-Mike Jones (Inspiring Philosophy)
The Gospel of Thomas seems to be the most famous gospel that is not in the Bible. Everyone seems intrigued by this work; what it says and where it came from. Many argue it belongs in the Bible or that it represents an early sect of Christianity that disagreed with what we refer to as mainstream Christianity. They say it teaches a different Jesus than what we find in the canonical Gospels, or that Thomas is from the very early days of Christianity, and this is evidence that Christianity was a wide mix of various views of Jesus, despite what many laymen believed today. The majority of scholars do not place Thomas in the first century or believe any of it can be dated to the days of the first Christian Church. But some do date it early, like John Dominic Crossan or Elaine Pagels. So why was Thomas never considered canonical? Why do most scholars believe it belongs in the mid to late second century? Why do others argue it as earlier? Does any of it contain accurate sayings of Jesus? Does it represent a different sect of Christianity that would have differed from mainstream Christianity? And does it belong with the canonical Gospels? To answer these questions, we need to dive into what the Gospel of Thomas is, what it says, and what evidence scholars used to date it.
First, Thomas is not a narrative like the canonical Gospels are. It is just a list of sayings that Jesus supposedly said to his disciples. The theology also differs greatly from the ideas of the New Testament. In Thomas, Jesus is not the way, the truth, and the light. Jesus is just a teacher who instructs people on how to find enlightenment within them. Fasting and prayer are also considered bad in Thomas, whereas they are praised by Jesus in the canonical Gospels. Jesus also seems to act more like a Greek thinker in Thomas, rather than an early Jewish Rabbi. It also ends in a rather sexist way, claiming that Mary must become a male spirit before she can enter the kingdom of heaven. This seems contradictory to the Jesus portrayed in the canonical Gospels who seems to welcome women followers, and even allows them the high status of receiving divine revelation, to deliver to men which was quite revolutionary for the times Jesus lived in. So Thomas doesn't seem to fit with the theology of the New Testament, which is why most scholars say it represents a different theological view.
Second, we need to realize that dating Thomas is harder than other documents because of the internal and external evidence we have for it. We simply do not have a lot of manuscripts of Thomas. Our main source for Thomas as a Coptic manuscript discovered in 1945, and is part of the NAG Hammadi collection. The specific manuscript dates to around 340 AD. We also have three Greek fragments of Thomas that date to around 200 AD and contain about 20% of Thomas. However, scholars have noted remarkable differences between the complete Coptic version, and the Greek fragments. So Thomas seems to have changed remarkably over the course of 140 years, unlike the slight variation we see with the New Testament manuscripts. John Meyer says the Gospel of Thomas may have circulated in more than one form, and passed through several stages of redaction. Darrell Bock and Dan Wallace say the fact that the Greek papaiah of Thomas contains some significant differences from the Coptic forma Stelling it, suggests that this gospel may have gone through several uncontrolled editions by the time the NAG Hammadi volume was penned. So the textual evidence suggests Thomas may have been a document for an uncontrolled tradition that was meant to be fluid over time and meant to be adapted to each generations needs. We find the opposite when we look at the traditions of the other four Gospels in the rest of the New Testament. Other than that, the first writer to mention the existence of Thomas was Hippolytus of Rome, who speaks harshly of it. He says it was transmitted by a group called in the scenes, and even quotes a line from it which also varies from the line he seems to be quoting from in our manuscript of Thomas later. Origen also mentions its existence and says it was heretical. However, there were other works attributed to Thomas, so it is possible he and later authors could be referring to a different work that bore the name of Thomas in the 4th century. Cyril of Jerusalem mentions Thomas and says an early heretical group known as the main qian's wrote it.
Finally, a fifth century work mentions it in a list of heretical books.
So as you can see, our evidence for Thomas is rather scarce, negative, and varies and how it was read. The external evidence tells us Thomas would have to predate it to manuscripts and external mentions, so that it could have circulated enough to have caught the attention of critics, which means it would have to have been written prior to the 3rd century. Some argue that a lack of it being mentioned in the second century means it has to post date this time. But to be fair, that might be arguing from silence unless we can come up with a good reason 2nd century authors should have mentioned it. Scholars mainly need to rely on internal evidence to date Thomas. This is a harder test than dating other Gospels because Thomas is just a list of alleged sayings of Jesus. It contains no stories or a stork or reference in order to date it. Well on top of this, it contains little coherence outside of its use of catch words or catch phrases. In other words, the text itself has to be understood in terms of specific catch phrases to be translated properly into English.
Another interesting aspect of Thomas, is it seems familiar with several documents of the New Testament. It contains quotes or paraphrases from Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, acts, Romans, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, first Thessalonians, first Timothy, Hebrews, first John, and Revelation. Now this is rather telling, because either all of these works from the New Testament relied on Thomas, or Thomas was simply aware of the New Testament documents and made use of them. The second option is more likely because some of these documents are quite early and Thomas would have to have been written in the 40s, and be unbelievably popular early on, for multiple authors to make use of it. It is also far more probable a later author simply made use of multiple works that were popular by the second century. Also a lot of these New Testament books are alluded to by later authors and do not make mention or allude to Thomas, which also makes it more likely Thomas postdates these documents. Balkan Wallace says the silence of all second century writers regarding Thomas would be extremely peculiar if this gospel had existed for 50 or 60 years before AD 100. And all the more so if thomas was used extensively by many New Testament authors.
Again, as I said earlier, this is not proof Thomas post dates the New Testament. But it does lend credence to the theory Thomas did come after the New Testament, since these works were quoted and attested by early authors, and Thomas isn't. Richard Baulkham also notes Thomas seems to be comparing itself to other Gospels already in existence, specifically Matthew and Mark. Section 13 of Thomas has Simon Peter in Matthew guessing who Jesus was. Peter says he was a messenger or a righteous angel in Matthew guesses a wise philosopher before Thomas speaks. Baucom argues using Matthew and Peter who the early church says was Mark’s source for his gospel, meaning that Thomas is acknowledging that at least these two Gospels already existed by the time Thomas was written. Matthew would be one of the most obscure of the twelve had not a gospel been attributed to him. The saying in the Gospel of Thomas must presuppose the existence of Matthew's Gospel, and its attribution to Matthew if Matthew in this passage represents Matthew's Gospel, then it becomes highly likely that Peter represents Mark's Gospel.
Peter states that Jesus is like a righteous angel. It's presumably a deliberate substitute for Peter's confession in Mark 8:29, “You are the Messiah.” Since many external sources seem to attribute Mark's Gospel of Peter's preaching, it fits with this idea that Thomas will compare himself to two well-known disciples, from which two of the canonical Gospels allegedly came from; or at least that is what the church argued was the case in the second century. The idea of Thomas relying on many of the books of the traditional Canon, also correlates to the opening line of Thomas, which reads, “these are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymus, Judas, and Thomas wrote them down.” Thomas says these are the hidden words of Jesus, implying there was a public ministry of Jesus that was more well known. The author, knowing his teachings, would contradict the public ministry of Jesus, seeming to have thought he had to disguise his words as secret teachings. This implies the acknowledgement of more well-known teachings of Jesus and implies Thomas would post-date them. So it is more probable Thomas postdates the New Testament books, which were more well known and attested in the ancient world.Thomas is trying to go against the New Testament theology by disguising his theology as secret teachings of Jesus, which implies the author knew other Gospels existed before he wrote his.
However, one of the biggest reasons most scholars date the Gospel of Thomas to the mid to late second century, is this connection to late Syrian. Christian scholar Nicholas Peron, analyzed the Gospel of Thomas and translated it into Syriac and Greek. What he found was Thomas was most likely originally written in Syria, not Greece or Coptic. I mentioned earlier Thomas contains a lot of catch words or catch phrases, and unless we understand this, the gospel really doesn't make sense. Well parent identified more than 500 Syria catch words, which implies it makes most sense in Syria not Greek or Coptic. Scholar Craig Evans says Thomas has extensive coherence with late 2nd century Syrian tradition in a lack of coherence with pre 70 Jewish Palestine. It is also recognized by virtually all scholars that Thomas contains a lot of Syrian elements, like how it were first at Thomas is Judas Thomas. This was a common name for Thomas and Syrian traditions, or as Craig Evans has noted, most of the time Thomas follows Matthew, it seems to be following a Syriac version of Matthew. This is also interesting because Paran noticed something else about Thomas; it seems to follow the order of a mid-second century work called the Diet Tessarin. The Diet Tessarin was put together by a man named Tation who wanted to harmonize the four Gospels, so he wrote a Syrian translation which goes through all four, and tries to harmonize the time-line.
Thomas seems to be copying from the Diet Tessarin and follows the same order in Syriac style, meaning it would post date the completion of the Diet Tessarin, which was between 160 AD and 175 AD. Some try to suggest Thomas has to be early because it is just a simple list of sayings and the traditional gospels are more developed because they contain narratives. But just being a simple list of sayings doesn't at all mean it is early. Craig Evans notes that other collections of sayings emerge from around this time, long after the canonical Gospels. Rabbinic works, like the chapter of the fathers and the sentences of sexes, are simple lists of sayings and were written around the same time. The sentences of sexist is specifically interesting because it also seems to have originated in Syria in the second century correlating to the most likely area and time frame for the emergence of Thomas. N. T. Wright in The New Testament and The People of God, also points out that Thomas lacks the early Jewish identity of the first church. The traditional four Gospels seem to be telling the story of Israel, with the climax being in the death and resurrection of Jesus, in the form of greco-roman biographies, that contain deep Jewish elements and themes.
Thomas seems to have been shortening, smoothed out for a later Gentile audience unfamiliar with the Jewish context. If Thomas was first and Jesus was originally more like a Greek philosopher, it is unlikely that a later Gentile audience would want to add in more Jewish elements to the story of Jesus, in creating the canonical Gospels. Considering the early church was slowly moving towards being filled with a majority of Gentiles, why would you make Jesus more Jewish if that was not how he was originally? As NT Wright says, “if the earliest form of the controversy stories is therefore likely to have been that of the Jewish stories of the struggle and vindication of the little remnant or renewal movement, it is not difficult to see how these stories could have become smooth down over time into something more like Hellenistic kriya, especially as the news of Jesus passed beyond the area where Jewish style controversy and vindication stories would be an expected form. This, I suggest, is the most likely explanation for works like the Gospel of Thomas.”
So these are the main reasons we date Thomas to the late second century. The fact that it is just a simple list of sayings doesn't mean it is early, let alone earlier than our canonical Gospels. The fact that it resembles later Syria and Christianity follows the Diet Tessarin paints Jesus more like a Greek philosopher and says it contains the secret teachings of Jesus, all seems to point to a tradition much later than what we see in the New Testament. There is also not a plausible reason Thomas should be included in the Canon of Scripture or that it could be considered to contain authentic words of Jesus. It is simply too late to be considered reliable.