Gospel of Thomas   

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An ancient 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, parables, 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 Coptic codices 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 canonical gospels:

  • 27 sayings are in Mark & the other synoptics;

  • 46 parallel Q material (in Matthew & Luke)*

  • 12 echo material special to Matthew; &

  • 1 is only in Luke.

* [Q parallels include 7 sayings where Mark has a variant version]

Thomas is important for synoptic studies for two reasons:

  • Form: 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 source, Q.

  • Contents: 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.

  • Non-synoptic order: 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.

  • Random parallels: 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.

Together these 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.]

[For extensive 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].

Other On-line Resources:

  • The Gospel of Thomas - English translation of the Coptic text by Stephen Patterson & Marvin Meyers (posted by PBS: Frontline).

  • The 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.

  • The 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 Gnosis Archive).

  • 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 Christian Writings).

  • The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus - Stephen Patterson explains what the Gospel of Thomas reveals about the group for which it was composed and its import for research on Jesus (Dialogue Journal). 

  • Testing Thomas - M. H. Smith's archive of  e-mail debate with scholars (Jesus Seminar Forum).

  • The 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 Coptic Primer.

  • The Oxyrhynchus Fragment - 1897 lecture by Henry B. Swete on the discovery of Greek papyrus fragment pOxy 1, which 60 years later was identified as Thom 26-33.

  • 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 (Internet Archive).

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last revised 28 February 2023

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