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Monday, November 01, 2010

The Gospel of Thomas

Max Goelling
The Four Gospels Course
A Brief Exposition


It was during one of my research inquiries into the authorship issues of the New Testament that I encountered a reference to some writings of which I had not heard. According to the story, a young Arab lad in the Upper Nile region of Egypt accidentally unearthed these writings during a fertilizer dig in 1945. After a series of political and archeological adventures, Biblical scholars were finally able to critically examine these documents and what they found was truly amazing.

One the principal reasons for the excitement among the scholars was the percentage of agreement that this “lost Gospel” shared with both the synoptic writings and with John. This led to the positing of 2 rather obvious questions: why were these writings not included in the canon and, secondly, what criteria were used to exclude them?


Although the Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas is the only complete version that we have, it is not the only direct witness to this interesting text. The story actually begins in a small town in Egypt, Oxyrhynchus, where a team of British archaeologists uncovered a great mass of papyrus fragments in the late 1800’s. Based on several other significant discoveries, this “trash dump” must have served as some type of refuse depository for many ancient writings. and its products have given us a unique insight into the Greco-Roman time period.

The first actual publication of a gospel fragment occurred in 1897. This was a small leaf (5 2/3 X 3 ½ inches) of papyrus codex. The Greek writing thereon spoke of certain sayings of Jesus, but as it, as well as all of the other finds, was only a fragment, little historical significance could be attached to it.

Once the Coptic translation of the full Gospel was published in the 1950’s, Biblical scholars such as Henri-Charles Puech, were able to establish the link between these two discoveries. Puech was able to match several of the “sayings” from the Oxyrhynchus fragments to sections of the Coptic version. But the real significance of these findings lies in the dates attributed to their authorship.

Dr. Bruce Metzger, one of the leading Biblical scholars in the world, who translated the Gospel of Thomas into English, believes the text to have been written c. 140 C.E. If he and other Biblical historians are correct, then the drafting of this document occurred within one hundred years of Jesus’ death. In and of itself, this is of no great significance, other than the fact that all of the other gospels were written well after this, and that this helps establish Metzger’s claim that Thomas may have been one of the critical sources for the both the synoptics and John.

One of the critical elements of this argument is the similarity of the text references between Thomas and the other gospel writers. Best estimates calculate that at least fifty-seven percent of the Gospel of Thomas is included in the other gospels. Of the 114 sayings in Thomas, there are 47 parallels to Mark, 17 to Matthew, 4 to Luke and 5 to John. This places the Gospel of Thomas well into the realm of being an “authoritative source.” Some scholars have even suggested that it may be the infamous “Q” source itself although Metzger disagrees. In his analysis of Thomas, he cites numerous perspectives espoused by the Thomas sayings that are entirely inconsistent with the canonical gospels. One example is the reference in #77: “Split the wood; I am there. Lift up a stone and you will find me there.” Metzger feels that this type of pantheistic allusion is inconsistent with the language of Jesus and therefore rejects it as being inauthentic. But Metzger’s biggest contribution to our understanding of this Gospel lies in his analysis of why it was not included in the canon.

Omitted From the Canon

The fact that the Gospel was omitted from the official canon has been a subject of intense debate for some time. One of the primary arguments for its exclusion relates to the purported date of it authorship. The dating of gospel writings has always been a major issue for the historical critics. Depending on whose version we choose to accept, the standard scholarly dating, (even in the most liberal circles,) usually places the writing of Mark in the 70’s, Matthew and Luke in the 80’s and John in the 90’s. Most scholars would agree that these dates still place the writings within the lifetimes of various eyewitnesses who could have corrected any discrepancies in the teachings that formed the basis for these documents. Craig Blomberg, a well-respected authority on the biographies of Jesus, actually believes that the gospels may have been written even earlier.

To validate this point, he utilizes the book of Acts in that it is left unfinished with Paul still under house arrest in Rome. As we have definitive evidence for the dates of this imprisonment, his theory is that Acts could not have been written any later than A.D. 62. Accepting that Acts is a two-part work, we can move backward from there to its first part (Luke), which must have been written prior to A.D. 62. As we know that the author of Luke incorporated parts of Mark, then Mark must have been written prior to A.D. 62 as well. Allowing for a year or so between the writings, this presumes that Mark was written around A.D. 60 or perhaps even the late 50’s. If Jesus was crucified in A.D. 30 or perhaps 33 A.D., then the gap between His death and the first gospel writings was only thirty years or so. It is clear that the dates of authorship were critical to the canonical councils during their deliberations. So what of the Gospel of Thomas?

Some scholars have dated the original Greek version from which the Nag Hammadi Coptic document was translated as early as the second half of the first century, placing it within a few decades of the crucifixion. If this analysis is accepted, then the writing of Thomas would have preceded the New Testament gospels. This lends a great deal of creditability to Thomas, as it places the writings much closer to the time that Jesus actually spoke the words. When the Jesus seminar debated the reliability of various historical sources, they determined that of the nine New Testament parables, which are thought to be stories actually told by Jesus, the Thomas version was closest to the original in six cases. This is a level of accuracy unparalleled by any other historical writings. So why exclude it from the canon?

According to Metzger, it would be incorrect to say that the Gospel of Thomas was excluded by “some fiat on the part of the council.” He feels that although the text appears to have been written around A.D. 140, it is the character of the writings themselves that present a sufficient case for its exclusion. Metzger elaborates further on both the criteria and the process utilized by these canonical synods and councils, which he feels, provide us with a consistent and accurate portrayal of the life and teachings of Jesus. Based on my reading of some of Blomberg’s methods, it appears that he is one of the most comprehensive, and yet faithful, of the Biblical scholars.

As for the criteria themselves, Metzger explains that the early church had three basic requirements for including writings into the canonic:

The criterion of apostolic authority-was it either written by an apostle or by someone who was an eyewitness to the events described?

The criterion of conformity-was the document congruent with the basic Christian tradition and was it consistent with what the church considered to be normative?
Did the document have continuous acceptance and usage by the church?

Each of these criterion were weighted differently depending on the composition of the group, the relevant cultural perspectives of the period and the specific aspects of the documents being examined. The remarkable fact is that even with all of the conflict and disharmony involved in the process of canonization, and we must remember that these efforts began as early as the Fifth century, that an amazing degree of unanimity regarding the greater part of the New Testament was the result.
When one examines the Gospel of Thomas in this light, we find some rather interesting inconsistencies, which appear to be totally in conflict with the accepted writings of the synoptics. For example, the last verse comes form Simon Peter who says, “Let Mary go away form us, because women are not worthy of life.” Then Jesus said, “Look, I shall lead her so that I can make her male in order that she also may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” According to Metzger, the character and wording of this saying is entirely inconsistent with the portrayal of Jesus in the canonical gospels. Whether this sheds any light on the authenticity of this saying is unclear. Members of the Jesus seminar offered another perspective when they discussed the Petrine tradition being traditionally unkind to women, i.e. Peter 3:1-6, where the women are certainly seen as subordinates in role. When Jesus speaks of the female-male conversion, this appears to be a metaphor for the higher and lower aspects of human nature. Mary, then, must undergo a spiritual transformation from her earthly, material, passionate nature (which the evangelist equates with the female) to a heavenly, spiritual, intellectual nature (which the same evangelist equates with the male). As much of this Gospel had distinctive parallels to the Gnostic tradition (another topic in which I found enough material for another paper) this transformation appears to allude to some type of ritualistic act or perhaps an ascetic lifestyle.

The real issue here appears to be the value that Peter’s question has for the future role of women in the development of Christianity, which may have been in direct opposition to their place in the community. This is especially true of the leadership roles that women would occupy in years to come. The key element here is that these were not issues related to the ministry of Jesus, but rather to the Christian movement itself.


The divergence in perspective between the “sayings” of Thomas and the message in the canonical Gospels only addresses the third, and perhaps most vague, of the three criteria listed above. The first issue that is typically addressed is that of authorship.

Any inquiry of this nature must necessarily discuss the pervasive “Q” source. Most Biblical historians indicate that both Matthew and Luke used a similar source when they wrote their gospels. The scholars felt that as the authors of these 2 gospels had never met, and yet used identical quotes of Jesus, there must be a common source document that they had both read. Over time, this mysterious source became known as “the lost Gospel Q.” Prior to the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, no other documents, or even fragments, had provided any collaborative information for the Q theory, but as at least a third of the sayings in Thomas are strikingly similar to the Q information, the scholars felt as if they had finally found an additional source to provide support for Q.

Regardless of the similarities among the documents, the question of the author of the Gospel of Thomas was still an unknown. Though the book is usually attributed to the “doubting Thomas” of the New Testament, this is only a supposition based on fragmentary evidence. The Gospel itself opens with the line, “These are the secret words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.” Of course, the last line of the text is, “The Gospel according to Thomas.” Scholars have told us that the name “Thomas” is the Semitic term for “twin” and that “Didymos” has the same meaning in Greek. In this case, only Judas would be an actual name. Some scholars believe that the author could have been Jesus’ brother. As it stands, the true authorship of the document is still unknown.

The Text of the Gospel

Many Biblical scholars feel that Thomas represents one of the many independent schools of Christianity that developed early in the history of the religion. The text itself portrays Jesus as far more of a social radical, telling his listeners to reject society’s phony piety and the hollow values of the business world. He often sounds like more of a Zen master when he speaks of the “kingdom of God” being right here, right now. This is far more consistent with the image of Jesus as sage, teacher and personifier of wisdom-more consistent with a portrait of a “humble man with a powerful message.”

The text of the Gospel itself is comprised of 114 “sayings” which are consistent with the manner in which a teacher of oral tradition would structure the key elements of his material. We find each of the classic parables but also sense a consistency of construction among the remaining sayings. Many readers, scholars and students (myself included) feel that the pattern and flow of the text adds credibility to the reliability of the document.

I am certainly in no position to question either Biblical scholars or members of the canonical councils and synods as to the authenticity of this work. To me, the only value that any scriptural text has is whether or not it provides the reader with insight and clarity into the will of God and His desires for the relationship between Himself and mankind. Having studied the historical evidence, the scholarly interpretations and the other four gospels, it is my opinion that the Gospel of Thomas can provide us with not only corroborative evidence for evaluating the canonical Gospels, but also with a perspective that speaks much more directly to the relationships among God’s people.

Depending on one’s perspective on the ministry of Jesus, this Gospel provides its readers with insights into the desires of God the Father for how our relationship should be based on how we treat each other. Although there is much to be said about the Gnostic flavor of this Gospel, especially in its deprecation of the Earthly world (21:6, 27:1, 56:1) and the escapist tone of the deliverance message (50), there is much to be said of its reflection of the classic Jewish wisdom tradition `ala Psalms and Proverbs.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my work on this project and, as always, appreciated the benefit of being able to view the “big questions” from another perspective. Although I do not believe that the Gospel of Thomas will be accepted into the conventional canon anytime soon, I do feel that it should be valued for what it provides: an additional look at the character, wisdom, and most importantly, the message of Jesus Christ.


Dart, John. Unearthing the Lost Words of Jesus. Berkely, CA: Ulysses Press, 1998.

Elliott, J. K., ed. The Apocryphal New Testament. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Funk, Robert, Hoover Roy and The Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993.

Metzger, Bruce M. and Murphy, Roland E., ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Oxford University Press. The Gospel of Thomas. New York, NY: 1993.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1998.

Wilkins, Michael and Moreland, J.P., eds. “Craig Blomberg on “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?” Jesus Under Fire, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.


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