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Our Most Important Gospel from Outside the NT: The Gospel of Thomas

This week in my graduate seminar we will be discussing the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, not to be confused with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that I mentioned in a post last week, with which this one has no relation, apart from the fact that both claim to be written by Thomas, a.k.a. Didymus Judas Thomas, i.e., Jesus’ brother Jude.

By far this Gospel of Thomas is the best known, most read, and most significant Gospel from outside the New Testament.  It was accidentally discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi Egypt as one of the 52 documents contained in a set of twelve books, with part of a thirteenth, now widely known as the Nag Hammadi Library.  Most of these documents are Gnostic.

Like all the others, this one is written in Coptic and is a Coptic translation of a Greek original.  The book that contains it was produce in the mid-fourth century CE.  But the Gospel itself was originally composed in the early second century CE.  It is hard to say when after this the Coptic translation was produced.  In a  later post I may give the reasons we know this various information.  For now I thought it would be interesting just to give part of it to you.

The Gospel is almost nothing but sayings of Jesus, one after the other.  Scholars since the first publication of the text (in 1959) give them as 114 sayings; the manuscript itself does not number them.  As you will see, some of the sayings are very much like what you find in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Others, well, not so much.  Or at all.

Suppose you were picking this up to read it for the first time.  Here are the first 18 sayings.  What do you make of them?   (The translation was done by my colleague Zlatko Pleše, for our book The Other Gospels).

 

 The Gospel According to Thomas

These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.

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The Gospel of Thomas: Some Basic Information
The Earliest Infancy Gospel: Some of the Critical Problems

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  September 14, 2020

    That is fascinating! Thank you so much Bart. Jesus’ koan-like sayings explode conventional Christianity. They are ripe with new inspiration.

  2. Avatar
    veritas  September 14, 2020

    Number 15 is interesting, but not to Mormons. Most Christians believe God always existed as supreme being. Mormons took it a step further. They believe God ( many gods) was a fallen man like us, and worked (perfected) himself to glory, like Jesus. And so, he must of had a mother and ultimately a wife to have his own( personal) kingdom and all these little spirit children inhabiting it. Their main tenet, according to the founder,Joseph Smith’s vision, God and Jesus both appeared to him (Smith) in bodies of flesh and bones. Ironically, definitions of God , related to religions say, 1) (in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being. 2) in certain other religions) a superhuman being or spirit worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes; a deity. How fitting!! Beliefs for all. On a personal note, Bart, I always assumed that this gospel of Thomas was referring to the Apostle and not Jesus’s brother. I think many today still think that. Thanks.

    • Avatar
      GeoffClifton  September 16, 2020

      My understanding is that the Apostle Thomas (ie Doubting Thomas) is the same person as Jude, the brother of Jesus. ‘Thomas’ just means twin. Or at least some early Christian’s believed that he was.

  3. Avatar
    tskorick  September 14, 2020

    This text is fascinating, and it vexes me that so little of the Greek is available. There are certainly some Gnostic flavors to it, but it never gets obnoxious about it. The references to understanding special knowledge in order to be saved from death, secret knowledge imparted to Thomas that he couldn’t tell the others, strange riddles, etc. all have that distinct Gnostic “I know something you don’t know” feel to them. In Thomas, salvation comes not from Jesus’ sacrifice, the blind faith of his followers, or good works of the saints, but rather from hearing and understanding the words of Jesus. I can see why it would be included in a Gnostic library but would stop short of saying it’s an outright Gnostic work.

    While we’re on the subject, I’m curious as to why scholars often translate #2 above from the Greek fragments and replace “be disturbed” with “wonder.” The only Greek fragment I know of containing the beginning of this work is P. Oxy. 654, and it is too fragmented to make out exactly what it reads … Do you know of a scholarly work where I might find an explanation for this?

    • Avatar
      tskorick  September 16, 2020

      And when I ask about a scholarly work I don’t mean to suggest that the book by you and Dr. Pleše doesn’t fit the bill, I have no idea if you dug into that specific question. For the record I ordered it today from Amazon just in case 🙂 If there are others that you recommend however on the textual critical aspect of The Gospel of Thomas I’m all ears.

      • Bart
        Bart  September 16, 2020

        For text-critical work, see the two-volume work on Thomas by April Deconick.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      First issue: It’s a question of what makes a text Gnostic. If the answer is: whether Gnostics used it and found it amenable to their teachings, then the Gospel of John would be a Gnostic Gospel as well.
      On the Greek, the word has to be reconstructed, since it occurs twice in the logion, the first time the Greek is lacunose and the second time it preserves only the ending of the word (when what you want is the beginning); but based on the ending it appears that it is probably θαμβηθεὶς (THAMBEHEIS) which means “to be amazed/astounded” rather than “disturbed”

      • Avatar
        tskorick  September 16, 2020

        That makes sense, thanks for the details!

    • Avatar
      tom.hennell  September 16, 2020

      Gathercole’s comment on saying 2 in his recent commentary.

      “while the Greek has the sequence ‘find → be astonished’ in the middle of the saying, the Coptic has in its place ‘find → be troubled → be astonished’. The Coptic perhaps emphasises the unsettling nature of the process of discovery. On the one hand, however, while ϣⲧⲟⲣⲧⲣ̄ is more consistently negative than θαμβέω, the Coptic ϣⲧⲟⲣⲧⲣ̄ could easily be a translation of it; on a rough count of the 24 instances in the Sahidic translation of the Synoptics, four are translations of θαμβέω or its cognates”.

      So there is no reason why the Coptic may not simply translate the one Greek term twice.

  4. Avatar
    Stephen  September 14, 2020

    Do critical scholars write commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas the way they do on the canonical gospels? If so could you recommend one, or a really good book on the subject? Just the name of a reputable critical expert would get me started. A search online reveals that the swamis and mystics have landed on the GoT with both feet!

    Thank you!

  5. Avatar
    robbeasley  September 14, 2020

    If the sayings are all from Jesus why isn’t it called the Gospel of Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      Because the actual title is “The Gospel according to Thomas” (i.e. it’s his version)

  6. Avatar
    JeepEnthusiast  September 14, 2020

    “On the day when you were one, you became two; but when you become two, what will you do?”

    This parts fun to say 🙂

  7. LaoWho
    LaoWho  September 15, 2020

    I see displacement, a forced transfer of self and identity to an inward gaze by displaced and dispossessed people. Hope deferred makes the heart sick. And I see John Dominic Crossan doing this too, forced to metamorphize everything to metaphor because the realities above ground just aren’t bearable any longer. And Lao Tze leaving the same way, and trying to find an alternative life. In a word, the kingdom of heaven had been taken by force for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt or assimilate. Eventually Chuang Tze would invert completely too and say things like the butterfly dream, and that none has lived longer than a dead child.

    So yeah, on a first reading I see severe trauma and desperation. We could dress it up as something sage by abstracting the suffering onto some inverted neoplatonic parallel plane, but if we don’t see the stresses forcing this then any further analysis wouldn’t have any ground. Maybe that’s what makes Judaism unique as compared with Orientalism and Hellenism–it’s earthy and still tethered to real bodies. Without that, one wouldn’t know whether they’re not just being schizophrenic.

    • sschullery
      sschullery  September 17, 2020

      I often enjoy reading the comments even when I know I’m not going to participate. Every once in a while there’s one like this (that seems to be from another thread) and rubs my nose in what an amateur I am.

  8. Avatar
    AstaKask  September 15, 2020

    “On the day when you were one, you became two; but when you become two, what will you do?”

    What? Is this referring to the duality of matter and spirit?

  9. Avatar
    RickR  September 15, 2020

    Since this gospel was written so long after the original four gospels, why should we think that anything in it that contradicts or modifies the original gospels is valid? Seems we are skating on thin ice here. Sometimes conjecturing based on a significantly later source is tenuous at best.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      It depends what you mean as “valid.” Do you mean “more likely to be historically accurate”? If so, then the idea is that this writer may have heard sayings of Jesus spoken orally that he recorded that were preserved more accurately in the stream of tradition than the same sayings preserved in the streams of tradition known to the Gospel writers (rather than having taken the sayings from the Gospels and modifed them). It’s certainly possible that the story tellers who informed *him* were more accurate than those who informed Luke, for example, even if he was living a couple of decades later. At least one has to consider it as a serious option, on a case by case basis.

  10. Robert
    Robert  September 15, 2020

    Are there any sayings in the gospel of Thomas that you think are more primitive than what is found in the canonical New Testament?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      I really don’t know. Just because they are pithier (e.g., the version of the blind leading the blind) doesn’t make them older. Same with most of the criteria one typically uses.

  11. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  September 15, 2020

    ,,, for the first time ,, well it is a long time ago I first read it, but how would I read these sayings 1-18) today was the first time??

    * First and foremost, I think the saying is very beautifully and intelligently written, partly esoteric and poetic

    * The Gnostic “soul descends” and “ascends” (says 18, and also 49 a little later in the gospel) seems to shine through, even in these first 18 sayings,

    For me, the saying 7 has a kind of esoteric dimention and the “lion” has been associated with the four beasts i.e. Daniel,/Revelation . The 4 earthly elements which has been used in a wide range of belief systems, including Buddism (as one out of several). In those systems the 4 elements (earthly qualities) have a capasity to become “beasts” which a man has to overcome. The might of the lion have been use both as dangerous and positiv.

    One might add the “wisdom aspect”, which may have a tendency to a Gnostc aspect (but not necessary, so since this is also found in the canonized Bible).

    In my mind, it is great stuff !

  12. Avatar
    rivercrowman  September 15, 2020

    Bart, this is off topic. The heretic Marcion’s proposed New Testament canon included a version of Luke’s Gospel, but not the Book of Acts. Did Marcion have a problem with Acts (written by Luke), or did he even know about Acts? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      It’s usually thought that he didn’t know about it.

  13. Avatar
    Maglaw  September 15, 2020

    This is my favorite of all 5 gospels. But my question is: why is it assumed that Thomas was the brother of Jesus? We know that Jesus had a brother named Jude (or Judas) and that Didymus means “twin.” I think you even said in one of your books that he was claiming to be Jesus’ own twin. Is it possible that his name means “twin brother of Judas”? But I would like to know the evidence that he’s claiming blood relation to Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      Because we have other traditions also probably from Syria that explicitly talk about Thomas as Jesus’ twin brother (e.g., the Acts of Thomas).

  14. Avatar
    Syed Masood  September 15, 2020

    Was floored when I today read The Atlantic’s exhaustively researched article on the sale of stolen papyrii by Dirk Obbink to the Greens. I remember watching your debate with Dr. Wallace on Youtube where he claimed a very early manuscript was about to be published. Do you have any views on this? Frankly, I find the private ownership of historical artifacts to be wrong. These all should be part of a shared world heritage accessible by all scholars.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      The Atlantic article is spot on; and the author Ariel Sabar has just published an entire book on it called Veritas. Very interesting indeed .

  15. Avatar
    fishician  September 15, 2020

    Isn’t it ironic that the gospels written in the names of various disciples (Thomas, Peter, etc.) were rejected as inauthentic, but four anonymously written gospels made the cut. I’m guessing content was considered more important than the attached name. I suspect that the reason it worked for the forged letters of Paul is that those works were in line with orthodoxy at the time they were written. As for the Gospel of Thomas, was the main importance of its discovery that it showed the possibility of source documents that were not full gospels, like the proposed Q, L and M sources?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      That was one element of its significance; also the fact that here we have an author with a very different thology from that in the NT Gospels, from not long afterward, meaning that different Christian communities had very different views, early on; and as well that some of the sayings may in fact go back to the historical Jesus.

  16. Avatar
    Jim  September 15, 2020

    I suppose that a few hours after the converting the 150 or so gallons of water into wine at the wedding in Cana, maybe Jesus did say stuff like “blessed is the lion that the human will eat so that the lion becomes human”. Maybe based on the accusations in Matt 11:19, Jesus even said a lot of other weird things that he wanted to retract later (but some of them ended up in gThomas). 🙂

    But on another note, wouldn’t Matt 11:19 imply that Jesus used the phrase “the Son of Man” self-referentially (as a cosmic judge probably wouldn’t be referred to as a glutton, drunkard and a friend of tax collectors) … unless “Son of Man” here refers generically to “a human”, and/or the gospel writer put this whole line on Jesus lips.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      Yes, in the Gospels Jesus frequently uses the title Son of Man self-referentially.

  17. Avatar
    avdominello  September 15, 2020

    Question. Note 22, since it seems to reference 1 Corinthians, written much earlier. Is it possibly the case that both Paul and the author of Thomas were writing from some source (oral or written) that never made it into the canonical gospels? Is it similar to where Paul seems to quote from pre-existing traditions in his other genuine letters?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      Paul doesn’t quote it as a saying of Jesus (1 Cor. 2:9); I believe Origen claimed that the saying comes from the Apocalypse of Elijah. It’s not clear if Gospel of Thomas is quoting Paul or teh Apocalypse of Elijah, or if both Paul and the author of Thomas have simply heard the same saying.

  18. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  September 15, 2020

    It seems that the majority of scholars would agree that the Gospel of Thomas is the most important gospel outside of the New Testament. That’s not something new to me but, I’m curious to know what would the second most important gospel be outside of the New Testament? In your scholarly opinion is there anything else that comes close to the Gospel of Thomas?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      It’s a bit hard to say — i guess it depends on what counts as “important.” historically the Proto-Gospel of James, and the Gospel of Nicodemus, were both more important — in that they affected Christian thinking sifnificantly through the middle ages. Thomas is “important” for modern scholarship on Jesus. After that, who knows — maybe the Gospel of Peter?

  19. Avatar
    tom.hennell  September 15, 2020

    Bart; to me the most intriguing issue in these initial eighteen sayings is raised in number 13; where Simon Peter and Matthew are singled out as the leading ‘wrong’ disciples, where Thomas is the ‘right’ disciple. That the author of Thomas would wish to diminish Peter (and by extension those Christian traditions that venerated him) is not surprising. But why Matthew too? Matthew features not at all in the epistles; and within the Gospels and Acts, only in the lists of the Twelve.

    For most Christians, the answer would be obvious; Peter is included as the most prominent leader of the Church; while Matthew is included as the author of the most prominent Gospel. And indeed there is no other ready explanation – as Simon Gathercole points out in his recent commentary.

    But, of course, as you have repeatedly emphasized; the date when the Gospel of Matthew came to be attributed to ‘Matthew’ is highly problematic.

    So it is most interesting that the author of Thomas (assuming Gathercole is correct), both recognised the Gospel of Matthew as the leading ‘rival’ Gospel, and believed that ‘Matthew’ wrote it.

  20. 1SonOfZeus
    1SonOfZeus  September 15, 2020

    (30) Jesus said, “Where there are three gods, they are gods. Where there are two or one, I am with him.

    Jesus there! Gods! Gods are one with
    With one are Gods. Gods there! Jesus!

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