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Thomas: The Most Important Gospel Outside the New Testament

The Gospel of Thomas is almost certainly the most important Gospel from outside the New Testament.  Here I talk about what it’s overarching message is, and how it relates to the Gospels that did make it into the Christian Scripture.  Again, this is taken from my textbook on the NT.

 

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The Overarching Message of the Book.      The meanings of many of Thomas’s sayings are in no way obvious. If they were, they would not be called secret! Even though the book contains nothing like the Sethian or Valentian myths, some of the sayings do seem to reflect roughly analogous understandings of the world and the human’s place in it (see earlier posts on Gnosticism). Within the hearer is an element of the divine—a soul—that had a heavenly origin (it originated “in the place where the light came into being”). This world we live in is inferior at best, and is more appropriately thought of as a cesspool of suffering, “a corpse.” A person’s inner being (the “light” within) has tragically fallen into this material world, where it has become entrapped in a body (sunk into “poverty”), and in that condition it has become forgetful of its origin (or “drunk”). It needs to be reawakened by learning the truth about this material world and the impoverished material body that it inhabits. Jesus is the one who conveys this truth; once the soul learns the meaning of his words, it will be able to strip off this body of death, symbolized sometimes as garments of clothing, and escape this material world. It will then have salvation, life eternal; it will rejoin the divine realm and rule over all. There may be no need to call this Gospel “Gnostic,” but one can certainly see why many of its teachings would resonate with a Gnostic.

There is not a word in the Gospel of Thomas about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Indeed, for this author none of Jesus’ earthly activities appear to matter; there is also no word here of ….

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Thomas, the Synoptic Gospels, and Q
The Gospel of Thomas: An Overview

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Comments

  1. DavidNeale  August 29, 2018

    This is so interesting.

    “Finally, if Thomas did use the Synoptics, it would be especially hard to explain why he left out of his account most of their sayings of Jesus, many of them relevant to his agenda. It is probably better, therefore, to assume that the author who calls himself Thomas knew a number of the sayings of Jesus and understood these sayings in a particular way, based on his own distinctive understanding of the world and the human’s place in it.”

    So presumably, if Thomas dates to the second century and its author didn’t know the Synoptics, we can conclude that a saying which appears both in Thomas and in the Synoptics is independently attested by multiple sources? And is therefore more likely to be historical, or at least to date to very early tradition?

  2. fishician  August 29, 2018

    Do we have early Church Fathers commenting on this gospel (pro or con), or was it off their radars?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 31, 2018

      We have a couple of possible references, but no extended discussions, comments, or refutations.

  3. RonaldTaska  August 29, 2018

    It’s hard to imagine a Christianity not focused on the death and Resurrection of Jesus. Thanks for your summary of material that would have been quite difficult for most of us to put together.

  4. Lactantius  August 29, 2018

    I now have your book “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings”. Great book/text! Something I haven’t figured out is how do scholars know when the original Gospels (not copies) were written since apparently none survived? For example, the Gospel of John is dated 125 C.E., “thirty to thirty-five years after John was original written.” (Ehrman, 23) Since the original authors were anonymous couldn’t P52 be the original manuscript written by an educated Greek living around 125 C.E who wrote the narrative as he heard it by oral tradition?

    Perhaps it’s a form of literary analysis I’m not familiar with that you’ve mentioned here regarding whether or not the author of Thomas used a source?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 31, 2018

      I”ve posted on this before — maybe I should do it again! I’ll add it to the list of things to do on the blog.

      • Lactantius  August 31, 2018

        Apologies for the repetition, I recently became interested in this field of history and was unfamiliar with your work. I found some of the answer in one of your debates on YouTube (someone asked about it in the Q&A). Most of my questions you have probably covered in your writings anyway.

  5. mkahn1977  August 29, 2018

    Is there anything we can infer from the omission of the resurrection?

  6. darren  August 29, 2018

    Loving this thread!! Do you have a sense of whether Thomas used Q as a source, or was there another source or verbal traditions?

  7. forthfading  August 29, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    If the point was to create a Gospel that contains “secret ” teachings, would there not need to be common knowledge that is widely shared or understood first? What would the author of Thomas considered to be the “common teachings”, other than earlier Gospels such as the ones found in the NT?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  August 31, 2018

      Interesting question — but I’m not sure there is any way to know. Nothing in Thomas, that I can think of, suggests that the author is presupposing knowledge of other Gospels, just a basic knowledge of who Jesus was, as assumed for anyone in a Christian community.

  8. ddecker54  August 30, 2018

    Most interesting. These teachings/sayings call to mind the nondualistic teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism. I am wondering if Jesus really did say these words and, perhaps because the Jews to whom he was speaking completely missed the point, they were disregarded. Unfortunately, I guess we will never know.

  9. Judith  August 30, 2018

    Your blog appeal (in red) brought about the first chuckle of the day.

  10. cmdenton47  August 30, 2018

    It occurs to me that this view of the world (or universe) is just as reasonable as the one put forwards in the Synoptics. It just sounds odd because it’s not as familiar.

  11. JamesFouassier  August 30, 2018

    So I suppose the next question, Professor, is whether the authors of the Synoptic Gospels knew Thomas and, if so, where and how they used it?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 31, 2018

      I think Thomas must be later than the Synoptics — the sayings that strike us as unusual are like other sayings of jesus found only in second century sources, and are far removed from what a first-century Palestinian Jew woudl have been likely to say.

  12. Lilly
    Lilly  August 30, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, thank you for devoting so much attention to the Gospel of Thomas. This is my first exposure to it and I find it as fascinating as I do confusing. After reading Thomas, I came away with more questions than answers. I’m finding many scholars have the same experience . I wonder why the author lists 144 sayings of Christ , do you know if that number is significant or just coincidence.
    Could you recommend any additional books or articles, especially for the lay person approaching this material for the first time ?

    • Lilly
      Lilly  August 30, 2018

      Oops, I think you spoke about the Gospel of Thomas in your book Forged . That might be a good start .

      thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  August 31, 2018

      Ah, it would be (12×12)! But, alas, it is 114 sayings. And the manuscript itself does not give the enumeration: that is simply how modern editors break down the Gospel (like verse numbers added by translators of the NT today)

      • Lilly
        Lilly  August 31, 2018

        Oh no ! I can’t believe I said 144 sayings, after reading all your blog entries and reading the Gospel of Thomas. I doubt I’ll ever forget that it is 114 sayings again. 🙂

        …. have a nice Labor Day Weekend .

  13. Robert
    Robert  August 30, 2018

    “It does not appear that the Gospel of Thomasactually used the Synoptic Gospels to formulate its own sayings of Jesus. As we have seen, the burden of proof in such matters is on the one who claims that an author used another document as a source. The surest indicators of reliance upon a source are detailed and extensive verbal parallels, but this is precisely what we do not find with the Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptics. There are many similar sayings but few extensive verbal correspondences.”

    Such would be an acceptable burden of proof only for someone who might like to claim that Thomas’ wording of the similar statements of Jesus is slavishly dependent upon any of the synoptic gospels in a word-for-word manner. The lack thereof certainly does not and cannot logically rule out the possibility or likelihood that the author of the gospel of Thomas or prior tradents were not at least indirectly dependent upon post-synoptic tradition or that the final composer did not freely adopt and adapt such traditions creatively. Slavish dependence and complete and utter independence are opposite extremes on a continuum and not binary black and white options. Thus if a Jesus-Quester wants to appeal to the independence of the gospels of Thomas or John from the post-synoptic tradition as independent attestation for her or his historical reconstruction, surely they should not shirk responsibility for assuming this burden of proof. Surely this burdenless judgment of independent attestation is the weakest point in the argumentation of many Jesus Questors.

  14. Stephen  August 30, 2018

    Sorry if you’re going to get to this later in your thread but just how useful a descriptor has “Gnosticism” become? Aren’t these groups just examples of the pagan tendency to syncretism? There were obviously at least some Christian groups who absorbed pagan ideas and some pagan groups who absorbed Christian ideas. And of course converts didn’t immediately abandon all their previous beliefs back then any more than they do now. So, in the end, was “Gnosticism” really a thing?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 31, 2018

      That’s what I was trying to get at in my posts on Sethianism, Valentinianism, etc. Gnosticism is a broad umbrella category, not a prescise description.

  15. ask21771  August 30, 2018

    How valuable/expensive were iron and bronze in ancient Rome?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 31, 2018

      I don’t know how to answer your question I’m afraid.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  August 31, 2018

      “How valuable/expensive were iron and bronze in ancient Rome?”

      This might give you can idea. The smallest unit of currency in the Greek world was the obol, which was usually a coin (but sometimes a stick) consisting of about three-fourths of a gram of copper. One obol could purchase about a half gallon to a gallon of wine. Six obols made up one drachma, which was the average days pay for a day laborer. In other words, the average days wages for a worker in the ancient world was roughly equivalent to 4.5 grams of copper. By way of comparison, the US penny weighs 2.5 grams (though the modern penny is mostly zinc now), so the average ancient daily wage could be thought of as about one and a half pennies. To give you a sense of how valuable that one drachma of copper was, consider that a bronze sword in the ancient world could contain as much as 700 grams of copper, which was the equivalent of 155 days of labor. The cost of iron was comparable.

  16. maryn  August 31, 2018

    There seem to be three very different “takes” on the significance of Jesus: 1) Jesus the giver of secret messages with little to say about his death or life; 2) Jesus the example, a view that focuses on the synoptic gospels and is emphasized in progressive churches; 3) Jesus the savior, a view of Paul, evangelical and other conservative Christians. Is there any other important historical figure for whom such widely divergent “takes” on him exist(ed)?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2018

      I suppose, for example, that the Roman emperor would be understood in multiple ways by different people. ANd probably other religious figures at the time, even though we don’t have good documentation for them, as we do for Jesus. John the Baptist maybe, for example?

      • SidDhartha1953  October 25, 2018

        Modern political leaders hold a similarly divergent place in the minds of the citizenry: from officiant to divine representative.

  17. Bewilderbeast  September 10, 2018

    just need to say: Enjoying the red ink. Love the variation-within-the-sameness! 😉

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