Is the Gospel of Thomas Reliable?

Copyright 1995 by Michael J. Bumbulis. Please obtain permssion from the author for reprints. This article first appeared as a post to the USENET newsgroup soc.religion.christian and is reprinted here with permission from the author.
The Gospel of Thomas (GoT) is one of the Nag Hammadi documents. It is not really a "Gospel" as Christians commonly understand the term, rather it is a seemingly random collection of 114 sayings which are attributed to Jesus. The author of this document is unknown. Since these sayings are not tied to historical events (via a narrative), we cannot independently check it's external validity. Apart from Jesus, the GoT also attributes some questions/statements to Simon Peter, Matthew, and Thomas, and Mary.

Given that the GoT has no narrative, it is difficult to date when this document was originally compiled. The most frequent dating that I have seen is 100-150 A.D., although some scholars think it dates earlier.

If we are going to consider this document as a source of Jesus' teachings, the first question we need to consider is the reliability of this document. That is, can we really trust the attributions, at least to the extent that we can trust the NT Gospels. At this point, a HUGE problem surfaces, namely, the paucity of manuscripts. We do possess fragments of the GoT which are written in Greek and probably date around 200 A.D. The Nag Hammadi document is the only complete document and is written in Coptic. It dates somewhere around 350 A.D. Since this all that we possess, we really step out on the limb to insist that a teaching in the Nag Hammadi document accurately conveys Jesus' teachings.

Another problem with the GoT is that it seems to have undergone significant gnostic redaction. Helmut Koester, in the introduction to the GoT found in James Robinson's edition of the Nag Hammadi Library states:

"Neither the Coptic translation nor the Greek fragments seem to have preserved this gospel in its oldest form. Even the comparison of the extant Coptic and Greek texts demonstrates that the text was subject to change in the process of transmission."

Koester continues:

"In the further history and growth of the Gospel of Thomas, this wisdom interpretation of the sayings of Jesus is more clearly developed under the influence of gnostic theology."
A clear example of such redaction is provided by NT scholar,James Dunn, who makes the following comparative analysis of GoT 2:

Matthew 7:7-8 and 11:28:

"Seek and you will find....he who seeks finds....Come to me.....and I will give you rest."

GoT 2 (found in the 3rd century Greek fragment:

"Let him who seeks not cease (seeking until) he finds; and when he finds (he will) be astounded, and having been (astoun)ded, he will reign; an(d reigning), he will (re)st."

GoT 2 (found in the 4th century Coptic document:

"He who seeks should not stop seeking until he finds; and when he finds, he will be bewildered (beside himself); and when he is bewildered, he will marvel, and will reign over the All."

The "All" is a regular gnostic concept, and it is clear that the teachings of Christ found in the NT were given a gnostic twist over the following centuries. Even the degree of development correlates nicely with the dating.

In addition to the gnostic interpolations, there is evidence of historical anachronism and faulty attributions.

GoT 53:

"His disciples said to him, "Is circumcision beneficial or not?" He said to them, "If it were beneficial, their father would beget them already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become completely profitable."

This is quite unlikely to be a teaching of Jesus. Nowhere in the NT Gospels does Jesus address the issue of circumcision. But Paul does. And this is significant, because the issue of circumcision was a point of contention between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. Had Jesus taught this, you would have expected Paul to appeal to this authoritative teaching. Or, at the least, you would not have expected this to have been an issue for the Jerusalem Church. It certainly appears that the author of the GoT mistook Paul's teaching ("circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit" [Ro 2:29]) as that of Jesus'. And if this is the case, we must ask how many other teachings are falsely attributed to Jesus.

In 1 Cor 2:9, Paul paraphrases Isaiah:

"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him."

Now consider Thomas 17:

"Jesus said, 'I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred to the human mind.'"

Once again, the author seems to falsely attributes the teachings of Paul to Jesus. What other teachings are falsely attributed to Jesus?

All in all, given the fact that the GoT was a changing document under the influence of gnosticism, and that it is difficult to test given the paucity/late dating of extant manuscripts, it would seem wise to be skeptical of this document.

From another perspective, I have found that many liberal Christians and New Agers seem all too willing to accept the GoT. What's interesting is that this document is loaded with teachings that sometimes seems to cause such folks problems:

GoT 44: Jesus said, "Whoever blasphemes against the father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blaphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven". [It appears as if the Trinity is hinted at here]

GoT 16: Jesus said, "Men think, perhaps, that it is peace which I have come to cast upon the world. They do not know that it is dissension which I have come to cast upon the earth: fire, sword, and war."

GoT 55: Jesus said, "Whoever does not hate his father and his mother cannot be a disciple to me. And whoever does not hate his brothers and sisters and take up his cross in my way will not be worthy of me."

And then there is......

GoT 114: Simon Peter said to them, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."

[This teaching doesn't really fit what we know of Peter. For Paul tells us that Peter's wife was also a believer [1 Cor 9:5], thus it is hard to accept that Peter thought women were not "worthy of life."]

Yet in spite of all these considerations, it must indeed be pointed out that over half of the sayings in the GoT resemble the teachings of Jesus in the NT (I cited a couple above). And in many cases, they are simpler in form. This fact is what causes many scholars think that these teachings may be closer to the legitimate ones. But this observation turns on the ASSUMPTION that simpler accounts date earlier and this is far from universally true. Certainly, Jesus did not teach in soundbites, and people also have a tendency to compress teachings when they orally transmit them. Consider Mark's account of the Last Supper in comparison with Paul's. Mark's is obviously simpler in form, yet Paul's was written much earlier. And then there are cases where the GoT account has more elaboration. Compare John 8:12 with GoT 77:

John 8:12 - "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

GoT 77 - "It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all. From me did all come forth, and unto me did the all extend. Split the piece of wood, and I am there. Lift the stone, and you will find me there."

Not only is this a case of elaboration, but it seems to have been guided by gnostic theology.

But what of the vast number of similar teachings? I would suggest that Christians read the GoT. If one is aware of the tendency for gnostic interpolation, they can strain these out (it would seem prudent to do so in light of the GoT's inferior reliability - if we don't take this approach, the admirer's of the GoT would have to admit GoT 114 as legitimate). What is left is nothing that radically changes anything that is taught in the NT. Certainly, none of the key points of the early Christian kerygma are in any way damaged. Put simply, the GoT may indeed contain some of the original teachings of Jesus, and if it does, it serves to strengthen, not weaken, the traditional Christian position, as we would have yet another corroborative piece of evidence behind the historicity of traditions/teachings established by our Lord in the canonical Gospels.

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The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26