Probably Not – But Here’s What the Experts Say
The Gospel of Thomas is one of many books that early church leaders rejected when they compiled the New Testament. Even so, some modern-day biblical experts are taking a new look at the Gospel of Thomas and asking whether it should be in the Bible.
Why debate the issue now?
What is the Gospel of Thomas?
Fragments of the book were discovered around 1900, and a full copy was found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. The latter discovery, which was made by an Egyptian peasant, gave scholars an opportunity to study the text and debate its place in Christian literature.
To understand the debate, you need to know that the Gospel of Thomas is grounded in Gnosticism, a complicated religious movement that existed within the early church.
Its adherents claimed to possess secret knowledge – a common claim in Gnostic writings — and its opponents labeled it heresy. And therein lies the problem, but before we delve into the problems associated with the book, let me introduce you to it.
How the Gospel of Thomas Differs from the Synoptic Gospels
Unlike the four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — the Gospel of Thomas isn’t a narrative about the life of Jesus. Rather, it consists of 114 sayings that Christ supposedly dictated to the Apostle Thomas.
The Biblical Archaeology website notes that some of the statements are rather bizarre. For example: Jesus says, Blessed is the lion that a person will eat and the lion will become human. What does that mean?
Another one says, “Every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven. What? Then we have this quote attributed to Christ: Perhaps people think that I have come to cast peace upon the earth, but they do not know that I have come to cast dissension upon the earth: fire, sword, war.
“This hardly sounds like the Jesus familiar to us from the New Testament,” writes Simon Gathercole in the Biblical Archaeology Review. Dr. Gathercole is a senior lecturer in New Testament at the University of Cambridge.
A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery
Gathercole explains that the Gospel of Thomas is “one of the earliest remakings of Jesus after the four canonical gospels. This gospel must have seemed to some ancient readers as it does to scholars today, as ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,’ as Winston Churchill once said of Russia….
“The strange world of the Gospel of Thomas is of interest not so much because one can find authentic traditions from it or about Jesus in it – it doesn’t have any real claim to historical veracity – but because it provides a fascinating window in the Christian community around the middle of the second century C.E. when it was written.”
Gathercole notes that a number of Christian fathers made disparaging comments about the Gospel of Thomas as far back as the third century, when an early Christian scholar named Origen included it in a list of false gospels and Eusebius of Caesarea, a Greek historian on Christianity, rejected it as heretical fiction. Gathercole’s book, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas, provides more details.
The Catholic Church calls the Gospel of Thomas “spurious,” and the website christianity.com flatly states, “…the Gospel of Thomas doesn’t belong in the canon of Scripture” because it failed a series of tests used to determine whether or not texts should be included in the Bible. Christianity.com provides Christian content and tools to help people understand the faith.
A Different View
But not everyone agrees with those who attack the Gospel of Thomas. “There’s a common refrain among liberal scholars that says the church suppressed dozens of Gospels. The reason they say? It’s because those books share scandalous information about Jesus that the church wanted to hide,” according to crossexamined.org, an interdenominational, evangelical Christian online ministry.
Some liberal scholars claim that early books, such as the Gospel of Thomas, are reliable, “while the canonical gospels contain myths and legends,” the organization says. The canonical gospels are those included in the Bible, namely, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Finding Spiritual Wisdom
In his Patheos post, It’s Time to Give the Gospel of Thomas Its Due, the Rev. Chuck Queen says “the spiritual wisdom to be found in the Gospel of Thomas just may be the kind of spiritual wisdom contemporary Christians most need.”
Queen, a Baptist minister and author of several books on progressive Christian themes, describes the Gospel of Thomas as “a compilation of wisdom sayings attributed to Jesus that flourished in Syria by at least the last part of the first century. It may have even been written as early as the Synoptic Gospels.”
He notes that the Gospel of Thomas does not mention Christ’s miracles or healings, death or resurrection. “Salvation is found in the struggle to understand and appropriate the wisdom Jesus taught and embodied.
“I find it particularly significant that in Thomas there is no announcement of an apocalyptic kingdom that will disrupt the present world order. In Thomas the kingdom of God is here and now,” Queen says. It’s everywhere, but people don’t see it.
The question that a person should ask, according to Queen, is: “Why can’t I see it?” or even better, “What will it take for my eyes to be opened….”
“When we come to know the God who lives inside us, then we are able to see and sense the divine presence and reality everywhere – in the sky and sea, among fish and fowl, in rain forests and on busy city streets.”
Queen concludes, “I think it’s time to put the Gospel of Thomas right alongside the canonical Gospels. It contains valuable insights and practical wisdom for modern seekers. Its time has come.”
My Take on the Gospel of Thomas
The supposition that the Apostle Thomas didn’t write this book isn’t the problem for me. Quite a few books in the Bible are attributed to people who didn’t write them.
No, my problems with the text are its depiction of Christ and the words the writer puts in Christ’s mouth. New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole calls it a remaking of Christ.
And while I’m not Catholic, the Catholic Church makes a good point in rejecting the book. “The peculiar sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas are, for the most part, light-years away from the kind of thing a Jewish rabbi would have said in the Palestine of A.D. 30,” the church says. “Contrast this with the very Jewish flavor of Jesus’ words found in the canonical Gospels.”
But don’t take their word for it or mine. Check out the Gospel of Thomas for yourself by clicking here.