The Gospel of Thomas—So-Called
Recently I received an e-mail from Dr. Paterson Brown who is affiliated with the Ecumenical Coptic Project in Athens, Greece. He forwarded to me copies of the so-called “Coptic Gospels” of Thomas, Phillip, and Truth. With reference to the “Gospel of Thomas,” Dr. Brown wrote:
Significantly, Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard University, speaking as President of the Society of Biblical Literature (U.S.A.), has declared that “nearly all biblical scholars in the United States agree that Thomas is as authentic as the New Testament Gospels.”
“Authentic”? In what sense? Certainly not “authentic” in the sense that the “Gospel of Thomas” carries the same credibility as the canonical Gospel records Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There is considerable evidence that the document that is called the “Gospel of Thomas” was not authored by the apostle who bore that name.
What are the facts relative to this ancient text that has caused such a sensation in recent years?
Compiled in the Second Century
In 1945, an archaeological excavation at Nag Hammadi in Central Egypt yielded a collection of 13 papyrus codices (books) totaling over 1,100 pages. One of these contained the “Gospel of Thomas” in the Coptic language. In this form it dates from about A.D. 350.
However, the original work apparently is older since three Greek papyri from the Oxyrhynchus collection (c. A.D. 150) contain fragments of the narrative. It is thus believed that the original “Gospel of Thomas” was compiled about A.D. 140, probably in Edessa, Syria. Some scholars push the date a little later (A.D. 150-200).
There is no evidence that this work existed in the first century, even though those associated with the bogus “Jesus Seminar” so allege.
Beware of “secret sayings”
“Thomas” consists of a collection of 114 “sayings of Jesus,” that are supposed to be a “secret” revelation the Lord gave to the apostle Thomas. That “secret” business itself ought to be a red flag!
Some of these sayings repeat the words of Christ from the canonical Gospel accounts. About 40 of them are entirely new. Most scholars believe that the “Gospel of Thomas” is significantly contaminated with the ancient heretical philosophy known as Gnosticism (Cameron, p. 539).
Occasionally, some very absurd language is put into the Lord’s mouth by means of this document. Here is an example:
Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary (Magdalene) go out from among us, because women are not worthy of the Life.”
Jesus said: “See I shall lead her, so that I will make her male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Saying 114, Funk, p. 532; see also Yamauchi, p. 186).
Does that even remotely resemble the dignified status that women are afforded in the New Testament?
The “Gospel of Thomas” — An Apparent Fraud
R.K. Harrison has well noted that this apocryphal work “cannot in any sense be called a ‘fifth gospel’” (Blaiklock & Harrison, p. 450). It is readily apparent that the so-called Gospel of Thomas has no place in the inspired canon, and history has been correct in rejecting it – some modern “scholars” to the contrary notwithstanding.
There are, however, two important points to be made in this connection.
- The dependence of the “Thomas” upon the canonical Gospel records clearly indicates that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were recognized as the authoritative sources of information regarding Jesus of Nazareth.
- The fact that the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were available to a writer in Syria, in the mid-second century A.D., is dramatic evidence of the widespread distribution of the sacred documents in the early years of Christian history.
The twenty-seven New Testament books are the only inspired records of the Christian age that have come down to us. Obviously, in the providential operations of God, they represent what we were intended to have, to completely qualify us for Christian identity and service (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
- Blaiklock, E.M. & Harrison, R.H. (1983),The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
- Cameron, Ron (1992), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, David N. Freedman, Ed. (New York: Doubleday), Vol. 6.
- Funk, Robert W. & Hoover, Roy W. (1993), The Five Gospels — What Did Jesus Really Say? (New York: Macmillan).
- Yamauchi, E.M. (1979), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia — Revised (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Volume One.
- See also: Glenn Miller, August 24, 1996
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.