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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy?

Don Stewart :: What Is the Gospel of Thomas?

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What Is the Gospel of Thomas?

Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy? – Question 17

There were numerous false Gospels, false Acts of the Apostles, false New Testament Letters and Apocalypses that circulated in the early church. One of the most important of these works is what is known as, “The Gospel of Thomas.”

What Is the Gospel of Thomas?

In 1945, a 5th century manuscript was discovered that was written in ancient Coptic, or Egyptian. When translated, it was found to be an ancient text with a number of alleged sayings of Jesus. This document is known as the Gospel of Thomas.

The Gospel of Thomas was probably originally composed in Greek about the year A.D. 140. It was likely written in the city of Edessa in Syria. It is dated at this time because some of the sayings found in it are parallel to those in the Oxyrhynchus papyri which can be dated around A.D. 150

Consisting of 114 sayings of Jesus, it is the most extensive collection of non-biblical sayings of Jesus that still exist. A close examination reveals that about half of them have some correspondence to sayings of Jesus in the four Gospels. However, hardly any of them are exactly the same. Some of the sayings are similar to those known previously from the writings of the early Christians. About forty of these saying are entirely new, found nowhere else in history.

Who Is the Alleged Author Thomas?

There is some confusion as to the identity of the writer of the Gospel of Thomas. Some believe that the alleged author is the Thomas that is known to us from the New Testament. This Thomas, who was one of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples, is called Thomas, or, “the twin.”

However, others believe the gospel of Thomas was supposedly written by another Thomas. He was the alleged twin brother of Jesus. Yet, Jesus had no “twin brother.” The gospels make it very clear that He was the born without a twin.

The Content of the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas begins as follows:

These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote. And he said: Whosoever finds the explanation of these words shall not taste death.

Reasons for Rejecting the Gospel of Thomas

While many fanciful claims have been made for this work, we know that the Gospel of Thomas is unreliable for the following reasons.

1. There Was a Secret Approach to the Message of Jesus

The secret approach found in the Gospel of Thomas is typical of the writings of the Gnostics; those who supposedly had “secret” knowledge. Although we should mention that there are some questions as to whether this work is a Gnostic writing.

Whatever the case may be, in contrast to the Gospel of Thomas, the four Gospels are open about the ways of salvation and the kingdom of God. Indeed, Jesus talked about proclaiming the truth openly to everyone. We read the following words of our Lord in Matthew:

“What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.” (Matthew 10:27 NIV)

The differences between what Jesus said and the emphasis on secrecy which we find in the Gospel of Thomas could not be greater. The Gospel of Thomas contains “secret” sayings while the four gospels make it clear that Jesus’ message is to be heard by everyone everywhere in the most public of manners.

In front of the former High Priest, Annas, Jesus made it clear that His was an open message to the world. He said,

Jesus answered him, “I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing.” (John 18:20 NKJV)

Secrecy was contrary to the public nature of Jesus’ teachings. It was not His custom to teach only secret truths to His disciples.

2. There Is No Historical Setting for the Sayings

There is no historical setting for the statements. The Gospel of Thomas is a compilation of sayings without the inclusion of important historical events as recorded in the Gospels. We are not told when, or under what circumstances, any of these statements were made.

In contrast, the gospels always place Jesus’ words in historical contexts. There is an authentic setting where He gave His teachings. There is none in the Gospel of Thomas.

3. The Teaching Often Contradicts the Four Gospels

Many of the sayings found in the Gospel of Thomas are contradictory to those we have in the Gospels. For example, saying 114 says:

Jesus said, ‘See, I shall lead her, so that I will make her male, that she too many become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’

This is an absurd idea. According to this supposed statement of Jesus a female has to first become a male before entering the kingdom of God! Nothing like this is even remotely taught by Jesus or anywhere else in the Bible.

4. It Presents a Different Jesus

In the Gospel of Thomas the Person of Jesus Christ is different than the One revealed in the four Gospels. In the Gospels, Jesus is God the Son, Second Person of the Holy Trinity. He is God Himself who became a human being to let us know what God is like.

Yet in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus is one who points the way by which an individual can attain the knowledge of God. Again the contrast could not be greater.

The Scripture warns believers about false portrayals of Jesus like the one we find in the Gospel of Thomas. Paul wrote,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! (Galatians 1:6-8 NRSV)

This is not merely an academic issue. Notice that Paul says that anyone who proclaims a different message about Jesus than the one we find in the New Testament is placed under a divine curse!

He also warned the Corinthians about those which proclaim “another Jesus”:

For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough. (2 Corinthians 11:4 NRSV)

These reasons, along with many others, demonstrate that the Gospel of Thomas is a forgery rather than a legitimate work written by one of Jesus’ apostles or confidants. It is representative of other forgeries that were circulated at that time.

5. Thomas Is Assumed to Be the Best Source of Jesus’ Life by Some

Unhappily, a small group of fringe scholars has claimed that the Gospel of Thomas is actually a more accurate, trustworthy record of what Jesus said than what we have in the four gospels. Although written about one hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and only listing a number of sayings, it is claimed to be where we should derive our portrait of Jesus. This approach certainly does not fit the evidence.

There is something else which we must take into consideration. Independent studies of the Gospel of Thomas seem to show that the writer of this document knew the Gospels as they now stand. He did not have not, as some contend, an earlier written source of Jesus’ sayings that were composed before the four gospels.

In sum, the Gospel of Thomas is not the place where we should go to determine what Jesus said or did not say. The only place to discover the truth is with the four gospels. They alone contain the authoritative words and deeds of Jesus.

Summary – Question 17
What Is the Gospel of Thomas?

After the New Testament period, there were a number of works that arose that claimed to have been written by someone who was mentioned in the New Testament. However, the works are nothing but forgeries. Among other things, these forgeries are known as the New Testament Pseudepigrapha. There are a number of gospels, acts, letters, and apocalypses that use the name of a biblical character as its author. Yet that person did not write the particular work that has his name on it.

One of the most prominent of these forgeries is the Gospel of Thomas. This work is supposedly a number of secret sayings of Jesus that are recorded by the disciple Thomas. Yet there is no evidence whatsoever of their authenticity.

On the contrary, the Gospel of Thomas fails for a number of reasons.

First, the approach is secret rather than the open approach of the gospels. Jesus emphasized that those who follow Him should publicly proclaim His teachings. The Gospel of Thomas on the other hand speaks of “secret” knowledge about Jesus. The contrast could not be greater.

In addition, there is no historical setting for these supposed sayings of Jesus. They are merely a group of sayings with no context to them. We do not know when or where Jesus supposedly said them. Contrast this to the gospels where the sayings of Jesus are always placed in some historical context.

There is also the problem that many of the teachings of the Gospel of Thomas actually contradict the four gospels. Some of these teachings are actually absurd. They contain nothing like what we have in the New Testament.

Finally, the Gospel of Thomas presents a different Jesus than the one revealed in the New Testament. Scripture warns us ahead of time of those who present another Jesus; a Jesus which did not exist. This is what we have in the Gospel of Thomas.

Unhappily, there are some people who assume Thomas is the best source that we now have available to know what Jesus really said. However, there is no real reason to assume this is the case. The evidence seems to show that Thomas knew the four gospels as they now stand and simply rearranged a number of the sayings of Jesus. There is no evidence whatsoever that would cause us to believe he had some source that predated the gospels. Consequently, the Gospel of Thomas is worthless in giving us a true portrait of Jesus. For this, we go to the four gospels.

What Are Some of the Accounts of Jesus That Differ from the New Testament? ← Prior Section
What Is the Secret Gospel of Mark? Next Section →
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