About: this paper was delivered to Dr. David Nystrom at Fuller Theological Seminary during my second year for a class on the Gospels.
The Gospel of Thomas is regarded as the most important extracanonical gospel as it is certainly a popular document to study among New Testament critics. Why was it not included in the New Testament? Perhaps we can answer our question by looking at the document. As we explore the Gospel of Thomas by taking into consideration its authorship, date and content we will see why this particular gospel was not included in the Bible. But first, what is the history behind this document?
The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in Coptic around 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt (Gundry 2003, 92). There are three Greek fragments of this document that are referred to as the Oxyrhynchus papyri (Bauckham 1992, 286). These fragments were published in 1897 and 1904, and are identified as Papyri Oxyrhynchus 1, 654, and 655 (286). These fragments were not recognized as parts of the Gospel of Thomas at first, but when the Coptic version was discovered in Egypt, it was recognized that they are from the same work (286). In the prologue for the Gospel of Thomas, the document is attributed to “Didymus Judas Thomas” (287). This attribution demonstrates that the document was derived from the East Syrian Christian tradition in Edessa (Bauckham 1992, 287). It was from this particular tradition that the Book of Thomas and the Acts of Thomas came, which identify that Thomas the apostle was known as Judas Thomas (287). It was thought that Thomas founded the church in this area (287). Therefore, if it is true that Thomas was the founder of that area’s church, the oral traditions from that church were probably transmitted under the name of Thomas, which also means that the Gospel of Thomas is likely to be rooted in these traditions (287). This hypothesis is confirmed by the points of contact between the Gospel of Thomas and other literature from the same area (287). The apostle Thomas is the one to whom this document is attributed, and according to our knowledge of the area and the other documents that come from the same location, there is no reason to doubt that this document comes from the tradition from Thomas. However, did Thomas write the document?
Scholars do not know who wrote the Gospel of Thomas. Neither do scholars know when the document was written. Some date the document as early as A.D. 50-70 (Bauckham 1992, 287). The earliest quote from this document does not come until the Third Century A.D., and given its explicit Gnostic thoughts and vocabulary, the document could not be earlier than the late First Century A.D. (287). The earliest papyri evidence, Papyri Oxyrhynchus 1, was written no later than A.D. 200 (286). Therefore, the document was written no earlier than the late First Century A.D., but no later than A.D. 200. However, the document does stem forth out of a tradition that comes from Thomas. Therefore, we should take the content of the document seriously even though its date is uncertain. Furthermore, the hypothesis most likely to be correct concerning the document’s assembly believes the Gospel of Thomas was dependent on a tradition that was different from the gospels of the New Testament (Bauckham 1992, 287). Therefore, assuming that the above hypothesis is correct, to a certain degree the Gospel of Thomas could possibly provide evidence for the traditions that may have influenced the canonical Gospels. We cannot simply pass off this document as worthless. We must take this document and its content seriously.
The Gospel of Thomas is a Gnostic document that contains a large compilation of sayings that are attributed to Jesus (Achtemeier, Green and Thompson 2001, 219). There are 114 sayings in this document, and they are referred to as logia by modern scholars (Bauckham 1992, 287). This document has no narrative features, and rarely does this text give narrative contexts for the sayings (287). For these reasons the Gospel of Thomas is not actually a gospel (Gundry 2003, 92). The theology of this document “presents Jesus as a revealer of the secret wisdom by which the elect may recognize their true spiritual identity and recover their heavenly origin” (Bauckham 1992, 287). The document is Gnostic due to the explicit distinctive Gnostic theology that is emphasized throughout the text (287). In relation to the New Testament, how does the document measure up? Many of the 114 logia sound similar to the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels of the New Testament, and others sound different. We should look at the similarities and the oddities.
There are sayings in the Gospel of Thomas that sound like what we have in the New Testament, and there are other sayings that sound similar but with minor changes. Here is an example of a saying in the Gospel of Thomas that sounds like the New Testament. Logion 54 says, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven,” which sounds similar to Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20 (Gundry 2003, 92-3). Here is an example of a saying that sounds similar but with some differences to the New Testament. Logion 46b says, “But I have said that whoever among you will become a little one will know the kingdom and will be greater than John,” which is similar to though different from Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28 (93). These sayings may be similar to the New Testament because they come from the tradition as passed on by the apostle Thomas. But what do we make of the oddities of the document?
There are sayings in the Gospel of Thomas that sound quite unlike the gospels of the New Testament. One statement bears no resemblance to anything in the New Testament, which is Logion 82, and it says, “He who is near me is near the fire, and he who is far from me is far from the kingdom” (Gundry 2003, 93). Logion 13 sounds quite odd in comparison with Mark 8:27-31; the extracanonical document reads as follows:
Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like.” Simon Peter said to him, “Your are like a righteous angel.” Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.” Thomas said to him, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like.” Jesus said, “I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.” (Achtemeier, Green and Thompson 2001, 219)
Due to such oddities of this document, it is said by some scholars that the Gospel of Thomas is a largely corrupted tradition regarding the sayings of Jesus (Gundry 2003, 93). The implicit statement of such an opinion of this document is that the Gospel of Thomas is worthless. However, despite the oddities, the document might possibly have something to offer that is of value.
Although the Gospel of Thomas does not provide is with a direct road to the real historical Jesus, and despite the claims of the Jesus Seminar that the document teaches us much about the teaching of Jesus, there are five logia that could possibly be authentic (Stanton 2002, 129). These logia are 42, 81, 82, 97 and 98, and they are not found in the gospels of the New Testament (129). In addition, in the case of the parables of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas might actually have more original versions regarding the teaching of Jesus when the sayings in the document are not revisions of sayings in the gospels of the New Testament (129). Such possibilities must be taken seriously and should at least be considered, weighed and critiqued, because of the wide acceptance of this document to be more reliable or at least informative regarding the teaching of Jesus than the New Testament. If we do not take the Gospel of Thomas seriously, we will not be able to dialogue effectively with those who are opposed to the New Testament but who are supportive of this document.
Given its relatively late date, Gnostic theology, and odd sayings attributed to Jesus’ teaching it is no wonder that the Gospel of Thomas is not included in the New Testament. It is not a real gospel and it does not match up well with what we already have in the earlier gospels of the New Testament. It may have five small pieces of authentic information, but we cannot be certain of this possibility, nor can we be certain of the possibility that it may give us more authentic versions of Jesus’ parables at times when it is not a clear revision of what we see in the New Testament. However, as New Testament students we must take this document seriously if we are to dialogue with people who value the Gospel of Thomas.
Achtemeier, Paul, Joel Green and Marianne Thompson, editors. 2001. Introducing the New Testament: Its literature and theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Compnay.
Bauckham, Richard. 1992. “Gospels (Apocryphal).” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship, ed. Joel Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, 286-91. Downers Grove, Illinois and Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press.
Gundry, Robert. 2003. A survey of the New Testament. 4th ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Stanton, Graham. 2002. The Gospels and Jesus. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.