When Was the Gospel of Thomas Written?
Since the 1945 discovery of a 4th century Coptic codex purporting to contain 114 secret sayings of Jesus Christ recorded by the Apostle Thomas, the (in)famous Gospel of Thomas has been the subject of a raging debate among scholars. Some have dismissed it as a late Gnostic text, other have raised it up as evidence of a fifth gospel held by some as sacred scripture. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that GThomas reveals the authentic sayings of Jesus Christ! Without more evidence, the debate is unlikely to find any resolution, but by studying the evidence currently at our disposal (scant though it may be) many of the extremes on which varying scholars have taken their stands might be tempered. To that aim, we will consider all the known manuscripts of The Gospel of Thomas (abbreviated GThomas), the settings in which they were discovered, their physical characteristics, and the texts contained in each of them. We will also consider the possible citations of two Christian writers of the second and third centuries A.D.
Extant Manuscripts of the Gospel of Thomas
There are four manuscripts of the Gospel of Thomas currently known; three Greek fragments from the 3rd century A.D., and a later Coptic version from the mid-4th century1.
The 4th-century codex is by far the best known and most often referenced when mention is made of the famous Gospel of Thomas, but despite the Coptic text's popularity, it is the Greek fragments that should be given priority due to their age and evidence of a troubled transmission found in their Coptic counterpart (to be discussed later)*.
The Greek Fragments
All three of the Greek fragments, P.Oxy 1, P.Oxy 654 , P.Oxy 655, were discovered in an ancient trash heap in Oxyrhynchus Egypt alongside a treasure trove of Christian writings, including the bulk of our earliest New Testament manuscripts2. It is interesting that these manuscripts of GThomas found themselves among so many Christian documents. Although the Oxyrhynchus trash heap was certainly not used exclusively by Christians and therefore no definite conclusions can be drawn, there is no reason to conclude from the location of these three fragments that their readers were part of a “Thomasine” community that existed in distinction from a more “main stream” community of Christians2.
P.Oxy 1 and P.Oxy 655, are paleographically dated to around the year 200A.D., while P.Oxy 654 was written somewhat later – around the mid-3rd century – on the back of a land-survey list which itself was written about the same time as the other two manuscripts3. P.Oxy 1 was written in a codex which contains a portion of another, as-of-yet-unidentified, text, while P.Oxy 655 was written on an unused scroll. We will revisit the significance of these and other physical characteristics of the Greek manuscripts later in this article.
The Nag Hammadi Codex
The Coptic manuscript was found in a collection of codices (books) which are estimated to have been buried around the start of the fifth century4 near a burial site which was still in use at that time. Although the claim is sometimes repeated that these Nag Hammadi Codices – named for the largest city in the region – were found in a tomb, this appears to be in error. Little about the circumstances surrounding their discovery has been verified, but it is known that they were discovered accidentally by local farmers who reported they found the collection of books hidden in a ceramic jar. Exactly who buried the collection and why is uncertain, but the Nag Hammadi Codices contain 45 works which were translated from Greek into Coptic. Most of these works are gnostic texts, including the “Valentinian Exposition” and the Gospel of Phillip5.
The GThomas manuscript itself contains 114 sayings, although only 113 of these were originally penned c. 340/350 A.D. The final saying seems to have been added sometime afterward6.
The text of the three extant Greek manuscripts is only fragmentary of course, together containing all or part of only about 14 sayings. Unfortunately, none of the Greek manuscripts contains the same sayings, so they cannot be compared, but what is striking is that when compared to the Nag Hammadi codex, they demonstrate that the Coptic text is the product of an extremely fluid transmission. The sayings they contain have significant variations and can only be said to roughly correspond to those in the Nag Hammadi codex. For instance, in P.Oxy1, the saying which should correspond to Nag Hammadi's saying 33 is so very different from the latter text that it amounts to a completely different saying with no Coptic parallel10! Another example is in P.Oxy 655 where nearly all of saying 36 is absent from the Nag Hammadi codex’s 36th saying. Variations in the sayings and differing orders of arrangement are well noted, and the more conservative scholars advise caution in assuming the earlier Greek manuscripts originally were particularly similar to the late Coptic text known today3.
The Nag Hammadi Text is undeniably Gnostic in nature, reflecting the influence of much of the collection in which it was found. Although much debate continues to be waged over whether elements of GThomas stem as far back as the mid-1st century, it can hardly be disputed that much of the material accrued in the Coptic GThomas cannot stem from any earlier than the latter half of the 2nd century1. Much of the debate then hinges on whether or not some sayings, at least in part, are more primitive than the whole – this of course can only be an exercise in speculation pending further discoveries4.
The Nag Hammadi manuscript parallels a number of verses in the synoptic gospels, more so than any other apocryphal gospel. Scholars will continue to argue whether or not GThomas originally stemmed from the same source(s) as that which informed the Synoptics – often times citing the theoretical Q Gospel – but, as a late recension, the Coptic text does show signs of a dependency upon the Synoptics themselves. The writer of this Coptic version has recorded parallels from several of the gospels** and when the Synoptics differ in their delivery of a saying, he seems to have consciously preserved the variation that could be understood best from a Gnostic perspective1. There are some who suggest a dependency on Paul’s epistles as well7.
Early Christian Citations
As should be expected for any document with a textual history such as GThomas, early citations are difficult to verify. Even when Hippolytus identifies a “Gospel inscribe according to Thomas” as being cited by a heretical sect to put forward their teachings, he cites a quotation so different from the closet Coptic saying+ it is almost unrecognizable8.
The most likely, frequent, and even favorable citations of the Gospel of Thomas come from a contemporary of Hippolytus – Origen. As Origen flourished in Egypt during the early third century and was certainly the most well-read and open-minded writer of his time, his perspective on GThomas is extremely informative.
Origen references the Gospel of Thomas directly in the first chapter of his Homily on Luke in which he explains that many “tried” to write gospels in the time of Luke and the other gospel writers, but they did so without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in contrast to the writers of the canonical gospels of whom he says, “Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke did not ‘try’ to write; they wrote their Gospels when they were filled with the Holy Spirit.9”
This certainly demonstrates that Origen did not see GThomas as Scripture, but his exact perspective on the apocryphal text as he knew it is not entirely clear. In the Lukan Homily, Origen claims that the canonical gospels were chosen from among these many gospels. He clearly ties the inferior, apocryphal gospels with heretics – “The Church has four Gospels. Heretics have very many” – but does not expressly claim the gospel of Thomas to be inherently heretical itself. Indeed, on a number of occasions, Origen cites the Gospel of Thomas to provide support and even to gather information about the Apostle Thomas!9
Origen’s citations from the Gospel of Thomas are intended to develop theses rather than to exegete the text of GThomas itself, therefore he does not delve into any sayings that he might have considered objectionable. For this reason, we cannot ascertain whether or not the Gospel of Thomas Origen knew contained such particularly objectionable sayings as those found in the late Coptic text. Perhaps it did and Origen was simply opportunistic in how he used the text, perhaps he attributed such objectionable material as being due to the lack of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, or perhaps the text of GThomas as Origen knew it had not yet undergone its transformation into the thoroughly Gnostic text of Nag Hammadi. Barring new discoveries, we may never know for certain. All we can know is that Origen rejected GThomas as scripture while seemingly accepting certain sayings as true (or potentially true) and denying others outright. It should be noted, however, that his express purpose for reading such non-canonical gospels was in order that he might be better informed when dealing with heretics and their teachings. In all, Origen seems to have regarded GThomas as a text that the learned should read with caution and discerning9.
Physical Features of the Greek Manuscripts
The location in which the Greek fragments of GThomas were found may lend tentative support to the idea that Origen’s apparent view of GThomas was shared by at least some among the Christian community of Oxyrhynchus. But can we glean anything more from the artifacts themselves?
One should be cautious when attempting to draw conclusions from the physical characteristics of manuscripts, this is particularly true when the manuscript evidence consists of only a few samples as in the case of GThomas. But if we compare features of the Greek GTHomas manuscripts with those of Christian manuscripts of the period generally, it can at least provide hints of how these texts were viewed.
Early Christian Preference for the Codex
In Larry Hurtado’s excellent work, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, he notes two unique trends found in Greek manuscripts of the first few centuries which are of particular interest. The first is that the early church made an apparently conscious decision to use the codex as their primary vehicle for preserving those texts which they considered scripture. Of course, many other Christian texts were written in Codex form, but the only known New Testament canonical works from this period that do not appear in codex form are written on used scrolls, indicating that these texts were produced on scroll format because no other material was available (likely do to financial constraints).
While two of the three Greek GThomas fragments, P.Oxy 1 and P.Oxy 654 fit into this trend++, P.Oxy 655 stands apart. It was written on a fresh scroll by a scribe of some skill. The skill of the scribe and use of a fresh scroll indicates that P.Oxy 655 was produced by someone of sufficient means to choose whatever vehicle they preferred for this text. If this is so, then a conscious choice was made to use a scroll over a codex in direct contrast to the apparent norm of using a codex for scripture – suggesting that the owner of this text did not consider the Gospel of Thomas to stand shoulder to shoulder with the canonical gospels3.
The second interesting observation made in Hurtado’s work is the consistent use of Nomina Sacra – abbreviations for significant names – in scriptural manuscripts. As with the use of Codices, Nomina Sacra is not solely dedicated to canonical works, but what is striking is that those manuscripts containing canonical texts contain the most common and consistent usages. Other texts often use them less consistently, use fewer, or simply do not utilize Nomina Sacra at all2.
Unfortunately, the fragment P.Oxy 655 does not contain any of the words usually treated as Nomina Sacra, and therefore we cannot know whether it once contained them or not. P.Oxy 1 contains a number of Nomina Sacra, including those used more regularly after the number of words commonly treated as Nomina Sacra had expanded. P.Oxy 654 however, abbreviates only Jesus’ name with any consistency3.
A final interesting characteristic of the Greek fragments is that their smaller handwriting, estimated page sizes, and a general lack of the typical scribal devices used to assist public reading all indicate that these texts were intended for personal study rather than to be read out loud for the benefit of a congregation3. Canonical texts, both gospels and epistles, should exhibit both private and public manuscripts, as they were used in worship gatherings.
Of course, a sample of only three Greek fragments is too small for any inferences to be considered conclusive, but this does serve to demonstrate that the artifact evidence as it stands suggests the Gospel of Thomas was never regarded as scriptural or useful for reading in the church, even if it was not universally reviled as heretical or spurious.
Will We Keep Learning?
It is interesting to see how much has been made of the testimony of so few witnesses. But now that the debate has been sparked it is unlikely that the evidence of three fragmentary Greek manuscripts and one late Coptic recension will be capable of settling the matter – particularly when one considers the troubled transmission of the text and the uncertainty that surrounds even some of the clearest references.
Although the earliest probable references to the Gospel of Thomas invariably link it with heretical sects, they do not explicitly condemn GThomas as a heretical text and Origen’s citations demonstrate at least a passing acceptance of certain sayings as beneficial. That being said, both Hippolytus and Origen indicate they have no regard for GThomas as scripture, and the physical characteristics of the Greek manuscripts give no reason to assume this opinion was not generally shared among Christian communities. Origen’s use of some sayings and rejection of others further demonstrates that he had neither disdain nor reverence for the text. This would tend to indicate that the GThomas Origen knew did not approach the explicit Gnosticism of the later Coptic recension, which itself demonstrates an extensive evolution.
Scholars will continue to debate whether or not the Gospel of Thomas is dependent on the synoptic gospels and Paul or whether they share a common source. Those who assert the antiquity of the Gospel of Thomas do so by first removing those elements which demonstrably originate in the latter half of the 2nd century; what is left can presumably be dated earlier, although there is clearly no way to determine if any of the remaining sayings are in some way “authentic” or have somehow escaped the same evolution that has so corrupted the text surrounding them.
Ultimately, the early citations and texts of the Greek fragments clash with the Coptic text which remains our only “complete” Gospel of Thomas. As the debate rages on and endless studies seek to find overwhelming evidence in a thimble, we must acknowledge that more data in the form of actual manuscript evidence is needed before any grand claims concerning the Gospel of Thomas can be viewed as anything more than conjecture.
* It is often asserted that the Gospel of Thomas was originally written in Syriac (Janssens). Whether or not this is correct, the Coptic manuscript found at Nag Hammadi was most certainly translated from Greek (albeit a second-generation translation (Gagne)) as was the case with every other work in the so-called Nag-Hammadi Library (Emmel). Of course, the Coptic GThomas is certainly not translated from the same line represented in the earlier fragments (Gagne), but when studying a text with at least a partially Greek origin, it is only fitting to grant the earliest Greek texts their due say!
** Advocates of a very early GThomas will observe GThomas’ affinity for Luke, but Luke is not the sole gospel seemingly represented in the Coptic text, nor does reliance on one Gospel demonstrate a contemporary authorship.
+ Saying 4 in the Coptic text – “Jesus said, ‘The person old in days won't hesitate to ask a little child seven days old about the place of life, and that person will live. For many of the first will be last, and will become a single one.’”
Compare to Hippolytus – “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.”
++ As previously mentioned, P.Oxy1 was written in a codex which contained also a portion of another, unidentified text. It is interesting to note that no apocryphal gospel has been found in the same codex as the canonical gospels or epistles even after the end of the second century when the gospels are frequently found paired with one another.
1. Janssens, Clarmont Coptic encyclopedia vol 4 - http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cce/id/902/rec/1 )
2. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, pp.34-35, 228
3. Hurtado, Gospel of Thomas Greek Fragments, https://larryhurtado.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/gthomas-greek-fragments.pdf
4. Gagne, The Gospel of Thomas: An Interview with Prof. André Gagné, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBxjQJ_joIU
5. Emmel, Clarmont Coptic Encyclopedia Vol 6 - http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cce/id/1418/rec/1
6. The Gospel of Thomas, Meyer and Patterson translation, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/thomas-scholars.html
7. Evans, interviews - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVU_ne9Octs
8. Hippolytus of Rome, The Refutation of All Heresies, Book 5, chapter 2, Macmahon Translation, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/hippolytus5.html
9. Carlson, Origen’s Use of the Gospel of Thomas https://www.academia.edu/7414722/Origens_Use_of_the_Gospel_of_Thomas
10. Layton, Gospel of Thomas Greek Fragments, translated by Hunt, Grenfell, and Layton
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on January 23, 2018:
Thank you! I just love this area of spiritual inquiry. It always strikes me that our Bible is fully inspired by God, yet the caretakers were human and fully prone to error. Gnostic is very interesting.