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The Gospel of Thomas and the Other Gospels

Here’s a post from seven years ago that is still very important and intriguing to anyone interested in the NT and early Christianity.   It’s mainly about the most influential and historically important Gospel from outside the New Testament.  I’ve inserted a couple of explanations [in brackets] to update the post.


One of the benefits of teaching at a research university with a graduate program is that – at least where I am – there are periodic reading groups with other faculty members and graduate students. I go to a couple of these a month, including one that I organize. As it turns out, last week I went to two. The first was mine, the (other ) CIA, in which we typically read someone’s work-in-progress. That week’s presentation was a paper by my former student and soon-to-be faculty member in early Christianity at Duke Divinity School, Maria Doerfler, an exceptionally bright and erudite human being [who now is teaching at Yale], who gave a paper on a virtually unknown letter by the famous fourth-century bishop Ambrose in which he condemns – ready for this? – cross-dressing. I have to admit, I knew nothing about it, or the issues that it raises (about fourth-century understandings of masculinity as they played a role in the then burgeoning Christian church).

And the next night there as a New Testament Colloquium at Duke, organized by my friend Joel Marcus, one of the top Gospel scholars in the English-speaking world [recently retired!]. For that group we do not read a paper in advance (as we do in the CIA), but we simply come together for pizza and then an hour and a half presentation and discussion of something that one of us is working on. Again, it is all graduate students and faculty (from both UNC and Duke); that night we had about 25 people there, all of them scholars or budding scholars.

The presentation was by another friend of mine, Mark Goodacre, a professor of New Testament at Duke (in the Department of Religion, not in the Divinity School) [Mark is on the blog.  Hi Mark!]. Mark is probably best known in the world at large for running the single best website for New Testament studies anywhere on the planet, at www.ntgateway.com. I can’t recommend it highly enough.   In scholarly circles Mark is best known for his work on the “Synoptic Problem” (the problem of how Matthew, Mark, and Luke relate to each other literarily – i.e. what sources they shared in common), and in particular his very strong defense of the view that the Gospel source known as Q in fact never existed.  (As I pointed out in my post yesterday, Q is widely thought to have been a source principally of Jesus’ sayings that was available to Matthew and Luke but probably not to Mark.)

Mark has recently moved on to other things besides the non-existence of Q, and has just now published a book that is sure to be controversial on the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.   Thomas, which was discovered among the Gnostic Gospels of the Nag Hammadi Library in 1945, consists of 114 sayings of Jesus, many of which are very similar to what can be found in the NT Gospels, especially the Synoptics, but many others of which are very different indeed.   Scholars debate all sorts of aspects of Thomas, including, for example, whether it should be considered itself a Gnostic Gospel [current opinion says no; and I have to say, it took a long time, but now I see that’s probably right, even if there are lots of similarities between Thomas and various Gnostic writings], when it should be dated (some outspoken scholars argue that it is earlier than the Gospels of the NT, but most think it is probably from the early second century)

One of the big debates since its discovery, however, is …

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  1. Avatar
    Nichrob  November 13, 2019

    Way to go Mark….!!

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  November 13, 2019

    I would be very interested to see Mark’s argument about the existence or non-existence of Q in a guest post. Provided it can be made intelligible to a layman.

  3. Avatar
    fishician  November 13, 2019

    Doesn’t the existence of the Gospel of Thomas lend some weight to the idea that there could also have been a Q, a collection of sayings without the narrative part?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      It’s not evidence it existed, but it’s certainly evidence that it *could* have (contrary to what some have argued)

  4. Avatar
    ksgm34  November 13, 2019

    Unrelated question – what proportion of the parables in the Gospels do you think originate with the historical Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      That’s a great question! I’ve never worked out a calculation. But I’d guess at least over half? I should figure out what I think?

      • Avatar
        quadell  November 22, 2019

        Interesting that you would credit so many! John P. Meier’s “A Marginal Jew” only credits four as probably going back to the historical Jesus. But (as Meier demonstrates) different scholars come to wildly different conclusions on which parables are authentically from Jesus, and even what counts as a parable. This is one case where knowing whether GThomas is independent or not would really help the discussion, because if so, Thomas’s versions of some of the parables might provide independent attestation.

  5. Avatar
    vallancemjv@gmail.com  November 13, 2019

    Hi Bart, I’ve just joined your blog and I’m honoured to be here.
    I love the Gospel of Thomas.
    I personally feel it is Gnostic, Jesus takes Thomas away for some Secret teaching etc.
    What are your thoughts on Elaine Pagels view that it is at least as old as Johns Gospel?
    Her idea is that John is a rebuttal of Thomas.
    Her argument is basically that John seems to put ‘Doubting Thomas’ in his place by making him put his fingers in Christ’s wounds and look at Christs nail wounds. This theory puts Thomas Gospel earlier than Johns!
    An aside I beed to mention here as it gas perplexed me somewhat.
    Richard Carrier has just come out saying That Gnosticism ‘ never existed, there were no such groups, it is a 19th Century invention’
    What??? But Irenaus himself uses the term ‘Gnostic’
    and exactly who were his ‘Heresies’ aimed at?
    What other term could we use for the Sethians, Valentinians, The Ophites etc etc?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      Elaine was picking this up from some earlier scholars, especially Gregory Riley. It’s an interesting thesis, but there are very big problems with it. I’d say there’s very little evidence at all that the author of John knew the sayings of Thomas.

      As to Carrier, as you know he’s not a recognized scholar of early Christianity. Irenaeus certainly labeled certain heretical groups Gnostic.

  6. Avatar
    robbeasley  November 13, 2019

    Which came first?
    Gospel of Thomas (Saying 8)
    And he said, “The man is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of small fish. Among them the wise fisherman found a fine large fish. He threw all the small fish back into the sea and chose the large fish without difficulty. Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.”
    Life presents many trivialities, small pleasures, novelties and distractions, but when we come to know our true nature (or perhaps our divine essence), we easily choose that large fish (discovered) over the small fish (trivialities once regarded as so important), which are now easily discarded. This saying is about the significance of personal choice in this quest to know this thing called God, I think.
    So, is this saying knowable?
    We often see or hear of people in difficult situations, such when they lose a loved one or experience a life-threatening occurrence, and witness how the experience compels them to re-evaluate what is important? Most often things that appeal to self-interest or are material in nature lose their appeal.
    This GOT saying #8 is one where we see an interesting variation between the GOT and the Bible gospel. As you read the following biblical match, note how the mystical aspects are the difference between the two versions; Is it more likely that these features were added or more likely that they were removed?. Speaking of patterns, fear was heavily used in the Biblical prophecies.
    Biblical match(es) #4
    Matthew 13:47
    The Parable of the Net
    Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked. “Yes,” they replied. 52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      I’d say it’s very hard to say and it has been argued both ways. The problem is always whether our common-sense about which seems older is not necessarily the right sense….

  7. Avatar
    mblackstad  November 13, 2019

    I am confused on one point: could you make the same argument in reverse so that Thomas predates the Gospels and that was used as a source for those later writings. The changes in wording could even be to lean on Thomas for apparent validity and acceptance. I know this is far fetched as I am acquainted with at least some the rationale for Thomas being dated in the second century (which you provided to me in an email at least a dozen years ago), but my way is more fun.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      Yes, you can indeed make that argument. Scholars have! But it doesn’t look as plausible, since a number of the sayings do not fit well, say, into a first-century Jewish context.

  8. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  November 13, 2019

    What are the chances that the CIA or the New Testament Colloquium at Duke could be opened up to graduate students from the Religious Studies program at UNC-Charlotte? I doubt many would make the trek there, but I know I would to hear presentations by you and some of the other wonderful scholars that teach at those institutions.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      I don’t know about Duke, but yes, CIA would welcome graduate students in early Christianity from most anywhere!

  9. fefferdan
    fefferdan  November 13, 2019

    As a general reader rather than an expert in Greek texts, I think there may have been a kind of dialogue going on between Thomas and other gospels. IMO John’s author, with this Doubting Thomas story, was reacting to the role that Thomas played in the emerging gnostic tradition. Meanwhile, Thomas was re-interpreting Jesus’ “orthodox” sayings in a gnostic light. Whether he got these sayings from the gospels, from Q, or some other source, is beyond me.

  10. Avatar
    hankgillette  November 14, 2019

    Wikipedia (that fount of knowledge and wisdom) says that Dr. Goodacre’s belief in the non-existence of Q was originally postulated by Austin Farrer in 1955, and is known as the Farrer Theory or hypothesis. Instead of both Matthew and Luke both using Mark and Q as common sources, Matthew used Mark and some additional material, and Luke used Mark and Matthew as sources, dispensing with the need for Q. Is that a fair assessment?

  11. Avatar
    forthfading  November 14, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I have been a fan for over a decade now and I have actually witnessed you change your mind on several issues (e.g., did Paul think Jesus was an angel, Joseph of Arimathea’s role in Jesus’ burial). I have also witnessed you give credit to scholarly views that you did not agree with (e.g., Q has a historical source, late dating of Thomas, the possibility of Mark being earlier than 70 CE). I have said all this to say that I admire your commitment to scholarship and your willingness to change your mind or admit that another argument may be correct. I will be very interested in knowing how your professional opinion changes concerning the sources of The Gospel of Thomas.

    My question concerns how scholars are viewed within the scholarly field. I obviously don’t know Dr. Goodacres’ arguments but I know that Craig Evans has been pushing this idea for a long time. He wrote two or three articles arguing that Thomas relies heavily on Matthew in particular. In your opinion, does a scholar like Dr. Goodacre get taken more seriously in the community of scholars because of where he teaches and the fact that he is not an outspoken apologist for the faith? In other words, would Dr. Goodacre be seen as more credible? (I know that Goodacre and Evans may have very different arguments and evidences for their conclusion that Thomas used the NT Gospels as a source, but for the sake of argument lets suppose they are basically arguing the same thing from the same evidence).

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      I suppose there is a measure of truth in the notion that someone with a clear theological agenda for their view is not seen as committed to knowing the actual truth than someone without a horse in the race.

      But mainly scholarship has to proceed on the basis of the strength of the arguments. In this case, there’s not much comparison: Goodacre’s arguments are much more detailed, deep, and closely reasoned.

  12. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  November 14, 2019

    Some of these sayings are so enigmatic, they could be described as “zen-like”. Do we have anything to compare them with, as, for instance, other sayings by other people who might have been roughly contemporary? I’m wondering whether such zennish statements would be unusual by contemporary (for the time and place) standards.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      Yes, for example in Hermetic literature (connected with Hermes Trimegistus) and Gnostic gospels, e.g.

  13. Avatar
    Stephen  November 14, 2019

    In your study of oral cultures do you see any substantial difference in the mode of transmission between narratives and sayings? Would someone passing on Jesus’ sayings feel it proper to extemporize and modify the way they did when telling stories about him? Or were they more reverential since this was supposed to be his very own words?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      Pithy sayings tend to be preserved more closely intact than long discourses; narratives probably change even more.

  14. Avatar
    dankoh  November 18, 2019

    Dr. Goodacre’s evaluation of Thomas puts me in mind of the book of Daniel, in which the author pretends (harsh, I know) to prophesy events that have already happened, such as Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire and Antiochus IV’s excursions into Egypt, to make his real prophecies about Michael and resurrections more believable.

  15. Avatar
    santosh  November 27, 2019

    Hi Bart ,

    I follow your blogs from beginning of 2018. I am a agnostic right now. I was a Orthodox Christian from South India, now residing in Cary NC. I always wanted to ask you about the scholarly stand on the legend of ‘St Thomas travel to India in AD 52’. I guess this legend could be based on the gospel of Thomas stories. What is your opinion on this ?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2019

      It’s a later legend that first shows up in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas. There is no historical basis for it. maybe I’ll post on that.

  16. Avatar
    santosh  November 29, 2019

    Thanks Bart. I would love to know more details on the scholarly views of this legend. Waiting for your post.

  17. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  May 7, 2020

    I’ve loved this text for decades as a well formulated wisdom text. That it has Gnostic ideas has for me been a presumption, not at least the ideas of the Kingdom (inside, outside, end is where the beginning is etc) which correspond with Gnostic or/and perhaps other mystical ideas.

    I’m not sure if the Act of Thomas was written by the same community or author, but it also include another (perhaps more ancient hymn, “Hymn of the Pearl” which basically is interpreted of the soul born in the royal houshold (God), and was sent on assignment to Egypt (land of darkness or land of boundary) to collect a pearl, forget his task and his origion, and then remember it again and head back to his devine (royal) place/origin) which perhaps is a Gnostic (Thomasine gnosism / branch) or Jewish mysticism view.

    Well, if there are some relationship between these texts, here particular the beautiful Hymn of the Pearl, it seems that the view of the “Kingdom” at least has a corresponding view.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2020

      Yes, the Hymn of teh Pearl is one of the great pieces of ancient writing. It almost certainly was *added* to the Acts of Thomas though, not an original part of it by the same author.

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