In the fourth century A.D. Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem gave a series of lectures to teach catechumens the main elements of the faith they were about to embrace. He warned his charges to beware of heresy. Mani ("this vessel of all uncleanness, this garbage-bin of all heresies") was his special target . "Let none read the gospel according to Thomas," he told his flock, "for it is the work, not of one of the twelve Apostles, but of one of Mani's three wicked disciples." Again, he pointed out that there are "only four gospels; for the rest are not genuine and are harmful," adding that the Manicheans also wrote a "Gospel according to Thomas," which, he says, "through the spurious odor of sanctity conferred by its title, corrupts simple folk."
It is barely possible but highly unlikely that Cyril was referring to a text that came to be known as the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas." This collection of stories about the childhood of Jesus, filling some of the enormous gaps in scriptural accounts, enjoyed wide popularity into the Middle Ages. It depicts a boy between the ages of five and twelve whose precocious knowledge and wisdom astonish his elders. He works miracles, some of which foreshadow those of his mature years, but are sometimes marked by brattishness and childish amorality. For example, he withers the hand of a boy who disturbs him at play, causes another offending playmate to drop dead, makes critics go blind. Eventually, however, he restores all to health.
The origins of the Infancy Gospel, found in many versions in several languages, are obscure and it is not known when the name of Thomas became attached to it. Most available manuscripts, we are told, date from the Middle Ages. The oldest available text, in Syriac, is from the sixth century.
Possibly related to that text is a remark by the third-century heresy-hunter Hippolytus. He says that, in a "gospel inscribed according to Thomas," a sect attributes to Jesus this saying: "Whoso seeks me shall find me in children from seven years (upward). For there, in the fourteenth year, I who am hidden will be made manifest." Hippolytus says this really comes from a saying of Hippocrates: "At seven years old, a boy is half a father." These enigmatic utterances may take on more meaning from a fuller account of the Hippocratic medical theory: up to the seventh year (when milk teeth are lost) a child has neither understanding nor logos (divine reason); between seven and fourteen human reason develops; and at fourteen the divine logos can take its place.
(There is perhaps an echo of this passage in Saying 4 of the Gospel of Thomas , in which Jesus tells his listeners that some one "old in days will not hesitate to ask a little child seven days old about the place of life.")
The other "Thomas literature" that has survived destruction and has now been rediscovered is considerable. We have noted at some length the Acts of Thomas, Gospel of Thomas , and Book of Thomas the Contender . In the Gnostic collection known as the Pistis Sophia Thomas is one of five disciples mentioned by name as recipients of post-resurrection revelations in a long dialogue with Jesus. Again, in The Dialogue of the Savior , Thomas appears (there called Judas) as one of the interlocutors of the Savior. Many of that Savior's sayings parallel those found in the Gospel . And in the much later Apocalypse of Thomas the apostle is said to relate the last seven days in terms much like those of the Revelation of John.
The order of their composition is probably:
Of this body of writing the Gospel is the most striking and has been the focus of most attention from scholars and other readers.
In a process maturing late in the second century, four different accounts of Jesus's life and teaching and passion were selected for the New Testament canon from the gospels then circulating. Apparently used in four different communities, they varied significantly among themselves and in different versions of each text. The four eventually were declared to have been divinely inspired. Other gospels -- that of Thomas among them -- were labeled apocryphal and banned.
As early as the third century Origen had commented that the difference among the manuscripts of the four canonical gospels "has become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others." (Origen noted that "the Gospel according to Thomas and the Gospel according to Matthias and many others" were in circulation.) The simple truth is that the originals of the Greek texts of the gospels that were later gathered together in the New Testament are not known. Through the centuries, especially in the early period, they were altered in many ways. Words, sentences, sometimes whole passages, have been added, deleted, or changed through scribal errors in copying or by editors and re-writers seeking to "clarify" the meaning to conform to their own views. And, apart from a few scattered phrases, the original words of Jesus, who spoke Aramaic, are nowhere preserved in the New Testament; it was written in Greek.
The resurfacing of the Thomas collection of Jesus-sayings, called by some the Fifth Gospel, raises awkward questions for traditional Christian views.. The Gospel of Thomas is evidence for an early tradition, equally as old as (perhaps even older than) those found in the long-accepted Christian canon but differing significantly from them. It now appears that an early group of Christians, perhaps more accurately at that stage called followers of Jesus, quite widespread (from Edessa through Palestine and Egypt), took a very different view of Jesus and his teachings from that which later came to be accepted as orthodox -- a different view that became suppressed and almost totally forgotten until the discovery near Nag Hammadi.
Modern scholars have taken the view that Christian scriptures developed in several stages: first, the sayings of Jesus in Aramaic were passed on by word of mouth (a stage now, of course, irrecoverably lost), then collections of the words of Jesus were translated into Greek and put in writing, sometimes in the form of dialogues in which the sayings are embedded. Then, in this view, letters of Paul developed the role of Jesus as Christ-Messiah-Redeemer, and later came the narratives in which the words of the master are woven into stories of his birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection as Christ -- the accounts found in the four canonical gospels.
In this scheme the Gospel of Thomas would belong in the second stage, as a collection of the words of Jesus, previously known by word of mouth, then put in writing, occasionally in dialogue form. To those who see a Jesus movement as a predecessor of Christian faith, this gospel ranks with parts of the supposed collection of Jesus sayings in as the earliest evidence of the words ascribed to Jesus.
In the decades after the text found at Nag Hammadi became generally available to scholars, there has been much debate among historians of religion, students of the New Testament, theologians, philologists, and other concerned specialists about how this remarkable document is related to long-accepted scriptures and the religious views based on them.
There has been a considerable degree of consensus on a few points: that the Gospel was written in Edessa, where the Acts of Judas Thomas also was later put in writing; that the Gospel was probably known in both east Syria and Egypt at least as early as the middle of the second century.
Three intertwined questions have been much debated: (1) the date, or dates, when the Gospel of Thomas was written,; (2) the degree of its dependence, if any, on the canonical gospels: (3) its compatability with traditional doctrine (Is it Gnostic or not?). If one takes as decisive the traditional view of Christianity, basing itself on scriptures chosen by the end of the second century, then the Gospel will likely be dismissed as a second-century deviation, in a Gnostic movement that was then developing. The Gospel's "parallels" (those sayings that are akin to ones found in the accepted gospels), in this orthodox view, were derived from the canonical gospels; later its non-parallels were added, and its almost-parallels edited, by second-century Gnostics. The "parallels" thus gleaned could then be taken as interesting corroborative evidence of the canonical gospels and the rest ignored.
On the other hand, if there is persuasive evidence that the Gospel of Thomas was written, and the Gnostic movement already active, in the first century, then the collection can be thought to be quite independent of the canonical gospels, from which it differs in so many respects. And many find such evidence. For example, the very fact that the Gospel was in the form of Sayings standing alone, a form that was being replaced by narratives (under the names of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) later in the first century, indicates a very early date of composition. The familiarity with Gnostic ideas shown by writings attributed to Paul and John, indicates that Gnostics were active a century or so earlier than had long been thought. The writer of John is the only evangelist to give prominence to the Twin-Twin. And the fact that the western church had fairly well defined its doctrine and scriptures and organization by the fourth century should not be allowed to obscure the fact that there were many different movements among Jesus followers in the first century.
The debate on the matter of dependence or independence is unlikely ever to be settled. Attempts to "layer" the Sayings, as originating at different periods and perhaps different places, encounter the same difficulties: no one knows with certainty the original words of any of the documents involved or the dates when the words now found first appeared.
As for the parallels or almost-parallels, there have been some first steps toward using Thomas to make some modest revisions in the traditional gospels. A group of scholars known as The Jesus Seminar has published a translation of the gospels in colloquial English, called the Scholars Version. Using such tools as philology, comparative vocabulary, style, and literary genre, and evidence of the historical setting, the Seminar tried to identify those sayings ascribed to Jesus in the gospels that are, in the combined opinion of participants, authentic. Judgments were made by majority vote. Affirmative votes were cast through use of red balls (Jesus said this) or pink (Jesus probably said this), negative votes through gray balls (Jesus did not say it, but it is somewhat related to his teaching) or black (Jesus definitely did not say this).
The Seminar has used the Gospel of Thomas as a fifth-gospel source of sayings, along with the canonical four. Members of the Seminar voted reds and pinks for a number of the logia ; the wordings in Thomas seemed to them more authentic than those found in the canonical gospels. As we might expect, however, none of those accepted are from the "non-parallel" Sayings.
The debate about the Gospel of Thomas usually centers on the question, What are the authentic words of Jesus? But readers who are not much concerned with that question, or regard it as unanswerable, may have interests of a different sort. There is, for one thing, the fascinating historical puzzle: How did the "Thomas" movement arise, and how extensive was it? And this leads to another question: What did people find appealing and satisfying in the ideas conveyed in various "Thomas" books?
"Gnosticism," says the ecumenical leader Hans Kung, "was concerned to answer the questions of the origin of evil and the way to redemption from a life of anxiety and confusion, suffering and death" and, with the help of Eastern religiosity, "offered a way of achieving a particular attitude to life which made it possible to overcome alienation and find a way out of political and social constraints."
Many people today, unconcerned with biblical scholarship, may find themselves drawn to passages in the Gospel of Thomas , not mainly because Jesus is supposed to have spoken them, but because, whoever and whatever their source, they have a force on their own and fit into a broader and very ancient form of spiritual questing. They may, like anonymous aphorisms of the Upanishads of India or of a Sufi poem, seem to give a glimpse of a reality that lies beyond the reach of reason, just as people who do not profess Christianity in any of its many forms may find Paul's discourse on love, in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians, powerful and gripping -- not because Paul wrote it, or because it appears in an accepted piece of Christian scripture, but because it rings true.
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.