What is it?
The Gospel of Thomas is a fairly short document, purporting to contain ‘the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded‘. Although it contains some quotations common to Matthew and Luke, it is interspersed with other attributions that indicate it was compiled by a sectarian splinter group.
Only 3 specimens survive. Two fragments, written in Greek, were found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, about 100 years ago. The only complete text was found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 and is a Coptic translation, discovered among a hoard of early gnostic writings.
The dating of Thomas is highly conjectural and scholarly opinion varies widely. The Nag Hammadi text dates from around 340 AD. The Oxyrhynchus fragments are dated at around 140 AD, maybe earlier. A number of scholars believe it to be of 1st century authorship.
The fact that it ascribes to James the Just a position in the divine scheme of things that neither he nor Jesus would have endorsed (see below), strongly argues that the earliest feasible date is not until some time after James’ death in 62 AD (cf. Josephus, ‘Antiquities’, 20.9.1). By contrast, we have good evidence that Acts was completed shortly before, or just after this date; and Luke, Mark and the writings of Paul are acknowledged to be even earlier. Hence, on the basis of dating, the New Testament has the prior claim.
Whatever its true date, the claim to be the work of ‘Didymos Judas Thomas’ is not credible. For, although John also refers to ‘Thomas, called Didymus’, the treatment of these as if they were distinct names betrays this unknown author’s ignorance of Aramaic; for ‘Didymus’ is simply a Greek rendering of the Aramaic, ‘Thomas’ (both of which mean, ‘the twin’).
Some people (not scholars, generally!) claim that Thomas is a purer source than the NT gospels, as it was not adulterated. But this is historically testable, and the facts do not bear it out.
Thomas contains numerous sayings that do not appear in any of the Gospel sources. Although some of these could be genuine quotations from Jesus, others are clearly of later origin. For example:
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.”
James the Just was one of Jesus’ brothers. But the gospels tell us that during Jesus’ earthly ministry, his brothers did not even believe in Him (John 7:5, Mark 3:21). Only after his resurrection did they join the church (Acts 1:14), and James gradually rose to prominence, eventually becoming the leading elder of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17, 15:12 and 21:18). It was not until then, years after Jesus’ death, that he gained the nickname ‘the Just’ on account of the fairness with which he handled conflicting Christian, Jewish and Gentile interests. So, quite apart from the improbability of James being the reason for the creation, this quotation is plainly not authentic.
It is also possible to trace the ongoing adulteration of Thomas by comparing the two surviving sources. Look at this statement from the later Nag Hammadi text:
“Jesus said: He who seeks should not stop seeking until he finds; and when he finds, he will be bewildered (beside himself); and when he is bewildered, he will marvel, and will reign over the All.”
The language here is very Gnostic in tone, particularly in its use of the term, ‘the All’. However, the earlier Oxyrhyncus fragments merely say:
“(Jesus says:) Let him who see(ks) not cease (seeking until) he finds; and when he finds (he will) be astounded, and having been (astoun)ded, he will reign; an(d reigning), he will (re)st.”
‘The All’ is clearly a later addition and the expression which it replaced, ‘he will rest” is reminiscent of Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest”. The first part of the saying is likewise similar to Matthew 7:7-8 and Luke 11:9-10, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds … (etc.)”. However, even in the earlier rendering, the idea of astonishment (later bewilderment) as being a necessary step on the road to reigning seems more akin to gnostic thought than to the other known teachings of Jesus.
Therefore, far from suggesting Thomas is a purer source, the evidence indicates that the text has undergone progressive adaptation.
Despite the obviously spurious elements, Thomas is of genuine value to scholars because parts of it appear to be derived from a source similar to those used by the synoptic writers. Where the texts do correspond to the Gospels, these can provide clues as to the exact phrasing of the original Aramaic, as spoken by Jesus. Textual analysis suggests that some quotations may even give a better rendering of the Aramaic than those found in the Gospels: though in other cases, the Gospel versions appear to be better.
Obviously, it is highly desirable to seek the most accurate possible rendering of Jesus’ original words. However, it should always be kept in mind that differences of this type are fairly marginal, and have no greater effect upon the overall message than do the numerous variant readings of modern-day translations.
However, some scholars have attempted to use Thomas as ‘evidence’ to support the theory that both it and the gospels are adapted from an earlier ‘Gospel of Sayings’ that is alleged to have contained the ‘true’ sayings of Jesus. The theory of a ‘Q’ source for the synoptic gospels is discussed elsewhere. What is pertinent here is to consider the extent to which Thomas itself truly supports such a notion.
It is claimed that there is an approximately 30% correlation between sayings found in Thomas and those in Matthew and Luke; and that sayings found in all three come from the Gospel of Sayings. If these sayings were truly known to have come from a single document, this might be a reasonable conclusion. However:
- The ‘Gospel of Sayings’ is a purely hypothetical construct: there is no hard evidence that it ever actually existed.
- Thomas is far shorter than even Mark’s gospel; and this figure means 30% of Thomas: not the other way around. Huge amounts are unlike anything in the gospels.
- A correlation between documents makes it probable that there is some kind of commonality between their sources. It does not tell us how that commonality came about. These sayings are meant to have come from a common source (Jesus himself); so, even if there were many accounts, a significant amount of common material would still be expected. And, as noted before, Luke acknowledges the existence of not just one written source, but many.
- The actual correlation is far more tenuous than these claims suggest. Some passages are very similar: others resemble parts of sayings found in the gospels. But there is no obvious correlation in the order of presentation.
- In view of the above, most scholars are agreed that, whatever source document the writer of Thomas may have used, it was not the same as that used by the Gospel writers.
- The reverse inference made by some advocates of this theory, namely that any saying found in Matthew and Luke, but not Thomas, is not a genuine saying of Jesus, is highly improbable. Rather, it is reasonable to conclude that occurrences of the same saying in two or more of the gospels, but not Thomas, merely casts further doubt on the otherwise unsupported theory that they drew from a single source document.
Note that this is not to say that, amongst the other documents to which Luke alludes, a document similar to Q or the Gospel of Sayings could not have existed and been used as a source: it might have. But such a hypothesis, developed upon the basis of the similarities between these documents, cannot legitimately be treated as if it were an established fact, entitling the user to discard all non-conforming passages as inauthentic. Such an argument is far too circular in its reasoning.
In summary, Thomas is an interesting document of significant value to textual analysts. But, since it has little in the way of documentary attestation, is clearly not what it claims to be and has suffered from adulteration, it has no real theological value. Its supposed source is actually a reconstruction based primarily on the Gospels, so whatever claims to authenticity it can make is dependent on these. Consequently, there is no valid intellectual argument for citing Thomas as grounds for rejecting any material from the NT gospels.