The Historical Jesus
The Gospel of Thomas
This is a document of sayings and parables attributed
to Jesus. Some think that it dates from a first edition written between 50 and
60 - that is, about the same time as Paul's later letters and
before the earliest other gospel (Mark).
If so, it was written before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman
government in 70 which more or less ended the Hebrew rebellion which had begun
in 66. It's similar in form to the other source of Jesus' sayings generally
called "Q" which was used by both Matthew and Luke. But Thomas is clearly a
source independent of Q.
A majority think that the Gospel of Thomas is better dated after the
destruction of Jerusalem - and probably a good few years after that.
One indication which supports this is that early Christian writers tend to
cite individual apostles for authority - as does the Gospel of Thomas. Later on,
the Church referred merely to "the Twelve" as the primary source of its
In contrast, not long after the beginning of the second century Christian
writers were already citing the canonical gospels as their most important
authority. In other words, the Gospel of Thomas uses a source of authority which
was already out of fashion early in the second century and therefore probably
derives from an earlier period.
But in the end there is no way of being sure of the Gospel's date except that
Thomas probably dates back to roughly the same period as some of the material
used by the other gospel authors. About half of the 114 logia or sayings
in the Gospel have parallels in the canonical gospels. But the order of the
sayings in Thomas is completely independent of them.
The Gospel contains some duplication of passages, an indication that the
collection was enlarged later in its history. Even the earliest gospel, Mark,
shows similar signs (the later ending, for example). As the text of the gospels
tended to solidify quite early in the Church's history, such additions are a
sign of an early dating, rather than a later.
Having said that, textual analysis has identified some sayings in Thomas
which are earlier than their counterpart in Mark's Gospel - the earliest of the
canonical gospels. For example, the textual form of Thomas 31 (the prophet has
no standing in his home town) is such that it cannot have been derived from Mark
6.1-6. Similarly, Thomas 65 (the Wicked Husbandmen) lacks any reference to the
Hebrew Scriptures (Isaiah 5.1) and is therefore thought to predate its parallels
in the other gospels (Mark 12.1-8; Matthew 21.33-39; Luke 20.9-15), all of which
contain theology using the Hebrew Scriptures as its authority.
The hypothetical Signs Gospel some propose was used by the author of John's
Gospel consists entirely of narrative. Thomas contains almost no narrative. Most
of its material starts with brief, standard phrases such as "Jesus said ..."
Some suppose that this indicates that the Gospel derives from oral material,
usually on the grounds that [a] sayings were (and still are) of greater interest
to most people and are therefore more likely to have been remembered and
retained; and [b] that sayings and parables are more easily reproduced orally
than are narratives.
The form of the Gospel depends upon associations with certain catchwords, a
principle of organisation common in antiquity. The Book of Proverbs is one such
organised in this way into logoi sophon or "wise words". Similar
collections of wise sayings (then called gnomologia or "insightful
words") were commonly assembled by the followers of the great. Some Christians
suppose that their forerunners of the early Church were unusual in proclaiming
Jesus. In fact, they would have competed with many other groups, each trying to
spread the ideas of their chosen mentor.
Scholars knew of the Gospel long before the text of Thomas was discovered in
1945. It is mentioned by Hippolytus (170-236) and Origen (185-254) as
currently in use by some Christian groups. The papyrus documents were found near
the Egyptian city of Nag Hammadi. The text is written in Coptic, the common
language of Egypt during the Christian period in North Africa, and still used
today. But textual analysis indicates that it was almost certainly translated
from an original Greek version.
Like the other Gospels, we don't know who assembled the sayings preserved in
the Gospel of Thomas. But it's possible that they were taken either direct from
oral traditions passed down through a couple of generations after the time
of Jesus, or from other written sources which preserved these sayings.
The "Didymos Judas Thomas" of the Gospel's first line is thought by some
scholars to have been a legendary Syrian wise man. Eastern Syria is the only
area where this exact form of the name is found. There are other textual
indications that the Gospel reached its present form somewhere in Syria. Thomas
12 refers to "James the Just" as an authority - which associates the Gospel to
some extent with the Jerusalem Christians of the very early Church (Galatians
1.19 and 2.9).
Many detect in the Gospel of Thomas examples of what is generally known as
Gnosticism - that branch of religion which sees the natural world as evil, and
those possessing right knowledge as distinct from the common herd. But, it
seems, the Gnostic elements in the Gospel are not well-formed or clear, but
To sum up: If one thinks that the four canonical Gospels contain good
history, then it's reasonable to conclude that the Gospel of Thomas does also.
More than that, the Gospel seems to be independent of the canonical gospels and
at least as early as they are. If this conclusion is correct (and research into
Thomas is still in an early stage) then the Gospel is extremely important -
especially those sections which are shared with the Synoptic Gospels (Mark,
Matthew and Luke).