Maybe you know Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but what about the Gospel of Thomas?
Sometimes you just get lucky. Two of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century were found quite by accident. The initial discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls happened when a young boy was searching for a goat near Qumran in 1947. Two years earlier, two farmers digging in a field near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, accidentally unearthed a jar containing twelve leather-bound codices.
It is this second discovery—now referred to as the Nag Hammadi Library—that concerns us here. Among the forty-plus treatises discovered in 1945, several are known as the Gnostic Gospels, and one in particular has captured a great deal of attention: the Gospel of Thomas.
Scholars today are divided over the significance of this text. Some think the sayings recorded in Thomas take us back to the historical Jesus. Others have concluded they tell us little to nothing about Jesus, only a great deal about esoteric Christian communities living in Syria and Egypt centuries after his execution. A few scholars have argued the sayings in Thomas represent earlier, more reliable versions of Jesus’ teachings than the New Testament Gospels. Most scholars think these sayings reflect Gnostic tendencies; still others are not so sure.
The Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi was our first look at the complete text.1 Half a century earlier three Greek papyri that contained a few fragments of some previously unknown sayings of Jesus had been discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.2 After the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, it became clear that the Oxyrhynchus fragments were an earlier Greek version of what became the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. The Nag Hammadi manuscript of Thomas dates to the fourth century, but a majority of scholars believe the earliest Greek version goes back roughly two centuries earlier.3
What Does the Gospel of Thomas Say?
The Gospel of Thomas consists of a brief prologue followed by 114 sayings of Jesus. Noticeably absent from the gospel are birth accounts, travel chronicles, miracle stories, and any narrative of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. If you carefully read the Gospel of Thomas against the four New Testament Gospels, roughly half of the sayings will seem familiar. Some sayings parallel what we find in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Others will seem closer to John’s Gospel. The question of how Thomas relates to these other gospels is hotly debated.
The Gospel of Thomas begins with an announcement about its content: “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down: And he said, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.’”4
Unlike the New Testament Gospels, which privilege other disciples (e.g., Peter, James, and John), this gospel makes Thomas Jesus’ primary interpreter. Thomas records these “secret sayings”—known as logia—of Jesus for posterity and has special access to him. Thomas “gets” Jesus while other followers do not.
The prologue and first saying set the tone for the rest of the gospel. Throughout the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus imparts knowledge to his closest disciples in the form of these secret sayings. They are not parables for the masses but esoteric mysteries for a few.
Jesus himself promises salvation to any who seek and discover the correct interpretation of these sayings. In contrast to what we find in the New Testament, salvation has nothing to do with Jesus’ crucifixion as an atoning sacrifice or his victory over death in the resurrection. Rather, salvation has to do with grasping the true meaning behind hidden sayings.
Let’s consider a few of the sayings contained within the Gospel of Thomas.
For a glimpse of the kind of esoteric language you find throughout the Gospel of Thomas, you need look no further than logion 2: “Jesus said, ‘Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all.’”
In a saying slightly similar to Matthew 16:16–18, Jesus tells his disciples in logion 13 of the Gospel of Thomas:
“Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like.”
Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a righteous angel.”
Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.”
Thomas said to him, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like.”
Jesus said, “I am not your (sg.) master. Because you (sg.) have drunk, you (sg.) have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I measured out.”
Jesus then gives Thomas some private instruction. When other disciples ask Thomas about it, he responds: “If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.”
Logion 20 gives the Gospel of Thomas’s version of the parable of the mustard seed: “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘Tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like.’ He said to them, ‘It is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all seeds. When it falls on tilled soil, it produces a great plant and becomes a shelter for birds in the sky.’”
In logion 77, Thomas describes Jesus as the source of all things and an entity that is present everywhere: “Jesus said, ‘It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all. From me did the all come forth and unto me did the all extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.’”
Logion 56 offers a negative view of the material world typical of the Gnostics: “Jesus said, ‘Whoever has come to understand the world has found (only) a corpse, and whoever has found a corpse is superior to the world.’”
For modern ears, one of the strangest sayings of Jesus is the last in the gospel, logion 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.’”
The Tone of the Gospel of Thomas
Overall the tone of Thomas is anti-marriage and anti-procreation. The reason is simple.
According to Thomas’s point of view—in keeping with the views of Gnosticism as a whole—a human being is good spirit trapped inside an evil, corrupt body. To have a child is to trap yet another spirit in a corrupt, decaying world. So celibacy is the ideal.
The Gospel of Thomas—especially the last saying—should be read in this light. The idea of leading Mary to be male is likely a reference to being like Jesus: single and celibate. That is, a single, celibate woman becomes like a male since she never bears children.
Why Did the Gospel of Thomas Not Make It into the New Testament?
The Gospel of Thomas was known in the early church, but the road to canonization was long. Thomas didn’t make it into the canon of the Bible for several reasons.
First, although it seemed to have an apostolic connection—that is, a link back to an apostle (in this case, Thomas)—the essential message of the gospel was at odds with other accepted books. In particular, its anti-marriage stance and esoteric character differed significantly from other books that carried the apostolic teaching.
Second, to be accepted, a book must have been in use broadly across many churches in the Mediterranean. Thomas was neither used widely nor accepted broadly as a sacred text. Its use appears to have been limited to select churches in areas around Syria and Egypt. Finally, Thomas was probably excluded because of those who did use it—Gnostics.
Gnostic communities used the Gospel of Thomas freely in their worship, and they held to views of creation, humanity, and salvation that varied significantly from the rest of “mainstream” Christianity. When it came time to decide which books were in and which were not, the Gospel of Thomas was excluded.
At times you will see a scholar arguing that the Gospel of Thomas provides valuable information about Jesus. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Those debates will continue. At a minimum, the Gospel of Thomas does shed light on what some minority Christian communities were saying about Jesus in the centuries after his death.