Acts of Thomas

An aprocryphal account of the Apostle Thomas,* depicted as Christ's twin and recipient of His secret words. Thirteen wonderful deeds of the apostle are told, concluding with his martyrdom. Throughout the work, both in the symbolism of the stories and in explicit teaching, a Gnostic element of teaching is found, based on the myth of the soul sought by the Savior to be freed from this world and bodily bondage, and counselling asceticism. This aspect of the book is most strikingly seen in the two famous hymns, the Marriage Song, praising the “daughter of light” (probably heavenly wisdom), and the Song of the Pearl, or Hymn of the Soul, which depicts in terms of legendary adventure the Savior's quest for the soul. The teaching has close links with early Syriac Christianity, e.g., Bardaisan, and the book was taken over by the Manichaeans and bears some marks of their editing. It retained its appeal in orthodox circles, however, and in its Syriac version has undergone some accommodation to Catholic teaching. Its main transmission is in a Greek form, although it was composed in Syriac. A Syriac version is known, with Latin, Ethiopic, and Armenian. Among the Manichaeans,* it circulated in a five-book corpus with the Acts of Peter, John, Andrew, and Paul.


THOMAS, ACTS OF. The latest of the five major apocryphal Acts, and the only one that has survived complete, the Acts of Thomas is extant in Gr. and Syr., with portions also in other languages. It is generally agreed that the Gr. text is a VS from Syr., and that the book was composed in Syr. but some scholars have held that it was composed in Gr., tr. into Syr., and subsequently, when the Gr. original was lost, retranslated into Gr. At any rate, the extant Gr. is generally recognized to be closer to the original than the present Syr. text, which has been subjected to catholicizing revision. The Gr. VS is accordingly given the preference, except in the case of the famous Hymn of the Pearl, where the Syr. is believed to be more original.

Character.

A further subject of debate is the problem of the character of the work. Bornkamm, for example, calls it “a Christian-Gnostic variety of the Hellenistic-Oriental romance,” and claims that it represents “the Gnostic Christianity of Syria in the third century” (NTAp II. 428ff., 440). Findlay (see Bibliography), on the other hand (278f.), writes,

Gnostic tones are so little discernible that it is a misuse of words to describe the Acts as a Gnostic writing, or indeed as anything else than a product of Eastern piety of the type characteristic of the Syrian church.

This conflict of opinion is partly due to differences in definition of the term “Gnostic,” but it should also be noted (a) that Findlay later admits the presence of “unmistakable Gnostic expressions” in the Gr. VS (288f.; they are “less prominent” in the Syr.); on the other hand, (b) Bornkamm’s case rests upon a synthesis of motifs; that a Gnostic view of redemption underlies the Acts “becomes immediately clear when we assemble together into a uniform picture the most important traits of the Gnostic Redeemer-myth, which are scattered over the Acts as a whole” (429). The presence of such scattered motifs is, however, no guarantee that the book presupposes a fullscale developed Redeemer-myth. The motifs may be “known from Gnosticism,” but some of them are shared also by “orthodox” writers, and even in the Acts may not originally have been intended to carry a Gnostic meaning; at some points, the text allows a non-Gnostic interpretation as well as the Gnostic. The book was popular in Gnostic circles, particularly among the Manichees, but as in other cases there is a danger of imposing upon the text a later interpretation—of reading back the interpretation that the Manichees placed upon it; for the work also enjoyed considerable favor in orthodox circles. An ascetic, world-renouncing attitude was common in early Eastern Christianity, and such traits should not always be ascribed to Gnostic influence. Therefore it is prob. better to leave the Gnostic origin and character of the book an open question. It is generally agreed to have been written in Syria, prob. in Edessa, early in the 3rd cent., and this would locate its place of origin at least in close proximity to a Gnostic milieu.

Contents.

In its present form, the book falls into thirteen Acts followed by the Martyrdom. When the apostles divide the world into spheres for mission, Thomas is appointed to India, but does not relish the prospect. Jesus forces his hand by selling him to the merchant Abban, sent by King Gundaphorus (a historical figure of the 1st cent. a.d.). On the way they attend a royal wedding in Andrapolis, where Thomas betrays his miraculous powers and is summoned to pray for the bridal pair. Jesus appears in His likeness, and wins them to the life of chastity.

Having arrived in India, Thomas was commissioned by Gundaphorus to build a palace, but he diverts the funds to poor relief. The King’s wrath is averted by the sudden death and return to life of his brother, who reveals that Thomas has built a palace for him in heaven.

Thomas then sets out on a journey, on which he meets and overcomes a serpent that has killed a youth; rides upon a talking colt, which later dies; expells a demon from a woman; cleanses a murderer and restores his victim to life. These first six Acts are loosely strung together, but from the seventh on, the story is more closely knit together.

A captain of King Misdaeus seeks Thomas’ help, and on the road, the beasts drawing their wagon grow weary with the heat; at Thomas’ bidding, wild asses tamely take their place. He heals the captain’s wife and daughter, and then Mygdonia, wife of the king’s kinsman Charisius, comes to see the new phenomenon and is converted. Her refusal to have further dealings with him enrages Charisius, who has Thomas imprisoned. Misdaeus sends his wife Tertia to plead with Mygdonia, but she too is converted, with her son Vazan and his wife. Thomas is executed at the king’s command, but his converts persevere in the faith despite pressure, and are eventually left in peace. Finally a demon-possessed son of Misdaeus is healed by dust from the apostle’s tomb (his bones had already been carried away to the West) and Misdaeus himself is converted.

Special features.

This brief outline shows the ascetic ideal characteristic of the book. Thomas is the typical ascetic saint:

continually he fasts and prays, and eats only bread with salt, and his drink is water, and he wears one garment in fair weather or in foul, and takes nothing from anyone, and what he has he gives to the poor (ch. 20).

This ideal is emphasized also in the numerous sermons, prayers, and hymns that are scattered throughout the book. The Christian life here presented is one of self-denial, of renunciation of the world and its pleasures. “The married state is a state of sin. Home and the love of children are excluded from the province of religion” (Findlay notices that this is a strange aberration from the teaching of Jesus). The emphasis, however, is not on asceticism alone, for stress is also laid on compassion—concern for the poor and the afflicted. This is brought out in the story of Gundaphorus’ palace: good deeds insure a heavenly dwelling place. The supreme aim is the blessed life beyond; the path to it is by self-denial and alms-giving.

Another feature is the prominence given to the sacraments, chs. 156-158 being of special interest for their detailed description of the ritual: sealing with oil, baptism, and eucharist. The absence in some passages of any reference to water baptism leads Bornkamm to postulate a Gnostic sect that knew only unction as the sacrament of initiation, the references to baptism elsewhere being due to Catholic interpretations. Similarly, the eucharist is a communion in the bread alone, with at most a cup of water; references in certain prayers to the body and blood of Christ are also later interpolations, such as are more clearly visible in the Syr. This may, however, press the evidence too far in the Gnostic direction; the argument from silence is notoriously dangerous, and there may be other explanations for the author’s failure to mention baptism where one might expect it. It is noteworthy that the Gnostic expressions recognized by Findlay occur in consecration prayers.

The Hymn of the Pearl.

Special mention must be made of two great hymns contained in these Acts, the Wedding Hymn (ch. 6ff.), which at least lends itself to interpretation in terms of the Valentinian imagery of the bridal chamber, and the Hymn of the Pearl (ch. 108ff.), often described as one of the most beautiful pieces of lit. produced by the Early church, but also presenting highly complex problems of interpretation. It tells of a prince, sent to Egypt to bring back a pearl. Fed by guile on the unclean food of Egypt, he forgets his mission and remains sunk in a sleep of lethargy until he is aroused by a letter from home that stirs him to fulfill his task. A notable feature is the description of the splendid robe that he left behind at home, and with which he is clothed on his return.

That the story is an allegory is beyond question, but who is the prince? The obvious interpretation is to take him as the symbol of the soul, and the story as an allegory of man’s redemption. What then is the pearl for which he was sent? On the other hand, the pearl is often a symbol for the soul, and some scholars have found here an allegory of the Redeemer; but this view also has its problems. The hymn is not specially appropriate to its context, and may be an adaptation of a very much older poem; whether it was an original Gnostic composition remains in doubt.

Other links.

Thomas is associated in tradition with the planting of Christianity in Edessa, where his bones were preserved. There are links between the Acts and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (q.v.), also perhaps of Syrian origin. Attempts have been made to connect the Hymn of the Pearl with Bardesanes, or at least with his school, but again there is debate. In short, the book gives rise to many problems for which no final solution is possible. Its significance lies in its presentation of the ideals of an early branch of Eastern Christianity akin to, though not necessarily influenced by, the doctrines of certain Gnostic groups.

Bibliography

Translation in ANT 364ff., NTAp II. 425ff.; Findlay, Byways in Early Christian Literature (1923), 273ff.; detailed commentary in A. F. J. Klijn, The Acts of Thomas (1962).