You’ve proabably heard of the “Gospel of Thomas”—mentions of it surface periodically in the news, often accompanied by sensational taglines like “Lost Gospel unearthed!” Everyone loves a good controversy, and what could be more controversial than a censored book, lost to the ravages of time, being rediscovered thousands of years later?
Such is the aura of intrigue around the Gospel of Thomas. So what is the Gospel of Thomas, and does it truly deserve a place alongside the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)?
The Gospel of Thomas is so named because of its opening line: “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down” (Blatz’s translation). (The true identity of the author is the subject of scholarly debate.) The Gospel of Thomas was discovered among a cache of other texts near Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. Scholars generally place its origin sometime between the 1st and late 2nd centuries.
The Gospel of Thomas is considered to be an example of gnostic literature, a body of religious writing characterized by a rejection of the flesh and the material world in favor of a focus on the spirit. Although gnosticism’s emphasis on the spiritual faintly echoes Christianity’s condemnation of worldliness and carnal living, gnosticism’s rejection of the physical world goes far beyond Christianity’s teachings.
So what is in the Gospel of Thomas? Thomas is comprised of 114 “sayings of Jesus,” some of which are similar to the sayings recorded in the canonical Gospels and some of which are not. Unlike the canonical Gospel accounts, there’s no overarching narrative to the text, which makes its designation as a “gospel” problematic. As N.T. Wright says in his review of the book The Five Gospels:
[The Gospel of Thomas and other gnostic gospels claim to be] proclamations about Jesus, of the same sort as the four better-known “gospels,” despite the fact that they do not narrate the story of Jesus, do not (for the most part) proclaim him as Messiah, do not tell of his death and resurrection—do not, in fact, do the very things which seem, from the Pauline evidence, to be what the earliest Christians regarded as “gospel.”
I read the Gospel of Thomas while preparing this blog post, and to be honest, I found it somewhat boring and unimpressive. Much of what’s said is flat-out better communicated in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the majority of that which isn’t repetition is confusing and contrary to the Jesus we see in the canonical Gospels. Beyond stylistic issues, a host of theological inconsistencies makes it obvious that the early Christian church was wise to not include it in the Biblical canon.
For a further Christian understanding of the Gospel of Thomas, this short discussion with apologist Lee Strobel is worth watching:
If you’re interested in reading the Gospel of Thomas yourself, it’s pretty easy to find a copy online. EarlyChristianWritings.com keeps a list of various English translations of the Gospel of Thomas.
At this point, it seems fair to ask: will reading the Gospel of Thomas damage or destroy your faith? No—if anything, it strengthened mine, by highlighting the consistency of the canonical Gospel accounts. Christians can take it as further proof that Jesus did live and that many people were actively working to co-opt his message. We should be deeply appreciative of the work the early Church did in making sure the Bible passed down to us did not include everything that anyone claiming to be a Christian wrote. The writer of the Gospel of Thomas exhibits a deep awareness of the oral and written culture of early Christianity. But in the end, it’s an attempt to make Jesus into a different kind of savior that He was.