collection of sayings ascribed to Jesus, about half of which parallel sayings
found in the canonical NT
gospels. Thomas is the most important text relevant to gospel scholarship
discovered in the 20th c.
This work is an
assortment of 114 sayings (aphorisms,
mini-dialogs, & sayings clusters) without any connecting narrative.
Sayings are prefaced with minimal introduction ("Jesus said:...,"
"And he said:...," "The disciples said:..."). The only
other statement is the prologue:
These are the secret sayings
that the living Jesus spoke & Didymus Judas Thomas recorded.
The names Thomas
& Didymus simply mean "the Twin" (in Aramaic & Greek
respectively); Judas is the alleged scribe's given name. Early Christian
legends from eastern Syria identify this figure as the twin brother of Jesus
& celebrate him as a leading apostle. Even though the name Thomas in this
gospel is an obvious pseudonym for an unknown author, it is evidence that this
gospel was probably composed in Syria.
Prior to 1948 this
non-canonical gospel was known only indirectly, through references by Origen,
Hippolytus of Rome & other Christian scholars of the
3rd- 4th c. CE. Then,
while photographing a collection of gnostic
that was unearthed in 1945 near Nag
Hammadi (Egypt), Jean
Doresse discovered the 2nd tractate in the 2nd codex
ended with the title "Gospel according to Thomas."
Soon after the publication of the Coptic
text in 1957, the French scholar Henri-Charles Puech identified three papyrus
fragments that had been discovered 60 years earlier at Oxyrhynchus
(Egypt) as remnants of the original Greek version of Thomas. These
papyri (pOxy 1, 654 & 655) are among the oldest ms.
evidence of sayings ascribed to Jesus. They are as old or older than all mss.
of the synoptic gospels, including fragments
of the gospel of Matthew.
More than half of
the material in the gospel of Thomas (79 sayings) is paralleled in the
27 sayings are in
the other synoptics;
46 parallel Q
material (in Matthew &
12 echo material special to
1 is only in Luke.
parallels include 7 sayings where Mark has a variant version]
Thomas is important for
synoptic studies for two reasons:
It proves that collections of Jesus sayings with no narrative were known
in the early church. Thus, it gives indirect support to the hypothesis of
a synoptic sayings
Its version of some Jesus sayings is simpler than the synoptic parallels.
For the past 40
years scholars have debated whether Thomas is directly dependent on the
synoptic gospels or not. Some have maintained the traditional view that Thomas
is a 2nd or 3rd c. gnostic composition whose author extracted Jesus sayings
from a Coptic translation of the NT & edited them to fit a gnostic
worldview. Most recent experts on Thomas, however, regard it as an early
sayings collection based on oral tradition rather than any canonical text.
There are four
main reasons why scholars who have studied Thomas conclude that it is independent
of synoptic tradition:
No narrative frame:
If the compiler of Thomas drew these sayings from the canonical narrative
gospels, he removed every trace of the stories in which the synoptic
writers embed them.
If the compiler of Thomas drew these sayings from the synoptic
gospels, he totally scrambled them, separating adjoining sayings
& scattering them at random. No one has yet proven that the sayings in
Thomas are arranged according to any logical pattern.
Sayings in Thomas sometimes echo Mark, sometimes Matthew, sometimes Luke.
There is no clear pattern of dependence on any one text.
More primitive form:
Sayings in Thomas are often logically simpler than their synoptic
counterparts. If the compiler drew these sayings from the
synoptic gospels, he edited out the traits characteristic of each
writer. While some synoptic parallels in Thomas have gnostic
embellishments, these are easily removed.
traits of Thomas make it highly unlikely that any synoptic gospel was used as
its source. In fact, the random, eclectic character of the
contents of Thomas makes it a more primitive composition than the synoptic
sayings source that scholars call "Q."
While many individual sayings in Thomas may be of late gnostic origin, the
core of the collection (sayings with synoptic parallels) is probably as old or
older than the composition of the canonical gospel narratives (50-90 CE). To
date this gospel any later makes it hard to explain the general lack of
features dependent on the synoptics.
[For more details
see Crossan, J.D. Four Other Gospels (Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press,
1992) pp. 3-38 or Patterson, S. J. in Q-Thomas Reader (Sonoma CA:
Polebridge Press, 1990) pp. 77-127.]
analysis, advanced students who are not afraid of occasional Greek &
Coptic characters should see S. J. Patterson, The Gospel of Thomas &
Jesus (Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press, 1993) or the chapter on Thomas in
Helmut Koester's Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History & Development
(Philadelphia PA:Trinity Press International, 1990), pp. 75-128].
Gospel of Thomas - English translation of the Coptic text by Stephen Patterson & Marvin
Meyers (posted by PBS: Frontline).
Gospel of Thomas HomePage - Steven Davies' award-winning site provides links to everything on Thomas on
the WWW, including 5 English translations & the complete text of Davies'
own book on The Gospel of Thomas & Christian Wisdom.
Gospel of Thomas Collection - gateway to most scholarly resources
available on the internet including facsimile images of the Coptic text,
two interlinear texts, five English translations & comparisons of the
Coptic version with the Greek fragments (posted by the
The Gospel of Thomas - Peter Kirby's even broader gateway offers
links to all online resources plus a bibliography of secondary
scholarship with extensive excerpts from these works (Early
The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus - Stephan Patterson explains what
the Gospel of Thomas reveals about the group for which it was composed
and its import for research on Jesus (Dialogue
Thomas - M. H. Smith's archive of e-mail debate with scholars (Jesus
Gospel of Thomas Resource Center -
For the advanced student Michael Grondin posts the complete Coptic text of
Thomas with an interlinear English translation & the beginnings of a
Oxyrhynchus Fragment - 1897 lecture by Henry B. Swete on the discovery
of Greek papyrus fragment pOxy 1, which 60 years later was identified as
Λογια Ιησου: Sayings of Our Lord
- complete text of B. P. Grenfell & A. S. Hunt's 1897 report of the
discovery of pOxy1 which contains sayings from the Gospel of Thomas in Greek