Lost Gospels: The Gospel of Thomas

  • Question from GT, United Kingdom

    What is the Gospel of Thomas? Is it any use to Christians? Are there any other books written in Biblical times that aren’t in the Bible, but which could help Christians today?

    There are many writings that have survived from Biblical periods and the Gospel of Thomas is one of them. These books are often referred to as ‘apocryphal’, which literally means ‘hidden’. They are a varied collection of writings; ‘wise sayings’, ‘historical’ stories written from a theological slant, prophecies and morality tales.

    The Gospel of Thomas is one of the best known apocryphal books from the New Testament era. It dates from somewhere in the first two centuries AD. It was one of 52 works discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Egypt as part of an extensive library of Coptic texts that originally belonged to the ancient Christian monastery at Chenoboskion. The majority of these works show definite traits of Gnosticism.

    Gnosticism was a religious movement dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom through secret knowledge (the Greek word ‘gnosis’ means knowledge). It was a ‘movement’ in the loosest sense of the term – it actually varied a great deal from straight-forward philosophy through to eccentric mysticism. Various Christian communities undoubtedly contained a few people who had flirted with Gnosticism, although historians now refer to Gnosticism as a ‘tendency’ rather than a world-view.

    While many people regard the Gospel of Thomas as a lost ‘Gnostic gospel’, FF Bruce believes it is only “indirectly Gnostic” (see The Books and the Parchments pp262-3). It contains 114 sayings attributed to Jesus and according to the preface they are ‘the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote them down’ (quoted in Bruce, op cit). Each of the sayings is prefaced by ‘Jesus said’ and several are paralleled in the four canonical gospels we are familiar with. A few sayings are unique and Clement of Alexandria, another Patristic writer, quotes one of the sayings as well – although he ascribed it to the Gospel according to the Hebrews.

    The New Testament as we have it now is the ‘norm’ produced by the earliest Christian communities. They are the documents regarded by those Christians as the most reliable and all have some apostolic link (traditionally John-Mark was a scribe to Peter, Luke was a companion of Paul etc.). Documents like the Gospel of Thomas may have some insights into the life of these early communities, but whether they have anything to say in our situation is another matter. The tradition of the church down through the centuries is that these books are not totally reliable. They might contain genuine sayings of Jesus, there is no way to be sure. However, that has not stopped wacky individuals on the cultic fringe using them to further their own theories.

    The real problem with using any of this literature is that we know even less about the authorship, context and what influenced it than we do about the canonical books. Given the endless scholarly debates about the four Gospels, of which we have thousands of early examples, the likelihood that we will ever fully understand where the Gospel of Thomas is coming from is slim.

    I hope this answers your question. GT. Thanks for contributing to freelance theology.

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