My 2500th Post: The Gospel of Thomas

“Lost” or “forbidden” scriptures are a big thing these days, and have been for some time.  They have certainly played their role in pop culture, in works ranging from The Da Vinci Code and its sequels to horror/suspense movies like Stigmata, to name just a couple.  The Gospel of Judas caused a worldwide sensation when it was translated and published in 2005.  Walk into any large bookstore and you’ll see Elaine Pagels’s classic, The Gnostic Gospels (which arguably started the craze), various publications of the Nag Hammadi scriptures, both individually and as a group, collections such as The Gnostic Bible, and so on.  Of all the various “lost”, “forbidden”, and “Gnostic” scriptures, probably the most famous is The Gospel of Thomas.

The Gospel of Thomas, though short, is a mysterious and intriguing document.  Unlike the canonical gospels of the New Testament, and even some of the other heterodox gospels, The Gospel of Thomas has no narrative.  Instead, it consists of one hundred fourteen logia–sayings–of Christ, addressed mainly to the disciples.  Like the Gospels of Mark and John, Thomas lacks birth stories of Jesus.  Unlike all four canonical gospels, Thomas also lacks any account of the crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as the apocalyptic themes associated with Jesus in the canonical gospels.  About half the logia are parallel to or at least similar to sayings of Jesus in the canonical gospels.  The rest are of unclear origin.

The Gospel of Thomas is often classified as a Gnostic work, but this is uncertain.  Certain of the sayings do have a bit of a Gnostic ring to them; but many do not, and for that matter, some of Jesus’ sayings in the canonical gospels can be read in a Gnostic way.  Certainly, Thomas is completely lacking in any of the accounts of complex cosmology present in many Gnostic works.  Some of the later Church fathers claimed that Thomas was composed by the heresiarch Mani, founder of the Gnostic religion of Manicheanism, or one of his followers.  However, it is unclear that the “Gospel of Thomas” to which they are referring is the same as the one we know by that name (after all, another, more clearly Gnostic work, The Book of Thomas the Contender, also known simply as The Book of Thomas, is known to have been in existence); and if the scholars who claim an early origin for Thomas are correct, it would have pre-dated Mani.

Even the history of The Gospel of Thomas is murky.  Hippolytus and Origen, in the 3rd Centuray, and Eusebius in the 4th Century, quote a few logia and classify the book as heretical; but once more, we do not know if they are referring to the same book we now have.  Fragments of it were discovered in the late 19th Century as part of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri; but since there was no title, it was not known at the time that the approximately twenty logia attributed to Jesus in the fragments were part of a then-unknown gospel.  When The Gospel of Thomas was found among the documents of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945, it was realized that the logia of the earlier Oxyrhynchus Papyri (in which they were written in Greek) belonged to the Gospel of Thomas (written in Coptic, in the Nag Hammadi  version), though the exact phraseology and sequence differed between the two sources.

The date of composition of Thomas and the extent to which it does or does not depend on the canonical gospels are the two most hotly contested issues regarding the document.  The Oxyrhynchus fragments date to between 130 and 250 AD, and the Nag Hammadi manuscript to about 340 AD.  There are sufficient points of difference between the two to indicate a moderate amount of editing took place over time; but then again, the same is true of the canonical gospels, and the books of the Bible as a whole.  As to the contents, and their relationship with the canonical gospels, I won’t rehearse the whole story here.  Suffice it to say that one school holds that Thomas, or at least the core portions of it, was composed in the mid-to late 1st Century.  This would put its composition at about the same time as that of the canonical gospels, and perhaps within the lifetime of the first or second generation of Christians.  This school also tends to argue that the logia of Thomas come from a separate tradition than do the canonical gospels, and thus stand independent of them.

The second school asserts a late composition for Thomas, sometime in the 2nd Century.  This would put its composition some fifty to a hundred years after the last of the canonical gospels was written.  It would also imply, as most of the late school would have it, that Thomas is dependent on the canonical gospels, and thus not indicative of an independent tradition.

I am agnostic on this for the following reasons.  First, there is not an overwhelmingly majority consensus either way, though I think the general view tilts towards a later date (as of this writing, anyway).  Second, there are strong philosophical motivations to hold an early or late date.  The former is appealing to those sympathetic to Gnostic thought, because an early date would support an argument that Gnostic themes date to the earliest days of Christianity, and are not therefore a later aberration.  The latter appeals to those with a preference for orthodoxy, on the grounds that a late date of composition makes likelier the hypothesis that later writers tacked Gnostic themes onto sayings lifted from the canonical gospels.  I’m not saying any of the scholars would intentionally slant their research to support polemical ends; but it’s hard to be aware of one’s subconscious motivations, and when strong motivations could color the interpretations, it’s good to be particularly cautious.  Third, no one doubts the interdependence of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), nor the 1st Century date of composition; but after over one hundred and fifty years, there is still debate as to what the sequence of composition was, and exactly how the three gospels relate to each other (this is the Synoptic Problem).  To me, if they can’t even settle that problem in a century and a half, I’m skeptical, to say the least, of their analyses of Thomas, which in some ways presents even greater difficulties.

I have no strong opinion on these issues myself.  My inclination–only that, an inclination–is to view the core of The Gospel of Thomas as early, as early as the 1st Century, and that it likely represents an independent tradition.  I’m also inclined to think that many of the logia are authentic words of Christ.  It’s interesting that even as unimpeachably traditional a source as the 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia has no trouble asserting the probable authenticity of the logia of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (not then known to be part of The Gospel of Thomas).  That said, I have no idea as to what proportion of the logia are authentic, beyond my tendency to like some of them and be cooler towards others–hardly a scholarly criterion.

So why do I put The Gospel of Thomas in my personal canon?  Well, regular readers know that I’ve written fairly extensively about Gnosticism; that I am to some extent sympathetic to some Gnostic ideas; and that, as I noted here, I have read quite a bit of Gnostic scriptures and literature.  In light of that, it may come as a surprise to some that I don’t actually like most of the ancient Gnostic literature that much.  Much of it is written in very obscure, difficult to understand manners; some (such as the Tripartite Tractate) teach some disturbing notions (e.g. that “hylic” humans–constituting perhaps the majority of humanity–have no souls, and perish utterly); despite the claims of some neo-Gnostics, there is misogyny to be found in some of the Gnostic writings; the complex, almost hallucinatory cosmogonies in many Gnostic works don’t do that much for me; and some stuff is just plain out bizarre (e.g. the elaborate description of the creation of the human body in The Apocryphon of John, in which each body part and the demon that created it is meticulously listed!).

The Gospel of Thomas is an exception No weird cosmologies or cosmogonies; no relegating whole classes of people to non-existence; no freaky stuff, by and large.  In fact, arguably little or no Gnosticism.  By that, I mean that if an objective reader who had little knowledge of Christianity or Gnosticism read Thomas side-by-side with the Gospel of John, for example, it’s unclear if she would assign one to orthodoxy and one to Gnosticism; and if she did, which would go where.  There is some Gnostic-sounding stuff in Thomas, but then again, there is some Gnostic-sounding stuff in the canonical gospels, especially John, and in the epistles of Paul; and on the other hand, there is plenty that’s perfectly orthodox, or capable of orthodox interpretation, in Thomas.  True, many Church Fathers rejected Thomas; but it’s unclear that they were speaking of the same book we are; and given the apparently fluid nature of the text over time, it’s unclear if they rejected it tout court, or because of only some of the logia.

On a more personal level, there is to me a distinct difference of tone.  It’s difficult to put into words, but the best way I can put it is to say something along these lines:  When I read the canonical gospels, I get a very strong sense of personality from words and deeds attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ.  There is a vivid sense of a real individual, speaking to his contemporaries, yes, but speaking also across the millennia, to me.  This despite the imperfections of the manuscripts, the complexities of translation, and the fact that I’m reading his words in a vastly different language and time.  Through the gospels, Christ speaks to me, as vivid, attractive, and enigmatic as ever.  I see why crowds were drawn to him, and why people committed their lives to following him.  As I’ve said before, it is Christ who compels me to be Christian.  There’s plenty enough about the Abrahamic religions–including institutional Christianity, even my own Catholic Church–that I find appalling and abominable; but the person of Christ compels me enough to overcome those reservations, against what would be otherwise my natural instincts.  His voice calls to me down through the ages, and I can not but respond.

I hear at least a bit of that same voice when I read The Gospel of Thomas.  Perhaps not with the same clarity and immediacy; but I definitely hear it, nonetheless.  I do not hear it in the Apocryphon of James or the Pistis Sophia, or the Apocryphon of John, and so on; but I hear it without doubt in Thomas.  Some of the individual logia may leave me uncertain or perplex me (but then again, so do many of Jesus’ sayings in the canonical gospels); and I may not hear Christ speaking to me quite as clearly as through the canonical gospels (though the transmission is sometimes murky there, too); but nonetheless, hear him I do.  I wouldn’t campaign to have Thomas canonized by the Church (an extremely unlikely eventuality, anyway); nor do I put it on quite the same level as the canonical gospels, or base my faith on it in quite the way I do on them.  Still, it is an important book to me, and having read it many times, I find it a useful and salutary supplement to my faith.

For those who are interested in reading The Gospel of Thomas, a good discussion of various English translations can be found here (which suggests as the best the translations of Lambdin and of Meyer).  This site also gives the online texts of some of the translations.  For those who want to compare Thomas with some of the other–and freakier–Gnostic Gospels, The Secret Teachings of Jesus is a good and inexpensive option (though the gender-neutral language–Jesus is referred to as the “Child of Humanity”, rather than the “Son of Man”–may annoy some).  There are several other books with standalone translations of Thomas, too many to list here.  Google it!  For those who want to study Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic writings more deeply, The Gospel of Thomas is in The Gnostic Bible and The Nag Hammadi Library.

I leave you in closing with Saying 2 from Thomas, a good introduction to the rest, and a source of inspiration to me:

Jesus said, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All.”

Part of the series “Your Own Personal Canon

Also part of the series “Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy

Posted on 28/05/2018, in Bible, Christianity, Gnosticism, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Turmarion, I very much enjoyed reading what you had to say about the Gospel of Thomas. I bought a copy of the Nag Hammadi Library in the early eighties. The first time I read within it the Gospel of Thomas, it was breathtaking. After it got going, after each saying I would inwardly nod to myself “Yes, that sounds like him” or “No, this one doesn’t”. Later I did find that some of the latter were in fact in the synoptics. The lack of context tricked me, as well as my own ignorance. It was exciting reading it for the first time and wondering what weird or object of fascination would come next. We already know that about 2/3 of the sayings are very similar to what is in the four gospels. It does not seemingly follow to me that the remaining 1/3 were outright invented 50 to 100 years later. With regard to dating, I would, like Richard Valantasis, place it at the turn of the century at about the same time as the Gospel of John. Elaine Pagels in one of her books explains that it is only in the fourth gospel that Thomas has a speaking part. It is a significant role. People tend to forget that Thomas once says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” in John 11. It seems to me that John is speaking to disciples who are of the same community as the ones who revered the type of emphasis seen in the Gospel of Thomas and is making a play for them. On the other hand, I don’t think that we can say that the Gospel of Thomas was composed at a definite time because it is more of an assembly or compilation of earlier sayings. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is enigmatic and the disciples made to be oblivious to the “Messianic Secret”. The Gospel of Thomas fits right in with this and could be seen to show why this is the case. When I first heard of Kloppenborg’s three strata of Q, I was skeptical that one could discern such detail. Burton Mack pointed out that the Gospel of Thomas incorporates only the first two. It seems to me that means something.

    I love this quote from Harold Bloom.

    “Whatever surges beneath the surface of the Gospel of Thomas, it is not a Syrian Christian wisdom teaching of the second century. The ascetic accepts creation, but always upon the basis of having fallen from it, and always with the hope of being restored to it. That is hardly the aspiration of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas. Like William Blake, like Jakob Böhme, this Jesus is looking for the face he had before the world was made. That marvelous trope I appropriate from W.B. Yeats, at his most Blakean. If such is your quest, then the Gospel of Thomas calls out to you.” -Harold Bloom

    • Glad you liked the post! I really don’t have a fixed opinion on the relationship of Thomas to the Gospel of John, and I’m slightly on the skeptical side as to the very existence of Q (at least in the way it’s usually posited). That said, I certainly agree with you as to how breathtaking Thomas is. I liked the Bloom quote, too–have you read his book, The American Religion, in which he asserts that in effect the real religion of most Americans is Gnosticism?

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