The Thomas of “The Book of Thomas the Contender”

Posted: February 11, 2013 in General

images ThomasThe Book of Thomas (BTh) sets a dialogue between Jesus and Thomas that turns to be a discourse of Jesus at the post-resurrection/pre-ascension period (cf. Turner, 1992: 529). It occupies the final eight pages of Nag Hammadi Codex II and that is complete except for a few often restorable lines at the bottom of each page (cf. Turner, 2007: 235). The BTh begins with a short introduction as follows: “The hidden sayings that the Saviour spoke to Judas Thomas, which I, Mathaias, in turn recorded. I was walking, listening to them speak with each other” (138: 1-4). The early Thomas tradition, of the Nag Hammadi writings, including The Gospel of Thomas and The Book of Thomas the Contender, reflects tenets of asceticism (cf. Scholer, 1997: 410). Turner (2007: 236) states that,

The Book of Thomas seems to be a product of the late second century, occupying a median position between the Gospel of Thomas—a saying collection probably originating in the first century—and the Acts of Thomas—a third-century Greek romance about Thomas’s exploits as a missionary in India—in three respects: (1) date of composition, (2) relative predominance of the role played by Thomas in these works, and (3) increasing predominance of narrative features as one moves from sayings collection to dialogue to romance.

As Turner points out above, along with The Gospel of John (GosJn) and The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (InGTh), all these traditions together set a strong foundation for the ‘Thomasology’ of the Early Christian centuries. Though the text is usually called “The Book of Thomas”, the Coptic text (NCH II:7: 138:1-145:19; 145:20-23) includes a secondary title in the manuscript: “The Contender Writing to the Perfect” (cf. Turner and Meyer, 2007: 239). Mathaias is the one who walks, listens and records the conversation that occurs between Jesus and Thomas. While the name Mathaias resembles that of the names of disciple Matthew and the replacement apostle Matthias (cf. Turner and Meyer, 2007: 239), a more probable apprehension is in favour of the disciple Matthew on account of the repeated pairing of Matthew and Thomas in several accounts (see Matt. 10:3; cf. Mk. 3:18; Lk. 6:15; GTh 13; cf. Turner, 1992: 529). As in the case of the prologue of the GTh, in the BTh too Jesus is introduced as the revealer of the “hidden sayings” (138:1-4, 4-21; 138:21-139:31). Thomas is also introduced as one who knows himself and hence eligible to share knowledge with the Saviour (138:4:21). The Jesus-and-Thomas interlocking is one of the peculiar features of all the above mentioned writings, especially of The Book of Thomas the Contender.

While the narrator introduces Thomas as “Judas Thomas” (138:1-4) and as “Judas, called Thomas” (142:1-26), Jesus addresses him as “Brother Thomas” (138:4-21 [twice]), “My Twin” (138:4-21), “True Friend” (138:4-21), “My Brother” (138:4-21) and “Blessed Thomas” (138:21-139:31). And Jesus is introduced as the “Saviour” (138:1-4, 4-21), “I am”, and “the Knowledge of Truth” (138:4-21). In the BTh, Thomas is one who walks and converses with Jesus (138:4-21; cf. Charlesworth, 1995: 378). According to Charlesworth (1995: 378), “In the Book of Thomas the Contender Jesus tells Thomas, ‘you are going to be called my sibling’ (138:10). That verse begins with ‘inasmuch as’, which apparently derives from an exegesis of GosJn 19:27, and so identifies the Beloved Disciple under the cross as Thomas”. What Charlesworth says here makes much sense as the exegetical connections between the two texts reveal. While Jesus appears as the sharer of knowledge, Thomas appears as one who follows what the Saviour says. Jesus accepts Thomas as a knowledgeable person while he considers the rest of the world as submerged in ignorance. Thomas’ question to Jesus, “How can we go and preach them when we are [not] respected in the world?”, makes much sense in this context. The monologue of the BTh begins as a response to Thomas at that particular point. Just as in the case of the Gospel of John, a dualistic contrast, between the visible and the invisible/the things from below and the things from above or light and darkness, comes into play in the conversation between Jesus and Thomas. Further, the vertical contrast (i.e., one between the world from above and the world from below) is highlighted (138:21-139:31) over against the horizontal contrast (the Synoptic usual tenet of ‘this age’ and the ‘coming age’). Thus, the similarities of the BTh with that of the GosJn are striking and conspicuous.

The BTh is mostly arranged in the form of a dialogue between Jesus and Thomas (138:1-142:26); but, the latter part of the book is mostly occupied by a monologue of Jesus (142:26-145:19; cf. Turner, 2007: 237). While Thomas’ utterances are shorter in size in comparison to his counterpart’s longer utterances and his sayings function merely as provocations for Jesus to talk, the narrator pays more attention on Jesus’ longer and revelatory utterances (cf. Turner, 1992: 529). The dialogue of the BTh is mostly arranged in the form of erotapokriseis (“question and answer” genre; cf. Turner, 2007: 236). The themes like ‘knowledge’ (138:4-21), ‘truth’, ‘light’ (vs. ‘darkness’, 138:21-139:31; 143:8-145:1), ‘wisdom’ (139:31-141:2), ‘believe’, ‘world’ (141:2-142:26), and ‘judge’/‘judgment’ (142:26-143:7) are reminiscent to the themes of the Gospel of John. Literary devices, like rhetorical questions (138:21-139:31), enigmatic sayings (138:4-21), similitude (i.e., about “arrows at a target during the night”, 138:21-139:31; “a tree growing by the stream of water”, 139:31-141:2), proverbial sayings (i.e., “The intelligent person is perfect in all wisdom”, “The wise person is nourished by truth”, 139:31-141:2; and others) and others, are stylistically employed in order to interlock the reader with the text. Thomas shows intelligence to understand the enigmatic sayings of Jesus and his responses persuade Jesus to carry on his conversation with the interlocutor. The continuous ‘woes’ (143:8-145:1) and ‘makarisms’ (145:1-19) from the mouth of the saviour are reminiscent to many of the passages of the canonical Gospels (cf. Luke 6:20-26 [Q]). All these evidences make the reader aware that the narrator of the BTh had derived his ideologies from the story-world of both the Synoptics and the Gospel of John.

In recapitulation, the following aspects are very important with regard to the BTh. Firstly, the BTh provides further knowledge concerning Jesus’ closer relationship with Thomas as a sharer of secret truth and revealer of hidden sayings. Secondly, the literary features and the thematic aspects of the BTh are in several ways reminiscent to the Synoptics, GosJn, GTh, and ATh (except in few cases). Thirdly, as in the case of the other East Syrian documents (i.e., GTh, ATh, InGTh), the BTh delineates Thomas as the “Twin Brother” of Jesus. Fourthly, Thomas’ attachment with Jesus and ability to comprehend his sayings, while the rest of the world is in ignorance, are highlighted here. And fifthly, the thematic, charactorial, and perspectival similarities of the GosJn with that of the Thomas literature (i.e., GTh, BTh, ATh, and InGTh) highlight the significance of the personality of Thomas and his existence as a person of worth and integrity in the First Century Christian context.

For Further Reference:

Bauckham, R. J., 1997. “Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings”. Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Development. Eds. Martin, R. P., and Davids, P. H. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 68-73.

Charlesworth, J. H., 1995. The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International.

Crindle, J. W. M., Ed. Christian Topochraphy of Cosmas Indicopleustes: 118-119.

Israel, B. J., 1982. The Jews of India. New Delhi: Mosaic Books.

Lalleman, P. J., 2000. “Apocryphal Acts and Epistles”. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Eds. Evans, C. A., and Porter, S. E. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 66-69.

Mingana, A., 1926. The Early Spread of Christianity in India. Bull. J. Ryl. Libr. X: 435-514, 443-447.

Scholer, D. M., 1997. “Gnosis, Gnosticism”. Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments. Eds. Martin, R. P., and Davids, P. H. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press: 400-412.

Turner, J. D., and Meyer, M., 2007. “The Book of Thomas”. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. San Francisco: Harper Collins: 235-245.

Turner, J. D., 1992. “Thomas the Contender, Book of”. Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. New York/London: Doubleday: 529-30.

Segal, J. B., 2005. Edessa ‘the Blessed City’. Gorgias Press LLC.

 

**[Expect soon: “The Thomas of ‘The Infancy Gospel of Thomas’”]

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

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