Gospel of Thomas
|Light iron-age reading|
|Gabbin' with God|
The Gospel of Thomas, one of the Nag Hammadi texts, is a logia (collection of sayings) attributed to Jesus. Scholars generally fall into two camps on the question of dating the source: an "early camp" who date it between 50-100 CE and a "late camp" who date it to the middle of the 2nd century.[Note 1]
Because it is a collection of sayings without any external framework contextualizing or politicizing the quotes, some modern scholars accept it to be as reliable a source of the historical Jesus's true words as the other 3 synoptic gospels. However, no Christian Church accepts it as a canonical text, though it does contain a few passages that echo verses in the canonical gospels.
In 2023, a pair of rare 2nd century CE papyrus fragments was finally translated, part of a massive trove of fragments that had been excavated a century earlier. The fragments contained text attributed to Jesus that corresponded to passages in Matthew and Mark, but also to passages in Thomas that were not in any other known gospel.
Content and themes
The Gospel comes from the Gnostic tradition, which implies a secret tradition reserved for special students.
Though there is no commentary or interwoven story to accompany them, the quotes alone provide quite a different character of Jesus from the traditional portrayals of Jesus as political activist or moral guide. This Jesus is less concerned with the political and religio-political revolution than in teaching adherents about the true path to God and eternity.
A different Jesus
The gospel of Thomas portrays Jesus as a mystic rather than a moralist.
Like mystics in other religions, Jesus says here that spirituality is something you find within, after contemplation and separation from the worldly. Like that of other mystical writers, little of what Jesus says is simplistic, straightforward, or at all logical. For example, Jesus is quoted as saying:
“”If your leaders say to you, "Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky," then the birds of the sky will precede you.
If they say to you, "It is in the sea," then the fish will precede you.
Rather, the (Father's) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.
When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father.But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.
Plus this gem:
“”Whoever does not hate his father and his mother as I do cannot become a disciple to me. And whoever does not love his father and mother as I do cannot become a disciple to me.
A different theology
For the character of Jesus in Thomas, the Kingdom of Heaven is something within each person that can be directly obtained without priest or cleric. The Kingdom of Heaven is not based on worshipping the right way or on behaving the right way, nor is it based on the condemnation of sin.
- His disciples asked him and said to him, "Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity? What diet should we observe?". Jesus said, "Don't lie, and don't do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed."
- Jesus said to them, "If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.
- His disciples said to him, "Is circumcision useful or not?". He said to them, "If it were useful, their father would produce children already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become profitable in every respect."
Jesus here favors other disciples rather than Peter. This makes sense, as verses like Matthew 16:18-19 and John 21:15-17 are considered interpolations, possibly to make the Church of Rome seem superior to the other churches.
12. The disciples said to Jesus, "We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?" Jesus said to them, "No matter where you are you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being."
He later tells Thomas something, and when the other disciples ask what he said: 13. Thomas said to them, "If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you."
46. Jesus said, "From Adam to John the Baptist, among those born of women, no one is so much greater than John the Baptist that his eyes should not be averted. But I have said that whoever among you becomes a child will recognize the (Father's) kingdom and will become greater than John."
An interesting aspect of the Gospel of Thomas is the role of female disciples. In verse 61, Jesus accepts Salome when she declares herself a disciple. Mary Magdalene is mentioned a few times in the Gospel, but nothing of note is said to demonstrate how these women are distinct from any of the other disciples. Some scholars and feminist writers have suggested that they are simply another of the handful of Jesus’ students, and that He accepted them without commentary.
Plus, there is this verse:
22. Jesus said to them, "(You will enter the Father’s kingdom) 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].”
That said, the final verse reads as thus:
114. Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life." Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven."
To be fair, The Gnostic Society Library argues that verse was “probably added to the original collection at a later date.”
The author of the Gospel seems to have a thing for nudity, writing:
21. Mary said to Jesus, "What are your disciples like?" He said, "They are like little children living in a field that is not theirs. When the owners of the field come, they will say, 'Give us back our field.' They take off their clothes in front of them in order to give it back to them, and they return their field to them.”
People who wear clothes apparently can’t see the truth:
37. His disciples said, "When will you appear to us, and when will we see you?" Jesus said, "When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample them, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid."
78. Jesus said, "Why have you come out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind? And to see a person dressed in soft clothes, [like your] rulers and your powerful ones? They are dressed in soft clothes, and they cannot understand truth."
It claims at the start that the sayings of Jesus were written down by "Didymos Judas Thomas", namely the Apostle Thomas, who is also called Didymos (twin) and Jude or Judas, as well as being known as Doubting Thomas for his most notable appearance in the New Testament. It is very hard to date, because the sayings of Jesus presumably date before his alleged crucifixion (c. 30-40 CE), but they would have been collected later, and possibly subject to further editing after that. Assuming a later dating (2nd century CE), it couldn't have been put together by Thomas who was a contemporary of Jesus. Due to its contents, it is widely believed to have its origins in some heterodox form of Christianity, possibly Gnosticism (suggesting 2nd/early 3rd century when Gnosticism was big); in the 4th century, Cyril of Jerusalem claimed it was written by a disciple of the 3rd-century Gnostic-influenced heretic Mani (founder of Manichaeism) and therefore you shouldn't read it. There's no particular reason to believe that either, but to be fair nobody really knows who wrote any of the other gospels.
- The dating of any biblical text is generally a complex argument involving archaeological evidence including other writings that reference it, traditional positioning of the book, literary analysis, and of course modern church politics. Wikipedia gives an in depth outline of the dating issues.
- Perhaps Thomas is a threat to Christians precisely because Jesus removes the Church's authority to tell others what to do?
- Funk, Robert Walter and Roy W. Hoover, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? the Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Polebridge Press, 1993
- Koester, Helmut; Lambdin (translator), Thomas O. (1996). The Gospel of Thomas. In Robinson, James MacConkey. The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Revised ed.). Leiden, New York, Cologne: E. J. Brill. p. 125. ISBN 9004088563
- Scholars Publish New Papyrus With Early Sayings of Jesus: Papyrologists date the fragment to the second century CE, making it one of the earliest examples of Christian writing, even before the formation of the New Testament. by Candida Moss (Aug. 31, 2023 4:11PM EDT) Daily Beast.
- Gospel of Thomas v. 3
- Thomas, v. 101
- Thomas, v. 6
- Thomas, v. 14
- The Gospel of Thomas, Frontline, PBS
- Catechetical Lecture 6, Cyril of Jerusalem, newadvent.org