Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary
In the 1990s, the well-known Jesus Seminar voted on the authenticity of all of the sayings and deeds ascribed to Jesus in the five Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Thomas. In the church known as the Unity School of Christianity, Sunday morning Gospel lessons are sometimes taken from the Gospel of Thomas. And in her recent best-seller, Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels rejects orthodox Christianity in favor of the more attractive religion she thinks she finds in this non-canonical Gospel.1 Just what is the Gospel of Thomas and why is it so heralded in certain circles these days?
To begin with, we must distinguish the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, which features in our three introductory examples, from a third-century apocryphal work often called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which contains fanciful miracles attributed to Jesus, the "boy wonder." The Coptic Thomas forms part of the Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of scrolls found at a site by that name near Chenoboskion, Egypt, just after World War II. This "library" contains primarily, though not exclusively, Gnostic works written in Coptic, the language of ancient Egypt and parts of Ethiopia.
Gnosticism is a hybrid religion or philosophy that began with Plato's radical dualism, sharply differentiating between the material and immaterial worlds and finding only the latter redeemable. It mixed in a few Jewish concepts, quite a few Christian ones and a pinch of additional Greek philosophy. The result was a world view, represented by a variety of sects with varying beliefs, centered on the conviction that the creation of this universe was an act of rebellion by a lesser "god" (more technically, an "emanation" from the original Godhead). Redemption involves recognizing the spark of divinity that lies (or may lie) within one and fanning it into flame through secret "knowledge" (Greek, gnôsis). Because matter was inherently evil, most Gnostics became ascetics but a few opted for hedonism. Almost all readily accepted the deity of Jesus (though they understood his deity in terms of their Greek philosophy) but balked at the notion of his humanity. They could not see how God could become truly human since they believed this would make him evil. Jesus redeemed people, therefore, not by dying a substitutionary death as a fully human being but by appearing to be human and revealing the truth about the nature of humanity and the universe that enables the elite who accept the truth to transcend this evil world.
Most of the Nag Hammadi texts that are called Gospels are little more than extensive dialogues supposedly between Jesus and various followers, primarily in secret settings after the resurrection, with language and concepts that bear little resemblance to the New Testament. Most of these documents do not predate the third century A.D. But Thomas is different. It is made up of 114 consecutive sayings of Jesus, more than half of them introduced with nothing more than, "Jesus said..." Although the rest of the sayings come with brief indications of a setting, topic or dialogue partner, only periodically do even two or three few consecutive passages clearly belong together. Most of the document resembles what one finds, in part, in other Jewish or Greco-Roman sources—epitomes of the "best" of the teachings of a famous rabbi or philosopher as recalled by one or more of his followers.
The existing Coptic Thomas is fourth or fifth century in origin, but fragments of a Greek document discovered in the late 1800s at another Egyptian location called Oxyrhynchus and dating to the second century have turned out to represent portions of an older edition of Thomas. Thomas is therefore the oldest known non-canonical "Gospel" that has survived in any ancient language except perhaps for a few tiny fragments of one or two other documents.
Thomas differs from the other non-canonical Gospels also in that almost half of his sayings find at least a partial parallel somewhere in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Thomas 34, for example, declares, "Jesus said, 'If a blind man leads a blind man, they will both fall into a pit'" (cf. Matt. 15:14).2 Saying 44 reads, "whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the Son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven" (cf. Mark 3:28-29). And Thomas 48 announces, "If you make peace with each other in this one house, they will say to the mountain, 'Move away,' and it will move away" (cf. Mark 11:23).
Almost a third of Thomas's sayings are fairly clearly Gnostic in origin. Thus saying 3b states, "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. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty." Again, Thomas 29 proclaims, "If the flesh came into being because of spirit, it is a wonder. But if spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty." In other words, it is amazing that the corruptible could come from the incorruptible, but it would be even more amazing if it were the other way around.
The rest of Thomas' teachings are neither demonstrably orthodox nor necessarily Gnostic. Most are ambiguous enough that they could be taken in a variety of ways. Take, for example, the shortest of the sayings in this document (saying 42): "Become passers-by." Does this mean that one should treat this fallen world as if one were just a visitor passing by it? The Jesus of the New Testament could have taught that. Or does it deal with the material universe as something from which people should long to free themselves? Now the saying becomes Gnostic. Or consider saying 56: "Whoever has come to understand the world has found (only) a corpse, and whoever has found a corpse is superior to the world." Does this mean that if people worship the fallen world system they will die, while those who recognize that they will die (and avoid serving mammon) will escape from sin? Jesus could have taught that. Or, contrary to Christian thought, does it mean that whoever clings to the material body holds on only to that which will die but that at least this is better than trying to hold on to the whole material world? Or does it mean something different altogether?
This third category of sayings has particularly intrigued scholars. Might some of the more orthodox-sounding teachings reflect genuine sayings of Jesus, not preserved elsewhere? Some of Thomas's sayings that have the "ring" of the historical Jesus include saying 98—a parable: "The Kingdom of the Father is like a certain man who wanted to kill a powerful man. In his own house he drew his sword and stuck it into the wall in order to find out whether his hand could carry through. Then he slew the powerful man." One thinks especially of the parables of the tower builder and king going to war in Luke 14:28-32. Or consider saying 82: "he who is near Me is near the fire, and he who is far from Me is far from the Kingdom." Even the Jesus Seminar, though, did not place much stock in Thomas' unparalleled sayings.
The only ones they were particularly impressed with were paralleled texts, particularly parables, which appear shorter and less allegorical in Thomas. If length and detail are signs of developing tradition, then the Synoptic accounts must come later than Thomas, which may thus be dated to the mid-first century. But in fact the continuing oral tradition of Jesus' teachings abbreviated and eliminated allegorical elements more often than it added them, so at best these criteria prove inconclusive. Nicholas Perrin, moreover, has made a compelling case for the view that Thomas originated in Syriac, in dependence on the earliest known harmonization of the four canonical Gospels, Tatian's Diatessaron (ca. A.D. 180). By translating the existing Coptic into Syriac, Perrin was able to demonstrate that the reason for Thomas's seemingly random sequence of sayings was that each was linked to the next often only by one or more "catchwords"—a pattern that is observable only about half of the time in the Coptic and Greek versions of this Gospel.3
Thomas, or Gnosticism more generally, can at first glance appear more "enlightened" from a modern (or postmodern) perspective than parts of the New Testament. But if one is going to accept a Gnostic world view, one has to take all of it. And the final saying of this enigmatic Gospel has Peter telling Jesus and the other disciples, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus replies, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven." Modern appropriations of Thomas seldom incorporate this perspective! Indeed, Thomas can appear superior to the canonical Gospels only by highly selective usage of its teachings. Despite what some may claim, it does not open any significant window into first-century Christian history and origins, only into its later corruption.4
1Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Vintage, 2003).
2All quotations come from James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, rev. 1997).
3Nicholas Perrin, Thomas and Tatian (Atlanta: SBL, 2002).
4See esp. Michael Fieger, Das Thomasevangelium (Münster: Aschendorff, 1991). Cf. Christopher Tuckett, "Thomas and the Synoptics," Novum Testamentum 30 (1988): 132-57; and Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Nelson, 2006).