Was the Gospel of Thomas Considered Scripture?
It is not uncommon to hear confident assertions that the Gospel of Thomas was once considered Scripture by early Christians en par, or even superior to, the four canonical gospels found in the New Testament. There are some who even hold this view to be “incontrovertible,” – a proven fact of history. But when making such a claim it is necessary to provide evidence, otherwise it is nothing more than a statement of faith. Presumably, if the Gospel of Thomas was valued as Scripture among early Christians, we should be able to demonstrate this fact from manuscript evidence, early Christian citations, and a reflection of at least somewhat “Thomasine” theology in canonical and early non-canonical works composed during the most formative period of the church.
Early Christian Writers on the Gospel of Thomas
It is often difficult to verify citations made by Christian writers of the first few centuries as they are notoriously periphrastic in their quotations and often do not directly attribute their quotations to any given work. Although this is particularly true when dealing with works such as the Gospel of Thomas, the writings of two third century theologians, Hippolytus and Origen, are generally sighted as containing references from this text.
Hippolytus of Rome
In his work, The Refutation of all Heresies, Hippolytus of Rome quotes a saying from a “Gospel inscribed according to Thomas,” which was being used by a heretical sect to put promote a certain, rather obscure, teaching1.
“He who seeks me, will find me in children from seven years old; for there concealed, I shall in the fourteenth age be made manifest.”
Having delivered this quotation, Hippolytus then proceeds to explain that this is not, in fact, a saying delivered by Jesus Christ, but rather was drawn from Hippocrates. His focus is not on the Gospel of Thomas itself, and so Hippolytus offers no further thoughts on the text other than to expound on the Greek origin of the saying. However, Hippolytus’ rejection of this saying constitutes an explicit denial of the authority of the Gospel of Thomas as he knows it.
It should be noted however that the passage quoted only passingly resembles saying 4 in the 4th century Coptic Gospel of Thomas2. This could be evidence that Hippolytus was referencing a different Gospel of Thomas, but more likely it is the result of Hippolytus paraphrasing and the fact that the Gospel of Thomas underwent an extremely loose transmission process from the end of the second century to the middle of the fourth (to be discussed later).
Origen of Alexandria
Origen’s citations are by far the more positive of references to the Gospel of Thomas. Indeed, he even seems to draw from the Gospel of Thomas for information concerning the Apostle Thomas himself, which would seem to indicate he either accepted Thomasine authorship or that of someone close to the apostle3.
Origen however explicitly denies that the Gospel of Thomas should be considered scripture. In his Homily of Luke, Origen sights Luke’s reference to those who “tried” to write scripture as referring to texts such as the Gospel of Thomas. “Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke did not try to write; they wrote their Gospels when they were filled with the Holy Spirit.” Other gospels, he states, were written rashly and without the guidance of the Spirit. Shortly afterward, in the very context in which he then names the Gospel of Thomas, among others, he says, “The Church has four Gospels. Heretics have very many.”
Although willing to use the Gospel of Thomas under certain circumstances, he was also known to reject certain passages3, demonstrating further that he did not reject the whole of the Gospel of Thomas as a heretical or gnostic text intrinsically, but considered it far from Holy Writ.
Later Christian writers of the 4th and 5th century would warn against reading the Gospel of Thomas, considering it to be written by heretics and laced with heresies itself. Although there could be various reasons for this difference between Origen and these later writers, the extant manuscripts of the Gospel of Thomas and the textual history they reveal may provide the best answer.
Manuscripts of the Gospel of Thomas and Their Texts
There are currently only four known manuscripts of the Gospel of Thomas, three Greek fragments the earliest of which are dated to around 200 A.D., and a mid-4th century Coptic version which constitutes our only “complete” manuscript.
The Greek Manuscripts
The three 3rd century Greek fragments contain only about 14 partial or whole sayings. Although they have been incontrovertibly identified as Gospel of Thomas fragments, the Greek texts can only be said to roughly correspond with their Coptic counterparts. The text contains a great number of variants and the order of the sayings differs from the later Coptic version. More interestingly, at least one saying in the Greek manuscripts has no counterpart at all in the Coptic4! These factors, combined with the notable differences in patristic citations, demonstrate that the Gospel of Thomas underwent an extremely loose transmission process. Indeed, it could even be said that end version of the Gospel of Thomas as we know it was the product of an extensive evolution at least from the end of the second century to the middle of the fourth5.
Although the evidence of four manuscripts is rather limited to make any grand claims, it is very possible that the Gospel of Thomas Origen knew and referenced was not particularly similar to the later Coptic version, which would explain his cautious acceptance of portions of Thomas against the more wholesale rejection of later writers (although even those later writers warned that the Thomasine text they referenced was flavored with some reminiscence of apostolic teachings).
The Nag Hammadi Codex
The fourth century Coptic manuscript was found as a part of a collection of primarily gnostic works collectively known as the “Nag-Hammadi Library.6” It contains 114 sayings, one of which appears to have been added sometime after the initial Codex was written7.
Although some scholars argue that portions of the Gospel of Thomas date to the mid-1st century, the text of this Coptic version cannot date any earlier than the latter half of the second century. It puts forward a form of “pure Gnosticism” which had not evolved until well into the second century and is reflective of the Valentinian Gnostic texts with which it was found. What is more, this text shows a reliance on the synoptic gospels and perhaps even Paul’s epistles8. The writer of this particular Nag Hammadi Codex seems to have drawn from multiple gospels and, when two gospels present a different wording, he deliberately chose the parallel that could most easily be understood in a Gnostic sense5.
Those who advocate a first century origin for the Gospel of Thomas do so by first removing material from the text that is demonstrably from the second century or later; what is left can theoretically stem from an earlier date. What physical evidence is there to demonstrate that these passages are indeed drawn from the same source(s) as the synoptic gospels? How can we know that they have escaped the textual corruption – both accidental and theological – that so taints the rest of the text? The answer to these and other questions remain among the greatest mysteries surrounding the Gospel of Thomas.
The Theology of the Gospel of Thomas
As mentioned before, the Gospel of Thomas deeply reflects the theology of the collection in which it was found. Just as the Valentinian Exposition presents itself as a mystery only for the enlightened few, the Gospel of Thomas opens with a claim to containing the “secret sayings,” of a Jesus who announces, "I disclose my mysteries to those [worthy] of [my] mysteries.*” This characteristic trait of a secret knowledge – gnosis – has lent its name to a diverse group of sects collectively known as the Gnostics.
Although “Christian Gnostic” sects varied greatly in their teachings, emphasizing an esoteric wisdom over objective truths, they did possess certain similarities; secret revelation, esoteric wisdom as a means of salvation, and a rejection of the Old Testament God as a lesser, if not evil, deity9.
The Gnosis of Thomas Compared to Other Christian Writings
The Gospel of Thomas exhibits a theology of salvation by gnosis from the very first saying, claiming “[Jesus] said, ‘Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.’” The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas speaks in vagaries, asserting that, “The kingdom is within you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father.”
This desire for a secret revelation and knowledge within one’s self that saves contrast vividly to the early teachings of the Christian church which often appealed to the public nature of Jesus’ life, death, and even resurrection** and rests its testimony on the objectivity of God’s revelation to many, not on the secret revelation of one**. When reading through the Gospel of Thomas as presented in the Nag Hammadi codex, it is difficult to imagine its adherents preaching, “that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation.10”
Writing at the beginning of the second century, Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to the church at Ephesus in which he commended them for not allowing teachings from outside the church to be admitted. He compared their path to salvation to the building of God’s temple, with each member of the church being a stone,
“You are being hoisted up by Jesus Christ, as with a crane (that is the cross!), while the rope you use is the Holy Spirit. Your faith is what lifts you up, while love is the way you ascend to God.11”
The Old Testament in Thomas Compared to Other Christian Writings
In further contrast to the writings of the early Church, the Gospel of Thomas continues in the vein of second century Gnosticism by dismissing the testimony of the Old Testament as irrelevant. Although the Gospel of Thomas is less vitriolic as other Gnostic works in this regard, in saying 52 of the Nag Hammadi Thomas, Jesus rebukes the disciples for calling on the testimony of the prophets to prove Jesus as the Messiah. In the following saying, he teaches that circumcision is not useful2.
Before there was a New Testament canon, the early church held the Old Testament as scripture, and even Jesus himself constantly called on the witness of the Old Testament to support his teachings and claims. One of the first events recorded in Jesus’ ministry was his reading from the book of Isaiah at the synagogue in Nazareth, and having done so he rolled up the scroll and declared, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!12”
Toward the end of the first century, the church of Rome sent a letter to the church at Corinth, known as Clement’s Epistle, which cites generously from the Old Testament, demonstrating the high esteem the church held for all the Old Testament scriptures13.
As for circumcision, even Paul, the most vehement opponent of Judaizing in the first century church, would never have declared circumcision as having no value. Indeed, he held that though there was now no distinction between Jew and Gentile in regards to salvation, there was still much benefit in being a Jew.
“Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracle of God.14”
It must be conceded that whatever the Gospel of Thomas may have looked like before it became the famed Nag Hammadi sayings gospel, the theology of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas is reflective of a distinct Gnostic sect (or sects) with no meaningful connection to early Christian writings of the 1st and 2nd centuries.
There is much more that could be said concerning the Gospel of Thomas, and for those interested a more comprehensive study of the extant manuscripts and their unique characteristics can be reviewed here.
Early Christian citations of the text are rare, and those that are known invariably deny the Gospel of Thomas any scriptural standing. Of course, someone must have written it, and whoever did so may well have presented it as such, but without more and earlier manuscript evidence there is no way of knowing who it was that composed the Gospel of Thomas, why, or when.
The theology of the late Coptic version is not reflected in any Christian writings of the first and second century and demonstrates a deep allegiance to Gnostic texts stemming no earlier than the latter half of the 2nd century. Furthermore, no evidence for the Gospel of Thomas appears prior to the end of the 2nd, whether that be manuscripts or citations, and due to the evolving nature of the text it is impossible to say for certain what the text looked like prior to that time – if indeed it even existed before the mid-2nd century, which is uncertain at best.
When studying the manuscripts, citations, and theology of the Gospel of Thomas, there is no evidence to suggest that the Gospel of Thomas was ever held as scripture inside the Christian Church.
* All Gospel of Thomas Quotations are from the Meyer’s and Patterson translation (bibliography 2), all Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version
** See 1 Corinthian 15, 2 Peter 2:16-21
1. Hippolytus of Rome, The Refutation of All Heresies, Book 5, chapter 2, Macmahon Translation, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/hippolytus5.html
2. The Gospel of Thomas, Meyer and Patterson translation, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/thomas-scholars.html
3. Carlson, Origen’s Use of the Gospel of Thomas https://www.academia.edu/7414722/Origens_Use_of_the_Gospel_of_Thomas
4. Hurtado, Gospel of Thomas Greek Fragments, https://larryhurtado.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/gthomas-greek-fragments.pdf
5. Janssens, Clarmont Coptic encyclopedia vol 4 - http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cce/id/902/rec/1
6. Emmel, Clarmont Coptic Encyclopedia Vol 6 - http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cce/id/1418/rec/1
7. The Gospel of Thomas, Meyer and Patterson translation, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/thomas-scholars.html
8. Evans, interviews - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVU_ne9Octs
9. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1
10. 2 Peter 1:20
11. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians 9:1, Richardson translation, Early Christian Fathers, Vol. 1
12. Luke 4:16-21
13. I Clement, Richardson translation, Early Christian Fathers, Vol. 1
14. Romans 3:1-2