The Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas is important for understanding the New Testament and early Christianity. This gospel probably comes from an early Christian community that is very different from the communities that produced the New Testament writings. Some scholars believe that it sheds new light on the Historical Jesus. The prevalence of wisdom teaching in Thomas suggests to some scholars that Jesus was primarily a teacher, not an apocalyptic prophet or messiah. Others think that the traditions of Jesus teaching in Thomas are late and thus not historically reliable. For all these reasons Thomas is currently at the center of scholarly controversy.
Author & Date
The Gospel of Thomas was written in the late 1st or early 2nd century A.D. The gospel itself identifies its contents as sayings spoken by Jesus and written down by Didymous Judas Thomas. The names Didymous (Aramaic) and Thomas (Greek) mean “twin.” Judas was Thomas’ given name. The Disciple Thomas was nicknamed “the twin.” In Thomas and other early Syrian Christian literature (e.g. the Acts of Thomas) Thomas is portrayed as Jesus’ twin brother in a number of early Christian writings associated with the Disciple Thomas (eg. The Acts or Thomas & the Book of Thomas).
This idea of twinship is important in Thomas literature (including the gospel): Jesus is claimed to be the heavenly spiritual twin which corresponds to the earthly twin, Thomas. In addition, each person is said to have a spiritual twin in heaven: the goal of salvation is to become united with one's spiritual twin in order to become spiritually whole.
The text says that Thomas wrote down the sayings of this gospel, but it is unclear if the author/editor of the gospel is supposed to be Thomas himself, or someone else who copied the sayings that Thomas wrote down. Because of the late date of gospel, it is unlikely that the Thomas the Disciple wrote the gospel. Scholars use the name Thomas to refer to the author of this gospel for convenience, even though most scholars don’t believe he actually wrote it.
Many scholars believe that gospels were produced by communities. In other words, the theology of each gospel represents the theology of a certain kind of early Christianity: perhaps a group of related churches with the same founder or founders (like the way the Apostle Paul started a network of churches). The Gospel of Thomas was probably writing for a community of Christians in Syria.
Scholars are divided about whether the Gospel of Thomas is based primarily on oral traditions, a written source or sources, or one or more of the New Testament gospels. Some scholars believe that there was an early written sayings source used by Thomas and the hypothetical sayings source Q (see Synoptic problem). Others believe that Thomas and Q are drawing on similar oral traditions. Some scholars believe that the author/editor of the Thomas used the New Testament gospels and oral traditions independent of the New Testament gospels in composing Thomas.
The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings. The purpose of the gospel is for people to achieve salvation through interpreting Jesus' sayings.
In the Thomas, Jesus is a heavenly revealer figure. He reveals that the way to salvation is to achieve mystical, esoteric knowledge (gnosis in Greek). Salvation is understood as the freeing of the soul from the body so it can leave the material world and enter the heavenly, spiritual world. Human souls are from the spiritual world and Jesus comes help people discover how to get back to the spiritual world.
Some scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas is Gnostic (see Gnosticism). Thomas does have a number of similarities to Gnositic writings; including salvation through gnosis and a negative view of the world. However, the view of the world in the Thomas is more positive than in the Gnostic writings. For example, in Gnosticism the creator of the world is a malevolent lower god, but in Thomas, the spirit of Jesus (called "the living Jesus" in Thomas) is the means by which God created the world and the living Jesus is mystically present within and throughout the material world. Thomas' view of the world is similar to the Gospel of John and the pagan gnostic-like writing Poimandres.
For Further Reading
John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Steven J. Patterson, & Michael G. Steinhauser, Q Thomas Reader
- Translations of the Sayings Source Q and Thomas with introductions.
Steven L. Davies, The Gospel of Thomas: Annotated & Explained
- A translation of Thomas with commentary.
Stephen J. Patterson, Hans-Gebhard Bethge, & James M. Robinson, The Fifth Gospel: The Gospel of Thomas Comes of Age
- A translation of Thomas with two introductory essays.
John Dart, Ray Riegert, & John Dominic Crossan, The Gospel of Thomas: Discovering the Lost Words of Jesus
- A translation of Thomas with an introduction and six short chapters about Thomas' discovery.
Richard Valantasis, The Gospel of Thomas (New Testament Readings)
- A commentary on Thomas with a translation and introduction.
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