GOSPEL OF THOMAS
An apocryphal gospel of Gnostic origin, possibly from the late second century. The most “popular” of the Coptic texts of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY (II. 2), the Gospel of Thomas has been translated into several languages and circulated widely in learned circles among specialists both in Gnosticism and in New Testament studies, as well as among the general public. It has even been considered a fifth canonical Gospel.
An infancy gospel under this name was known before the discovery of the texts in Nag Hammadi in 1945. Preserved in its original Greek version and in various translations (Latin, Syriac, Georgian, and Slavonic), this gospel has nothing to do with the Nag Hammadi text, which consists of a collection of “sayings” of Jesus. Hippolytus (Refutation 5. 7. 20) mentions a “Gospel according to Thomas” used by the sect of the Nassenes (Ophites). A phrase quoted by Hippolytus may derive from the Coptic collection, although the ascription is uncertain. It has been argued that it may instead have come from the infancy gospel just mentioned, which was also perhaps used by the Manichees (see MANICHAEISM). In any event, the quotation does not follow word for word, and the identification remains problematic.
It is certain, however, that three Greek papyrus pieces discovered at Oxyrhynchus in 1897 and 1903 are related to the Coptic version. The Coptic text appears to be a witness to a late redaction, representing the end of literary evolution. More “gnosticizing” than the Greek fragments from Oxyrhynchus, of which it is not a direct translation, the Coptic text may date from the end of the second century.
Among the known Gnostic works, the Gospel of Thomas approaches the canonical Gospels most closely. According to modern editions, it contains 114 “sayings” of Jesus, which are neither numbered nor separated by any special punctuation in the manuscript. After some vacillation in the earlier publications, scholars now generally adhere to the numbering of the editio princeps (Guillaumont et al., 1959). These sayings—logia, as they are commonly called—are introduced for the most part by the simple formula “Jesus said.” There are no narrative elements as in the canonical Gospels, although there is an occasional hint of such (e.g., logia 13 and 22).
In other instances, a question—generally posed by the disciples—leads to the saying of Jesus, passages that tend to take on the appearance of a dialogue. It was precisely the literary feature of the sayings that attracted so much attention to this text. New Testament exegetes have postulated that underlying the canonical Gospels of Matthew and Luke was a source, Q, which consisted solely of sayings of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas offers for the first time a representative of this literary genre. As it has come down to us, it is not in itself the hypothetical source Q; but it could derive from such a collection.
Some sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas are found in similar forms in the New Testament. This is true, for example, with the parables concerning the Kingdom of Heaven: the grain of mustard seed, the tares, the pearl of great price, the leaven, the lost sheep, the treasure hidden in a field. But the Coptic text almost never corresponds word for word with that of the canonical Gospels. And where the Synoptics differ, this author preserves the reading that can most easily be interpreted in a Gnostic sense. If he has perhaps preserved here and there an authentic saying of Jesus— unknown through the canonical tradition—we must always take into account the nuances that the author may have introduced in the interest of his own views.
The Gnostic character of the Gospel of Thomas is generally recognized. The center of interest is gnosis, a profound knowledge that depends on the interpretation of the secret words (logion 1) and begins with knowledge of oneself (logion 3). The person of the Revealer is himself a mystery. To know him will make Thomas the equal of Jesus (logion 13). It is this gnosis that Jesus brings, “that which eye has not seen, and ear has not heard” (logion 17). The disciples already possess the beginning of the truth (logion 18), but they will have to “work” in order that gnosis may produce its fruits in them (logion 20). They will be watchful with regard to the evil powers, those “robbers” who threaten them (logion 21). Let there be among them “a man forewarned,” that is to say, a Gnostic sage.
The question of the relation between the Coptic text and the canonical Gospels is not yet entirely resolved. The new document possesses some points in common with other apocryphal gospels, for example, the Gospel of the Hebrews and the Gospel of the Egyptians (quoted by Saint CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA). Moreover, the presence of Semitisms and some striking contacts with Syriac literature—especially the Liber graduum and the Diatessaron (a thesis defended principally by G. Quispel)—have led scholars to think of a Syrian origin, perhaps in Edessa. As a whole, the Gospel of Thomas may belong to the milieu of New Testament apocrypha, which depended upon the canonical Gospels and which came to the Coptic translator in a Syriac version. But the problem remains complex and opinion is divided.
- Baker, A. “The Gospel of Thomas and the Syriac Liber Graduum.” New Testament Studies 12 (1965-1966):49-55.
- Ehlers, B. “Kann das Thomasevangelium aus Edessa stammen? Ein Beitrag zur Frühgeschichte des Christentums in Edessa.” Novem Testamentum 12 (1970):284-317.
- Fitzmyer, J. A. “The Oxyrhynchus Logoi of Jesus and the Coptic Gospel According to Thomas.” Theological Studies 20 (1959):505-560.
- Garitte, G. “Les “Logoi’ d’Oxyrhynque et l’apocryphe copte dit ‘Evangile de Thomas.'” Le Muséon 73 (1960):151-72.
- Grant, R. M., and D. N. Freedman. The Secret Sayings of Jesus, with an English translation of the Gospel of Thomas by W. R. Schoedel. Garden City, N. Y., 1960.
- Guillaumont, A.; H.-C. Puech; G. Quispel; W. C. Till; and Y. ‘Abd Al-Masih. The Gospel According to Thomas. Coptic text established and translated. New York, 1959.
- Janssens, Y. “L’Evangile selon Thomas et son caractère gnostique.” Le Muséon 75 (1962):301-325.
- Marcovich, M. “Textual Criticism on the Gospel of Thomas.” Journal of Theological Studies, new ser., 20 (1969):53-74. Menard, J.-E. L’Evangile selon Thomas. Nag Hammadi Studies 5. Leiden, 1975.
- Quispel, G. “The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of the Hebrews.” New Testament Studies 12 (1965-1966):371-82.
- . Gnostic Studies. Istanbul, 1974-1975.
- Schrage, W. Das Verhältnis des Thomas-Evangeliums zur synoptischen Tradition und zu den koptischen Evangelienübersetzungen. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 29. Berlin, 1964.
- Wilson, R. McL. Studies in the Gospel of Thomas. London, 1960.