A number of readers have asked about Thomas’s relation to the Synoptic Gospels and the famous Q source — that is, the lost source that both Matthew and Luke used for many of their sayings of Jesus not found in Mark (called Q from the German word Quelle, which means “source”). Here is what I say about those issues in my textbook on the New Testament
Thomas and the Q Source. The Gospel of Thomas, with its list of the sayings of Jesus (but no narratives) reminds many scholars of the Q source. Some have maintained that Q was also composed entirely of the sayings of Jesus and that the community for whom it was written was not concerned about Jesus’ activities and experiences, including his death on the cross. If they are right, then something like Thomas’s community was already in existence prior to the writing of the New Testament Gospels.
Many other scholars, on the other hand, have their doubts. For one thing, it is not true that Q contained no narratives. As we have seen, two of them survive: the temptation of Jesus and the healing of the centurion’s son. How many others did Q narrate? Unfortunately, despite the extravagant claims of some scholars, we simply cannot know. Even more unfortunately, we cannot know whether the Q source contained a Passion narrative, even though scholars commonly claim that it did not. The reality is that our only access to Q is through the agreements of Matthew and Luke in stories not found in Mark. True, Matthew and Luke do not agree in their Passion narratives when they differ from Mark. Does this mean that Q did not have a Passion narrative? Not necessarily. It could mean that when either Matthew or Luke differs from Mark in the Passion narrative, one account was taken from Q and the other was drawn from Mark. Or it could mean that Matthew or Luke, or both, occasionally utilized their other traditions (M and L, respectively) for their account of Jesus’ Passion, rather than Q.
There is at least one stark difference between Q and Thomas, which relates directly to the beliefs of the communities that preserved them. We have seen that Thomas denies the future coming of the Son of Man in judgment upon the earth; this futuristic hope, however, is an important theme in Q. Some scholars have argued that Q sayings like Luke 12:8–9 (Matt 10:32–33), which speaks of the day of judgment when the Son of Man arrives, were not in the original version of Q but were only added later. Their reason for thinking so, however, is that they believe that the original version of Q was not apocalyptic in its orientation: any apocalyptic ideas would therefore not have been original to it. As you might surmise, this leads to a kind of circular reasoning, no less curious for being so common: if Q was like Thomas, it cannot have had apocalyptic sayings; if we remove the apocalyptic sayings from Q, it is like Thomas; therefore, Q was originally like Thomas.
The Older Sayings of the Gospel of Thomas
If the Gospel of Thomas was written independently of the Synoptics, what does one make of the sayings of Jesus that they have in common but in slightly different forms? Is it possible that Thomas may preserve an older form of some of these sayings that is closer to the way in which Jesus delivered them? It is generally conceded that this is at least theoretically possible.
How do we know when a saying is older? We will consider this issue at greater length in Chapter 15. Here let me point out one controversial criterion that some researchers have used. If there are two different forms of a saying, these scholars claim, then the one that is simpler and more direct is more likely to be older. The logic behind this criterion is that sayings are generally embellished and expanded in the retelling.
Not everyone agrees with this criterion, but it at least deserves some consideration. What happens when it is applied to the sayings found in both Thomas and the Synoptics? Sometimes the form found in Thomas can lay claim to being older. Consider the following examples.
The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us, what is the Kingdom of Heaven like?” He said to them, “It is like a mustard seed, smaller than all seeds. But when it falls on plowed ground, it puts forth a large shrub and becomes a shelter for the birds of heaven.” (Gosp. Thom. 20)
And he said, “The man is like a wise fisherman who threw his net into the sea. He drew it up from the sea; it was full of small fish. The fisherman found among them a large, good fish. He threw all the small fish back into the sea; with no trouble he chose the large fish. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Gosp. Thom. 8)
Jesus said, “If a blind man leads a blind man, the two of them fall into a pit.” (Gosp. Thom. 34)
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30–32)
[Jesus said,] “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 13:47–50)
He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?” (Luke 6:39; the version in Matt 15:14 is somewhat longer)
Conclusion: The Date of Thomas and Its Traditions. Although we cannot know whether a source like Thomas existed during the first century, there are good reasons for thinking that Thomas itself did not. The most obvious is that the alternative understandings that lie behind so many of Thomas’s sayings cannot be documented as existing prior to the second century.
This is not to deny, however, that individual sayings found in Thomas may go back to Jesus himself. Indeed, as we will see later, all of the sayings in Thomas, and in every other source, canonical and noncanonical, must be judged as theoretically going back to Jesus. Moreover, there are grounds for thinking that some of the 114 sayings of this particular Gospel, especially some of the parables, are preserved in an older form than in the canonical Gospels, that is, they may be more like what Jesus actually said.