by Ryan Turner
The following are some common questions that people often have about the Gospel of Thomas. I will add and expand on these questions as new ones come up in discussion.
What is the Gospel of Thomas?
The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus that was discovered in 1945 at the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Before the Nag Hammadi discovery, very little was known about the Gospel of Thomas other than three small fragments from Oxyrynchus that date to 200 A.D. and roughly a half dozen allusions from church fathers. The manuscripts discovered at Nag Hammadi dates to around 340 A.D. though the original composition of the Gospel of Thomas was definitely before that time probable sometime around 140 to 180 A.D.
Who wrote the Gospel of Thomas?
It was probably someone in the second century who had an admiration of James (see saying 12), the brother of Jesus, who died in 62 A.D.1 This reverence for James is seen in various places in the Gospel of Thomas. It also probably was a person who group who admired the apostle Thomas and had some sort of Gnostic or Syrian Christian influence.
How is the Gospel of Thomas different from the New Testament Gospels?
Differences between the Gospel of
|Jesus||A wise teacher: divine, but not necessarily human||Divine and Human (Mt. 14:33; Mk. 2:5-10; Lk. 22:67-71; Jn. 1:1, 14).|
|Messiah||Jesus is not the Messiah predicted by the Jewish prophets (52).||Jesus is the Messiah of the Old Testament prophets.|
|Salvation||By learning secret knowledge (39) and looking inward (70).||By looking outward in faith to Jesus (Mark 5:34; Luke 7:51;John 6:47).|
|The Kingdom of God||Internal only||Internal aspect (Lk. 17:21), but also a clearly imminent, literal, future expectation (Lk. 9:27; 10:9).|
|The Nature of God||Many gods (30); possibly even some form of pantheism (77).||One God (Mk. 12:29)|
|Man||Capable of saving himself by learning secret knowledge and looking inward (3, 70).||Incapable of saving himself; must look outward to Jesus (Jn. 6:47).|
|Physical Body||The physical body is bad, but the spiritual is good (114).||The physical body is not inherently evil since it will be resurrected (Lk. 24:39; Jn. 2:19-21).|
|Historical Context||Gnostic and/or Syrian Christianity of 2nd Century||1st Century Jewish Palestine|
|Church or Community||No clear mention of a community context.||Mention of community context and order (Mt. 18:15-20).|
|Death and Resurrection||Not central to message.||Central to message (Mt. 12:39-40; John 2:19-21;).|
|View of Women||Strongly anti-feminine (114)||Pro-feminine (Gospel of Mark).|
|Old Testament||No references; Jesus does not fulfill Scripture (52).||Many references (Mt. 4:4; Mk. 14:27; Lk. 4:8; Jn. 10:35). Jesus fulfills Scripture.|
|Thomas||Receives a special place amongst the disciples by learning secret knowledge.||No evidence of Thomas receiving special knowledge compared to the other disciples: Peter, James, and John part of the inner circle (Mt. 17:1; Mk. 13:3; Lk. 8:51).|
Note: It is difficult to figure out the Gospel of Thomas’s exact views on all of these subject areas, but the above list is a general overview.
Is the Gospel of Thomas a Gnostic Gospel?
There is debate within the scholarly community regarding whether the Gospel of Thomas is a Gnostic document. In fact, the reputable Gnostic scholar, Elaine Pagels, changed her views after years of studying the Gospel of Thomas. She know thinks that it is not a Gnostic document. However, in line with many other scholars, it seems best to conclude that it at least contains some Gnostic like ideas such as salvation by secret knowledge, the extreme asceticism or disdain for the bodily appetites, polytheism, the reference to the bridal chamber, the idea of a heavenly teaching Christ who may not necessarily be human, etc. Thomas also places little emphasis on the value of the Old Testament Scriptures. This was certainly in line with Gnostic thinking. Even if Thomas is not Gnostic, it appears to have vast similarities with “Gnosticism” as broadly defined.
Should the Gospel of Thomas be in the New Testament?
The short answer is “No.” The Gospels in the New Testament were either written by apostles (Matthew and John) or associates of the apostles (Mark and Luke). The Gospel of Thomas, however, is a second century work that was written well after the apostles lived. The reasons scholars argue for this late date is because Thomas depends and/or makes allusions to New Testament books including even late ones like the Gospel of John which was written around 90-100 A.D. Thomas also shows likely evidence of having been influenced by second century Syrian Christianity even such Syrian works as the Diatessaron which dates from 175 A.D.2 If this is the case, Thomas would be dated in the late second century. (For more information, see the article: Does the Gospel of Thomas belong in the New Testament?) For these reasons among others, the Gospel of Thomas was rightfully rejected by the church for inclusion in the New Testament canon.
When was the Gospel of Thomas written?
It is difficult to know the exact date of the Gospel of Thomas, but one should probably date it to 140-180 A.D. since it references second century Gnostic-like ideas, references the New Testament texts, and possibly has late second century Syrian Christianity influence. Our earliest manuscript fragment from part of the Gospel of Thomas dates to around 200 A.D. so Thomas definitely was written before that time.
- 1.Ben Witherington, What have they done with Jesus?, San Francisco, HarperCollins, 2006, p. 32.
- 2.Craig A. Evans,“The Apocryphal Jesus: Assessing the Possibilities and Problems,” Craig A. Evans and Emanuel Tov, eds., Exploring the Origins of the Bible: Canon Formation in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008, pp. 147-72.