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Thomas and the Other Gospels

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 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. 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 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.)

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The Collection: Apostolic Fathers
Lost Gospels That Are Still Lost 4: Q



  1. Avatar
    Sharif  November 16, 2012

    Really interesting post! I was wondering, what is the basis of some scholars for rejecting Q (if there is a common argument or set of reasons)? I suppose the alternative then that Luke from Matthew or vice-versa? And why do most scholars support the existence of Q over that alternative?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 17, 2012

      Some scholars do not like multiplying sources unnecessarily (if you say Luke copied Matthew, you don’t have to come up with Q); But there are arguments against Luke copying Matthew. In particular, when Matthew nad Luke agree in the sequence of stories it is always in material also found in Mark; if so, and Luke copied Matthew, it would mean that when Luke copied a marcan story he left it in sequence, but when he copied a non-Marcan story he put it in a different sequence. That seems like an unlikely way to proceed.

  2. Avatar
    maxhirez  November 17, 2012

    ” Moreover, Mark (Goodacre, not the Gospel writer) also argues that …”

    I’m glad you included this line. I was starting to think I was the only one having trouble keeping track! Again, thanks for bringing this to your readership’s attention. Your frequent respectful mention of viewpoints you don’t (necessarily) hold speaks highly of your character and responsibility as a teacher!

  3. Avatar
    PaulH  November 17, 2012

    Is Mark Goodacre Agnostic like yourself, or Christian? I’ve often wondered how many of your fellow Professors in the field are believers in God?

  4. Avatar
    timber84  November 17, 2012

    Verse 113 of the Gospel of Thomas says: His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.”

    Would you conclude the author of the gospel rejects the view that Jesus was an apocalypticist?

    I remember seeing a bizarre movie many years ago where a woman bleeds from her wrists and quotes from the Gospel of Thomas during the movie. Do you recall any movie like that?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 18, 2012

      Yes, Thomas has clearly de-apocalypticized the tradition.

      I think the movie was Stigmata. Terrible movie. And bad on historical stuff (assumes Thomas was written in Aramaic!)

  5. Avatar
    toddfrederick  November 17, 2012

    The http://www.ntgateway.com is a wonderful resource…more reading to do !!! Also, thank you for recommending new books on these issues. Please keep doing that. I do reading from many genre and from varying points of view, and your suggestions are greatly helpful. Love the cross dressing story. I guess politics/religion hasn’t changed much :>)

  6. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  January 25, 2014


    I just read this post. Very interesting.
    Of course I’m no scholar (not even a student!) but that’s why I have a feeling that the Gospel of Thomas is like a product of some hybridization. Something similar to the offspring of a horse and a peacock! :o)
    The blog archive is amazing!

  7. Avatar
    Rogers  May 20, 2014

    I’ve always found it an unlikely proposition of 2nd century authorship for GTh as it seemed very unlikely that someone knowledgable in the biographical narrative synoptic gospels would go through them gleaning out strictly the wisdom sayings only in order to construct a pure wisdom sayings gospel. There are such powerful elements of crucifixion, resurrection, etc. found in the Synoptics that it would seem to be a tough proposition to create a gospel devoid of those things and think it would be well received, and indeed even surpass those narrative gospels in the minds of readers. This simply does not smack of much plausibility. It seems much the opposite actually happened – the GTh lost favor in time because as a wisdom sayings gospel it did not resonate to a church experiencing persecution and such. The Gospel of John is exactly the kind of evolution we’d expect – the upping the ante of Christology to where Yeshua is not just a messiah, but gets promoted to being God.

    Also, it doesn’t seem likely that a 2nd century author would go out of the way to mention James the brother of Yeshua. James dies in 62 AD and his Jerusalem church ceases to be a force in history with the 70 AD sacking. He’s long since slid from the scene of bring on anyone’s mind by the 2nd century.

    Very much love Mark Goodacre, though, and will certainly give his views a hearing.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      I think the problem is whether Thomas *knew* the earlier Gospels. Mark Goodacre thinks it did, but I’m not so sure….

      • Avatar
        Rogers  May 21, 2014

        As a lay person I have wondered if GTh is perhaps the hypothetical Q Gospel, but wasn’t sure if all the wisdom sayings attributed to Q could also be found in GTh – just new that there was some correspondence. Seemed sort of reasonable, though, as GTh certainly fits the requirement of being a pure wisdom sayings compilation – and some scholars have argued that it might be sensible progression that a more primitive teachings-only gospel might appear first before more complex and agenda-driven biographical narrative gospels. The correspondence of text could be explained if Mark and Matthew authors actually were cherry picking out sayings from the GTh (that is, choosing sayings that were compatible to their theological slants). If Matthew author knew of Mark, why could they both not have known of GTh? No doubt Mark Goodacre has thought through all the scenarios, though, so will have to add yet another book to my lengthy reading list. Sigh.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 22, 2014

          Yes, when GTh was discovered, this was some people’s first thought! But unfortunately, GTh can be Q: it has tons of stuff not in Q and Q has tons of stuff not in GTh and what they share is worded differently. So it could be the same *kind* of Gospel as Q, roughly speaking.

  8. John4
    John4  August 9, 2015

    OK, wonderful Bart. So, by now you have, presumably, read Mark Goodacre’s *Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics*. When you posted on this book in November of 2012 (I’m currently working my way through your blog archive, lol), you hadn’t yet read the book so you were unable to say whether or not you agreed with Goodacre’s argument that, as you described it, “Thomas had read and knew intimately the Synoptic Gospels.”

    But, now you surely *have* read Goodacre’s book. What’s your verdict? Do you now believe that Thomas had read and knew intimately the Synoptics?

    Many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  August 10, 2015

      I’m on the fence. Mark makes a good case, but I’m not entirely persuaded. It seems to me that Thomas could have known synoptic-like tradition.

      • Avatar
        Rogers  August 10, 2015

        Luke 17:20-21 looks like an inferior corrupted version of Gospel of Thomas logion 3 – as though the Thomas author is closer to the source tradition underlying the verse than is the Luke author.

        Then there is the matter of how Thomas Gospel has Yeshua telling the disciples to turn to James. This harkens back to the very earliest church in Jerusalem lead by James as informed by Paull’s epistles – the earliest Christian writings (outside of embedded pre-literary creeds).

        Seems peculiar that a second century authored document would still be featuring James in so prominent a manner.

      • John4
        John4  August 11, 2015

        Okie Doke. Thx! 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Dhul_Qarnayn  July 19, 2016

    Interesting. Professor what is your view, do you believe the gospel of thomas pre-dates the synoptic gosels, or at least john?

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