Doubting the Gospel of Thomas

Based upon the comments from a previous post about the Gnostic gospels, and Judas in particular, I’d like to consider the validity of the Gospel of Thomas.

One thing that I find fascinating about the product of Jesusanity studies is how quick people are to discount scores and years of evidence in support of traditional Christian views in order to accept new theories based on flaky and minute evidence. This is something that is addressed in Gary Habermas’ debate with Kenneth Humphreys on the resurrection, as in other debates.

I have found the same in conversing with friends. One such friend of mine actually teaches Sunday School at his Catholic parish, yet doesn’t believe the Bible at all. In fact, he denies the traditional Christian view of Jesus. When we talked about this, I could sense an influence of Ehrman, Crosson, Borg, and other Jesusanity scholars. Now, it’s not that their information is to be completely discounted either. But the sad fact is that even those within the realm of Christendom seem more energetic to believe one side of the story and take for granted that what the Church has told them for centuries is simply fable. To be fair, we must examine both sides.The side of Jesusanity uses the Gospel of Thomas as a key in understanding an alternative view of Christianity. Is it a credible source on which a new theory could be based? I doubt it.

Again, we consult Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popluar Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ, co authored by best-selling author Darrell Bock and Greek scholar Daniel Wallace, both of Dallas Theological Seminary.

Type of Record

Thomas is a “sayings” gospel. It is almost exclusively a string of 114 sayings that Jesus purportedly uttered. It contains no narrative, which contributes to its lack of evidence for determing a proper date. Bock and Wallace quote Marvin Meyer:

Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas performs no physical miracles, reveals no fulfillment of prophecy, announces no apocalyptic kingdom about to disrupt the world order, and dies for no one’s sins. Instead, Thomas’s Jesus dispenses insight from the bubbling spring of wisdom (saying 13), discounts the value of prophecy and its fulfillment (saying 52), critiques end-of-the world, apocalyptic announcements (sayings 51, 113), and offers a way of salvation through an encounter with the sayings of “the living Jesus.”

Thomas is also Gnostic in flavor. It begins with the following:

These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded. And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.”

Bock and Wallace raise three points about this:

First, this gospel is one of secret sayings. Second, salvation is achieved by knowledge – by understanding the meaning of the sayings rather than by faith. Third, Thomas, the twin, may well be considered Jesus’ twin in this work. (This last point is often made by scholars because the Gospel of Thomas may have come from Syria, and in more than one ancient Syriac document, Thomas is called Jesus’ twin.)

Unlike Judas, Thomas does not contradict the traditional Creation account. Yet, it does conflict with a Judeo-Christian worldview. In particular, the Jesus of Thomas seems to reject the Old Testament prophets and those who would prophesy, according to sayings 18 and 51. It also promotes panentheism, as seen in saying 77. Saying 108 gives the idea that Jesus and the discoverer of his sayings become the same person. Perhaps the most well-known statement in Thomas is Jesus’ remark that a female (Mary) should become a male to enter Heaven, in saying 114.  As with other Gnostic literature, its contrast with the Old Testament is enough grounds for dismissing the entire record as a representation of a credible Christian alternative in the first century.

The Gospel of Thomas is a Gnostic gospel which provides a picture of Jesus distinct from the canonical gospels and emphasizes secret knowledge and the interpretation thereof the means of eternal life.

Author

Despite its name, “no scholar believes this gospel was actually written by Thomas, the disciple of Jesus.” Parallels with the canonical gospels do exist. In fact, some scholars liken it to Q, the hypothetical source from which the canonical gospel writers formulated their writings. The fact that Thomas offers a pool of supposed sayings of Jesus is what makes this theory seem credible. However, the more likely scenario is that the writer of Thomas was aware of the canonical gospels.

In one instance (saying 17), Thomas is parallel with I Corinthians 2:9, which is a quote from Isaiah 64:4. Paul introduces the quote with, “it is written” – the normative way of introducing Old Testament scripture into the New Testament. Yet, Thomas attributes the quote to Jesus. Obviously, Paul was right, and this leaves Thomas in error. Of course, Jesus could have quoted it as well, but the evidence points to Thomas borrowing from the New Testament, not the other way around.

Date

The date of the Gospel of Thomas helps put everything into perspective. If it is as early as some claim it is, then the record provides some of the most solid evidence that early Christianity wasn’t a unified movement, and over time the majority view simply won. However, if the date is late, Thomas seems like just another Gnostic gospel – a representation of other sects outside Christianity who may have borrowed some elements from Christianity.

There is little agreement as to the date of Thomas. The range of proposed dates starts with the middle of the first century and ends with the last two decades of the second century. The scholar with the earliest date given by Bock and Wallace is later said to not claim it for the whole document. The latest date is proposed by Nicholas Perrin, who made the case that Thomas borrowed from a Syrian work dated in the 170s. According to Bock and Wallace, the predominant view is that Thomas was written in the first half of the second century, between 120 and 140 AD.

The above information (type, author) reveals that the evidence for a later Thomas is probably true, and that this Gnostic gospel post-dates the canonical gospel, has an origin that cannot be deciphered conclusively, and that this record cannot be a credible source of information about early Christianity. In other words, despite its intriguing qualities, the Gospel of Thomas remains unsure. Yet, this unsure document has been the basis of more theories opposing traditional Christianity than the same scholars giving credit to the more reliable canonical gospels:

A curious turn of events has taken place in biblical scholarship. For many scholars, John’s gospel is regarded as having no reliable information about Jesus at all. Yet the date of John is certainly no later than the end of the first century. On the other hand, many scholars who consider Thomas to be a second-century document believe it contains some authentic sayings of Jesus. The question we need to ask is this: why should we give preferential treatment to Thomas if it most likely is later than John? When the Jesus Seminar considers far more sayings in Thomas to be authentic that those in John, this looks like a case of special pleading. The most charitable thing we can say about this assessment is that it is inconsistent.

Inconsistent indeed. And unfortunately it is not just scholars doing this. As I noted in the beginning of this post, common people are more willing to stop reading the tried and true Holy Bible to read the latest Dan Brown novel. They are taught in Sunday School all about the Bible, but when they read an article in a secular magazine questioning the validity of the biblical canon, they immediately become skeptical of Christianity and consider the magazine article more of an authority. Why is this?

It’s certainly not because the scholarship in Jesusanity is better than that of Christianity. A theological reason would be that people are simply blinded to the truth. My Catholic friend is apparently unregenerate, and as such I don’t expect him to militantly defend the faith once for all delivered. Yet, it saddens me that he wouldn’t even consider looking into Christian responses to these attacks.

Now is the time for Bible believing churches to be engaged in apologetics. I don’t propose apologetics as an end-all solution. In fact, it should take a back seat to preaching, evangelizing, worship, prayer, and fellowship. However, it is an integral part of discipleship. One thing I’ve realized is that ultimately apologetics is not for winning debates with skeptics. One shouldn’t teach an apologetics class on the Bible hoping that Bart Ehrman will walk in and be converted. He will be converted by the preaching of the gospel. Apologetics is for our benefit. It strengthens our confidence. When we are confronted with the challenges posed by Jesusanity and other opponents of true Christianity, we can rest assured in God’s Word through the ministry of apologetics. So, be confident that documents like The Gospel of Thomas do not pose such a threat as some want us to think. But don’t use this confidence to win arguments. Use it to read the Bible more confidently so that its truths can be lived on a daily basis.

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7 comments so far

  1. TJ on

    “Apologetics is for our benefit. It strengthens our confidence.”
    So true!
    In this postmodern world, Christians are constantly bombarded with ‘new’ thoughts and theories which pose as credible ideas, when in fact they are simply tools of the Devil used to draw people away from the true and powerful message of the Gospel.
    Hearing confirmation like that which you have presented above confirms and stengthens our reliance on God’s Word and the confident rest we have in it.
    Also, that confidence, flowing from God’s Word into our hearts and minds, overflows into our conversation with others.
    Staying bound to the Bible actually frees us from the attacks of the father of lies. It is only when we depart from God’s Word that we get tangeld up in these deceptions. It is no wonder that Paul reminds us to not be “carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” (Ephesians 4:14)

  2. mithrasb on

    remember that the devil only came out in job and that means adversary, Christianity came more from Zoroastrianism in the form of light and dark, the duel perspective, the gospel of Thomas has a lot of credence not only because of how some ideas from Thomas are also in the new testament gospels, but what scholars call the Q meaning source, were all information came from in simple terms. mithrasb P.S also there are two genesis story’s in the bible. and the Torah, or the first five books of Moses has four authors the J the P the Y and E mithrasb thank you

  3. DT on

    thank you, mithrasb for responsing to these posts, as you’re obviously very interested in this topic.

    I am just curious as to how much of this post you have truly considered. It seems that what you’ve done is made a choice: a choice to discredit the evidence (what I’ve argued) that favors the traditional view of Christianity, and to therefore embrace the evidence (as Jesusanity argues) that favors this view of diverse Christian origins. It’s fine to make a choice such as that, but the question lies in why. How do you come to that conclusion? My aim in posting these entires on Thomas and Judas was to provide you with my why. But I’ve yet to hear yours, other than the fact that you simply believe what you’ve read. Again, it’s about evidence. And the evidence that I’ve provided is against everything you said about Thomas. Now it’s up to you to refute that.

    the devil’s introduction to us goes back to Genesis 3, not Job. Christianity is not from Zoroastrianism simply because it recognizes good and evil. There are not two different creation accounts in Genesis (which you can find virtually anywhere, but perhaps we’ll post on it in the near future), and the JEDP authorship is just a theory. Again, you are entitled to believe those things, but you have to provide evidence and be willing to look at the other side.

  4. mithrasb on

    thank you for your reply let me organize myself and then we can get into some great discussion, right now at 50 years old I am going to school on line in psychology, so thats why sometimes I am late or unprepared and I am sorry for that, but I recommend the book called the 5 gospels by Funk and Hoover and the Jesus seminar its a great read. and Elaine Pagals has a review on this , some agree and some do not ,so its all theory, but you must get the scholars version. And me not knowing to much about the computer, ( basics) what take a 10 year old kid 10 minutes to do research, takes me 2 hours, so I’m like a turtle but bear with me. and its the J E P and Y authors of the 5 books of moses, plus ypu are right just as much as myself and remember I took religious studies in 1996 so many things have change or really 64 credits worth, and back in the day most things and society was Hellenize or Hellenistic. Bobby

  5. mithrasb on

    when the author states priestly which the wording, you can see the different speech pattern, linguistics in that form, and also with the other authors, as with paul you see the same writing that through linguistic you will see the difference my friend. Paul has through different linguistic, you can verify who wrote what. Paul wrote this and he did not write this. Bobby or mithrasb thank you dt

  6. YouthfulMInd on

    “In one instance (saying 17), Thomas is parallel with I Corinthians 2:9, which is a quote from Isaiah 64:4. Paul introduces the quote with, “it is written” – the normative way of introducing Old Testament scripture into the New Testament. Yet, Thomas attributes the quote to Jesus. Obviously, Paul was right, and this leaves Thomas in error. Of course, Jesus could have quoted it as well, but the evidence points to Thomas borrowing from the New Testament, not the other way around.”

    i hope this is still an active page,
    Let me start with, my name is clairissa o’daniel i am a twenty year old who is going through some life and religious transitions. a friend of mine gave me the book of thomas a a religious reference, and then my aunt (who is a catholic) discounted it and i decided to go find my own knowledge, which is where i found this.
    I quoted the above section because i have a questiopn, couldnt thomas have just heard jesus preach the same thing and recounted it differently? I mean these are just random quoutes that thomas took from jesus, right? quotes with signifigant purpose? please if you get this email me at Clairissa.odaniel@gmail.com, i am very interested in coming terms spiritually with myself and then maybe one day being able to spread this knowledge

  7. amosperatusfides on

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