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Bible Lecture – Gospel of Thomas Introduction

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Bible Lecture – Gospel of Thomas

  1. Only one ancient copy of the complete Gospel of Thomas exists. It was discovered in 1945 by Egyptian peasants, hidden in a jar buried in the sands next to the Nile, nearly 600 km from Cairo.

  2. It was one of the treasures from a nearby monastery, now known as the Nag Hammadi Library, that the monks must have concealed for safety at a time of danger.

  3. These ancient books went through a series of hair-raising adventures—even involving barter for cigarettes, sugar and tea—until they came to the notice of western scholars and were secured in a museum in Cairo. In 1952 the Dutch professor Guilles Quispel discovered that one comprised a set of sayings by Jesus recorded by his disciple Thomas.

  4. This ancient Gospel of Thomas is written in Greek and Coptic, an Egyptian language now used only in the liturgy of the Coptic Church. Quispel and four other scholars identified 114 sayings of Jesus and made the first translation into English. Their work was followed up by the French scholars of l'Association Metanoia, who published enhanced versions in 1975 and 1979. There is now a large literature.

  5. What one discovers on reading the Gospel of Thomas is that it is definitely not a literary work. Nor does it contain any historical narrative. It can only be explained as the sayings of a spiritual Master recollected by a disciple and dictated to a scribe in the sequence they came back to memory. Only few of the sayings connect together, and there is no overall pattern or structure. It is thus recorded speech.

  6. All of the sayings have a distinctive quality. They are mini-parables, each with an outer shape and an inner hidden meaning. No explanations of these inner meanings are given. We therefore quickly discover that Jesus' method or technique of passing on his spiritual awareness was to prompt us to discover these inner meanings for ourselves in the history of Christianity.

  7. Gnosticism2

    1. The doctrine of salvation by knowledge. This definition, based on the etymology of the word (gnosis "knowledge", gnostikos, "good at knowing"), is correct as far as it goes, but it gives only one, though perhaps the predominant, characteristic of Gnostic systems of thought. Whereas Judaism and Christianity, and almost all pagan systems, hold that the soul attains its proper end by obedience of mind and will to the Supreme Power, i.e. by faith and works, it is markedly peculiar to Gnosticism that it places the salvation of the soul merely in the possession of a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge. Gnostics were "people who knew", and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know


  1. The Gospel of Thomas’ composition date is hotly debated. It is obvious that it was written in the early Christian era.

  2. There is currently much debate about when the text was composed, with scholars generally falling into two main camps: an early camp favoring a date in the 50s before the canonical gospels and a late camp favoring a time after the last of the canonical gospels in the 100s. Among critical scholars, the early camp is dominant in North America, while the late camp is more popular in Europe (especially in the U.K. and Germany).

  1. The early camp

    1. The early camp argues that since it consists of mostly original material and does not seem to be based on the canonical gospels, it must have been transcribed from an oral tradition.

    2. Since the practice of considering oral tradition as authoritative ended during the 1st century, the Gospel of Thomas therefore must have been written before then, perhaps as early as around 40.

    3. Since this date antecedes the dates of the traditional four gospels, there is some claim that the Gospel of Thomas is or has some connection to the Q gospel —the name for an unknown, theorised text (or oral verse) which may have spawned the parts of the gospels of Matthew and Luke known today which don't duplicate in some manner the Gospel of Mark.

  2. The early camp argues that about half of the material in Thomas has no known parallels to the New Testament, and at least some of this material could plausibly be attributed to the historical Jesus, such as saying 42 "Be passers-by."

  3. The early camp also notes that Q is almost universally regarded by secular biblical scholars as the most parsimonious explanation for the synoptic problem and is widely regarded to be the earliest written text of Jesus' teachings.

    1. It has been hypothesized that Q exists in 3 strata, termed Q1, Q2, and Q3, with the apocalyptic material belonging in Q2 and Q3. Secular biblical scholars have identified 37 sayings that overlap between Thomas and Q, all of which are conjectured to be in either Q1 or Q2 and none of which included the latter, apocalyptic material of Q3.

    2. Hence, Thomas shows little or no knowledge of Q3, did not incorporate or was not aware of Q3. The Q layers of Q1 and Q2 are thought to predate the four gospels. Hence the Gospel of Thomas is thought to be early.

  4. The central argument of Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief (2003) is that there seems to be conflict between the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas.

    1. According to Pagels, who is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, certain specific passages in the Gospel of John can only be understood in light of Thomas-like sayings, ideas, traditions, philosophical beliefs, and community, whether or not precisely represented in the present Gospel of Thomas itself.

    2. The most famous example in the Gospel of John is of "Doubting Thomas," which Pagels interprets as rebuttal for the Thomas community - Doubting Thomas is made, in John, to physically touch Jesus and acknowledge his fleshy nature, in contrast to the Docetism (idea that Jesus’ body was a spiritual illusion) of Gnostic groups. Pagels' interpretation of John logically requires that Thomas-like ideas or a Thomas-like community, if not the present Gospel of Thomas, already existed when John's gospel was written.

  5. Another argument for the early camp is that there is overlap between Paul's epistles and Thomas.

    1. The authentic corpus of Paul's epistles, which include 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians are universally regarded by secular biblical scholars as predating the canonical Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

    2. There are overlaps between teachings found in Paul and in Thomas that are not found in the canonical Gospels, (nor independently attested by them), and that Thomas therefore may have drawn on a common sayings pool that was drawn upon both by the canonical gospels and by Thomas.

    3. According to this theory, Paul was drawing on sayings that were widely recognized to come from Jesus, some which are uniquely preserved in Gospel of Thomas.

  6. The early camp argues that if Thomas knew of the New Testament, including the Pauline epistles, and if it is thought that Thomas showed Gnostic tendencies, then it is surprising that he did not take the opportunity to include many verses that would have supported such "Gnostic" theology, which are present in the canonical New Testament, such as John 8:58 "Before Abraham was born, I AM."

    1. The Gospel of Thomas did in fact include a great deal of material unparalleled in the New Testament. It, however, lacks distinctive terms from second century Gnosticism such as archons, pleroma, aeons, demiurge that would be expected from a product of historical Gnosticism: this is seen by some as another justification for an earlier date of authorship.

  1. The late camp

    1. The late camp, on the other hand, dates Thomas sometime after 100, generally in the early and mid 2nd century, but a few argue that Thomas is dependent on the Diatessaron, which was composed shortly after 172. Since the Greek fragments of Thomas found in Egypt are typically dated between 140 and 200, the ultra-late, post-Diatessaronic position remains a small minority, even within the late camp.

  2. The main argument put forth by the late camp is an argument from redaction.

    1. Under the most commonly accepted solution to the Synoptic problem, Matthew and Luke both used Mark, as well as a lost sayings collection called Q, to compose their gospels. Sometimes Matthew and Luke modified the wording of their source, Mark (or Q), and the modified text is known as redaction.

    2. Proponents of the late camp argue that some of this secondary redaction created by Matthew and Luke shows up in Thomas, which means that Thomas was written after Matthew and Luke were composed. Since Matthew and Luke are generally thought to have been composed in the 80s and 90s, Thomas would have to be composed later than that. Members of the early camp respond to this argument by suggesting that second-century scribes may have been the ones responsible for the Synoptic redaction now present in our manuscripts of Thomas, not its original author. Both camps agree, however, that the fluidity of the text in the 2nd century makes dating the Thomas very difficult.

  3. The last major argument for Thomas's being later than the New Testament is an analysis based on the history of religions school.

    1. In particular, it is argued that Gnosticism is a later development, while the earliest Christianity, as evident in Paul's letters, was more Jewish than Gentile and focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus more than his words. In this connection, it is observed that the Jesus of Thomas does not seem very Jewish, and that its current form reflects the work of second-century

    2. Gnostic thought, such as the rejection of the physical world and women (see Thomas 114). It should be noted that the Gospel of John is replete with statements that involve a rejection of the physical world (see John 6:63), and all four gospels state "this world" belongs to the "devil". Graham Stanton, (The Gospels and Jesus 2002, p. 129) finds in Thomas a Gnostic document: "removal of the Gnostic veneer will never be easy."

  4. The early camp, on the other hand, counters that Thomas reflects very little to none of the full-blown Valentinian Gnosticism as seen in many of the other texts in the cache of manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi.

    1. In fact, some point out not all of the Nag Hammadi texts are Gnostic; for example, one of the texts is a paraphrase of Plato's Republic, which predates Gnosticism by centuries.

    2. It is also noted that Gnosticism was a fluid belief system containing both new elements and old, and that material identified as "Gnostic" in Thomas may have been current as early as 50. As for the focus on the cross that Thomas lacks, early daters contend that Thomas belonged to an early form of Christianity, exemplified by Q, that concentrated on the sayings of teachings of Jesus.

    3. If one is a skeptic of Q, however, like several leading scholars in the U.K. (Farrer hypothesis), this argument is less probative.

Thomas and the New Testament

  1. The Gospel of Thomas does not refer to Jesus as "Christ" or "Lord" as the New Testament does, but simply as "Jesus."

  2. The Gospel of Thomas also lacks any mention of such classic Christian doctrines as Satan, Demons, The Second Coming, sin, or signs.

  3. However, it includes several parables similar to ones found in the canonical gospels that contain themes including Hell, eternal damnation, Heaven, the Kingdom of God, miracles (instructing his followers to heal people), and salvation.

  4. The Gospel of Thomas does not list the canonical twelve apostles, though it does mention James the Just, who is singled out ("No matter where you are you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being"); Simon Peter; Matthew; Thomas, who is taken aside and receives three points of revelation; Mary; and Salome.

  5. Though here Mary Magdalene and Salome are mentioned among the disciples, the canonical Gospels and Acts only mention men, but make a distinction between "disciples" and the inner group of twelve "apostles" — a Greek term that does not appear in Thomas — with varying lists of names making up the canonical twelve.

  6. Despite the favorable mention of James the Just, generally considered a "pro-circumcision" Christian, the Gospel of Thomas also dismisses circumcision:

    1. 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."

  7. Compare Thomas 8 SV with Matthew 13:47-50

    1. Note that Thomas makes a distinction between large and small fishes, whereas Matthew makes a distinction between good and bad fishes.

    2. Furthermore, Thomas' version has only one fish remaining, whereas Matthew's version implies many good fish remaining.

    3. The manner in which each Gospel concludes the parable is instructive. Thomas' version invites the reader to draw their own conclusions as to the interpretation of the saying, whereas Matthew provides an explanation connecting the text to an apocalyptic end of the age.

  8. Another example is the parable of the lost sheep, which is paralleled by Matthew, Luke, John, and Thomas.

    1. Matthew 18: 12-14

    2. Luke 15: 3-7

    3. John 10: 1-18

    4. Thomas 107 SV

Saying 114

Male - It may be noted that, in a Platonist context, 'male' and 'female' had specific philosophical meaning, as denoting 'form' and 'constituent matter' respectively.

Thus, an object's maleness equate to the rules governing its formal composition, while its femaleness is the material substrate of which it is composed. This philosophical conception derives from Platonist conceptions of human fetal development, in which the male semen was thought to possess the formal components of the eventual human embryo, while the female donated its material substrate within the womb.
Thus, given these meanings, the process of becoming 'male' equates with a Platonist veneration of the Forms; thus Jesus' statement would create, in a listener familiar with Platonist terminology (which was, of course, more endemic in antiquity), a notion of spiritual ascent and promised perfectibility. Platonist influences on Gnosticism may be detected elsewhere, for example, in the common conception of the demiurge.

1 Adapted from Ross, Hugh McGregor Gospel of Thomas Webpage (

2 Taken from Catholic Enclycopedia at

3 Adapted from

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