Insights on the Gospel of Thomas


We talked to Dr Simon Gathercole, Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge, about his latest book The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary (Brill 2014) and his earlier work The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas (Cambridge University Press 2012).

‘What has made the Gospel of Thomas of interest to you as a scholar?’

I certainly never imagined at the beginning of my academic career that I would write two quite big books about the Gospel of Thomas! The main reason I got into the study of the ‘other’ Gospels is that I am always interested in the views people have about Jesus. After all, the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ is and always has been at the heart of the Christian faith and of vital concern to Christians.

In the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, there was in scholarly circles a concerted effort to narrow down the sources on which we could base a reliable historical picture of Jesus. This led to scepticism in some circles about the Gospel of John, for example. For a scholar such as Adolf von Harnack, the ‘Q’ source behind Matthew and Luke gave the true picture of Jesus and the essence of Christianity. For Rudolf Bultmann, the Gospels were ‘cult legends’ in which traces of the historical Jesus could occasionally be found. But all through this process there was no doubt for such sceptical scholars that the raw material for our understanding was to be found at least somewhere in the New Testament.

In the past few decades, by contrast, there has been a rise in interest in how the apocryphal or non-canonical gospels might contribute to our picture of Jesus. This is very much the position we are in at the moment: scholars are asking not only, ‘How does the New Testament inform us about the historical Jesus?’, but also ‘What parts of the other gospels feed into our understanding of Jesus?’, or ‘What aspects of how Jesus was remembered can be seen in other gospels?’ The Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) is for some scholars the principal apocryphal source.

The ‘Composition’: a summary

There are two parts to the argument in my first book, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas. The first is about the original language in which the Gospel of Thomas was written. This is controversial because some (e.g. April DeConick) have argued that the core of Thomas is very early, going back to an Aramaic source put together around AD 30-50. On the other hand, some more conservative scholars such as Nicholas Perrin have argued that Thomas must be very late because it was composed in Syriac around AD 200.

I argue against both of these positions in the first half of the book. Thomas was much more likely to have been composed in Greek, which means that the original language does not have any relevance for locating the origins of Thomas because Greek was used so widely across a huge span of time.

The second half of the book, though, highlights some of the factors which do feed into our understanding of Thomas’s origins. In particular, Thomas is very clearly influenced by Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, and by Paul’s letter to the Romans. The argument that Thomas is earlier than the New Testament Gospels is unsustainable. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that the forms of the sayings and parables of Jesus are preserved more authentically in Thomas than in the New Testament Gospels.

‘What is the significance of the Gospel of Thomas?’

The significance of the Gospel of Thomas is that it offers us another window into second-century Christianity, which is useful to the historian because we do not have a great number of sources for Christianity in this period.

Thomas was written (not by the apostle Thomas!) some time roughly in the middle of the second century. One of the interesting things about it is that, ironically, it gives us some of the earliest evidence for the use of the New Testament Gospels, and in particular it mentions Matthew as an authoritative spokesman for the kind of Christianity with which Thomas disagrees (Gos. Thom. 13). This almost certainly means that Matthew was known as an accepted Gospel during the time at which Thomas was written in the mid-second century.

Thomas also supplies us with evidence of other disagreements in the period, over important topics such as how one can attain salvation, whether one should pray, the nature of the physical world, the attitude one should take to the Old Testament, and – again – who Jesus is and what he accomplished. On many of these topics, Thomas takes a position radically different from fathers such as Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin and Irenaeus.

‘Any new insights in the new book?’

Some of the points were quite small matters, such as solving (so I like to think!) some problems of interpretation about what some of the enigmatic sayings in the Gospel of Thomas mean. Sometimes it was like doing a cryptic crossword! On the larger scale, I found that my initial impression was confirmed that Thomas cannot possibly give us an accurate picture of who Jesus really was in his earthly ministry.

The first book, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas, contributed to the question of Thomas’s date by identifying some of the work’s literary influences (as I mentioned above, Matthew, Luke and Romans). The second book, the Commentary, shows how Thomas fits well in the middle of the second century, and identifies some of the oddities of the work. For example, in two places Thomas simply mentions a figure ‘Mary’ without specifying which one (Gos. Thom. 21 and 114): compare this with the New Testament Gospels where it is clear that, given the popularity of the name, you have to distinguish between different Marys.

Thomas also muddles up the number of biblical books (twenty-four, on one common way of counting at the time) with the number of biblical authors (Gos. Thom. 52). In the ‘Render unto Caesar’ dialogue, Thomas imagines a bystander producing not a denarius but a gold coin, either a misunderstanding or a deliberately dramatic exaggeration (Gos. Thom. 100).

So the Gospel of Thomas is both chronologically and culturally distant from the Jesus of history. We can’t derive any historical information about Jesus from it, although it does shed some fascinating light into the debates about Jesus and the nature of Christianity which were going on during the time of the Antonine emperors (AD 138-192), which is roughly the period in which Thomas was written.

The Jesus Seminar and the Gospel of Thomas

by Dr. James White

“Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.” Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven.”1

A glance at the ancient text reproduced above immediately tells the reader that the author knew little, if anything, of biblical teaching concerning the roles of men and women, and of the fact that both men and women were created in the image of God. Such false teaching comes plainly from Gnostic sources that vilified the body and exalted the spirit, and in the process often denigrated the feminine and exalted the masculine. The early church struggled long and hard against Gnosticism, which constantly threatened her. As early as Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, we find a strong warning against “proto–Gnosticism,” telling us that Christ cannot be placed in any position other than that of Creator (Col. 1:15–18; 2:8–9).

Anyone who thinks Gnosticism no longer has proponents should be advised that the truth is just the opposite. In fact, if the self–aggrandizing press releases of the Jesus Seminar are to be believed, the consensus of scholarship now believes that documents thoroughly influenced by Gnosticism, such as the Gospel of Thomas, from which the above citation is taken, are far more reflective of the actual teachings of Jesus Christ than the “canonical Gospels” familiar to most Christians — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The Jesus Seminar is a small group of extremely liberal scholars.2 Yet they seem to have a lock on the major media outlets so that their pronouncements are taken as the final word by major magazines, newspapers, and public broadcasting programs. As a result, headlines proclaiming that scholars have “discovered” that Jesus never said He’d return (so He won’t), and the like, are common fare. What is worse, this kind of material finds its way into the college classroom as the “assured results of critical scholarship,” and young Christians are faced with the specter of this imposing group of Bible scholars condemning their faith in a risen Savior as mere myth.

The leaders of the Jesus Seminar confidently proclaim themselves to be the standard bearers of the scholarly consensus. While they are, in reality, far away from the vast majority of biblical scholars, they vigorously deny their own marginality by proclaiming that everyone else is marginal.
Continue reading