..........What about the Gospel of Thomas?

Created: 8/24/96
The issue of the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas comes up in different ways and in different places. For example, this question that came into the Tank...

Recently, and quite by accident, I stumbled across a version of the Apocryphal(sp?) Gospel of Thomas. After reading it, and being quite amazed by the similarities to the Synoptic Gospels and John, I have the following question:

What is the great "theological argument" against this Gospel? At least 60% of it has direct correlations in Scripture and some rather inspiring extra sayings. I understand there is a good deal, I estimate 40%, of the Gospel that is clearly Gnostic, but does that discredit a valuable (in my mind) resource of early Christianity?
GTh also is important to discussions of the "Jesus Seminar" and those dependent upon that stream of argument (e.g. James Stills' web-writings). Some of the claims are quite exorbitant--that it represents the oldest Jesus material available, much older than our canonical gospels. This material needs careful analysis, since so much is made of it.

  1. What is the Gospel of Thomas?

    The GTh is "an anthology of 114 'obscure sayings' of Jesus, which according to its prologue, were collected and transmitted by St. Didymus Jude Thomas. The sayings do not appear within a biological narrative about Jesus, although some of them individually contain elements of dialogue or an abbreviated setting. Instead, Jesus' sayings in Gth are unconnected and in no particular order." [GS:376] It is part of a collection of Gnostic writings known as the Nag Hammadi Library.

    The Nag Hammadi Library is a collection of Coptic documents, found in Upper Egypt in 1945, dated late fourth century AD:

    The most important collection of Gnostic writings are the Nag Hammadi Codices (NHC). Thirteen codices, containing fifty-two tractates, were discovered in upper Egypt in 1945. Six of these tractates were duplicates. Six others were already extant. The remaining forty represented wholly new finds. [Evans, in NWNTI:164]
    All [texts] were found together in a large jar sealed by a bowl and buried beneath a boulder at the base of cliffs on the right bank of the Nile, some six miles northeast of the town of Nag Hammadi and within sight of the ruins of the Pachomian monastery at Phbow. [BREC:171]
    The texts are a varied lot: some are Christian, some are gnostic, some are Christian-gnostic, some are Hermetic, and two are philosophical--the Sentences of Sextus and a fragment of Plato's Republic.[BREC:171]
    [TankNote: When Egyptian was written in the Greek alphabet, it was called "Coptic". The NHC was written in TWO different Coptic dialects, and reflect the handwriting styles of several different scribes (NHL:13ff)]

  2. How old is this library (including the GTh)?

    The manuscripts are dated to the late 4th century, on several grounds, the two strongest are (NHL:16):

    First, there is a reference in Codex VI (containing The Concept of our Great Power) to the heresy of the Anomoeans--which briefly flourished in the region in the late 350's.

    Second, some of the 'packing materials' in the jar are literary pieces themselves (like we might use newspaper to pack a box of delicate objects). There are three dates that show up in these packing materials of Codex VII: 341, 346, 348 ad. "This indicates that the cover of Codex VII was manufactured no earlier than the latest date [348ad], but perhaps as much as a generation after these dates."

    This, of course, describes only the age of the manuscripts themselves--NOT the literary content of those mss.

  3. What does the GTh contain?

    The Coptic Gospel of Thomas was translated from the Greek. Fragments of this gospel in the original Greek version are extant in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri 1, 654 and 655, which had been discovered and published at the beginning of this century, but were identified as parts of The Gospel of Thomas only after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library. The first of these Greek papyri contains sayings 26-30, 77, 31-33 (in this order!), the other two the sayings 1-7 and 36-40, respectively. At least one of these Greek fragments comes from a manuscript that was written before 200 C.E.; thus the Greek version of this gospel was used in Egypt as early as the second century. [Koester , in NHL:124]
    A large number of the sayings of The Gospel of Thomas have parallels in the gospels of the New Testament, in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), as well as the Gospel of John (parallels with the latter are especially striking: cf., e.g., sayings 13, 19, 24, 38, 49, 92). Some of the sayings are known to occur also in noncanonical gospels, especially in the Gospel According to the Hebrews (cf. saying 2) and the Gospel of the Egyptians (cf. saying 22), which are both attested for the second century by Clement of Alexandria (floruit 180-200).[Koester, in NHL:124-125]
  4. How old IS the GTh itself?

    If we have Greek mss with fragments of Gth that can be dated to pre-200 AD, then clearly the GTh must be at least that old. But some highly visible minority (i.e. the Jesus Seminar) have claimed that it can be dated to 50-60ad, BEFORE the canonical gospels, so we need to see exactly what evidence exists by which to date the Gth.

    In other words, do we have any HARD evidence by which to date GTh so early?

    1. "The only firm evidence for dating this document is its earliest Greek fragments (P. Oxy. 1), which was written no later than about A.D. 200." (TJQ:49)

    2. "The first reference to the document by name occurs no earlier than Hippolytus, who was writing between A.D. 222 and 235." (TJQ:49)

    3. The author of Gth shows a decided dependence on the canonical Gospels (see below for the evidence), demonstrating a later date for its composition than they.

    The scholarly community is generally (apart from the Jesus Seminar minority) in agreement as to a mid-2nd century date:

    But how early that Gospel was composed is debated. Although some seek to place its origins in the first century, the view that it was actually composed near the middle of the second century (ca. A.D. 140) is more commonly held. [RNC:11]
    Hultgren (op.cit.) lists the "early-daters" as Koester, S. Davies, Cameron; and for the majority view Guillaumont, Puech, Cullmann, Quispel, R. McL. Wilson, Gartner, Frend, Fieger, Hengel.

    The early-daters are all closely associated with two schools: Claremont and Harvard (homes of Koester and Robinson). All of these early daters are either colleagues or students of these (with the exception of Crossan).

    Richard Hayes, a non-evangelical teaching at Duke, wrote an article demonstrating how the Jesus Seminar did NOT represent a cross-section or consensus view of non-evangelical scholarship in "The Corrected Jesus", First Things 43 (1994). He called the seminar's dating of GTh "an extraordinarily early dating, " a highly controversial claim," and a "shaky element in their methodological foundation." (cited by Bock, in JUF:90).

    And Blomberg sums it up thus: "In other words, the document may have first been written as early as about A.D. 150, but no actual evidence permits us to push that date a century earlier as the Jesus Seminar does." [JUF:23]

    [It should be mentioned that an important, specialist work on the Syrian area, where GTh was possibly written, argues that GTh is dependent on Tatian's Diatessaron, which would dates it after 180ad--see H.J.W. Drijvers, in "Facts and Problems in Early Syriac-Speaking Christianity", The Second Century, 2 (1982), pp.157-175.]

    So, we get a range of 150-180ad for its composition. The implication of this, obviously, is that at such a date it CANNOT be chronologically prior to the canonical gospels--all of which were in their final form LONG BEFORE this date.

  5. THE BIG QUESTION: Was GTh dependent on the Gospels? [arguments summarized in MJ:1.128]

    This is the major question. If the GTh was dependent on the canonical gospels, then its value for research into the origins of Christian literature is limited (its value for research into early Gnosticism is already significant).



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