wisdom speculation, paradise regained, sexual asceticism, self-knowledge, material gain, willful poverty, and methods of earning a living. Some of the writings of Thomas appears to have a connection with both Gnosticism and asceticism but no apparent parallels. Although there are many sayings that are both synoptic twins and siblings, others have no parallels and are independent from the synoptic gospels that some scholars think that the Gospel of Thomas is Q.

Work Cited

Crossan, John. Four Other Gospels, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

Kloppenborg, John, Marvin Meyer, Stephen Patterson, and Michael Steinhauser, Thomas Reader, Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1990

Patterson, Stephen, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus, Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1993

Koester, Helmut, Ancient Christian Gospels, Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990


May 11, 1996

prepared for Intro. to the New Testament
by Nadia Babich and Hang Nguyen babichn@albsun3.alb.edu