The Thomas of “The Gospel of Thomas”

Posted: December 12, 2012 in General

apostle-thomas1aThe Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. The features of the Gospel, i.e., a Gospel with Jewish traditions (cf. Meyer, 2007: 133), a collection of authentic sayings of Jesus (cf. Evans, 1992: 166), an independent apocryphon (cf. Hennecke, 1959/1963: 283), and a collection of traditional sayings, prophesies, proverbs, and parables of Jesus (cf. Koester, 1977: 117), make it a unique literary phenomenon. It is believed that the Greek form of the earlier fragments of the Gospel of Thomas (i.e., three Oxyrhynchus papyri; P.Oxy 1, 654, and 655) were written between A.D. 130 and 250 (cf. Bauckham, 1992: 286; Evans, 1992: 166). Koester (1977: 117) contends that, “…the Greek (or even Syriac or Aramaic) collection was composed in the period before about A. D. 200, possibly as early as the second half of the first century (i.e., A.D. 50-70), in Syria, Palestine, or Mesopotamia”. Hyppolytus quoted the Gospel about 230 in his account of the Naassenes (Ref. V. 7. 20) and shortly after A.D 233 Origen mentioned about it in the first of his homilies on Luke (in Luc. Hom. I; cf. Hennecke, 1959/1963: 278). In the East Syrian traditions, centered on Edessa, the Gospel was attributed to ‘Didymos Judas Thomas’ (cf. Bauckham, 1992: 287; Montefiore and Turner, 1962). Didymos Judas Thomas was identified within the Syrian church as the apostle and twin brother of Jesus (cf. Koester, 1977: 117). As the literary inferences indicate, the Gospel of Thomas has to be considered as one of the earliest Christian literary compositions.

The Gospel of Thomas exemplifies the way “Saying Materials” preserved in antiquity, especially in the first century context. It further suggests about the probable existence of a saying material in the First Century Christian context, like the “Q” (German Quelle or ‘source’; cf. Meyer, 2007: 134-37; Browning, 1996/2004: 378). There were several scholarly explorations to reconstruct a “Q” Hypothesis based on the repetitive phenomenon of about 235 verses common in Matthew and Luke (but those are not found in Mark). If the Gospel of Thomas is identified as a first century document, then it is probable to think about the sustenance of sources like “the Q” (cf. Patterson, 1992: 2: 1080; Evans, 1992: 166). The un-narrativized and unpolished literary style and the non-ecclesiastical compositional aspects of Thomas make us to think about its closeness to the incipient Christian traditions (and even to the Sitz-im-leben Jesu). What Bauckham says is appropriate to quote here. He (1992: 287) opines that, “It has been argued on form-critical grounds that Thomas sometimes preserves sayings, especially parables, in a more primitive form than the Synoptics”. The contrasting of Thomas’ authority with that of Peter and Matthew (log. 13; cf. Gal. 1:18; 2:7-9, 11-14; Matt. 16:15-19; John 21:15-23) might direct our attention toward possibilities of that sort (cf. Cameron (1992: 535-36). What Bauckham states above has to be considered true as far as the nature and form of the Gospel of Thomas are concerned.

The absence of mention about the crucifixion, the death and the resurrection has to be taken up positively as the Gospel as a whole is written from the perspective of the ethical and philosophical pedagogy of Jesus. In that sense, the Gospel as a whole focuses on the pre-crucifixion/pre-resurrection utterances and verbal interactions of Jesus. While the canonical Gospels present Jesus by way of intertwining the external proofs (which the authors use but do not invent; i.e., the quotations of scripture, the evidence of miracles, and the naming of witnesses, such as John the Baptist or the disciples of Jesus) and the internal or ‘artistic proofs’ (which the author is said to invent), the Gospel of Thomas presents Jesus mostly by the help of internal or “artistic proofs” (cf. Kennedy, 1984: 14-15). This is an evidential factor to substantiate that the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas is more persuasive and authentic than the Synoptic Jesus. The unembellished portrayal of Jesus and his ‘artistic’ utterances in Thomas evidences the ground-touching pedagogue and his historical presence.

The prologue of the Gospel of Thomas states that “these are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded”. A statement of this sort is never mentioned in any of the canonical Gospels. It makes the readers to think about the direct and face-to-face interaction between Jesus, i.e., the one who shares the secret knowledge, and Didymos Judas Thomas, i.e., the one who records the knowledge. After the thin-sized prologue, the name of Thomas appears only in log. 13 where he is placed as a dialogue partner of Jesus along with Simon Peter and Matthew. If we attest the Gospel as a first century document, then it is easier to consider it as first hand information. According to Meyer (2007: 133), “Judas Thomas was thought in some circles, particularly within Syriac Christianity, to be the twin brother of Jesus and as such the perfect person to function as guarantor of sayings of Jesus”.  Along with Jesus the primary talker and Thomas the recorder, the involvement of the extended group of disciples is noticeable (i.e., log. 6, 12, 18, 20, 22, 24, 37, 43, 51, 52, 53, 60, 91, 99, 100, 104, and 113). In certain occasions, some individuals other than Thomas (log. 13, 21, 61, 79, 114) also appear as dialogue partners of Jesus.

The presence of Simon Peter (log. 13, 114), Matthew (log. 13), Mary (log. 21), and Salome (log. 61) as dialogue partners of Jesus is conspicuous. As in the case of log. 13, Peter’s name is mentioned along with Thomas in John 21:2. Similarly, while log. 13 mentions about the connection between Thomas and Matthew, this connection is further established through pairing the two disciples in Mt. 10:3. While Mary is one of the significant characters in log. 21, Thomas and Mary are paired in John 20. All these concerns raise several questions with regard to the authorship of the Gospel. Whether Thomas himself composed the Gospel or the disciples of Thomas collected the traditions and put them together are important questions for us to struggle with. The unpolished nature of the Gospel and the concern of Thomas’ twin-brother relationship with Jesus might suggest a possible solution for the afore-mentioned concern. If the East Syrian tradition concerning the twin-brothership of Jesus and Thomas is proved trustworthy, then we have enough evidences to argue that the Gospel is firsthand information about the earthly Jesus. The infancy narratives of Matthew (chs. 1-2) and Luke (chs. 1-2) do not give any hint about the birth of a twin brother for Jesus. Whether we need to consider the ‘twin-brother argument’ merely as a tradition of the church or we need to pose questions toward the canonical Gospel writers?

The appearance of the name of Thomas in diverse traditions is yet another explorative area. The common name given for Thomas in the Synoptics is ‘Thomas’ (Mk. 3:18; Matt. 10:3; Lk. 6:15; cf. Jn. 14:5). While John called him (except in 14:5) ‘Thomas called the Twin’ (or Didymos Thomas), he is called ‘Didymos Judas Thomas’ in the Gospel of Thomas. In the Eastern Syrian traditions he is called ‘Judas Thomas’ (see The Acts of Thomas). Moreover, in some old versions of the Syriac New Testament (third/fourth centuries), the Judas of John 14:22 is mentioned either simply as ‘Thomas’ (in the Sinaitic) or as ‘Judas Thomas’ (in the Curetonian). Meyer (2007: 779) says that, “In Syria, particularly in the region of the Osrhoëne in eastern Syria, with its dynamic community of Edessa, the tradition of the Twin was revered, and he was referred to as Judas Thomas or Didymos Judas Thomas”. All the above mentioned traditions with regard to the same person Thomas make us confirm that he was named and known differently in diverse traditions and communities. If Thomas is proved as the twin brother of Jesus and brother of James the Just and if the James of Jude 1:1 is proved as the brother of Jesus, then it is easier to prove that the Epistle of Jude also as a written composition of Judas Thomas (cf. Meyer, 2007: 779).

The theology of the Gospel of Thomas is revelatory as it reveals the sharing of esoteric wisdom by ‘living’ Jesus to Thomas (log. 1, 13). If we accept that Jesus was a philosopher (as Matthew identified him, log. 13) who practiced the social norms of his day and also one who shared both the exoteric and esoteric wisdom with his disciples, then we may also have to accept the fact that Jesus would have followed the social practices of the Mediterranean antiquity where philosophers shared esoteric wisdom only with their mature/perfect disciples (i.e., ho teleios; cf. Talbert, 1989: 6). The disciples who were following a master had to prove their progress in the moral and spiritual arena passing through the first two stages (i.e., ho archomenos [beginner] and ho prokoptoōn [one who was making progress]; cf. Talbert, 1989: 6). If Jesus was sharing the esoteric wisdom to Thomas, then we need to think that Thomas would have reached the third and last stage of his discipleship under Jesus. The exchange of knowledge in the Gospel of Thomas exemplifies Jesus’ sharing of esoteric wisdom with one of his disciples. We see several similarities between the presentation of Thomas in John chapter 20 and in The Gospel of Thomas, i.e., between one who believed only after seeing the firsthand evidences (John 20) and one who receives direct sharing from Jesus (Gospel of Thomas).

The following details may help us to know the general trend of the Gospel. In log. 1, Jesus says: “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death”. The profundity of the message and the necessity of reading the Gospel are highlighted here (cf. Rev. 1:3). In log. 2, Jesus emphasizes that, “the Kingdom is within you and it is outside you”. The statement of Jesus does not contradict the Kingdom concerns of other evangelists on the following grounds: firstly, the first phrase “within you” has parallels within the Synoptic Gospels (Lk. 17:21); and secondly, the last phrase “outside you” connotes the universality of the Kingdom. Both of these concepts related to the Kingdom are present in the canonical Gospels. At the same time, one has to understand that the Gospel of Thomas puts its specific Kingdom concern from Jesus’ own mouth (i.e., “within and outside”; as in the case of the Synoptic “this age and the age to come” and Johannine “from above and from below”) in a categorical way. All these suggest that Thomas was a matured disciple to whom Jesus shared the insightful wisdom and a challenged personality who went out to proclaim the Kingdom logia.

While Thomas introduces many of the sayings of Jesus in abbreviated utterance formats (see log. 4b, 6b, 8, 9, 14c, 16a, 16b, 17, 20, 21, 22, 25, 26), the Synoptic evangelists narrate them as pronouncement stories (cf. Taylor, 1933; also called paradigms, cf. Dibelius, 1934; and apophthegms, cf. Bultmann, 1963). The paradigms/apophthegms/pronouncement stories of the Synoptic Gospels are short narratives with a saying at the end. Thomas included the synoptic type of logia only on two occasions (see log. 64, 65; cf. Matt. 22:1-14; 21:33-41). The mentioning of Matthew and Thomas together in log. 13 (also see Matthew and Thomas are paired in Mt. 10:3) and the parallels between the Gospels attributed to them are noticeable. While Thomas has more agreement with Matthew, it has considerable agreement with Luke and less agreement with Mark (cf. Montefiore and Turner, 1962: 31). Some of the passages where Matthew has striking parallels with Thomas (see log. 8 [13:47-51]; log. 9 [13:3-23]; log. 13 [16:13-16]; log. 14c [15:11]; log. 16 [10:34]; log. 20 [13:31-32]; log. 24b [5:14]; log. 26 [7:1-5]; log. 32 [5:14b]; log. 33 [5:15-16]; log. 34 [15:14]; log. 36 [6:25-27] and others). The makarisms of Thomas (logia 18c, 49, 54, 58, 68, 69, 103) are similar to the beatitudes of Matthew (5:3-12). Though there are several striking similarities between Matthew and Thomas in the phenomena of wording and content, there are considerable differences in the phenomenon of order. While the makarisms of Thomas are scattered all through the Gospel, Matthew makes an intentional attempt to arrange them together as a pericope.

Thomas is the shortest Gospel (whereas Thomas has 114 sayings, Matthew has 1068 verses) and it has unpolished and non-stylized Greek and it contains comparatively harder readings. Though these comparisons are striking, Matthew, over against Thomas, places Peter as the leading character of his story. But, in the Gospel of Thomas, it is Thomas who comes to insight (cf. Meyer, 1992: 74). In Luke’s Gospel, he mentions about his dependency on several traditions. He says, “…just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Lk. 1:2). When he uses expressions, like “those who from the beginning”, “eyewitnesses”, and “servants of God”, readers can infer about apostolic traditions. In the case of Thomas, he was a witness of the most important event, the resurrection of Jesus (John 20). If Thomas was a twin-brother of Jesus, if they had moments of sharing esoteric wisdom, and if Thomas wrote down all of them well in advance, then all the above mentioned parallelisms can be easily interpreted by placing Thomas as a source for the co-disciple Matthew and non-disciple Luke.

While, in log. 13a, Jesus asks “compare me to something and tell me what I am like”, three disciples responded in three different ways. While Simon Peter says “You are like a just messenger” (log. 13b), Matthew says “You are like a wise philosopher” (log. 13c). But, Thomas’ plainly says that, “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like” (log. 13d). Jesus responds only to Thomas on this occasion: “I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended” (log. 13e). Jesus’ response to Thomas has to be viewed from the point of view of his awful nature (John 20). His incapability to answer the question is not due to his ‘unknowing’, but due to his ‘awful’ condition. Jesus’ special concern toward Thomas is reflected through his corrective expression as well as the withdrawal and the speaking of the three sayings in secret (log. 13f). The other disciples come back and ask Thomas about what Jesus revealed to him (log. 13f). Log. 13f makes a mention that “And he (Jesus) took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends they asked him, ‘What did Jesus say to you?’” Thomas’ response to them is: “If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you” (log. 13g). Meyer (1992: 74-75) has the opinion that the “…three sayings or words are unknown, but presumably they are powerful and provocative sayings, since stoning (mentioned by Thomas) was the Jewish punishment for blasphemy”. The most significant point here is Thomas’ closeness with Jesus than with other disciples. Thomas’ expression in log. 13g shows that Jesus was sharing significant and esoteric wisdom with him that Jesus didn’t share with other disciples (including even Peter and Matthew).

I would prefer to wrap up the whole discussion with the following statements. Dydimos Judas Thomas was one among the twelve apostles (i.e., the nucleus of the church), one who was distinct from others in his approach, and one who was determined in his decisions. Jesus’ confidence in Thomas to reveal the secret wisdom is an important aspect to reckon with. While esoteric wisdom was usually shared among the matured disciples, Jesus shares it with Thomas. The constant interactions between Jesus and Thomas made the latter to develop from his ‘beginner’ stage to ‘mature’ stage, from ‘misunderstanding’ to understanding’, from ‘unknowing’ to ‘knowing’, and from ‘doubting’ to ‘believing’. The awful expression of Thomas in log. 13d, i.e., “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like”, is in several ways synonymous to his awful expressions in John’s Gospel (11:16; 14:5; 20:25b, 28). His single utterance in log. 13 makes us to know about his genuine and non-hypocritical character. While Simon Peter and Matthew are able to come into a sudden conclusion about the identity of Jesus (as ‘just messenger’ and ‘wise philosopher’), Thomas finds it difficult to come into a conclusion at a stretch. For him, faith and knowledge are progressive and evidential (as in the case of John 20; cf. log. 13d). Thomas’s determination to see, seek and believe (as in John) exemplifies him as a person “who seek until he finds… disturbed… marvelling… and reigning over all…” (cf. log. 2). While Peter is mentioned as a leading figure in the New Testament literature, Thomas is the leading figure in The Gospel of Thomas. While James the Just is respected, Thomas is the receiver of the secret wisdom. What Cameron says is appropriate to quote here. He (1992: 535) says, “…though James is respected (log. 12; cf. Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12), his authority is succeeded in Gos. Thom. by that of Thomas (log. 13)”. Thomas’ constant conversation with Jesus and his sharing of that wisdom with others made him a ‘key personality’ in the first century Christian context. All the afore mentioned proofs direct our acumen toward one significant factor, that is the significance of The Gospel of Thomas in the study of the New Testament and the necessity of reading the texts by placing Didymos Thomas as one of the significant figures of the first century church.

For further References:

Bauckham, R. J., 1992. “Gospels (Apocryphal)”. DJG: 286-91.

Browning, W. R. F., 1996/2004. Oxford Dictionary of the Bible. Oxford: University Press.

Bultmann, R., 1963. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cameron, R., 1992. “Thomas, Gospel of”. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. New York: Doubleday: 535-40.

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

Dibelius, M., 1934. From Tradition to Gospel. Cambridge: J. Clarke.

Evans, C. A., 1992. Noncanonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation. Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson.

Grant, R. M., 1968. “Thomas, Saint”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Vol. 21. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

Hennecke, E., 1959/1963. New Testament Apocrypha. London: Lutterworth Press.

Kennedy, G. A., 1984. New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism. Chapel Hill/London: The University of North Carolina Press.

Koester, H., and Lambdin, T. O., 1977. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Trans. Robinson, J. M. San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers.

Meyer, M., ed., 2007. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. The International Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Meyer, M., 1992. The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Montefiore, H., and Turner, H. E. W., 1962. Thomas and the Evangelists. Studies in Biblical Theology No. 35. London: SCM Press.

Patterson, S. J., 1992. “Gospels, Apocryphal”. ABD. Vol. 2: 1079-81.

Talbert, C. H., 1989. Reading Corinthians: A Literary and Theological Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. New York: Crossroad.

Taylor, V., 1933. The Formation of the Gospel Tradition. London: McMillan.

Wilkins, M. J., 1992. “Disciples”. DJG: 176-82.

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

  1. Thanks for the post, Johnson. Some brief comments:

    “It is believed that the Greek form of the earlier fragment of the Gospel of Thomas (i.e., Oxyrhynchus papyri) was written no later than A.D. 200”: there are three Oxyrynchus fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, not one (P.Oxy 1, 654 and 655), and the dates are more varied than “no later than AD 200”, so this would be worth revising.

    “As the literary inferences indicate, the Gospel of Thomas has to be considered as one of the earliest literary compositions.”: add “Christian”. However, even with that modifier, this is heavily disputed in the literature.

    “It further suggests about the probable existence of a saying material in the First Century Christian context, like the “Q””: I think the analogy between Thomas and the hypothetical Q is actually problematic. See, e.g., Case Against Q, ch. 9 and Thomas and the Gospels, ch. 1.

    “Whether Thomas himself composed the Gospel . . .”: no scholars seriously entertain this.

  2. I really appreciate your valuable comments, Dr. Mark Goodacre.

    As per my understanding and also as you have suggested, there are different opinions about the date of these three papyri, ranging from at least A.D 130 till A.D 250.

    I too have problems with the analogy between the non-hypothetical (i.e., existent) Gospel of Thomas and a hypothetical document like “Q”. Most of the suggestions we have already heard about this subject matter are ‘purely conjectural’. But, my suggestion here is: If GTh is proved as an early Christian document, then it is an indication to prove that “Q-type” of materials (i.e., ‘Saying Materials’) existed in the First Century.

    I too do not attempt to say that the GTh is a written composition of Thomas himself (‘May be’ or ‘May not’). Our main concern is about the authentic-type and first-hand look of the Gospel. Even if it is a later Syrian Christian production, it sustains all the qualities of a first-hand document (i.e., in comparison to the embellished and narrativized canonical Gospels).

    Dr. MG, I am pretty sure that you are an authority in this area. I tried my best to get some of your documents about this subject-matter; but, I was unable to catch up any in our library in India.

    Thanks galore.

  3. Prof. James Charlesworth’s question after reading this post: “Jesus’ response to Thomas has to be viewed from the point of view of his awful nature (John 20). His incapability to answer the question is not due to his ‘unknowing’, but due to his ‘awful’ condition. Is that what you think after reading my book?”

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