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 because it adds to our knowledge of what Jesus said and taught. It is the most significant manuscript ever found for the history of earliest Christianity.
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 Greek versions of the Gospel of Thomas were found in Oxyrhynchus Egypt about one hundred years ago and these can be dated to about 170 A.D. or so. 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. Thus most, if not all, of the Gospel of Thomas was written prior to the middle of the second century A. D.
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). Jesus teaches, in the Gospel of Thomas, that people have the potential to be as he is, to be a child of God, and therefore from that perspective Jesus is not a uniquely divine person but a role model for all people.
Does the Gospel of Thomas reflect the views of Jesus?
Maybe. There 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, within people and outside of them spread upon the world and that the Kingdom must be found by diligent search and inquiry. Q insists that the Kingdom of God will arrive at some future time, immediately visible to everyone, but that only a few will be allowed to enter.
How Many of the Sayings in the Gospel of Thomas come from Jesus?
Who 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. It is possible, of course, that a non-orthodox new denomination might arise that would include Thomas, but this hasn't yet happened.
How can I learn more about the Gospel of Thomas?
You can always go to the Gospel of Thomas homepage and read essays that are there,
or you could get my book on the Gospel of Thomas
called The Gospel of Thomas Annotated and Explained at Amazon.com or elsewhere.
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