The New Testament preserves four Gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These days many scholars believe that a fifth “Gospel” should be considered as highly, if not more highly, than these four Gospel accounts; this fifth “Gospel” is the Gospel of Thomas. These scholars represent a small minority but prove quite vocal, highly visible on television programs about Jesus and Christianity, and active in writing popular books on the subject. What is the Gospel of Thomas? Was it actually written by Thomas? Why is it not part of the New Testament?
The Gospel of Thomas purports to be the “hidden words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote them down” (Gospel of Thomas introduction). What follows are 114 “sayings,” aphoristic teachings of Jesus left on their own or occasionally told as very short stories or parables. Many of the sayings are consistent with teachings of Jesus in the four canonical Gospels. The Gospel of Thomas is bereft of narrative; it does not tell the story of the birth, life, death, or resurrection of Jesus.
The Gospel of Thomas is preserved in Coptic in Codex II from the discoveries at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945; the manuscript dates to around 340 CE. After its discovery and translation it became apparent that the Greek “Sayings of Jesus” (Logia Iesu) from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri were actually fragments of the Gospel of Thomas; these fragments were dated between 130 and 250 CE. Attempts to establish its authorship, time, date, provenance, and original language remain purely suppositional.
Some believe the Gospel of Thomas has great value; they claim that it is one of the earliest surviving texts about the “historical Jesus,” dating it within the first century and claiming that such “sayings” came first and stories were later developed around the sayings. In their view, the Gospel of Thomas was used later as one of the sources for the stories we find in the four canonical Gospels.
Most scholars take an opposing view of the Gospel of Thomas: they believe it dates to the second century and is dependent upon the material found in the four canonical Gospels. In this understanding, the stories came first and were later reduced to aphoristic sayings.
The latter view is most consistent with all available historical evidence. While the Gospel of Thomas was lost to us until 1945, it was known to early Christians who wrote against heresies and heretics. Hippolytus and Origen both make reference to it around 230 CE and declare it to be inconsistent with the truth (heterodox; cf. Refutation of All Heresies 5.7.20; Homilies in Luke 1). It later became a text popular among the Manicheans; Cyril of Jerusalem condemned it for that reason (ca. 350 CE; Catchesis 4.36, 6.31).
The Gospel of Thomas is rarely exotic; many of its sayings are attested in the four canonical Gospels. Its final saying, however, has proven very controversial:
Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.”
Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven (Gospel of Thomas 114).
Some scholars suggest this “saying” was added later, but such a claim is purely speculative. It speaks to the embarrassment about the theological claims made in the saying, which is consistent with Hellenistic philosophy but entirely at variance with Jesus’ practice and the views of the Apostles, let alone modern cultural sensitivities (cf. Luke 7:36-8:3, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). We have no reason to believe Jesus would have ever said such a thing, but we can certainly understand why Hellenizing Gnostics would have liked to believe that He did.
The text of the Gospel of Thomas is available in many books and online; you can read it for yourself. From the way the introduction is phrased to the final saying of the Gospel of Thomas one can detect a Gnostic flavor and emphasis to the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps indicating an origin among the proto-Gnostics condemned by Paul and John and later by Irenaeus and Tertullian (1 Timothy 6:20-21, 2 John 1:6-11). Early Christians do not speak of Thomas as having written a Gospel; when Christians come across the Gospel of Thomas they universally reject it as apocryphal and the work of those who oppose the truth of God in Jesus Christ who is fully man as well as fully God. The Gospel of Thomas was not included in the New Testament because it was not inspired Scripture; it was not written by the Apostle Thomas; it was most likely written after the Apostles had passed away; it may well have been written by people who were condemned as having apostatized from the truth of the Gospel (Galatians 1:6-9, 2 John 1:6-11). Since the Gospel of Thomas is a derivative work based on the four canonical Gospels, we can remain firm in our confidence that God has told us what we need to know about the life of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; let us stand firm in them and proclaim their truths!
Ethan R. Longhenry