Gnostic Writings:


Information on Gospel of Thomas

For information on the individual sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, please take a look at the Collected Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas web page.

The Gospel of Thomas is extant in three Greek fragments and one Coptic manuscript. The Greek fragments are P. Oxy. 654, which corresponds to the prologue and sayings 1-7 of the Gospel of Thomas; P. Oxy. 1, which correponds to the Gospel of Thomas 26-30, 77.2, 31-33; and P. Oxy. 655, which corresponds to the Gospel of Thomas 24 and 36-39. P. Oxy 1 is dated shortly after 200 CE for paleographical reasons, and the other two Greek fragments are estimated to have been written in the mid third century. The Coptic text was written shortly before the year 350 CE.

Ron Cameron comments on the textual integrity of Thomas (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 6, p. 535):

Substantial differences do exist between the Greek fragments and the Coptic text. These are best explained as variants resulting from the circulation of more than one Greek edition of Gos. Thom. in antiquity. The existence of three different copies of the Greek text of Gos. Thom. does give evidence of rather frequent copying of this gospel in the 3d century. According to the critical edition of the Greek text by Attridge (in Layton 1989: 99), however, even though these copies do not come from a single ms, the fragmentary state of the papyri does not permit one to determine whether any of the mss "was copied from one another, whether they derive independently from a single archetype, or whether they represent distinct recensions." It is clear, nevertheless, that Gos. Thom. was subject to redaction as it was transmitted. The presence of inner-Coptic errors in the sole surviving translation, moreover, suggests that our present Gos. Thom. is not the first Coptic transcription made from the Greek. The ms tradition indicates that this gospel was appropriated again and again in the generations following its composition. Like many other gospels in the first three centuries, the text of Gos. Thom. must be regarded as unstable.

Ron Cameron comments on the attestation to Thomas (op. cit., p. 535):

The one incontrovertible testimonium to Gos. Thom. is found in Hippolytus of Rome (Haer. 5.7.20). Writing between the years 222-235 C.E., Hippolytus quoes a variant of saying 4 expressly stated to be taken from a text entitled Gos. Thom. Possible references to this gospel by its title alone abound in early Christianity (e.g. Eus. Hist. Eccl. 3.25.6). But such indirect attestations must be treated with care, since they might refer to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Parallels to certain sayings in Gos. Thom. are also abundant; some are found, according to Clement of Alexandria, in the Gospel of the Hebrews and the Gospel of the Egyptians. However, a direct dependence of Gos. Thom. upon another noncanonical gospel is problematic and extremely unlikely. The relationship of Gos. Thom. to the Diatessaron of Tatian is even more vexed, exacerbated by untold difficulties in reconstructing the textual basis of Tatian's tradition, and has not yet been resolved.

In Statistical Correlation Analysis of Thomas and the Synoptics, Stevan Davies argues that the Gospel of Thomas is independent of the canonical gospels on account of differences in order of the sayings.

In his book, Stephen J. Patterson compares the wording of each saying in Thomas to its synoptic counterpart with the conclusion that Thomas represents an autonomous stream of tradition (The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus, p. 18):

The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus: Buy at! If Thomas were dependent upon the synoptic gospels, it would be possible to detect in the case of every Thomas-synoptic parallel the same tradition-historical development behind both the Thomas version of the saying and one or more of the synoptic versions. That is, Thomas' author/editor, in taking up the synoptic version, would have inherited all of the accumulated tradition-historical baggage owned by the synoptic text, and then added to it his or her own redactional twist. In the following texts this is not the case. Rather than reflecting the same tradition-historical development that stands behind their synoptic counterparts, these Thomas sayings seem to be the product of a tradition-history which, though exhibiting the same tendencies operative within the synoptic tradition, is in its own specific details quite unique. This means, of course, that these sayings are not dependent upon their synoptic counterparts, but rather derive from a parallel and separate tradition.

Ron Cameron argues for the independence of Thomas (op. cit., p. 537):

Those who argue that Gos. Thom. is dependent on the Synoptics not only must explain the differences in wording and order, but also give a reason for Gos. Thom.'s choice of genre and the absence of the gospels' narrative material in the text. To assert, for example, that Gos. Thom. erased the passion narratives because Gnosticism was concerned solely with a redeeming message contained in words of revelation (Haenchen 1961: 11) is simply not convincing, since the Apocryphon of James (NHC I, 2), the Second treatise of the Great Seth (NHC VII, 2), and the Apocalypse of Peter (NHC VII, 3) all indicate that sayings of and stories about the death and resurrection of Jesus were reinterpreted by various gnostic groups. For any theory of dependence of Gos. Thom. on the NT to be made plausible, one must show that the variations in form and content of their individual sayings, together with the differences in genre and structure of their entire texts, are intential modifications of their respective parallels, designed to serve a particular purpose.

On dating, Ron Cameron states (op. cit., p. 536):

Determining a plausible date of composition is speculative and depends on a delicate weighing of critical judgments about the history of the transmission of the sayings-of-Jesus tradition and the process of the formation of the written gospel texts. The earliest possible date would be in the middle of the 1st century, when sayings collections such as the Synoptic Sayings Gospel Q first began to be compiled. The latest possible date would be toward the end of the 2d century, prior to the copying of P. Oxy. 1 and the first reference to the text by Hippolytus. If Gos. Thom. is a sayings collection based on an autonomous tradition, and not a gospel harmony conflated from the NT, then a date of composition in, say, the last decades of the 1st century would be more likely than a mid-to-late-2d-century date.

Ron Cameron states on the provenance of Thomas (op. cit., p. 536):

The fact that Judas "the Twin" was the apostolic figure particularly revered in Syriac-speaking churches is important evidence for the date and place of composition of the text. For as Koester (in Layton 1989: 39) has shown, Gos. Thom.'s identification of this author as Jesus' brother Judas does not presuppose a knowledge of the NT, but "rests upon an independent tradition." In addition, the peculiar, redundant name Didymus Judas Thomas seems to be attested only in the East, where the shadowy disciple named Thomas (Mark 3:18 par.; John 14:5) or Thomas Didymus (John 11:16; 20:24; 21:2) was identified with Judas in the Syriac NT and called Judas Thomas (John 14:22). The occurrence of variants of this distinctive name in the Acts of Thomas is especially striking, not only because the latter evidently shows acquaintance with Gos. Thom. 2, 13, 22, and 52, but also because it is widely held that the Acts of Thomas was composed in Syriac in the early 3d century. Other documents that invoke the authority of Judas Thomas by name are also of Syriac origin, such as the Teaching of Addai, the Abgar legend (Eus. Histl. Eccl. 1.13.1-22), and the Book of Thomas the Contender (NHC II, 7).

Accordingly, the naming of Judas Thomas as the ostensible author of Gos. Thom. serves to locate the likely composition of the text in a bilingual environment in E. Syria.

Patterson writes on the dating and provenance of Thomas (op. cit., p. 120):

While the cumulative nature of the sayings collection understandably makes the Gospel of Thomas difficult to date with precision, several factors weigh in favor of a date well before the end of the first century: the way in which Thomas appeals to the authority of particular prominent figures (Thomas, James) against the competing claims of others (Peter, Matthew); in genre, the sayings collection, which seems to have declined in importance after the emergence of the more biographical and dialogical forms near the end of the first century; and its primitive christology, which seems to presuppose a theological climate even more primitive than the later stages of the synoptic sayings gospel, Q. Together these factors suggest a date for Thomas in the vicinity of 70-80 C.E. As for its provenance, while it is possible, even likely, that an early version of this collection associated with James circulated in the environs of Jerusalem, the Gospel of Thomas in more or less its present state comes from eastern Syria, where the popularity of the apostle Thomas (Judas Didymos Thomas) is well attested.

Ron Cameron comments (op. cit., p. 540):

Gos. Thom. took Jesus seriously as a teacher who spoke with authority. It celebrated his memory by preserving sayings in his name that sanctioned the formation of a distinctive community. The gospel locates its group's position within the Christian tradition as an independent Jesus movement, which persisted over the course of several generations of social history without becoming an apocalyptic or kerygmatic sect. Authorized by interpreting the written legacy of Jesus, Gos. Thom. maintained its autonomy and distinct identity by acts of creative attribution. Jesus was characterized as the embodiment of Wisdom; his words, which could harness the very power of the universe, offered her path of 'knowing' as an investment of the imagination. Gos. Thom. defines the role of its community in constructing the fabric of society as a process of sapiental insight and research. The gospel, therefore, charts the course of salvation as a study in interpretation, providing the elixir of life to those for whom the secret of the kingdom is disclosed in the interpretation of Jesus' words.

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