Introduction to the Gospel of Thomas

Introduction to the Gospel of Thomas

Introduction to The Gospel of Thomas

Stephen J. Patterson

From the day it was unearthed by a farmer in the Nile Valley in 1945, the Gospel of Thomas has been a polarizing artifact. The peasants of Nag Hammadi fought over the ancient library that contained it. Egyptian officials had to wrestle it from the hands of thieves and smugglers. Scholars squabbled over the glory that would come with its translation and publication. And when it finally made its way to the light of day, interpreters could not agree on its significance. Was it the discovery of lifetime that would change everything we know and think about Jesus and the origins of Christianity? Or was it just another obscure heretical writing destined to become a small footnote in a monograph on Egyptian Christianity and its quirky past?

Most scholars got their first look at the Gospel of Thomas in 1959, when Antoine Guillaumont, Henri-Charles Puech, Gilles Quispel, Walter Till, and Yassah ‘Abed al Masih published it in a remarkable editio princeps that appeared simultaneously in English, French, German, and Dutch—the languages of twentieth century Europe (notably, not Arabic, the language of twentieth century Egypt.)[1] Christian Europe was then on the cusp of theological revolution, a revolution from which it has never recovered. Could believers still believe? Could they believe in miracles? Could they believe in the resurrection of the dead? Could they believe in the divinity of a human being? Modernity’s war against traditional religious beliefs was reaching a climax in the 1950s and the European churches were in the front lines of the fighting. In 1952 a general synod of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of West Germany condemned as dangerous Rudolf Bultmann’s attempt to save the church’s traditional mythology by “demythologizing” it.[2] In 1961 Gabriel Vahanian published The Death of God [3]and launched a debate that rocked the ecclesial world and drew North America into the fray. Meanwhile, in South America Catholic liberation theologians were challenging traditional Catholicism with such vigor that actual war would soon break out pitting rural campesinos against elites with deep ties to both the military and the church. Enter now the Gospel of Thomas, a gospel of radical, counter-cultural sayings, without miracles and lacking the resurrection, in which Jesus was not the Christ, the Son of God, or the Son of Man. He was just Jesus, the Living Jesus.

Gilles Quispel held up the sayings of the new gospel and waved them in the face of modern biblical criticism. Noticing just how similar they were to the sayings of Jesus in the synoptic gospels, he proclaimed that the Gospel of Thomas provided all the evidence needed to undo the historical skepticism created by Bultmann and the German Form Critics.[4] The synoptic account of the teachings of Jesus was accurate and trustworthy after all—Thomas confirmed it! Others said ‘Bah!’ to this sort of enthusiasm. Thomas was nothing of the sort. It was late, probably derived from the synoptic gospels themselves. It confirmed nothing, except the creativity of a second century heretic.[5] Still others saw in Thomas an early witness to a very different kind of nascent Christianity. Jesus in this gospel was a sage, not a savior; a teacher, not a sacrifice for sin. Could there have been followers of Jesus who took so little interest in his death and favored instead his wise teachings?[6] Just so was the discussion of Thomas’ importance bound up with the larger battles that raged across the theological landscape. Was Thomas the answer to the radicals’ prayers? Did it confirm the New Testament in the face of radical criticism? Was it just another late, heretical, idiosyncratic gospel of little or no relevance to Christian theology in the first century or the twentieth?

Now after more than 50 years, biblical scholarship is in a much different place, but Thomas is no less a polarizing subject. Now the problems of Christian origins and the historical Jesus are pursued by scores of secular scholars working in colleges and universities where matters of faith play little or no role. At the same time, especially in North America, a new generation of evangelical scholars has taken up critical biblical scholarship like never before. These new evangelicals have studied in the finest European programs, acquired the tools of scholarship, and know the literature as well as their secular colleagues. But they bring a strong religious commitment to the discipline and favor the canonical, biblical witness as a matter of faith. Thus, it should not be surprising to see that in recent years a wide gap has opened up between evangelicals, who tend to view Thomas as late, dependent on the synoptic gospels, Gnostic, and ultimately irrelevant to the question of the historical Jesus and Christian origins, and secular scholars, who are more inclined to integrate Thomas into a revised view of how Christianity began.

Thomas and the Rankling of Belief

Why should an ancient text turn out to be such a polarizing document? What is so challenging about this particular text? Traditional Protestant Christian faith revolves around two fundamental commitments: Jesus’ death on the cross as that which saves us from our sins and the Bible as the Word of God. These two commitments are intertwined in this version of Christian faith: Jesus is our savior because the Bible declares him to be so. The Gospel of Thomas troubles this view in multiple ways.

First, it is a gospel, but it is not in the Bible. Can a book that is not in the Bible really tell us anything true about Jesus? This is an important question in the history of Christian faith. In fact, this is the question that lay behind the very first impulse to create for Christianity a new set of sacred scriptures, a new Bible: Irenaeus’ four-fold gospel canon. The issue for Irenaeus as he assessed the new faith at the close of the second century was the proliferation of new voices, prophecy, and gospels, like Valentinus’ Gospel of Truth, which claimed to reveal things secretly conveyed from Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection from the dead. Irenaeus responded by arguing that the true, authentic, apostolic witness to Jesus is contained in just four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.[7] He reasoned, just as there are four regions of the world, four winds, four directions, there can be only four gospels, no more, no less. For the better part of two millennia Christian believers have agreed with Irenaeus, in spite of his quaintly antique logic. As the Christian Bible gradually took shape over the coming centuries, these four, no more, no less, comprised the true Christian witness to Jesus. Today, even among critical scholars, the discussion of who Jesus was and how Christianity began is confined for the most part to these gospels and other biblical books. The Gospel of Thomas is not in the Bible. It is a fifth gospel. It is an outlier. To trust this outsider to speak about Jesus goes against the deepest instincts of scholars embedded in the history and practice of traditional Christian faith.

A second reason lies in the content of the Gospel of Thomas itself. The four biblical gospels all agree on a certain structure to the Christian witness to Jesus. It begins with his life, but more importantly, it ends with his death and resurrection. Paul agreed with and rarefied this form: the Christian kerygma—preaching, message—was about Jesus’ death and resurrection as transformative events in the history of salvation. By his death on the cross we are saved; by his resurrection death is conquered and all who have faith will also be raised on the last day. In fact, Paul’s ideas are considerably more complicated than this, but in the history of Christian doctrine, this is the central idea to Paul and the gospels. For most Christians, historically, the notion that Christian faith centers on this single, unifying idea has been fairly important. Christianity, perhaps more than other religions, values unity, agreement, the singularity of Truth. Variety, deviation, and difference have been the occasion for argument, schism, even war. This peculiar feature of Christianity was what led Western democracies finally to the conclusion that religion and political power ought to be separated. Christian sectarians, armed with the power of the state, were simply too dangerous to their foes. But the fact that Christians in the modern world generally no longer kill one another over doctrinal disputes does not mean that their instinctual preference for unity over diversity has diminished. The Gospel of Thomas, which seems to know nothing of the Pauline kerygma, is a problem in this theological world. To think that Christian faith began not as a singular claim about a singular man, but as a variety of attempts to interpret a complex person, simply runs counter to the DNA that still lies beneath the skin of many Christian believers.

Thirdly, the Gospel of Thomas offers a way of thinking about Jesus that is different in a way that is particularly inimical to Western Christian sensibilities. The life-death-resurrection form of the Christian kerygma is fundamentally martyrological. This may have been what appealed so strongly to Irenaeus in the four gospels that would, eventually, become the biblical gospels. Irenaeus lived in a period of intense suffering for Christians. Though the Roman Empire would not engage in empire-wide and systematic persecution of Christians until a century later, from the very beginning, Christians were dissidents in an empire that did not easily accept dissent. Among their offenses was the fact that they tended not to participate in local religious ceremonies and sacrifices. They were therefore branded as atheists and as such, a threat to the Pax Deorum—the peace of the gods. While still a young man, Irenaeus would have learned of the violent death of his mentor, Polycarp of Smyrna, at the hands of Roman officials, who accused him of impiety for refusing to venerate the local gods.[8] Later Irenaeus’ own community in central Gaul was devastated by similar attacks in which dozens, including Pothinus, the bishop of Lyons, were stoned by mobs, thrown to the beasts, or beheaded by Roman officials.[9] For these early martyrs, the story of Jesus’ own death and resurrection offered a pattern by which they might understand their own lives and fate. In those years the Christian religion became an exercise in faithfulness (pistis) in the face of torture and death. This is how Christian faith became Christian faith (pistis). This period of persecution would one day pass, but the ideas of faithfulness, self-sacrifice, and redemption through suffering would endure as defining themes in Western Christianity unto the present. By contrast, Thomas offers a completely different set of themes: self-discovery, immortality through enlightenment, and living wisely. To many modern believers this just seems wrong. Could Jesus—always portrayed biblically as involved in the high drama of martyrdom—have cared about something so frivolous as self-discovery?

These differences have made it difficult for the Gospel of Thomas to crash the party and find a welcome place in the scholarship of Christian origins. But one should not assume that theology and ideology are the only problems that plague the critical discussion of this text. For even though the stance of religiously conservative and evangelical scholars on new texts like Thomas has become all too predictable, critical scholars too remain divided over the real significance of this text in particular. The reason for this lies in the critical challenges posed by the text itself, aspects of which have made it difficult for scholars to arrive at a consensus on several critical issues.

Polarizing Ambiguities

The first critical challenge posed by the Gospel of Thomas is the very obvious fact that it is a simple list of sayings.[10] Listing things is a basic form of writing. In its simplicity it is also the most malleable form of writing. If a scribe wishes to add something to a list, he or she just adds it. There is no narrative flow to worry about, no plot, no real themes. Likewise, if a scribe wishes to cut something out, he or she just leaves it out and it disappears without a trace. There are no literary aporia left behind, no redactional seams for scholars to sniff out thousands of years later, no data by which to trace the literary developments that might explain the variegated theological landscape of this mysterious and often confusing text. This being the case, how does one date Thomas? Can one really date a list? How does one describe its theology? How does one assess its potential use of sources? In all of these critical matters, what is true for one saying in the collection might not be true for another. Like the proverbial elephant of South Asian wisdom, one scholar grasps this gospel’s tail and pronounces it broom-like, while another grasps its leg and pronounces it tree-like.

A second factor is that Thomas is not really a list of sayings so much as a list of riddles. Saying 1 of the collection invites people to search for the hidden meaning of the sayings—implying that this will not be easy. Indeed it is not. Many of Thomas’ sayings are opaque to say the least, and certainly as a consequence of this, polyvalent. How can scholars reach a consensus about the theology of a text when it, by design, engenders such polyvalency? There was once a time when scholars could get away with labeling the whole thing as “Gnostic.”[11] But that will no longer do. Thomas could perhaps be the poster child for all who would like to banish the term “Gnostic” from our vocabulary, for Thomas is “Gnostic” only in that loose sense that has made the word so troublingly vague. So what shall we call it now? Polyvalence allows for a wide variety of readings. Any hope for a broad consensus about its theology is in the near-term clearly misplaced.

Finally, there is the little-appreciated problem that for most of the Gospel of Thomas we have but one exemplar, the Coptic version from Nag Hammadi Codex 2. We have no idea about the quality of this manuscript. Is it a fairly good exemplar of the text or is it filled with errors? All ancient manuscripts have some errors, which can be identified and culled out if one has another copy of the text—preferably many others. This is the case with all the texts of the New Testament. Our critical editions are the result of hundreds of collations made between different manuscripts to yield a final critical edition of the text that one may trust as pretty close to the original. With Thomas this is impossible. There are Greek fragments for only the first 36 sayings, and never do we have more than two extant witnesses for a single saying. This is a problem, say, for the question of dependence on the synoptic gospels. When Thomas seems to pick up a tiny snippet of Matthean or Lukan redaction, does this mean that Thomas’ author knew these gospels, or does it mean that somewhere along the line a scribe was influenced by his or her memory of a synoptic manuscript?

All of this adds up to an almost intractable problem: Thomas is a veritable Rorschach test for the scholar of Christian origins. Is it any wonder, then, that recent scholarship on the date of Thomas has placed it as late as 200 C.E.[12] and as early as 50 C.E.?[13] Is it inexplicable that some could see Thomas as a Gnostic gospel[14] and others as a blueprint for mysticism?[15] Some see in it a work of Jewish wisdom,[16] others the remnants of an apocalyptic sect.[17]

All of this might well lead one to throw in the towel and let this ancient artifact be. Our arguments and disputes could go on forever. But what if Thomas is too important to let go. What if it does have something interesting and important to tell us about Christian origins? What if it really does reveal something new about a figure of enormous significance in the history of western religion? What if Thomas really should change everything? After twenty-some years of studying this text I have a very strong hunch that it should. That hunch was planted, to be sure, by scholars like Helmut Koester, James M. Robinson, and Hans-Martin Schenke. They saw what Grenfell and Hunt saw at the very first glimpse of this gospel in POxy 1: sayings of Jesus of a “primitive cast”—some of them with synoptic parallels, but some of them entirely new.[18] When the whole gospel came to light a half-century later we could see that fully half of the sayings in Thomas were new. Leaving aside the question of whether the author of Thomas knew the synoptic gospels, there could be no question that all of this new material means Thomas was a gospel like John, with its own sources and its own distinct interpretation of Jesus. What is more, “new” and “distinct” did not mean “late.” Its form—the sayings collection—was not late, but ancient and common. Its theology, once labeled as “gnostic” (meaning “late and heretical”), would eventually be seen as more or less at home in the theological world of Hellenistic Judaism, where Plato’s soul and its heavenly journey home had long been embraced, and whose ideas would one day be taken into the very heart of Christianity. Thomas, it turns out, was not even all that strange. But it was interesting: a gospel different in form and theology, yet using the same building blocks available to our more familiar canonical gospels. This does not mean that Thomas must change everything. But it has left me with a very strong hunch that in the story of the Gospel of Thomas there is a chapter of Christian origins that has gone missing for many years.