BOOK OF THOMAS THE CONTENDER
The seventh and last tractate in Codex II of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY. It is a revelation dialogue between the resurrected Jesus and his twin brother Judas Thomas, ostensibly recorded by Mathaias (perhaps the apostle Matthew) at a time just before Jesus’ ascension. It is a literary expression of traditions native to Syrian Edessa about the apostle Jude, surnamed Thomas, the missionary to India. It was likely composed in the first half of the third century A.D. It seems to occupy a median position between the Gospel According to Thomas, composed around A.D. 50-125, and the Acts of Thomas, composed in 225. The present Coptic version was probably translated from the Greek; the existence of the text is otherwise unattested in antiquity.
The subtitle designates the work as a “book” of “Thomas the athletes [i.e., “one who struggles” against the fiery passions of the body] writing to the perfect,” while the opening lines designate the work as “secret sayings” spoken by Jesus to Judas Thomas and recorded by Mathaias as he heard them speaking. The designation “sayings” does not really correspond to the genre of the work, which is a revelation dialogue. This type of dialogue is unlike the Platonic dialogue, in which a conversational process of statement, counterstatement, and clarification leads step by step to the birth of knowledge.
It is instead more related to the literature sometimes called erotapokriseis (“questions and answers”), in which an initiate elicits revealed truth from a spiritual authority or revealer figure in the form of catechetical answers to topical questions. These dialogues are set at a time between the Resurrection and Ascension, when the Savior appeared on earth in his true divine form, so that both He and His sayings were available to select apostles in a form unclouded by the sort of materiality that was believed to obscure the spiritual significance of his rather parabolic earthly, pre-resurrection teaching. As the Savior’s twin, Thomas had a claim to direct insight into the nature of the Savior and his teaching. By “knowing himself,” Thomas would also know the “depth of the all,” whence the Savior came and whither he was about to return, and thus become a missionary possessing the true teaching of Jesus.
This true teaching of Jesus turns out to be consistently ascetic. Its basic theme or catchword is “fire,” the fire of bodily passions that torment the soul and its counterpart in the flames of hell: one shall be punished by that by which one sins. Around this principal theme are gathered a number of conceptual oppositions, divine light versus passionate and infernal fire, the wise man who understands the truth versus the ignorant fool who is guided by the fiery illusion of truth, as well as a Platonic opposition between the visible and invisible. The presence of the Savior as the emissary of the light serves to illumine the eyes to see invisible reality within what heretofore was only perceptually visible and thus illusory.
The treatise thus evinces a Platonic dualism of a radically ascetic stripe, and may be properly considered broadly ascetic rather than Gnostic. The Gnostic myth of the creation of the world by a divine accident or evil power is neither mentioned nor apparently presupposed, and the dualism of the treatise is much more anthropological (body/soul) than cosmic (the above/below). A more appropriate designation for the doctrine of this work is Christian(ized) wisdom with ascetic application.
Finally, it is clear that the Book of Thomas the Contender displays the marks of a redactional history. It, or part of it, was not originally in the form of a dialogue, but rather one part was in the form of an adulterated collection of the sayings of Jesus, and another part was in the form of a didactic treatise. Whatever the form of its original sources, though, the work as a whole represents a new source for the form-critical investigation of early Christian literature and for the process by which new literary genres were adapted for Christian teaching. It also constitutes another instance in a growing body of Christian wisdom literature with its emphasis on seeking, finding, resting on, and ruling by the truth, and thus escaping the troubles of life.
- Kirchner, D., et al. “Das Buch des Thomas: Die siebente Schrift aus Nag-Hammadi-Kodex II eingeleitet und übersetzt vom Berliner Arbeitskreis für koptisch-gnostiche Schriften.” Theologische Literaturzeitung 102 (1977):793-804.
- Schenke, H.-M. “The Book of Thomas (NHC II.7): A Revision of a Pseudepigraphical Epistle of Jacob the Contender.” In The New Testament and Gnosis: Essays in Honour of Robert McL. Wilson, ed. A. H. B. Logan and A. J. M. Wedderburn. Edinburgh, 1983.
- Turner, J. D. “A New Link in the Syrian Judas Thomas Tradition.” In Essays on Nag Hammadi in Honour of Alexander Böhlig. Nag Hammadi Studies 3. Leiden, 1972.
- . The Book of Thomas the Contender from Codex II of the Cairo Gnostic Library from Nag Hammadi (CG II, 7): The Coptic Text with Translation, Introduction and Commentary. Revised text and translation. Missoula, Mont. 1975.
- . “The Book of Thomas the Contender.” In The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. J. M. Robinson. San Francisco, 1977.
- . “The Book of Thomas the Contender: Introduction, Edited Coptic Text, Fresh English Translation, Critical Apparatus to All Other Editions.” In Nag Hammadi Codex II, 7: Together with XIII, 2*, British Library Oriental. 4926(1) and Papyri Oxyrhynchus 1, 654, 655. With contributions by many scholars, ed. B. Layton. The Coptic Gnostic Library, ed. with English trans., introduction, and notes. Leiden, 1988.
JOHN D. TURNER