by Ryan Turner
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 date to around 340 A.D., though the original composition of the Gospel of Thomas was definitely before that time, probably sometime around 140 to 180 A.D.
The Date of Thomas
Even though the Gospel of Thomas is perhaps the earliest, most popular, and best "Gnostic" Gospel around, it does not belong in the New Testament since it was written in the second century at a time when all of the apostles of Christianity had already died. This second century date of composition is demonstrated by (1) its dependence on more than half of the New Testament writings, (2) its likely mid to late second century Syrian influence, (3) its heretical nature with Gnostic overtones, (4) its lack of references from early church fathers or first century witnesses, (5) its disagreements and variations from the first century context of the New Testament gospels, and (6) its self-conscious promotion as an apostolic book which reflects a later time period. In fact, even many adherents to a first-century origin for the Gospel of Thomas argue that, in its present form, Thomas reflects later editing.
Though the final composition of the Gospel of Thomas is likely in the second century, there may be some traditions in Thomas that date back to the first century and may be independent of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). However, by and large, the Gospel of Thomas does not really give us much new information about the historical Jesus compared to what is already found in the New Testament Gospels. The Gospel of Thomas, as we shall see, is not “The Fifth Gospel” or an earlier or more reliable source for Jesus than the New Testament Gospels which were written in the first century sometime between 55-100 A.D.
The Key Criteria for Canonicity: Apostolicity
The reason that there are only four gospels in the New Testament is because these were the only first century gospels available to the early Church, as far as scholars can currently tell, that were written either by (1) an apostle or (2) an associate of an apostle. Though each of the New Testament Gospels was written anonymously, there was a strong tradition connecting each of them to apostles (Matthew and John) or associates of apostles (Mark was an associate of Peter; Luke was an associate of Paul). An apostle was someone who knew the historical Jesus or had seen an appearance of the risen Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1).
The Case for a Second Century date for Thomas
1. Dependence on the 1st Century New Testament Writings
First, the Gospel of Thomas shows dependence on the first century New Testament writings, even parts of the Gospel of Mark that were edited by Matthew and Luke.1 Craig Evans notes that the Gospel of Thomas quotes or alludes to more than half of the New Testament writings including Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 John, and Revelation.2 This dependence indicates that the Gospel of Thomas was probably written sometime in the second century, especially since its references include later first century works such as the Gospel of John and Revelation. Evans notes, “I’m now aware of a Christian writing prior to AD 150 that references this much of the New Testament (36).”3 For example, the Epistles of Ignatius, which were written around A.D. 110, do not quote half as much material as Thomas does.
2. Possible 2nd Century Syrian Influence
Second, the Gospel of Thomas also shows evidence of having been influenced by Syrian Christianity, which, as far as scholars can tell, did not exist as a movement until the second century A.D. There are a number of reasons why Thomas shows this Syrian influence. First, Thomas appears to have been influenced by Tatian’s Diatessaron (which means “through the four”), which was a Syrian harmony of the four gospels written around 175 A.D. In fact, Tatian’s Diatessaron was the only gospel available to the Syrian Christians initially. Second, the references to “Judas Thomas” in the prologue of the Gospel of Thomas indicates that it has parallels with Syrian works such as the Book of Thomas the Contender and the Acts of Thomas which also make reference to him. Third, there is an anti-materialistic perspective in Thomas (see sayings 27, 63, 64, 65, 95, and 110) which was consistent with the ascetic or worldly denying practices of the Syrian church. Fourth, it is quite possible that the original copy of the Gospel of Thomas was written in Syriac due to the number of Syriac catchwords which would have aided memorization in the text. One scholar argues that there are approximately 500 of these Syrian catchwords in the text of Thomas.4 Also, in a Syriac version of John 14:22, “Judas (not Iscariot)” is called “Judas Thomas.”
3. Lack of References from Early Church Fathers or First Century Witnesses
Many of the early Church fathers who extensively cite portions of the New Testament show no awareness of the Gospel of Thomas in the early second century. There are no quotations or allusions from early Christian writers like Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, or Justin Martyr. As mentioned earlier, Craig Evans notes, “I’m now aware of a Christian writing prior to AD 150 that references this much of the New Testament.”5 Interestingly, the Epistles of Ignatius, which were written around A.D. 110, do not quote half as much New Testament material as Thomas does.
4. Heretical Nature and Gnostic-like Overtones
Third, another reason why the Gospel of Thomas does not belong in the New Testament is due to its heretical nature which disagrees with the undoubtedly authentic New Testament books.6 The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas teaches many things which are contrary to the Jesus of the canonical Gospels. For example, in the Gospel of Thomas saying 114, “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘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.’” This quote is in striking contrast to the New Testament where Jesus affirmed the value of women,7 and the fact that Paul taught that we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28).
5. Disagreements and Variations from First Century New Testament Themes8
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).|
In elaboration on these above points, it is remarkable that the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas shows little acquaintance with first century Palestinian Judaism. He is much more of a sage, expositing Gnostic-like thinking by using phrases like "the all" (2, 77), "the undivided" (61), references to the "bridal chamber" (75), rather than a Jewish peasant immersed in Palestinian culture who had a great reverence for Jewish Scripture. The historical context in Thomas is much likely mid to late second-century Syrian influence or second-century Gnostic tendencies.
6. Self-Conscious Promotion
It is interesting to note that the Gospel of Thomas self-consciously promotes itself as having been written by an apostle.9 Interestingly, the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were originally anonymous documents, but later became associated with various apostles. It appears that Thomas may have been written in order to get on the fast track of acceptance by the church. Since Thomas was not a first-century document, this title would give it the edge in being accepted. This would indicate that Thomas definitely was written in the second century.
Finally, though the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas” claims to have been written by the apostle Thomas, this work probably dates to the mid to late second century A.D. Since it comes from this late date, all of the apostles or their main associates would have been dead by roughly the year 100 A.D. Even many adherents to a first century origin for the Gospel of Thomas argue that in its present form, the Gospel reflects later editing. Therefore, the Gospel of Thomas should not be in the New Testament canon.
- 1. The view that Matthew and Luke used Mark in the composition of their Gospels is known as Markan Priority. While some scholars debate whether this is true, the majority of scholars, both liberal and conservative, hold to Markan Priority.
- 2. For just one example, see how saying 17 reflects 1 Cor. 2:9.
- 3. "Interview with Craig Evans," in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007, p. 36.
- 4. I am indebted to Craig A. Evans for the above four points which are found in his “The Apocryphal Jesus: Assessing the Possibilities and Problems,” in 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. Beate Blatz also argues for a possible Syrian origin with dependence on the Diatessaron in “The Coptic Gospel of Thomas,” in New Testament Apocrypha, volume 1, Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., Westminster: John Knox Press, 2003, pp. 110-116.
- 5. "Interview with Craig Evans," in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007, p. 36.
- 6. This core group of books composed all of the current New Testament, minus some of the debated books such as Revelation, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3rd John, etc.
- 7. See my paper “Women as Model Disciples in the Gospel of Mark”
- 8. It is difficult to figure out exactly what Thomas’s view is on all of these issues, but the above chart is a generalization.
- 9. J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: What the Davinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don't Tell You, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006, p. 161.