The Gospel of Thomas

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Scholars knew of the existence of the Gospel of Thomas (like so many others) only from comments (usually disparaging) from various Church Fathers and from Greek fragments found in the late 1800s at Oxyrhynchus. That all changed, however, in 1945 with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library in Egypt. An intact Coptic version of this gospel was among the codices. Scholars have spent years deciphering its text and speculating on its meaning – and its relevance to early Christianity. Needless to say, it is a discussion that continues to this day.

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, which are narratives about the life of Jesus, Thomas is a collection of sayings – 114 of them, to be exact. There are no birth stories, no healings, no conflicts with the authorities, and no crucifixion or resurrection.

In these 114 sayings, Thomas transmits the essence of Jesus' teachings. And what might this be? In a phrase, readers of Thomas' Gospel are encouraged to find the meaning in life.

The sayings are for the most part, wisdom sayings – words to the wise or proverbs, if you will. Some are simple: "If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit" (saying 34). Some are more challenging: "He who uncovers the significance of these words shall not taste death" (s. 1). It is "these words" that have intrigued scholars ever since with many suggesting that "these words" might have been closer to what Jesus actually taught than those which have been recorded in the canonical gospels. (Other scholars, of course, completely refute that concept.)

Scholars have long maintained that the Synoptic Gospels had a common source known as Q. (The "Q" comes from the German word quelle, which means source.) Q, of course, has never been discovered, and only a few scholars think the Gospel of Thomas might actually be Q. But the existence of Thomas verifies that "sayings" documents, like the hypothetical Q, were circulating. As scholarship continues and scholars become more adept at translating Coptic materials, this Gospel has grown in significance.

However after 50+ years of intense scrutiny and discussion, scholars still are not in agreement as to what the sayings mean. Some find the texts interesting – for academic purposes. Others see it as a hodgepodge of phrases supposedly uttered by Jesus. Others believe this document might predate and even be the foundation upon which the canonical gospels rest. Those scholars commonly refer to the Gospel of Thomas as the fifth gospel. The point upon which all scholars can agree is that the discovery of Thomas' Gospel illustrates the diversity of early Christianity.

See here for information about the author of the Gospel of Thomas.

Discovered in 1945 among the codices of the Nag Hammadi library, the Gospel of Thomas provides a variant view of early Christianity. Initially, scholars labeled it a "Gnostic" gospel and relegated it to one of the heresies facing the early Church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, resting in the assurance that the Church had already dealt with that heresy in a decisive manner during the Councils of the 4th century.

The Gospel of Thomas is divided into 114 "sayings" or short paragraphs. Almost all of these sayings begin with "Jesus says…." It suggests that these were secret teachings straight from Jesus himself, written down by a close disciple (or possibly his twin brother). (Sadly, Jesus himself did not leave any written record of his thoughts or teachings.) Roughly half of these sayings can be found in the synoptic texts; a few are similar to other writings of early Christianity. The remaining texts are brand new to biblical scholars.

In general, the Gospel of Thomas does not have a very positive view of the world. The world that is seen is not the world that really matters. That world can only be seen through the Spirit: "If you do not abstain from the world, you will not find the kingdom" (s. 27). This is not unlike what John says in 15:18: "If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you."

Our life in this world, then, is only temporary; one day we will all leave to go to a better place. While he was here on earth, Jesus shared his divine wisdom, but the plan was always to return to his heavenly abode. There is no Comforter in Thomas; people have within themselves the ability to figure things out.

This view of the world is foundational to Gnosticism (the world is a hostile place, people are weighted down here, a heavenly redeemer will redeem all who follow his teachings), but it is also common in most religious thought. Think of the teachings of Buddhism, asceticism, mystical thought, Kabbalah, etc. The Gospel of Thomas bears witness to the fact that at least one aspect of early Christianity was working on this, too. Salvation isn't something that happens at the end; it is already here. "The kingdom is inside of you and outside you" (s. 3).

According to Thomas, salvation is not tied to Jesus' death and resurrection; salvation is tied to gaining insight from Jesus' words. Jesus does not save us; becoming like Jesus saves us. Jesus is our spiritual guide to this end. When his words are properly understood, we will have eternal life (s.1). However, this is not going to be an easy task; it will require constant effort. Nonetheless, those who achieve this goal will rule over all (s. 2).

When people know themselves, they will know that they are the children of the living Father (s. 3). There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed (s. 5). And fasting [likewise, praying and charity in s. 14 and circumcision in s. 53] is not required because God can already see everything (s. 6). With these sayings Jesus attempts to turn his followers' thoughts from outward piety to what is taking place in the inward man. "If you become my followers, these stones will serve you" (s. 19).

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you will kill you" (s. 70). Here Jesus seems to be saying that salvation can only be achieved when the inner, spiritual life is fully expressed. "Fortunate are those who have heard the word of the father and have truly kept it" (s. 79). "Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to that person" (s. 108).

There are several allegories answering the question: What is the kingdom of God like? Most of the allegories also appear in the Synoptic Gospels. The kingdom is like a mustard seed (s. 20), like the person who sowed good seed (s. 57), like the merchant who found a precious pearl and sold all that he had to buy it (s. 76), like the woman who hid yeast in dough and made many loaves of bread (s. 96), like the shepherd who lost one of his sheep and left the 99 to find it (s. 107), etc.

However, there are three allegories that do not appear in the Synoptic Gospels. The kingdom is like a woman carrying a jar full of meal who did not notice the crack in the jar, so it all spilled while she carried the jar home; the kingdom is like a man who wanted to kill someone powerful, so he thrust his sword into the wall; the kingdom is like a person who didn't know he had treasure in his field and sold it to someone else. (It is not always clear what the message is supposed to be in these passages.)

There are several parables: the sower (s. 9), the wedding feast (s. 64), and the wicked tenants (s. 65). There are multiple sayings from the Sermon on the Mount. When asked who would be their leader after Jesus was gone, he replied: James the Just (Jesus' brother) (s. 12).

There are also some very obscure passages relating to sexuality and/or women. In saying 21, Mary asks Jesus a question, leading one to assume that she is a follower of Jesus. But then in saying 114, Peter states, "Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life." Jesus replies, "I shall 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 shall enter heaven's kingdom." The good news is that Jesus safeguards Mary's right to enter the kingdom of heaven. The bad news is that she first must become male!

Scholars have offered several interpretations of this final statement ranging from it being blatantly misogynistic to metaphorical. The first reflects the patriarchal bias of its day; the latter posits that "female" relates to humanity while "male" suggests divinity. According to gnostic thought, all are "female"/human, and then all strive to become "male"/divine. (Even if this were true of gnostic thought, it would have been better if they had used gender-neutral language in making the point!)

Some scholars try to understand it in light of s. 22: "…when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, …then you will enter the kingdom." In this saying, it appears that all sexuality needs to be overcome. Yet one should not assume, then, that this is an ascetic document since outward signs of piety are not encouraged, i.e., fasting, praying, charity, following the dietary laws, and circumcision.

It is, however, quite clear that, according to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus came as a person in the flesh to teach people how to change their way of living. He was the vehicle through which these secrets were revealed to those who were worthy, thus enabling them to become like him.

While we have attempted to give a flavor of the sayings, scholars concede that the best way to understand them is to read and reflect upon each one. As one finds the light within, one will become a light for others. This is not a gospel of "works righteousness" vs. "grace"; it is a gospel of "insight."

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha