The Gospel of Thomas is the most recognized of the Apocryphal Gospels in modern day academia. This was one of the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi, in 1945. The Nag Hammadi manuscripts are a collection of thirteen ancient codices containing over fifty Apocryphal texts. The most famous texts would be the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth. The Gospel of Thomas contains a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus. Some are cryptic and mysterious, others are similar to the sayings of Jesus in the original four Gospels.
The final line of this book is the most notorious out of the 114. It reads, “Jesus said… For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” We will examine this saying later in the article. The author is clearly pointing to Gnostic philosophy and rarely focuses the reader on the ministry and work of Jesus. It’s teachings seem to invite the reader to find the divine spark within themselves for further enlightment.1 The teachings are heretical in nature and rejected by almost all “orthodox” churches.
The prologue of the Gospel reads as this, “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus said and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.”2 The writer claims to be “Didymus,” which is translated “twin,” who was an eye witness to the life and ministry of Jesus. Scholars cannot seem to agree on the date of this book. Therefore, there’s a wide range to scholastic opinion. The dates given to this writing range between 50-250 AD.
Valantasis believed the difficulty in dating the book was due to the collection of logia (sayings) without a narrative framework and that individual sayings could have been added gradually over time.3 Valantasis dates Thomas from 100–110 AD, with some of the material certainly coming from the first-century which could be dated from 30–60 AD.4 J. R. Porter dates the Gospel of Thomas much later, to 250 AD.5 I have found the evidence to align more so with Valantasis’ date of 100-110 AD, or slightly after, with the understanding that some of the traditions could be much earlier.
The idea of “secrecy” or “hidden” will be a regular occurrence in this Gospel. The author is trying to portray Jesus as a man, who instructs His disciples to find hidden knowledge within themselves. The concept of “secret sayings,” mentioned in the prologue, appears to connect itself to the statements of Judas (not Iscariot) in John 14:22. The author of this book appears to connect his writings to Luke’s Gospel, as well as John’s Gospel account more often than the other two. My goal in this article is to select six of the sayings of Thomas, and compare them to the other four Gospels. Also, my goal is to evaluate the books authenticity in relation to the canon.
Jesus said, “Now the sower went out, took a handful (of seeds), and scattered them. Some fell on the road; the birds came and gathered them up. Others fell on the rock, did not take root in the soil, and did not produce ears. And others fell on thorns; they choked the seed(s) and worms ate them. And others fell on the good soil and it produced good fruit: it bore sixty per measure and a hundred and twenty per measure.”
There are five major distinctions in this parable from those in the Synoptic accounts (Mark 4:3-8; Matthew 13:3-8; Luke 8:5-8). Although all the Synoptics utilize their own emphasis of the parable, they do not contradict one another. This parable shares new ideas and information, but in some places, it contradicts the other accounts. One of the great signs of canonicity is a books ability to display the Divine attributes of God. Within those attributes, comes unity and accuracy. This account of the soils does not demonstrate unity with the others. Therefore, the Synoptics would have to be in error, though they all demonstrate unity with one another, or this Gospel account is in error.
There are five differences in this account of the soils. First, the statement of “took a handful of seeds.” The Synoptics tell the reader of “seed” being sown by the farmer, but chose not to add how much of the seed. It would seem odd in the illustration that four separate soils could be sown with just one handful of seed. One would imagine that a plot of land attempting to produce a bountiful crop would require more than one handful of seed. Second, the author chooses to add the statement “did not produce ears” in relation to the seed falling on rock (which lines up with Luke’s account). Grant and Freedmon said this in relation to not producing ears, “We are confronting a combination of this parable with the Naassene doctrine of the heavenward ascent of the good seed.”6
Thirdly, the author adds the detail of worms coming to eat the seeds after the thorns choked them out. Grant and Freedmon contend that this is in reference to the worm of Gehenna (cf. Mark 9:48) seeing that Gnostics believe hell is on earth. This assertion would seem to answer the randomness of including “worms” into the parable. If the thorns were enough to kill the seed, why would one need further destruction added to the illustration? Ultimately, Jesus was emphasizing the purpose for which “disciples” no longer followed Him. They were choked out by the cares of this life and self-indulgence.
Fourthly, the highest number of produce from the seed that fell on good soil. Luke chooses to focus on the highest potential of one hundred fold. Mark focuses on three potential crops: thirty, sixty, and one hundred fold. Matthew focuses on three as well with a reversed order: one hundred, sixty, and thirty fold. The Gospel of Thomas focuses on two numbers: sixty per measure and one hundred and twenty per measure. There is no dispute to the sixty, but there is to the one hundred and twenty. All the Synoptics agree that the highest produced crop could reach one hundred fold. This Gospel teaches it could go higher. The progression would logically make more sense from the Gospel of Thomas, on the basis that one hundred and twenty is double of sixty. If one were to combine all four accounts, it would stand to reason that thirty, sixty, and one hundred and twenty would fit better than thirty, sixty, and one hundred. The question is what did Jesus say? Three witnesses are unified in their testimony of Jesus. Whereas, the Gospel of Thomas stands alone, without support, within this contradiction.
Fifthly, it should be noted by the reader, that the author chooses to omit Jesus’ interpretation of this parable to His disciples. The Synoptic Gospels did not hesitate to inform the reader that this parable was given so that only Jesus’ disciples could know “the mysteries of the kingdom.” One would think, that this would be a perfect opportunity for the author of this Gospel, to place a high emphasis on “the mystery” factor. It is clear that the idea of “mystery” and “hidden” are completely different in the minds of the writers of the canonical Gospels, in comparison to the writer of this Gospel. Though there are elements of unity in this parable, there are enough differences in this parable theologically to reject it as viable.
The disciples said to Jesus, “We know that you will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?” Jesus said to them, “Wherever you are, you are to go to James the righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.”
Thomas is recording a dialogue between Jesus and His disciples more than likely after Jesus announced His departure in John 14. It is astonishing to see how Thomas wrote that the leadership role would pass to James the Righteous (the half brother of Jesus), rather than the Holy Spirit, as John described in John 14. Grant and Freedmon conclude that this ideology of James the Righteous, being the leader, originated from the Gospel of the Hebrews and the Naassene tradition.7
The most striking assertion in this saying is the last phrase. Thomas is insinuating that heaven and earth came into being for the sake of James the Righteous. This stands in complete opposition to John 1 and Colossians 1. The proper exegesis of these Biblical passages will point to the fact that everything came into being by Christ, and for Christ. It must also been acknowledged, that Paul did not see James the Righteous as the only one to whom the Apostles were to follow, after Jesus departed. He recognized the three pillars of the church as: Peter, John, and James the Righteous (Gal. 2:9). It is clear that in the mind of the Apostle Paul, that it was the Holy Spirit who would lead all of these men, but that the church as a whole would rally behind the leadership of these three men, not just James.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like.” Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a righteous angel.” Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.” Thomas said to him, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like.” Jesus said, “I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.” And he took him and withdrew and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?” Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.”
This is one of the most intriguing narratives in the entire book. This account completely deviates from the canonical Gospels. Thomas steals the climactic moment from Peter’s great affirmation of who Jesus was in His essence. It uses strange analogies of “intoxication” and “bubbling springs.” In this story, Jesus inquires of His disciples to whom they would compare Him to. All three of the Synoptic accounts demonstrate Jesus asking a similar version of this question.
The Synoptics only record one person, by name, who gave the correct answer, and that was Peter. The disciples as a whole answered with names such as: Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets raised from the dead. However, Thomas tells us that Peter spoke first and answered incorrectly. He compared Jesus to a righteous angel. In the Synoptic accounts, Peter was not the first to answer, but the last. The second to respond in the Gospel of Thomas is Matthew. He answered that Jesus was a philosopher, which was also incorrect. I find it strange that the two who speak incorrectly about the person of Christ are two of the Apostles behind two of the Synoptic accounts. Most church fathers from the first-century on would agree that Peter was the man behind the Gospel of Mark. Bishop Papias of Hierapolis (60-130 AD) claimed often that Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome as he scribed the preaching of Peter.8 Irenaeus (130-200 AD) also claimed that Mark penned his Gospel, as a scribe for Peter. Other’s such as Tertullian, Eusebius, Justin Martyr, Clement, and Origen all attributed Mark’s Gospel to Peter. It is a safe conclusion from history, to attribute Mark’s Gospel to the oral teachings of Peter.
With this being established, I will continue to draw out the intriguing connection between the two who spoke incorrectly about the person of Christ. Matthew gives a Greek answer, by saying philosophy, though he often demonstrated his writings to be more Jewish. This would appear to be a slanderous moment that the author of this Gospel chose to use against the other two Apostles. It’s almost as if Thomas is saying his record of Jesus is better. All this is because he was given “secret information,” by Jesus, that the others were not. No one can say for certain the motive, but for this Gospel to deviate so far from the Synoptics, one must question the reasoning.
In this account, Thomas becomes the hero in the story. However, Thomas is corrected by Jesus for calling Him “Master.” Jesus desires for His disciples to know that when knowledge is imparted to them, they become His friends rather than His servants. It would appear that Thomas was the only one to benefit from this knowledge. Jesus pulls him aside and tells him “three things” which no one to this day knows for certain. In fact, the other disciples asked Thomas what Jesus told him. Thomas responded, “If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me.”
This secret knowledge (“bubbling springs”) was only shared with Thomas and poured out to him in abundance (“intoxicated”). The illumination that came from these three statements was so powerful that it would make the other disciples jealous to the point of murder. If this was not strange enough, the stones that would kill Thomas would then shoot out fire and burn up the other Apostles.
Jesus said to them, “If you fast, you will give rise to sin for yourselves; and if you pray, you will be condemned; and if you give alms, you will do harm to your spirits. When you go into any land and walk about in the districts, if they receive you, eat what they will set before you, and heal the sick among them. For what goes into your mouth will not defile you, but that which issues from your mouth – it is that which will defile you.”
There are three aspects of this saying that are relatable to the Sermon on the Mount. The connection between fasting, praying, and giving alms demonstrates the writers conflation between Matthew 5-7 and Luke 10:7-9. Jesus taught that fasting, praying, and giving alms was a benefit to the believer in the canonical accounts. In this Gospel, it is seen as a negative. Fasting produces a higher desire to sin. Gnostics did not see restraint of desire as a good practice. Praying, according to Thomas, brings condemnation. Giving alms harms one’s spirit.
In the second portion of this saying, Thomas draws the parallels between his narrative and Luke’s narrative. As Jesus sent out His disciples, to share the good news, He instructed them to react in specific ways on the basis of their acceptance or rejection. Thomas is informing the reader that they should eat anything that is set before them, just as Luke informed his audience. There appears to be a mistake on the part of Thomas, which would prove that this Gospel is a forgery. The writer was clearly quoting Luke 10 and apparently included the phrase “and heal the sick among them.” This was not Gnostic like in its nature. This is the only place in this Gospel where healing is mentioned in this type of context. Grant and Freedmon write, “The statement about healing the sick has nothing to do with the context in Thomas; It is only relevant to Luke’s collection of sayings. Therefore, Thomas copied from Luke.”9
His disciples said to him, “Show us the place where you are, since it is necessary for us to seek it.” He said to them, “Whoever has ears, let him hear. There is light within a man of light, and he lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is darkness.”
This question to Jesus comes with great interest. His disciples were inquiring of a pursuit of “the place” where Jesus would be. This request may be better understand as the their desire to see the Father. Just as Philip, in John 14:8 asked, “show us the Father.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus points to Himself by replying, “He that has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). In this Gospel, Jesus points to the inner light within them. Once again, we see the differences between the theology of the canon and the Gnostic Gospels. The canon teaches us that man is lost in darkness and will not come to the light (John 3:18-20; Rom. 3:9-20). There is no inner light within man to pursue. Only the light of the Gospel can transform the children of darkness into Christ’s glorious light (1 Peter 2:9).
Simon Peter said to him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
A unique reading is presented by Peter’s statement, to Jesus, about Mary. One would presume, that this is a reference to Mary Magdalene, since the Gnostics were enamored with her existence. There appears to be a change of gender requirement in order for someone to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The Gnostic faith differs as to the meaning of this saying. Gerd Ludemann suggests that this saying was added much later in order to complement the various Gnostic ascetic texts in circulation.10
R. McL. Wilson writes, “… ‘the high point of Thomas’ eschatology is thus reached, at the end of his gospel, with the obliteration of sex.’ It should, however, be added that this is a point of difference among the Gnostic sects. In Valentinianism, for example, the souls of the elect enter into the Pleroma (spiritual universe as the abode of God) not as bridegrooms but as the brides of the angels. The basic conception is, however, the same.”11 Regardless of the date behind saying 114, it is clear that teaching fits the agenda behind Gnosticism. The body is inherently evil and true salvation comes by escaping the body. Becoming a spirit and obliterating gender is the ultimate salvation for a Gnostic.
Thomas, along with other non-canonical books, fails to meet the criteria of a canonical model. The greatest method of examining a books viability for canonicity is to test it against a self-authenticating model. There are other methods of canonicity such as: the Roman Catholic model, historical model, canonical-criticism model, and others. Regardless of one’s methodology of canonicity, most models would reject the Gospel of Thomas. Under the banner of self-authenticating model, there are three criteria.
First, it must have Divine attributes of God within its pages. As we have seen from sayings 9, 14, and others, this Gospel fails to meet those expectations. It lacks unity not only within itself, but also with other canonical books. Second, it must be traced back to the Apostles. This document came much later in history after all the Apostles had died. It is certainly not the Apostle Thomas. Even the unbelieving scholars would affirm this notion. As stated in the introduction, the earliest date that can be accurately given to this Gospel is 100-120 AD.
Third, it must be corporately received, by the church, as a whole. The fact that these Apocryphal Gospels disappeared for nearly 1500 years, would indicate that the churches throughout the ages rejected these books. Only the four canonical Gospels were transcribed and translated continuously throughout the church age. Not only that, the canonical Gospels are the only ones that can be traced back to the Apostles, in the first-century.
The Gospel of Thomas should be rejected as canonical. It fails all three aspect of a self-authenticating model. Though there are statements of truth that align themselves with the canonical Gospels, it must be seen as a forgery, with a Gnostic influence. It is clear by its content, that it was operating not as an independent Gospel, but as a copy of the original four with added nuances. Its content should also be seen as heretical. Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, not only labeled the Gospel of Thomas as heretical, but also as “wicked and impious.”12
In closing, how should Christians treat this book? I believe it is time for Christians to remove the ignorance of these types of writings. These books must be examined and weighed against the truth. Dan Brown and others have popularized these books, by selling millions of books, and making millions of dollars off of movies that popularized these teachings. Ignorance has plagued the American churches when it comes to the history of how the Christian faith received the canon. These books should drive the believer to love, study, and appreciate the four Gospels in the canon, that much more.
Dr. Stephen Boyce Th.D.
1 Gospel of Thomas, line 70, translated by Thomas O. Lambdin
2. All quotations from the Gospel of Thomas are taken from the Thomas O. Lambdin translation
3. Patterson, Robinson, and Bethge (1998), p. 40
4. Valantasis, p. 20
5. Porter, J. R. (2010). The Lost Bible. New York: Metro Books. p. 9
6. Grant and Freedmon, The Secret Sayings of Jesus, pp. 127-128
7. Grant and Freedmon, The Secret Sayings of Jesus, p.131
8. Ecclesiastical History Book 2 Chapter 15, Book 3 Chapter 30, and Book 6 Chapter 14
9. Grant and Freedmon, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, pp 185-186
10. Gerd Ludemann, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 644
11. R. McL. Wilson, Studies in the Gospel of Thomas, p. 32. Parenthesis is mine
12. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.25.1-7