Doubting Thomas: The Relevance of the Gospel of Thomas for Historical Jesus Studies

Doubting Thomas: The Relevance of the Gospel of Thomas for Historical Jesus Studies September 28, 2017

There is no doubting that the Gospel of Thomas is an interesting document, but almost everything else about this Gospel is debated and debatable including even whether it is a first or second century document. It would appear that still the majority of scholars think, for various reasons, that it is a second century document, though it contains some early Jesus traditions in it which we also find in the canonical Gospels. This Gospel was touted by Elaine Pagels many years ago as a Gnostic Gospel, but today even she is doubtful this is a good way to characterize this document. She may be right, though I am convinced her original assessment is probably more accurate than her recent retrenchment. What I would stress about this Gospel is that its ‘character’ makes it quite different from the canonical Gospels particularly in the sayings which are distinctive to this Gospel, and this same character makes it appear very likely it was written after, and on the basis of not only the canonical Gospels but also of several of Paul’s letters and other NT documents.

If I am right in this assessment, it probably adds very little new about the historical Jesus or about the various forms of earliest Christianity that existed in the early or middle or latter portions of the first century A.D. during what can be called the apostolic and formative era. This is an important conclusion because it makes it all the less likely that we can learn anything new at all about Jesus or his inner circle from even later apocryphal Gospels, Acts and the like. If even the Gospel of Thomas does not provide a new window on Jesus and the earliest Christian period, we should surely abandon hope about documents written long after the age of the apostles and the eyewitnesses.

The tone is set for the Gospel of Thomas right from its outset. It claims to offering us ‘the secret wisdom sayings’ of Jesus. In other words, it purports to give us esoteric or insider knowledge about Jesus’ in-house teaching, and indeed in-house knowledge that goes back to one of the original disciples–- Didymus Judas Thomas. The esoteric character of the document becomes immediately apparent not only from the ‘incipit’ which uses the phrase mentioned above, but also from the first saying that sounds nothing like the historical Jesus as he is depicted in the canonical Gospels. It reads “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.” In other words, one must become a scribe or a scholar to be able to ferret out the meaning of secret sayings if one wants to have everlasting life. This puts salvation on a whole different footing than what we find in either the authentic parables or the aphorisms of Jesus. Salvation is a matter of what you know and how well you understand these secret sayings. Furthermore, since salvation is dependent on an individual’s ability to interpret these sayings, we are dealing with self-salvation, and presumably salvation for the literate or even the learned. It’s not a surprise that some scholars find this vision of salvation appealing. I find it appalling. This is not salvation for the least, the last, the lost and the illiterate and it is certainly not offered on the basis of grace through faith. We have further proof it is salvation only for the elite and the worthy for according to saying 62:

Jesus said, “I disclose my mysteries to those [who are worthy] of [my] mysteries.”

One gets the sense that salvation comes to those who persevere through the maze of interpretation, ponder the sayings deeply, and then have an aha moment. Listen to the second saying in this Gospel— “Jesus said, ‘Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all.’”

This sounds like a form of revelation that can only be received by those who have far too much time on their hands–– revelation for a scribe or a scholar. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, you have to wrestle with the saying until you get a blessing. One also gets the sense that all of this has to do with the inner workings of a person’s mind and life.

Saying three insists that Father’s kingdom is ‘within you’ though it also is said to be ‘outside of you’. This is rather different from even Luke’s “the dominion is in your midst” (Lk.17.20-21— surely not an example of Jesus wishfully thinking the Dominion is already extant within his adversaries the Pharisees). The clincher that we are dealing with a Gospel of self-salvation in Thomas is found in saying 70 which says that “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you.”

Next in Thomas, we are given a Socratic twist. Saying 3b says “When you know yourselves then you will be known.” The search must be within yourself, at least first. This is a Gospel for narcissists. There is nothing here about knowing God that is ‘extra nos’ being the key to understanding yourself. To borrow the language of Martin Buber, The I becomes the Thou, or at least the Thou is believed to be found in the first instance within the I.

Unlike the Synoptic teachings of Jesus which can sometimes be enigmatic in order to tease the mind of the audience into active thought about God’s divine saving activity, this Gospel offers up conundrums or riddles for their own sake. Consider saying seven which suggests “Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.” Or consider saying 19: “Congratulations to the one who came into being before coming into being. If you become my disciples and pay attention to my sayings, these stones will serve you.” No wonder Matthew in this Gospel says Jesus is like a wise philosopher (saying 13), and Jesus warns in saying 21: “Let there be a person among you who understands.” This is not a Gospel for the slow of understanding.

The lion saying seems to relate in some way to saying 11b which reads: “The dead are not alive, and the living will not die. During the days when you ate what is dead, you made it come alive.” Clearly the author of this document is fascinated by what happens when a living being eats another creature which was alive. What these sayings probably reflect is the pagan notion that the life force can be transferred from a lesser being to a greater one (even to a god) by the greater being sacrificing, or consuming or even strangling (and so squeezing the life breath out of) the lesser being.

What is the character of the person or community that generated this document in the second century A.D.? We get a clue in saying 12 where the disciples ask about who should lead them when Jesus departs and he in turn says “No matter where you are, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.”

Now no one in the NT documents refer to James the brother of Jesus in this way. James the Just is what he was called by those outside the community (see Josephus and the latter Christian sources such as Eusebius). It is a phrase only used after James got a reputation for exhibiting a certain sort of piety in Jerusalem, well after the death of Jesus. In other words, this is a saying that certainly does not go back to the historical Jesus and is used to legitimate a later tradition, reflecting a later view of James, and indeed a view of James that Jesus himself would never have endorsed, especially during his ministry when his brothers didn’t yet believe in him (Jn. 7.5). Jesus actually spoke of persons other than his physical family being his own family of faith (see Mk. 3.21,31-35).

And if we were not puzzled enough, when we get to saying 22 we are confronted with the following:
“When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom].”

It is frankly hard to keep a straight face and say that this sounds anything like the historical Jesus we find in the Q sayings or in Mark or even in the Gospel of John. The person who wrote this is a wordsmith, someone who likes to play with words and phrases with puzzling meanings. And notice that there is really no future eschatological focus in this Gospel. In fact, when the disciples ask Jesus how their end will come, Jesus asks them if they have found their beginning (saying 18). This is just being obscure for obscurity’s sake. Or even more clearly we can compare saying 51:

“His disciples said to him, “When will the rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?” He said to them, “What you are looking forward to has come, but you don’t know it.”

We find another clue to the agenda of the author of this collection in saying 28 which reads:
Jesus said, “I took my stand in the midst of the world, and in flesh I appeared to them. I found them all drunk, and I did not find any of them thirsty. My soul ached for the children of humanity, because they are blind in their hearts and do not see, for they came into the world empty, and they also seek to depart from the world empty. But meanwhile they are drunk. When they shake off their wine, then they will change their ways.”

Notice that while Jesus is a real flesh and blood person (this is not a Gospel written by a docetic author) he nevertheless is an ascetic. In fact, the disciples are called by this Gospel to extreme asceticism, even abandoning clothing! Listen to saying 37:

“When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample then, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.”

This comports with saying 64b which says buyers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father.

You may well ask what happened to the Jesus who was known as the friend of tax collectors and sinners who was accused of being a glutton and a wine bibber? And can it really be said that the following saying sounds even remotely like the monotheistic Jewish Jesus of the early first century A.D.–

Jesus said, “Where there are three deities, they are divine. Where there are two or one, I am with that one.” (Saying 30).

To this we may add the infamous saying 77:

“Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” This certainly sounds like some sort of pantheistic thought, but if that were not enough we also have misogynistic material at the end of the collection in saying 114 which reads:

“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 kingdom of Heaven.”

Now some scholars have tried to soften the impact of this last saying by suggesting it was later added to the collection but alas, where is the textual basis for this conjecture? Do we have manuscripts that do not include this saying? Well no, we don’t. It is pure conjecture and a ploy of desperation meant to salvage this Gospel from appearing to be what it is– a conglomeration or mishmash of some authentic sayings of Jesus found in earlier canonical Gospels coupled with later pantheistic sayings, ascetical sayings, Gnostic sayings, philosophical sayings and even anti-women sayings. It is the distinctive sayings of Thomas which we have been highlighting here which indicate just how far removed this Gospel is in its portrayal of Jesus from the Jewish eschatological non-ascetical Jesus we find in Q and in general in the Synoptic Gospels. Even the authentic sayings of Jesus that we do find in this Gospel in various places are de-eschatologized in the service of the larger agendas of the author.

Careful examination of Thomas by Klyne Snodgrass and C.M. Tuckett and Craig Evans have shown that the Gospel of Thomas reflects not only a knowledge of all four canonical Gospels but also of the editorial work of all for Evangelists including the 4th Evangelist. Thomas also reflects a knowledge of the editorial work of M and L even in the Greek version of Thomas. It also reflects a knowledge of various of Paul’s letters, Hebrews, 1 John, and perhaps even Revelation. One has to ask—- who could the author of this document have been and when could he have written to know all these sources in detail? The answer is surely he is someone who lived in the second century A.D. and had an admiration especially for James who was martyred in A.D. 62. [cf. K. Snodgrass, “The Gospel of Thomas. A Secondary Gospel,” Second Century, 7 (1989-90), pp. 19-38 and C.M. Tuckett, “Thomas and the Synoptics,” Nov. Test. 30 (1988), pp. 132-57. And see the discussion in my The Gospel Code, (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2004), pp. 102-104 and the one by Craig A. Evans in “Thomas, Gospel of,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, eds. Ralph P.Martin and P.H. Davids (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press,1997), pp. 1175-77.]

This is why J.D.G. Dunn and others have rightly drawn the conclusion that Thomas post-dates all the canonical documents, as do all the other Nag Hammadi documents as well. Listen to Dunn: “The more obvious interpretation of the Nag Hammadi documents is that they are all typically syncretistic: they draw bits and pieces of from a wide range of religious influences in the ancient world, including Judaism and Christianity, but including others as well. As such they are totally explainable in terms of what we now know about second and third-century Gnosticism.” (Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus, [Phila.: Westminster Press, 1985], p. 98.) Just so, and as such this material is miles from the character of the canonical Gospels. Dunn rightly includes in this quoted description the Gospel of Thomas.

The attempt to de-Gnosticize Thomas in order to rescue it and make it a genuine first century Gospel will not work (witness how this Gospel is portrayed as the crown jewel of the Gnostic Society Library), and in any case, whenever it was written, its distinctive sayings are miles from the Jewish and eschatological and intelligible character of Jesus’ actual aphorisms, proverbs and the like. Especially interesting is the rhetoric of the compilers of the Gnostic Society Library who say on their website in their Introduction to Thomas:

“There is a growing consensus among scholars that the Gospel of Thomas – discovered over a half century ago in the Egyptian desert – dates to the very beginnings of the Christian era and may well have taken first form before any of the four traditional canonical Gospels. During the first few decades after its discovery several voices representing established orthodox biases argued that the Gospel of Thomas (abbreviated, GTh) was a late-second or third century Gnostic forgery. Scholars currently involved in Thomas studies now largely reject that view, though such arguments will still be heard from orthodox apologists and are encountered in some of the earlier publications about Thomas. Today most students would agree that the Gospel of Thomas has opened a new perspective on the first voice of the Christian tradition.”
It would be hard to describe how many things are wrong with this paragraph. Most scholars certainly do not think this Gospel was compiled before all the canonical Gospels, and even the Jesus Seminar thought that Thomas only added 2-3 new authentic sayings of Jesus that we do not find in the canonical Gospels, and those sayings do not really change the way we would view Jesus and his teachings. Furthermore, it is not merely ‘orthodox’ biases that lead to the conclusion that Thomas is a second-third century document and probably Gnostic in origin (which is to say, arising after the beginning of the Gnostic movement in the middle of the second century A.D.). The character of the distinctive sayings of this Gospel when compared to documents like the Pistis Sophia from Nag Hammadi suggest this conclusion, a conclusion I might add is also supported by various Jewish scholars, scholars of no Christian or Jewish faith, as well as the majority of Christian scholars.

In the end, Thomas should never have been called a Gospel for it has next to no narrative about the life or death of Jesus, no recounting of miracles, it is just Jesus the talking head, and what this Jesus really wants to accomplish according to the slant of the Gospel of Thomas is be a facilitator so persons of discernment who are worthy can know themselves, look deep within themselves and so save themselves through obtaining esoteric knowledge while engaging in ascetical practices, but not Jewish ritual practices like circumcision which is disavowed in Thomas and contrasted with the more valuable ‘spiritual circumcision’. Soteriology is indeed reduced to anthropology, and salvation becomes a human self-help program in this Gospel, and herein lies two reasons for Thomas’ appeal in America, where we love self-help programs and of course all too often the theme song of America is “I Did It My Way” or even “It’s all about Me”.

What is truly strange is that no one is talking about the fact this Gospel has several sayings which we have quoted above that suggest this document has not even been compiled by a committed monotheist, which is to say it is not compiled by someone who was either a faithful early Jew or Christian. Rather, the distinctive sayings in Thomas, which reveal the most about the author, show us a person who is: 1) trying to fit Jesus into a larger syncretistic religious model; 2) holds up a program of asceticism as a means to prepare for gaining or actually gaining spiritual knowledge, using James as an exemplar; 3) is offering more of a sapiential philosophy of life by which one can save themselves rather than an opportunity for following Jesus.

With these sorts of views, it is no surprise that we have no evidence that this Gospel was ever seriously considered for inclusion in the New Testament. It violates the Jewish and eschatological character of the teachings of Jesus. It violates the adherence to monotheism which was the hallmark of early Judaism and its early Christian offshoot. Finally, its patriarchal character and bias against women rears its ugly head in the climactic saying of the collection, which is probably original.

It certainly worth asking the question— Why the fascination with the Gospel of Thomas and the even later Gnostic documents such as the Gospel or Mary, or Philip, or Judas or the now thoroughly de-authenticated and debunked ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?’ My suggestion is a simple one. We have scholars unhappy with the traditional views of Jesus and of the origins and character of early Christianity who are engaging in creating a new myth of origins, one that better suits their own more anthropocentric approaches to religion. This is only a conjecture, but at least it makes some sense of why some scholars would so strongly embrace literature that is not at the end of the day all that user friendly for some of their own personal agendas (for example radical feminist agendas).

It is a sad and tragic form of grasping at straws, because there are no other perceived viable alternatives other than rejecting the whole of early Christianity and its history lock, stock, and barrel. It is entirely an argument from silence anyway to suggest these later Gnostic variants from early Christianity were actually extant in the first century A.D. There is no hard evidence to support such a claim, unless Thomas provides it, and as we have seen Thomas is most likely a second century document which is reflecting back on the literature of the apostolic era.

At the end of the day, it is simply not true that earliest Christianity was rather like dueling banjos with a more Jewish form of Christianity in one corner, represented by James and perhaps the Judaizers, and a more Hellenistic form of Christianity in the other represented by Paul and his cohorts. Rather, all of the earliest Christians were Jewish Christians, and as Gal. 1-2 makes clear, there was agreement about the message they, including Peter and James and Paul, would be proclaiming about Jesus, even though there were some significant differences on the issue of praxis, and specifically how Gentiles could be integrated into the new community of faith. Even the Gospel of Thomas makes clear how skewed that idea is— Thomas, in a ploy of desperation, tries to use James the Just as a witness on behalf of the mishmash of later pantheistic and Gnostic sayings in Thomas. Had the historical James the Just actually known them, such sayings would have caused him to break out in a rash!

It is striking to me that scholars who try to rewrite the history of early Christianity privileging later documents and trying to marginalize earlier ones often ignore altogether early Christian documents like the Didache, or 1 Clement, or Hermas or even the letters of Ignatius all of which come from the late first or early second century A.D. Why? Precisely because these documents largely continue to pursue the historical and theological trajectories that we actually find within the earlier documents, which is to say the documents we now find in the NT. The Didache echoes Matthew, 1 Clement echoes Paul’s 1 Corinthians, Hermas continues in the tradition of Jewish-Christian apocalyptic like Revelation, Ignatius follows in the footsteps of Paul to Rome, and his letter strike a similar authoritarian tone, and so on.

These non-canonical documents do not offer up wild and outlandish philosophy as an attempt to de-Judaize and de-eschatologize the early Jesus tradition or syncretize it with later pagan and ascetical notions. In short these extra canonical documents do not support the notion that earliest Christianity was as intellectually broad-minded as these revisionist historians would like us to think.

There were actual boundaries of belief and behavior even in the first century A.D., boundaries beyond which Jesus’ followers knew they should not go, and Thomas and the even later Gnostic documents clearly had long since crossed those boundaries in various ways. As it turns out the lost Christianities so often touted today were not so much lost as abandoned for good reasons. They were not suppressed because they offered an alternative, earlier, and more true version of Christian origins. They were tried and found wanting in the 2nd through fourth centuries because they betrayed the essentially Jewish monotheistic, eschatological character of Jesus and his movement. Such wild variations from the apostolic teachings of a Paul and Jesus himself do not appear to have even existed in the first century A.D.

So then should we despair of learning anything new about Jesus or his earliest followers these days? I would say no. The actual original motherlode, found in the NT, still has not been mined for all its worth as the careful work of John Meir has shown in detail. So, what if we turned back to our earliest and best sources on the inner circle of Jesus and took a fresh look at them with an open mind? What if we reconsidered the stories of Mary, the Beloved Disciple, Peter, James, Jude, and Paul in some detail? What light might be shed on the origins of Christianity and indirectly on its founder Jesus? Perhaps at this juncture it appropriate to quote that Founder and say “Come and see.”

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