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Gospel of Thomas

THOMAS, GOSPEL OF. This was the major item in a jar of papyri discovered at Nag Hammadi between Cairo and Luxor in a.d. 1945. It took some fourteen years for the knowledge of the find to reach the West. Some inkling of the Gospel of Thomas had emerged in 1903 from a papyrus discovered by Grenfell and Hunt. The Nag Hammadi document is a collection of 114 sayings of Christ in the form of isolated dicta or brief conversations, some known, some entirely new, the whole work being ascribed to the apostle Thomas. Some of the sayings are inconsiderable and without the edge and distinctiness of the biblical utterances of Christ. Others, on the contrary, are both fresh and pungent and may well represent a genuine tradition. Consider a few illustrations of the latter sort: “Jesus said: Whoever is near me is near the fire, and whoever is far from me is far from the kingdom.” The words coincide with more than one warning of the inevitability of persecution, and the consistent claim that discipleship was the path to God. Again: “They said to him: Come and let us pray today and let us fast. But Jesus said: Which then is the sin I have committed, or in what have I been vanquished?” (The fourth Gospel has this question: “Which of you convicts me of sin?”) Again: “Jesus said: Become passersby.” The words are in tune with a saying of Christ preserved in the arabesques of the Muslim mosque: “Life is a bridge. You pass over it but build no houses on it.” The meaning, of course, is that the wise and good avoid entanglements and too great involvement in material things. Such sayings have a ring of authenticity. So do such words as this beatitude from Thomas: “Blessed is the man who suffers. He finds life.” And the reproach to the Pharisees, catching up a simile of the Greeks still in common usage: “Woe to them, for they are like a dog sleeping in a manger of oxen, for neither does he eat nor allow the oxen to eat.”

The collection is dated a.d. 140, and it is perhaps not surprising that some well-known sayings have become somewhat worn and altered. Compare, for example, the parable of the sower and the seed in the canonical Gospels with the attenuated version in the Gospel of Thomas: “See the sower went out, he filled his hand, he threw. Some seed fell on the road, the birds came, they gathered them. Others fell on the rock, and did not strike root in the earth, and did not produce ears. Others fell in the thorns. They choked the seed and the worm ate them. Others fell on the good earth, and brought forth good fruit. It bore sixty per measure, and one hundred and twenty per measure.” This gospel was held no doubt by a Christian community in Egypt, perhaps a remnant who escaped from Jerusalem before a.d. 70 to live in some measure of isolation in a foreign land. Thomas may, in fact, have been the author of the original document.——EMB

An apocryphal work discovered in the Nag Hammadi* Coptic Gnostic library, in Codex II written c.350. Three third-century Oxyrhynchus* papyri (nos. 1, 654, 655) contain fragments of a Greek version, compiled c.140, of which the Coptic is a more gnosticized translation. It consists of some 120 “secret words” of “the living Jesus,” many very close to synoptic parallels, others more obviously syncretistic, arranged according to no discernible pattern, except when connected by link-words. Its form (Gattung) is nearer the collection of (proverbial and parabolic) “words of the Wise” (cf. “Q” and The Sentences of Sextus, identified in fragments of Codex XII from Nag Hammadi) than the typically Gnostic post-resurrection “revelation.” Though used by Naassenes* and Manichaeans,* it more plausibly reflects the encratism (return to unisex paradise, life of ascetic exile on earth) of early Christian Syria, its likely provenance, than Gnosticism proper. Its versions of (synoptic) sayings of Jesus preserve traces of a tradition more primitive than and independent of the canonical gospels, attested in other Jewish- Christian and Syriac sources (so especially G. Quispel in many studies). It may contain one or two authentic noncanonical (Agrapha) sayings of Jesus. It is not to be confused with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

Coptic text with translation (ed. A. Guillaumont et al., 1959); R. McL. Wilson, Studies in the Gospel of Thomas (1960); H.E.W. Turner and H. Montefiore, Thomas and the Evangelists (1962); R. Kasser, L'évangile selon Thomas (1961); full bibliography in D.M. Scholer, Nag Hammadi Bibliography 1948-1969 (1971, pp. 136-65); J.E. Ménard, L'évangile selon Thomas (1975).

THOMAS, GOSPEL OF. Two documents are extant under this title: (a) the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (see NTAp I. 388ff.); and (b) the separate and distinct Coptic Gospel of Thomas found in the Nag Hammadi library (see NTAp I. 278ff.). In addition, the Nag Hammadi library contains a “Book of Thomas the Athlete” which professes to contain the secret words spoken by Jesus to Judas Thomas and written down by Matthew (see NTAp I. 307ff., Foerster, Gnosis, ii. ch. 8). It is worthy of note that in the Gnostic Pistis Sophia Philip, Thomas, and Matthew are the three disciples entrusted with the recording of the deeds and words of Jesus. The Nag Hammadi library also contains a Gospel of Philip (q.v.).

(a) The Infancy Gospel is important for the influence that it exerted on the later infancy gospels, many of which combine parts of it with material drawn from the Protevangelium of James (q.v.). Its popularity is attested also by its tr. into several languages; it is extant in Greek, Syriac, Latin, Georgian, and other VSS, and has influenced the Arabic and Armenian infancy gospels and the Gospel of pseudo-Matthew (see separate articles). Since Irenaeus (Iren. Her. I. 20.1) alludes to the story in ch. 6, it prob. goes back to the 2nd cent.

The gospel contains stories about the miracles wrought by the boy Jesus between the ages of five and twelve, and ends with the story of Jesus in the Temple, taken from Luke. He is presented as an infant prodigy, already possessed in childhood of miraculous powers, but his use of them is not always compatible with the character depicted in the canonical gospels. Those who thwart Him incur the penalty of His displeasure, although later all are healed. As Cullmann notes (NTAp I. 391), all the miracles that Jesus was later to perform are patently anticipated “but there is a vast difference between these miracles and those in the canonical gospels.” Numerous parallels can be cited from non-Biblical legend and from fable. A beam cut too short is miraculously lengthened to the proper size; when He breaks a pitcher, Jesus brings home water in a fold of His garment; caught breaking the Sabbath by modeling birds from clay, He claps His hands and the birds come to life and fly away, conveniently removing the evidence. Three times over He is taken in hand by a teacher, but each time He baffles His instructor. This child has no need of human wisdom, for He already possesses divine wisdom to the full. In short, the historical Jesus has disappeared; this Jesus is no longer human, but a divine being disguised in human semblance. This docetic tendency represents a stage in Christological development with which the Church could not remain content, although it is still prevalent among those who think to glorify Jesus by exalting His deity at the expense of His humanity.

(b) The Coptic Gospel of Thomas was first made available in 1956 in a photographic ed. of texts from the Nag Hammadi library (ed. P. Labib). The text was published in ed. form with a tr. in 1959. It has aroused considerable interest, and has given rise to an extensive lit. Like some other “gospels,” it is not really a gospel at all in the ordinary sense of the term. It is a collection of sayings and parables, mostly introduced by the words, “Jesus said,” and only rarely with any narrative setting. Many of these sayings have a parallel in the canonical gospels, but in practically every case there is some modification; frequently, sayings from different gospels, or different parts of the same gospel, are combined. This leads to one of the primary questions for research: the relation between Thomas and the synoptics (resemblance to John is rare, although there is often a “Johannine atmosphere”). Other sayings were already known from patristic quotations, and these raise the question of the relation between Thomas and the works quoted by the Church Fathers. Finally, other sayings are entirely new, most of them of a more or less Gnostic character.

One thing is certain: all the sayings in the famous Oxyrhynchus Logia papyri (POx.1, 654 and 655; see NTAp I. 97ff.) are included in the Coptic gospel, although here again there are problems. The texts agree so closely that in many cases the Coptic can be used to restore the fragmentary Gr., but one saying in POx. 1 has a parallel to its first part in Logion 30 of Thomas, whereas the parallel to the second part is in Logion 77. The Gr. fragments therefore cannot be taken simply as the Gr. original of the Coptic gospel. The possibility exists that they were originally separate (they belong to three different papyrus books) and only subsequently combined into the present Gospel of Thomas. The Coptic text again clearly has a history behind it.

The earliest studies tended to regard Thomas as independent of the synoptics, but the more recent trend has been to maintain its dependence on the NT gospels, the variations being explained as tendentious Gnostic modification or adaptation. Not all scholars are convinced of the Gnostic character of the document, and it may be that its history is more complex than has so far been assumed. A Jewish-Christian nucleus, drawing upon oral tradition, later expanded by the inclusion of sayings from the NT gospels, and finally enlarged and adapted by a Gnostic editor, might well present much the same phenomena; but such a hypothesis would admittedly be difficult to prove. Some sayings which might be independent seem to have tapped the tradition at a later stage than that represented by the NT gospels.

Parallels with quotations in Clement of Alexandria from the Gospel of the Hebrews and that of the Egyptians (see separate articles) have led G. Quispel to develop the theory that these, not the canonical gospels, were the sources of Thomas. Further researches have produced parallels with Tatian’s Diatessaron, the pseudo-Clementines, etc., and on the basis of this evidence, Quispel has developed a farreaching hypothesis of the survival of Jewish-Christian influence in Syrian Christianity, and its effects on later theology and on the transmission of the NT text. This would make The Gospel of Thomas a very significant document indeed, but, attractive though the theory is, there are too many weak links for it to be considered finally established.

This document has been called “a fifth gospel,” which it is not (there are many gospels beside the canonical four); or, a possible source of the synoptic gospels, which again it is not; nor can one identify it in any way with the Q source that lies behind Matthew and Luke. On the other hand, although it can be understood as a Gnostic document, to stop there may be to lose valuable insights into the history of the Early Church.


Text and translation in Guillaumont et al., The Gospel according to Thomas (1959); See also Puech in NTAp I. 278ff.; Wilson, Studies in the Gospel of Thomas (1960); Gaertner, The Theology of the Gospel of Thomas (1961); Schrage, BZ XXVIX (1964); Quispel, Makarius, das Thomas evangelium und das Lied von der Perle (1967); D. M. Scholer, Nag Hammadi Bibliography, 1948-1969 (1971), 136-165.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)