The Gospel of Thomas

The History of the Gospel of Thomas.

Fathers of the Church had mentioned or quoted from a gospel attributed to the apostle Thomas. It was mentioned by Hippolytus of Rome between 222 and 235 and possibly quoted earlier by Clement of Alexandria. Other various mentions of the Gospel of Thomas by title apparently appear, but may refer to any of several works with Thomas’ name in the title.

The real work of scholarship on the Gof T? (Gospel of Thomas) began after the discovery of the “Nag Hammadi Library” in 1945. This consisted of a series of leather-bound texts in the Coptic language, sealed in a clay jar and buried in a cave (found by accident by several camel drivers). These particular manuscripts dated to about 340 AD. Among them was the “Gospel of Thomas”. As soon as it was available for translation, however, scholars realized that fragments of the Gof T? had been found earlier in Greek at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, in 1898. At least one of these Greek fragments has been dated to about 200 AD. (Just for comparison, the earliest fragments of Matthew and Mark in Greek date to about 250 AD).

The Oxyrhynchus site was basically a disposal site for government documents. Papyrus being expensive, tax receipts, land records and such were often written on the back of damaged or incomplete older manuscripts, and these were periodically taken in baskets to a document dumpsite. Thomas is in good company, as fragments of other gospels such as Matthew have also been found here.

The Content of the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas (one online version of which may be read here: consists of 114 “sayings” of Jesus, with almost no surrounding context or narrative. The sayings tend to be stark, simple and pithy (and occasionally difficult to understand). Included in Thomas are a number of sayings which also appear to be found in the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) although the Thomas version is usually simpler. Other sayings don’t appear in the synoptic gospels, but appear to be quoted by various Church Fathers or other early Christian documents. Some sayings are totally unique to the Gof T?

Why the Gospel of Thomas is Important

The Gof T? is important because many scholars are convinced that much of it is of a VERY early date, and may be quite authentic. If this is true, it gives us access to a very early form of Jesus’ teaching, as well as to teachings of Jesus which may be authentic, but which may not be found in the other gospels. Some scholars even put the original version of Thomas as early as 50 AD, and believe it may have predated the Gospel of Mark. Other scholars put the composition of Thomas as later – some MUCH later. Before addressing some of the reasons for the disagreement, I first want to spend some time arguing for a very early date for the Gospel of Thomas. Here, in brief, are the reasons why some scholars date this work very early.

Primitive Form

One of the first things scholars noticed was that, in form, the Gospel of Thomas is very primitive. It appears almost as if it were somewhat randomly assembled “notes” of sayings of Jesus, with no narrative context. Being in this form, it reminded scholars immediately of the hypothetical document “Q”, which has been presumed to be a very early source for Matthew and Luke, and which also appears to have consisted of a series of sayings of Jesus without context. (I have discussed this document previously, and have posted it on my website for reference, here: Some scholars have even argued that Thomas was a source for “Q”, or may in fact, BE “Q”. In any case, the literary form is quite primitive, and appears to have been quickly replaced in popularity once the more biographical form of the gospels arrived on this scene.

Simple Versions of the Sayings

Where Thomas and the synoptic gospels both have a similar saying of Jesus, the version in Thomas is almost always simpler and pithier, without elaboration or application. The general wisdom in source criticism is that sayings and parables tend to accumulate elaboration and application in the course of time. The sayings “grow in the telling”. Very rarely will an author simplify a saying or remove accumulated ornamentation. Indeed, to do so would betray an almost modern understanding of source development. An ancient author would be hesitant to trim down a remark that may have originated with Jesus, but didn’t seem to mind as much adding commentary. A few examples:

Jesus said, “Come unto me, for my yoke is easy and my lordship is mild, and you will find repose for yourselves.” (Thomas 90)


Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Mat 11:28–30)


Jesus said, “There was a rich man who had much money. He said, ‘I shall put my money to use so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouse with produce, with the result that I shall lack nothing.’ Such were his intentions, but that same night he died. Let him who has ears hear.” (Thomas 63)


And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luk 12:16–21)

Not only are the Thomas versions more compact, but they use quite different wording, making it unlikely they used the synoptic gospels as sources.

Different Order of Sayings

Where the Gospel of Thomas includes sayings that the synoptics include, it very rarely includes those sayings in the same order as the synoptics do. This suggests that the author of the Gof T? did not have any of the synoptics as his sources. If he did, he would probably have tended to reproduce at least some of the order of one of the syoptics in copying down the sayings, but this is not the case. The most recent statistical analysis of this was done by Stevan Davies, and can be found here: The author of Thomas, then is probably using an independent source, earlier than the synoptic gospels – possibly even an oral source.

Thomas a Possible Source for Mark and John

Several scholars have attempted to show that the Gospel of Thomas was used as a source for sayings of Jesus reported in Mark:

and in John:

Needless to day, if Thomas is a source for Mark – which is believed to be our earliest gospel, it would put the date of Thomas very early. It may have occurred to the reader here that our earlier point of Thomas sayings being in a different order than the synoptics argues against Thomas being a source for Mark. Not necessarily. Mark’s gospel is biographical, and just as Matthew and Luke did for “Q”, he may have felt compelled to rearrange Thomas sayings of Jesus to fit into his narrative. Whereas Thomas, if he were simply extracting sayings from Mark, would have no such motive to rearrange them.

Primitive Christology

Unlike John, a later gospel, few of the sayings in Thomas draw attention to Jesus himself. The focus is on Jesus’ teachings. This is consistent with the earlier gospels such as Mark, and the generally understood theory that the Christian understanding of Jesus as uniquely divine developed over time.

Early Manuscript Evidence

The earliest manuscript fragments of the Gospel of Thomas (as noted above) date to even earlier than the earliest fragments of Matthew, Mark or Luke. This is not conclusive proof, of course, as it may simply represent the luck of the draw. We do, after all, have fragments of John dating earlier still, even though John is recognized as being later than all three synoptics. But it makes it quite possible that Thomas represents a very early source of Jesus’ teaching.

John as a Rebuttal to Thomas

Elaine Pagels has suggested (in “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas”) that the Gospel of John may have been written (or redacted) as a reaction against the Gospel of Thomas and the Thomas community of Christians. While John includes much teaching that appealed to Gnostics, it also (in present form) taught more firmly than anywhere else in the New Testament the utter uniqueness of Jesus as the one and only divine being and way to God. (John 14:6) While Thomas agrees with John on Jesus pre-existence and divinity, it also suggests that those who understand Jesus’ message can become very much like him. This is, oddly, a message that seems to be somewhat echoed in John in several places (John 14:12; 17:21) John also, tellingly, includes several tales about the apostle Thomas, stories not seen in any other gospel, and, always in the negative. Thomas despairs of Jesus’ life (11:16), fails to understand Jesus’ message at the last supper (14:5) and becomes “doubting Thomas”, who is not there when Christ appears to his disciples and has to be chastised for his unbelief later (John 20). In Luke 24, however, when Jesus first appears to the apostles, he appears to ALL the eleven, with absolutely no mention of Thomas being absent.

It would be easy to see these incidents as being a polemic directed to the Thomas Christians, to try to malign their tradition as having come from a doubting apostle who didn’t understand Jesus. It would fit well if John were perhaps a polemical redaction of a work that originally derived from some Thomistic sources.

Arguments for a Later Date

Some scholars have argued that some sayings of the Gof T? DO show signs of having been copied from the synoptic gospels. I have read some of this work and find it on the whole to be a bit contrived, basing itself on the minority of Thomas sayings rather than on the general trend of the majority. It is, however, entirely possible that in the Coptic version we have (which is our only complete copy) there has been some scribal “harmonizing” of some of the Gof T?’s sayings with the synoptic gospels. We know this occurred with the synoptic gospels themselves, with later copies having had their differences slightly “smoothed over” by helpful scribes. The scribes of the later Coptic version of Thomas would have had the synoptic gospels available to them.

Gnostic Thomas?

Most of the tendency to date Thomas late, however, comes from the assumption that Thomas is Gnostic, and hence must date to the late second century, when Gnosticism was gaining a foothold. The Gospel of Thomas WAS found in a collection of mostly Gnostic material. But the collection also included a paraphrase of Plato, which predated Jesus. Furthermore, we know the original manuscripts of the Gof T? were much earlier, and in Greek. The Gospel of Thomas lacks all the mythology and terminology usually associated with Gnostic writing. There is no mention of Archons, Pleroma, the Demiurge or the like. There are no cosmological myths or references.

There are, however, some concepts that might be called “proto-gnostic”. Concepts that would have been comfortable in a Gnostic worldview. Such things as the existence of a secret teaching. The emphasis on personal enlightenment as salvation, the importance of revealed knowledge, and a somewhat negative view of the material world. It is possible that some of the sayings in the Gof T? were edited to make them more appealing to later Gnostics. In particular, the prologue and the last saying are suspect (and would have been the easiest to add). But another possibility is simply that some of the original teaching of Jesus DID in fact sound “proto-gnostic”. Similar sentiments can often be found in the canonical gospels. For example:

Secret knowledge: Luk 8:10 And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.

Revealed knowledge: Joh 8:32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

An evil world: Mat 4:8–9 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (notice who the world seems to belong to)


It seems to me, then that the reasons for assigning a late date to the Gospel of Thomas aren’t as strong as those for an early date. And if the Gospel of Thomas is as early a work as some scholarship suggests, then it is a remarkable find for anyone who wants insight on the teaching of Jesus.

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