Gospel of Thomas

I am fascinated with the Gospel of Thomas, not only as an ancient document, but also as a document interpreted by modern minds. I have spent the majority of my academic career studying this engimatic text and trying to come to terms with it. I have written extensively on this Gospel.

What are some of my main conclusions about the Gospel of Thomas?

  • It is a rolling corpus, a written gospel that developed over time within a rhetorical environment dominated by oral consciousness. This is a "living book" model, envisioning the literacy of the gospel in continuity with the oral world. The derivation of the gospel develops out of a dynamic oral-literate interplay. This is be distinguished from our previous models which understood orality to be the "background" for the written gospel or understood literacy to be everything, a post-Gutenberg cut-and-paste mentality.
  • It began as a smaller gospel of Jesus' sayings, organized as a speech handbook to aid the memory of preachers.
  • I call the earliest version of the Gospel of Thomas, the Kernel Thomas.
  • The Kernel Thomas originated from the mission of the Jerusalem Church between the years 30-50 CE.
  • It was taken to Edessa where it was used by the Syrian Christians as a storage site for words of Jesus.
  • Its main use in the Syrian Church was instructional.
  • The Kernel sayings were subjected to oral reperformances, which was the main way that the text was enhanced with additional sayings and interpretations. This does not mean that literary sources did not effect its growth, but that the process was not one of an author sitting down with a pen in hand and editing a couple of written sources together.
  • Later sayings accrued in the Kernel gradually as the gospel moved in and out of oral and written formats.
  • The Gospel of Thomas can be read as a document that reflects shifts in the consistuency of its caretakers (from Jew to Gentile) and its theology (from apocalyptic to mystical).
  • The Gospel came into its present form around the year 120 CE.
  • In its final form it is both encratic and mystical, the result of the interiorization of the apocalypse in face of its failure to materialize according to the earlier expectations of the Syrian Christians.
  • The encratism and mysticism in this text developed in tandem with Alexandrian Christianity, probably the result of exchange of ideas and texts that took place along the trade routes and roads from Edessa to Alexandria.
  • The adaptation of this Gospel from 50 to 120 CE did not occur as a conscious program to alter the sayings of Jesus, but was the result of shifts in communal memory as past recollections of the group were updated and renewed in and for the group's present.

My Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the Gospel of Thomas

Where did the Gospel of Thomas come from?
We have known about the existence of an early Christian gospel named the Gospel of Thomas since the early third century because it is mentioned by Hippolytus, who even quotes an elaborate recension of saying 4. In the late 1800s, Professors Grenfell and Hunt dug up a hoard of papyri in Oxyrhyncus, Egypt. Three of these Greek papyri fragments are pages of the Gospel of Thomas, although their identification as such was not made certain until the 1950s when a full Coptic version was noticed among another papyri find from 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. This latter find was a cache of leather bound books - we have twelve of the books and part of the thirteenth - and these are housed today in Old Cairo at the beautiful Coptic Museum. The three Oxyrhynchus fragments are housed today at Harvard, Oxford, and British Library.

How does the Gospel of Thomas compare to the New Testament gospels?
The Gospel of Thomas is quite different from the New Testament gospels in that it is a gospel of sayings of Jesus. Most sayings are introduced with the simple attribution "Jesus said," one listed after the other. Narrative is practically absent from the Gospel of Thomas, at least in terms of the type of narrative details and elaborate settings for the sayings that we find in the New Testament gospels. In this way, the Gospel of Thomas is closer in genre to the reconstructed Q, the synoptic sayings source that has been postulated as a major literary source for Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of Thomas is not Q, but it does represent the type of gospel that Q might have been.

There are a number of sayings of Jesus that we find in the synoptic gospels that have parallels (although in different recensions) in the Gospel of Thomas. There are several sayings in Thomas that have parallels in John, but on the level of thematic allusions rather than direct recensions. And there are a number of sayings in the Gospel of Thomas that are unique, unparalleled in the New Testament gospels.

What is Thomas' relationship to the New Testament Gospels?
Since the discovery and translation of the Gospel of Thomas in the 1950s, scholars have mainly been in two camps on this. Either they argue that Thomas is a gospel that was based on the New Testament gospels and "perverted" the sayings to meet some heretical theological agenda, or they argue that Thomas is a gospel that was independent from the New Testament gospels and preserved sayings of Jesus from an early Jewish Christian literary source or from early oral tradition. There are good (and bad) arguments for both cases, and essentially the field is at a stalemate on the question.

My own work is trying to get us past this, to think about it in different terms. If the Gospel of Thomas is a text that was very old and grew over time, then we probably have a complicated relationship to the New Testament gospels. On the one hand we would expect some of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas to represent early independent traditions, before the Synoptics were even written. But as the Gospel of Thomas was adapted over time, its sayings naturally would be adjusted to the knowledge of other texts and to the memory of other texts. Add to this the fact that scribes when copying and translating texts into new languages felt quite free to alter the wording to fit more precisely their knowledge and memory of other texts, and we have a very complex situation of secondary orality and scribal adaptation. By the way, we find all of these operational in the Gospel of Thomas I think.

So what this means is that arguments for dependence aren't going to cut it anymore. We have before us the difficult task of figuring out what type of dependence we are talking about, alongside the acknowledgment that dependence in our late document does not necessarily mean dependence of the original Gospel of Thomas on the Synoptics.

Is the Gospel of Thomas Gnostic?
The quick answer to this is "no." The esotericism in this gospel has been misunderstood and mislabeled from the very beginning of its interpretative history. The reason for this has to do with the fact that until the Nag Hammadi texts were found, we didn't know what Gnostic really was. Scholars tended to apply it very loosely to any text or tradition that they believed to be dualistic and anti-world or body, which expressed the opinion that within the human being was "light" redeemable through gnosis or knowledge. After studying the Nag Hammadi texts for fifty years, we now realize that this is a nonsense definition because it is so broad as to be useless. Gnostic mythology has a couple of distinctive features: the belief that this world was created by a lesser (ignorant or arrogant) being known as the Demiurge; and the belief that this world is the result of the fall of an Aeon from the Godhead, usually Sophia. Neither of these are found in the Gospel of Thomas.

Instead the esotericism in the Gospel of Thomas is a form of early Christian mysticism. It was a contemplative type of Christianity that grew in Syria as well as Alexandria. The idea was that each person had the choice to grow into God's Image or to remain stunted due to Adam's decision. If the person chose to grow, then the divinization process was gradual and included not only ritual activities like baptism and eucharist, but also instructional and contemplative activities. Part of the process then was living as Jesus lived - it was imitative. The other part was contemplating who and where Jesus was. This contemplative life led to heavenly (or interiorized) journeys and visions of God. Eventually the faithful would become like Jesus, replacing their fallen image with the image of God. This contemplative Christianity is not heretical, but an early form of eastern orthodoxy!

Why wasn't the Gospel of Thomas included in the New Testament?
The process of the canonization of the New Testament was long and involved. It took almost four hundred years. The date we traditionally give to its closure is 367 CE, when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria records the books in the NT as being those we have in it today. There are many reasons for Thomas' exclusion, not the least among them political - it was a text that in the third century was used by the Naassene Gnostics (who rewrote it for their own purposes) and the Manichaean Gnostics (who used it liberally in their liturgies). Once a text began to be used by a heretical group, it became suspicious, especially if this happened in the third or fourth centuries. Texts included had to have:


  • apostolic connections - something Thomas had
  • be used in liturgy across the Mediterranean world - which Thomas wasn't, since it was a distinctive Syrian text with some distribution in Egypt
  • predate 150 CE - which Thomas did
  • support the theology of the framers of the canon - which Thomas didn't, since it was anti-marriage and pro-mysticism or "revelatory"

Given its use by at least two heretical groups in the third century, its emphasis on seeking new revelation, its stance against marriage and procreation, and its limited distribution and use in liturgy, it didn't have a chance to become part of the New Testament.

What does the Gospel of Thomas tell us about Jesus?
This gospel understands Jesus to be a charismatic figure. By this I mean, Jesus continues to live in their community even after he has died. His spirit continues to speak to this community of faithful, and they continue to record his teachings. They do not appear to have made any distinction between the "historical" Jesus before death and the "spirit" Jesus after death, at least in terms of authority or historicity of his words. The Jesus that emerges in the Gospel of Thomas is not entirely foreign to the New Testament portrayals, particularly as we see him emerge in the Gospel of John - but also, as we see him in Mark, teaching publicly to the crowds and privately his mysteries to a few close followers. His message is either similar to the New Testament Jesus, or contiguous with him. He teaches against carnality and succumbing to bodily desire. He's an advocate for celibacy. He preaches that the Kingdom of God is here, that people must make a choice whether to enter it or not, that this choice requires an exclusive commitment to him and God, that the going is tough and few will be able to make it. He demands a lifestyle of righteous living, promises rewards including personal transformation and revelation.

My favorite posts on the Gospel of Thomas


About Patterson's review

I have been asked by some of my blog readers to respond to Stephen Patterson's recent RBL review of my book, The Original Gospel of Thomas In Translation. It is a review, and normally authors don't respond to them. It represents one scholar's opinion of another's work. There is not much more to say than that. Some scholars have highly praised my works. Others do not. Patterson is among the latter.

Why the difference in scholarly assessment? When reading reviews of books, I always try to keep in mind that every scholar comes from a particular position, and that position likely has impacted how he or she reviews a book. In the case of Professor Patterson, he is a strong supporter and member of the Jesus Seminar and its new project on Christian Origins. Central to that project is the position that the earliest Christians were non-eschatological wisdom folk, as was Jesus. They use their earliest literary stratification of Quelle, and the Gospel of Thomas to demonstrate this thesis.

Where do I differ from Patterson? I argue that the Gospel of Thomas does not all come from the same period. And if we make a full literary-critical analysis of the gospel that we will see that the oldest materials in the Gospel of Thomas are eschatological, and these have been softened over time to focus on more mystical traditions as the gospel grows and develops within a church setting.

Patterson wrongly calls my method "form-critical". It is not. A form-critical approach, as we all know, is an approach whereby variant readings of a saying are compared and through this comparison a primary oral originating version is projected. I never do such a thing in my book. I am not comparing versions of sayings to come up with an oral originating version of the sayings or of the Gospel of Thomas. In fact, I think that the form critical project is defunct. I have included an entire three chapters on my method in Recovering, which I call a new tradition-historical method, and include within it a strong critique of form criticism in light of studies in orality and rhetoric.

What do I do? I begin with an observation that the form critics make and with which I do agree. The form critics have successfully demonstrated that the sayings tradition has been reworked with communal interests in mind. In other words, it has been secondarily developed. One of the places where we can see this development most prominently is in the passages where sayings have been worked into dialogues between Jesus and the disciples, especially when those dialogues are about issues that were concerns for the church, but likely not concerns for Jesus' followers during his lifetime. This is my starting point to identify material in the Gospel of Thomas that has been secondarily developed by the church.

There are a number of such dialogues we can identify in the Gospel of Thomas. And the issues raised in them are post-resurrection concerns. The disciples are asking Jesus when they are going to see him again, when the new world is going to come, what diet they should follow, whether or not they should be circumcised, and so forth. All of these issues are easily traced to issues that were facing the church in its formative years.

My method proceeds by analyzing these dialogues, their themes and their vocabulary. From there I continue a structured literary analysis of the rest of the sayings, identifying those which contain similar themes and vocabulary.

After making this analysis, I examine what sayings are left, and what I discovered is that the sayings left have an imminent eschatological outlook and a christological outlook that is remarkably similar to the first Christianity that was associated with Jerusalem and the tradition of James. I also noticed that the sayings I could identify as secondary were of another variety altogether, focused on encratic and mystical traditions that were readjusting, tempering, taming, whatever you want to call it, the earlier eschatological perspective.

The long and short of it is that Professor Patterson and I are never going to see eye to eye on the Gospel of Thomas. So Patterson's review should come as no surprise to any of my readers. It certainly does not come as a surprise to me. My thesis does not fit the Jesus Seminar model, and in fact, if taken seriously by the Jesus Seminar, would uproot it. I am never going to support the program of the Jesus Seminar which has a particular version of Jesus and the early church which it wishes to promote even when the evidence points in another direction as is the case with the Gospel of Thomas, and also in my opinion Q.

The questions that one should ask of Patterson is why a literary-critical analysis (and even form-critical if one wanted to) is possible and successful for the synoptics and Quelle, but not for Thomas? Why is it possible to make a full literary-critical analysis of a text we don't even possess, and yet not so with the Gospel of Thomas? Thomas is exactly the kind of text that Bultmann would have loved. It is as close to an "oral" text as we are going to get. We have the brains and the tools to do this as I have demonstrated in my book, and yet it is resisted. Why? Is it because we will see that the early tradition was eschatological? That Bultmann was right after all?!

I continue to object to being read as someone who wants to "stratify" the Gospel of Thomas. This is Patterson's model and language not mine. I am not identifying layers, something I repeatedly state in my work. I see the text as a rolling text, as shifting in its contents gradually as it was performed and copied. I hope if I repeat myself enough perhaps I will soon be quoted properly on this subject and that the secondary literature that will be written in the future will speak about my position accurately.

I also want my readers to know that my two volume work was originally a single volume and the publisher broke them up because of the length. So they really are companion volumes written together. This means that the second volume, the commentary, was written as an appendix to support my arguments in the first volume. It is like an extensive footnote system for my own analysis of the Gospel of Thomas (see p. xi Recovering; p. ix Original). The commentary was never intended to be a full commentary representing all material that was ever written on each and every saying. I write in the introduction that I am not including in my commentary references to the Gnostic hermeneutic but instead have focused on an alternative hermeneutic which sees the Gospel as an example of Syrian religiosity, which is the argument I am making in Recovering.

The origins of the Gospel of John (and Thomas)

Another attempt to unravel the relationship between the gospels of John and Thomas is at hand. Christopher Skinner has been interviewed by Andrew Bernhard and Michael Grondin about his new book John and Thomas - Gospels in Conflict? which can be read HERE. According to this interview, Skinner uses a narratalogical approach favored by Culpepper. He concludes that because other disciples are characterized negatively in the fourth gospel, the author of John is doing this as a narratological choice, and, therefore, his negative portrayal of Thomas does not suggest polemics against Thomasine Christianity.

My response to this interview:
1. Just because the author of the gospel of John has negative things to say about disciples other than Thomas does not lead to the conclusion that there is (or can be) no polemic against Thomasine traditions in this text.

2. The fact that Riley, Pagels and myself point out differing topics for those polemics (resurrection; genesis exegesis; soteriology) does not suggest that the conflict we see is "speculative" in some negative unsubstantiated way as Skinner implies. All of scholarship is speculative. This is not a bad thing as long as it is based on the evidence and reasoned well. The development of models have to be based on reasoned speculation from our sources. Because three academic studies don't emerge with a consensus opinion on the nature of the Johannine polemic, does not support the conclusion that there is no polemic. The three positions need not be mutually exclusive. These three positions may in fact be pointing to three pieces of the puzzle, and strengthen the argument for a polemical relationship between the Johannine and Thomasine traditions rather than weaken it. In fact, I wrote in my introductory chapter, "I would like to note that this monograph is only investigating one stratum layer among many that influenced the composition of the Gospel of John and its precursors. This investigation offers one more piece of the complicated puzzle of Johannine origins and should be read in addition to previous theories about John's origins rather than as a replacement for them" (p. 33).

3. I am concerned by Skinner's suggestion that because Riley, Pagels and myself do not come to the same conclusions regarding the topic of the polemic, that we are making the details fit our own theories. This type of criticism has nothing to do with scholarly argumentation. It is an attempt to dismiss the evidence without dealing with it. In fact, my hypothesis developed out of my careful exegetical reading of these texts, as did Riley's and Pagel's. I did not have some sweeping theory in place before I started my research, and from the conversations I have had in the past with both Riley and Pagels, neither did they.

4. I want to say a few words in response to Skinner's statement, "One of the first things I found problematic in the approach (which I, for purposes of brevity, have designated the 'community-conflict hypothesis') was that these scholars were all making a great deal about an entirely speculative 'conflict' while doing very little exegesis in the Fourth Gospel." I did "very little exegesis in the Fourth Gospel"? Are you kidding me? I have two entire chapters of exegesis of the Fourth Gospel in my book Voices of the Mystics (as well as a entire chapter exegeting the gospel of Thomas, and another entire chapter exegeting Syrian texts with associated traditions). This is not "little" in my eyes.
I want to reiterate my position, so that it doesn't get too muddled in the internet and future publications.
1. My position has been and continues to be that our narratives are communal narratives that reflect the discussions that have engaged the people responsible for developing those particular traditions before the composition of the narratives themselves. They are not written to be nice stories about Jesus. One of the biggest concerns of the authors, it to write to correct and provide the right information to the intended audience. If you are at all in doubt of this, go and reread Luke 1:1-4, who knows other written accounts and wishes to write the orderly one for Theophilius so that he can be truthfully informed. Or chapter 24 of the same gospel in which Jesus has to correct the resurrection beliefs of those who were saying that his suffering meant that he was not the Messiah (esp. vv. 25-27).

2. My position has been and continues to be that the author of the gospel of John is aware of the type of vision and ascent mysticism that came to be associated with the Thomasine traditions in Syria, and he is polemicizing against them. I have not and do not maintain that the author of the gospel of John knew or read the gospel of Thomas. In fact, the entire first chapter of my book Voices of the Mystics is devoted to discussing the concept of developing TRADITIONS that eventually get embedded in our gospels. The competition is between the Johannine and Thomasine traditions and the communities who "owned" these traditions. It is not a competition between their gospels as literary compositions. If I have read Pagels correctly, she too argues that the author of John knew and thoroughly disagreed with the type of exegesis of the Genesis story offered in the gospel of Thomas, that he was engaged in a clash of traditions and polemics against the specific patterns of exegesis preserved in the gospel of Thomas, not the gospel of Thomas itself (Beyond Belief, p. 479).

3. I don't perceive of these communities as some isolated churches somewhere in the ancient world. The use of Johannine and Thomasine community language is chosen in order to indicate the communal nature of these developing traditions, not a church that had a sign on the front lawn that said "The Church of John" or "The Church of Thomas". In fact, I think that the Thomasine community was the very early apostolic tradition in eastern Syria. In other words, Christianity in Syria early on would have appeared very much along the lines of the theology we find in the gospel of Thomas. As for John, it represents at least two types of Christianity - a pre-final-redactor Christianity and a post-final-redactor Christianity - a form of Christianity as it was being practiced in Alexandria and another form of Christianity as it was being practiced in, I think, western Syria and perhaps Asia Minor. I'm still working this aspect out.

4. The origins of the Fourth Gospel has not been satisfactorily worked out, although we are a fingernail away. It is a gospel containing many polemics, much of which has already been mapped by a number of previous scholars. The author is particularly hard on the twelve (one of them was a devil!, another was a traitor!, and another a doubter!), especially in the pre-final-redactor version (before c. 21 was added; and perhaps the resurrection stories fiddled with). The heroes of this earlier version of the gospel are not among the twelve, but are the outsider disciples: the beloved disciple (who is Lazarus by narratological reading of the gospel), Joseph of Arimathea, and Mary Magdalene. This gospel legitimatizes itself on authorities alternative to the Twelve and the Petrine tradition, Thomas among them and the particular brand of mystical Christianity that appears to have become associated with his name in Syria. It isn't until the gospel is redacted into the form we have with c. 21 that the Petrine is fully embraced. The polemics in this gospel are far-reaching. The Johannine author is like the author of the Testimony of Truth, who is unhappy with everyone except his very own.