Friday, September 21, 2007

An Introduction to the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas is a fascinating work of early non-canonical Christian writing. It was most likely not composed by Thomas himself (in fact, it does not even directly make that claim), but – like the Gospels of Matthew and John – it was most likely composed by a group of his followers. It may or may not have been based on an earlier, authentic Thomas work.

Despite its name, the text is not a “gospel” in the traditional sense of the word, but rather a collection of teachings attributed to Jesus, in random order, without any sense of chronology. But, as such, it gives an intriguing insight into the collective memory of the wisdom teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, much as a book today written about the teachings of an early 20th century rabbi might give modern Jews.

The dating of the Gospel of Thomas is a difficult one, although most every scholar agrees that it is one of the earliest non-canonical sources. There are generally two camps on the dating issue. One camp argues for an early date – as early as 40 or 50 C.E., making it contemporary with the Pauline letters and potentially the earliest Christian writing in existence – but certainly written before 100 C.E. and the Gospel of John. The second camp argues for a later date, placing it sometime in the early to mid-2nd century.

The later camp puts forth some strong arguments, though I think, in general, their position is not as strongly supported by the evidence. Among the evidence they point to is the fact that Thomas’s gospel seems to abide by a concept that the coming of the kingdom of God is not imminent, and, in fact, comes from within one’s own self, rather than being an event to look forward to. If you’ve read several of my more recent blogs, you’ll know this was an idea that was not common in early Christianity. Indeed, during the time of Paul and Mark – the earliest New Testament writers – most Christians believed Jesus was returning in their own lifetimes to usher in the kingdom of God. It is not until you get into later Christian texts, such as 2 Peter and the pseudo-Pauline epistles (that is, New Testament letters written in Paul’s name, but written by other people long after Paul’s death), that you begin to see a shift from assuming Jesus is coming soon, to grudgingly facing the fact that you’ll probably grow old and die before Jesus ever returns. Many notable scholars believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic wisdom teacher, making him one of countless dozens in Palestine in his era. These teachers preached that God’s kingdom was coming soon and that they had special knowledge from God that would ensure that their followers were part of that kingdom. This idea about Jesus seems to be attested by many early sources. Since Thomas does not portray Jesus this way, the late camp argues that Thomas must be a 2nd century text.

Late camp proponents also point to what they believe is evidence that Thomas’s writer used Matthew and Luke as a source. Since Matthew and Luke are widely believed to have been written in the 80’s and 90’s C.E., this would mean Thomas had to be later. The reason they believe Thomas used Matthew and Luke is because Matthew and Luke both used Mark, but sometimes they changed Mark’s stories slightly. The changes Matthew and Luke made are sometimes found in similar form in Thomas. This is a highly precarious position, however, as it is difficult to know whether these Thomas similarities were original or were added by later scribes, or whether, in fact, Matthew and Luke were using Thomas or a related source, not the other way around. More on that later.

The early camp, I believe, provides stronger evidence to support their case. Among the compelling factors put forth by this camp is the idea that Thomas’s gospel must certainly have been written before John’s gospel, because there are theologies and stories in John’s gospel that seem orchestrated specifically in response to ideas set forth in Thomas’s gospel. Elaine Pagels – a Harvard biblical scholar and one of the world’s foremost authorities on non-canonical Christian writing – argues that John’s famous story of “Doubting Thomas” was created specifically to discredit the Christian communities who used the Gospel of Thomas and followed the teachings of Thomas. In this Johannine story, Jesus appears in the flesh after his resurrection to a gathering of the disciples, but Thomas is absent, for whatever reason. Later, when the disciples tell Thomas that Jesus is resurrected and they have seen him, Thomas doubts, making his infamous declaration that until he sees the nail holes in Jesus’s hands and touches the wound in his side, he won’t believe. Jesus then appears, and Thomas sees and subsequently believes. The writer of John then has Jesus make the famous statement that has damned Thomas in the eyes of mainline Christianity for the last 2,000 years: “You have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who have believed but have not seen.”

I think Pagels’ argument is a solid one – because the story has, in fact, done exactly what she proposes it was designed to do – discredit Thomas and, thereby, his teachings. The story doesn’t appear in any other Christian writings, canonical or non-canonical, and, as such, it stands out as highly suspicious in terms of its historical reliability (in fact, this is true for a large portion of John’s gospel – but again, more on this later). Pagels makes several other compelling arguments as well, showing how a good portion of John’s gospel is actually a refutation of Thomas’s gospel and teachings. Indeed, she argues that John and Thomas, and, more specifically, their followers, had competing views on just what Jesus’s life was all about, and thus John’s followers wrote John’s gospel as a response to the Thomas view.

All this, of course, leads to the conclusion that the Gospel of Thomas is a 1st century work, written prior to the canonical Gospel of John, which most scholars date around 100 C.E.

Other strong arguments abound for placing Thomas in the 1st century. First is the fact that Thomas appears to be based on oral traditions, as it is not a gospel in the true sense of the word, but rather a collection of sayings. Christian oral traditions died out in the decades after Jesus’s death, because things started getting written down, and oral traditions were no longer considered reliable by initiates into the Christian religion. It is unlikely, then, that a text based on oral traditions would have been composed, or given any credence by Christians, in the 2nd century.

Additionally, despite differing on the issue of the imminence of Jesus’s return, Thomas and the authentic letters of Paul have a lot in common. It is believed by most scholars that Paul drew information on Jesus’s life primarily from oral tradition (as there were very few Christian writings during his life), and many of the oral traditions that Paul draws on are paralleled quite accurately in the Gospel of Thomas, implying that both were written from the same early oral sources.

In addition, the Gospel of Thomas does not have a lot of the elements and language usage found in authentic 2nd century Gnostic texts. I won’t bore you with a discussion of Gnostic semantics, but there are a number of common words and images used in Gnostic texts which are not present in the Gospel of Thomas. For instance, there is no concept of a “higher” and “lower” level godhead in Thomas, as is almost universal in Gnostic writings. Additionally, Thomas does not parallel any of the Gnostic-style language found in the New Testament. John’s gospel, for instance, has a distinctly Gnostic tone throughout much of it, particularly the well-known “I AM” statements that Jesus makes: “Before Abraham was born, I AM,” etc. The early camp argues that if Thomas was written in the 2nd century, it would have used language similar to the Gnostic ideas found in earlier works – and yet, those ideas are conspicuously absent from Thomas.

The only weakness in the early camp’s argument, in my opinion, is the issue of apocryphal teachings. As stated above, many scholars categorize Jesus along with the countless apocalyptic wisdom teachers in 1st century Palestine – teaching that God’s kingdom was imminent, and that he had special insight into how to gain God’s favor. However, Thomas, as alluded to earlier, does not have much in the way of apocryphal language. If Thomas were a very early work, one would expect to see a lot of apocalyptic teachings from Jesus – but that isn’t the case. This could mean that Thomas was a later document after all, or it could be the result of 2nd century edits to the original text by scribes and/or followers, editing the document to fit the changing mindset of the times.

The final factor that must be considered when dating this text is that the Gospel of Thomas has an interesting resemblance to the “missing” text used by both Matthew and Luke in composing their gospels. As I said earlier, it is widely understood and accepted that Matthew and Luke used the earlier Gospel of Mark as a source. Both Matthew and Luke repeat many of Mark’s stories, sometimes verbatim, other times adding or taking away details as they saw fit. As much as 91% of Mark’s material is found in Matthew, and over 50% is found in Luke. However, Matthew and Luke also share a certain amount of their material in common that is not from Mark. This has led most scholars to assume that Matthew and Luke had a second, unknown, source in common. (It has lead to a lot of other theories too; for instance, the Farrer Hypothesis claims that Matthew used Mark and Luke used Matthew, thus dispensing with the idea of a second common source – but this hypothesis, as well as several others, are not supported by even remotely as much evidence as the “second source” hypothesis).

Interestingly, Matthew and Luke’s non-Marcan common material consists entirely of sayings and teachings of Jesus. For this reason, some Jesus scholars have put forth a theory that Matthew and Luke’s second source was a text made up of sayings of Jesus, perhaps earlier than any other New Testament text. They call this source “Q,” for the German word quelle, which simply means “source.” This idea is as much as 200 years old, first postulated by biblical scholars in the first decade of the 19th century. It came into much wider use in the 1830’s when a prominent scholar and theologian named Frederich Schleiermacher latched onto it and connected it with an enigmatic statement by an early Christian leader and Catholic saint named Papias. Around 125 C.E., Papias – who was a bishop in Turkey – wrote that “Matthew compiled the words of the Lord [that is, Jesus] in a Hebrew manner of speech.” This was long thought to simply imply that Matthew had written his gospel in Hebrew. Of course, we know now that this was not the case – Matthew, like all the texts of the New Testament, was written in Greek. Matthew, however, is definitely a gospel that was written for a Jewish audience. Either way, Schleiermacher, arguing for a second source for Matthew and Luke, pointed out that this statement by Papias in the early 2nd century implied that Matthew wrote his gospel based on an oral tradition of Jesus, which would have been written down in a source that was known to Papias and his contemporaries.

Since the time of Schleiermacher, the idea of a second source for Matthew and Luke, made up of sayings of Jesus, has been a popular one, and is the most widely accepted solution by scholars to the issue of Matthew and Luke’s common, non-Marcan material.

Another interesting fact is that of this common, non-Marcan material, none of it includes anything that would support a view that Jesus ever discussed demons, Satan, the second coming, his resurrection, or ever made any claims to divinity. The material consists entirely of wisdom teachings of Jesus. This, as well as the fact that it no longer exists, leads many scholars to assume that Q was a very early source, written before layers and layers of mythology had built up around Jesus – and, therefore, very reliable.

From this, you can probably already see where I am going. The theory of the Q document draws an intriguing parallel to the Gospel of Thomas, because that is precisely what the Gospel of Thomas consists of – wisdom teachings of Jesus, without the later layers of miraculous and divine language. When the Gospel of Thomas was first discovered and translated in the 1940’s and 50’s, it made quite a few ripples in the scholarly world, because it provided evidence that, in fact, early Christianity had texts that consisted of teachings and sayings of Jesus – just as the Q Hypothesis had theorized for over 100 years.

Most scholars do not believe that the Gospel of Thomas is, in fact, the missing source Q, but it is interesting to speculate about whether, perhaps, our Gospel of Thomas was drawn from this earlier collection of Jesus’s teachings and sayings, or if it might even have been a contemporary of the Q source. If this were true, of course, it would imply that the material in the Gospel of Thomas is very early and highly reliable.

Nevertheless, as we all know, the Gospel of Thomas was not included in the New Testament canon. Apparently, it was not even seriously considered by the ecumenical councils of the 4th century. This poses some interesting questions – primarily, “Why not?” Early orthodox Christian leaders like Iranaeus and Hippolytus – the former writing in the 2nd century and the latter writing in the early 3rd century – both denounced Thomas’s gospel as heretical, primarily because of its lack of divine language, it’s lack of a resurrection account, and its implication that salvation is found inside of one’s self, through Jesus’s teachings, and not through the atonement of Jesus’s death on the cross. It would appear that by the time the official canon was being set in place, Thomas was either forgotten, or was widely thought to be Gnostic and, therefore, heretical.

The early Church’s canonical decision aside, Thomas’s gospel, as alluded to above, is believed by most experts to contain early and reliable oral traditions of Jesus’s sayings and teachings. It starts off by claiming to be a collection of “secret teachings” given by the “living Jesus” and which were written down by Didymus Judas Thomas. The very name here presents an intriguing conundrum. “Didymus” is a Greek word, and “Thomas” is a Hebrew word, but they both mean “twin.” The apostle Thomas was actually named Judas, but is nicknamed Thomas in the New Testament to differentiate him from Judas Iscariot – it has long been assumed that “Thomas” was used because this apostle must have been one of a pair of twins. But why did the writer of this text use both the Greek and Hebrew forms of Thomas’s nickname? Some scholars suggest this was a literary device used simply to ensure that Greek readers didn’t assume the Hebrew “Thomas” was a surname. Others have suggested, instead, that Thomas was being addressed as Jesus’s actual twin. This could be a spiritual connection – in the text, Jesus tells Thomas that he (Jesus) is no longer Thomas’s teacher because Thomas has “drunk from the very same spring from which I draw” – or it could be a physical connection, although only fringe scholars and novelists would ever draw the conclusion that Jesus and Thomas were literally twin brothers. It could also, however, be a reference to Jesus himself. The name “Judas” is derived from the name of the Jewish Nation – Judah. It would be like naming a child “Americus,” “Britannia,” or “Germanicus.” Thus, the “twin” of the Jewish Nation could be the earthly Jesus himself, communicating universal truths as the Christ (or, the “anointed one”).

The content of the Gospel of Thomas is very mystical and spiritual. Jesus teaches that salvation is found within – “The Kingdom of God is within you,” and “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will kill you.”

Some of Thomas is downright beautiful and poetic:

“I am the light that shines over all things. I am everywhere. From me all came forth, and to me all return. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”

But, as noted in a different context earlier, there is also quite a bit in Thomas’s gospel that parallels stories and teachings from the New Testament, specifically Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul. These overlapping stories account for “multiple attestations,” which is one of the primary factors scholars look toward when evaluating the historical reliability of a text or a teaching. This is one of the reasons why so many scholars believe much of Thomas’s material is early and reliable.

Compare Thomas’s reliability and multiple attestations to the canonical Gospel of John, which is made up of material that has almost no multiple attestations – in fact, the majority of this widely-read and widely-accepted gospel cannot be attested by any other source. Ironic, then, that John, and not Thomas, was included in the New Testament canon, and even more ironic, and perhaps even a bit tragic, that John, with its unattested and therefore unreliable narratives, has had such a profound impact on Christian theology – more so than any other gospel.

That’s not to say that no spiritual relevance can be found for a Christian in the Gospel of John (one of my favorite quotes of Jesus is found in this text), but it is certainly cause for pause the next time you open your bible to read from this very popular gospel.

Given a choice between the two, I would pick Thomas over John for reliability and spiritual Christian relevance. If you haven’t ever read Thomas, I highly encourage you to do so. It has been a vital component of my growth as a Christian and my continued spiritual walk.


Anonymous said...

excellent summary of the gospel, very well thought out, presented and accurate.

i am convinced the scholarly disputes in it's acceptance are minor manifestations of a greater truth that should be borne in mind when we are surrounded by controversy - it's that the difference, or duality, over the nature of truth, and in a word, what Jesus was fighting for is very small and easily overlooked. from a very small difference in outlook and reaction to life comes the great disputes and all wars. this elemental difference is the key. if someone would focus the narrative on this first impression and reaction then they will find that thomas's gospel goes hand in hand with this perspective. the great thing about the small things is that they are really the great things and the great things are the small things that are really distractions

Scott said...

Thanks for reading and posting a comment, Anonymous. I agree that the perspective of Jesus in Thomas is not all that different from perspectives presented in many canonical works.