The Gospel of Thomas (GT) is an “anthology of 114 ‘obscure sayings’ of Jesus, which according to its prologue, were collected and transmitted by St. Didymus Jude Thomas” (Miller). This text is found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Nowadays, there is no consensus on the time of the gospel’s creation − some of the scholars consider it a monument of the first century AD or earlier, while others think it was composed about 140 AD (Miller).
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The Catholic church does not include the GT in the list of canonical texts, and some theologians perceive it as insufficiently credible and even heretical. In the given paper, the main structural and semantic differences between the GT and the canonical Biblical texts will be discussed to identify why the gospel was not accepted by the Catholic church and was often regarded as an inferior manuscript.
The content and structure of the GT are crucial to the understanding of the suggested problem. Some researchers consider that the gospel is nothing but the original record of Christ’s words. At the beginning of the GT, it is mentioned that the included verses “are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke” (“The ‘Scholar’s Translation’ of the Gospel of Thomas” [The GT]). The given statement suggests that there was no need to write down the narratives about the life of Jesus as he was still alive then and, therefore, only his actual words were important.
Based on this, one may presume that only several decades after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of the Savior, when almost none of those who knew him personally remained alive, it became necessary to record the testimonies of his life combining them with the earlier collections of sayings and parables. The given presumption supports the idea that the canonical Evangelical genre developed only after the GT was created.
Nevertheless, the evidence shows there may be some interdependences between the GT and other canonical text including the Gospel of Mark because the former has multiple references to the parables included in the latter (Miller). However, if there are some parallels between the GT and other gospels, why is it not regarded as the canonical manuscript? One of the possible reasons for this is that the gospel contains Gnostic values and views.
Gnosticism is a religious movement that was especially widespread at the beginning of the Christian era between the first and the fourth centuries. Gnostics consider that true Christian teaching and knowledge is a privilege accessible only to some followers (Pagels). In their opinion, the spiritual knowledge they receive is a gift from God and can be transmitted merely from one follower to another. Gnostics usually describe the experience of a religious revelation as illumination and awakening. For them, the religion is a means for realizing the true nature of self. In a way, such an approach corresponds with the mystical Indian tradition of enlightenment.
In the modern literature, Gnosticism has many negative connotations:
- “Gnostics were variously characterized as alienated rebels, nihilistically opposed to the world-affirming values of their day, as immoral and impious perverts of divine Scripture, or as individualistic elitists who thought they were spiritually superior to everyone else and hence need not obey priests and bishops” (King 8).
Gnostics’ perception of religion as a privilege is one of the major aspects that differentiate it from the canonical tradition in which faith and spirituality are accessible to and intrinsic with every human being. Nevertheless, Wynne states that the secrecy and limited inheritance of Jesus’ teaching is a necessity because it opposes the mainstream Judaism (63). Since his sayings disagree with the ideas of Jewish spiritual leaders, to avoid punishment, the followers of Jesus have to establish a covert sect.
It is possible to say that the main difference between the canonical biblical texts including the Gospel of John and the GT is that the former is much more Christocentric. In other words, the figure of Jesus acquires a central significance in those texts. Thomas also holds the figure of Jesus in reverence but, in his gospel, Christ is conceived rather as a teacher. The GT does not speak about Jesus as of a deity but instead of how his teaching allows people to reveal the divine light hidden in them, overcome internal and external conflicts and contradictions, make the Earth a more harmonious place.
The lack of understanding of the context in which the GT was composed, may lead to misinterpretation of the messages conveyed in it. For instance, it may appear that some sayings included in the GT contradict the Christian ideals, e.g., humility, compassion, and so on.
“Jesus said, ‘Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [And after they have reigned they will rest.]” (The GT).
The call for “reigning over all” does not go along well with such genuinely Christian values as equality and fraternity. Thus, from the point of view of Catholic theologians, the GT can serve to encourage a person to pursue selfish goals.
Overall, in the spirit of Gnosticism, in his gospel, Thomas makes an accent on the search for truth. Conversely, the canonical texts focus on compassion, brotherhood, and love. Moreover, Gnostics see Jesus as an incarnation of God and cannot accept the fact that he could suffer on the cross. Therefore, the Crucifixion is not mentioned in the GT. On the contrary, in canonical texts, Crucifixion is represented as a pivotal moment and an essential Christian symbol of compassion, spiritual perseverance, and faith. For instance, in John 13:34-35, Jesus says: “A new command I give you: Love one another.
As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (New International Version). This commandment is given by Jesus the evening before the Crucifixion after he predicted the betrayal. In the verse, love to each other implies the divine love − the love of a person who is in close relationships with God, who is humble and able to accept misfortunes, injustice, and grief constantly present on the Earth.
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At the same time, in the GT, one cannot find any allusions to compassion and unity.Instead, the sayings seem to emphasize the confrontation and solitude of human beings. For instance, “for there will be five in a house: there’ll be three against two and two against three, father against son and son against father, and they will stand alone” (The GT). Nevertheless, the sayings are written in a “deceptive style of mixed metaphors and unexplained generalizations” (Wynne 63). Thus, there is a chance that the unexpressed in the GT conceals much more than it seems at first glance.
It is possible to say that the GT is regarded as heresy from the traditional perspective mainly because it disagrees with the dominant ideas inherent with the mainstream culture of that time. The fact that the sayings encourage followers to engage in solitary work without relying on priests and the church is one of the decisive factors defining the non-canonical character of the text. However, unlike the majority of non-canonical gospels, the GT provides researchers and theologians with sufficiently credible additional information. Moreover, it provides an alternative perspective on the teaching of Jesus. Thus, the GT has an unarguable value for the study of the early Christianity and Gnosticism.
Holy Bible: New International Version. Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.
King, Karen L. What is Gnosticism? The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.
Miller, Glen. “What is the Gospel of Thomas?” A Christian Thinktank. 1996. Web.
Pagels, Elaine. Beyond belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Random House, 2005.
“The ‘Scholar’s Translation’ of the Gospel of Thomas.” A Christian Thinktank. Web.
Wynne, A. G. The Gospel of Thomas Revealed: Jesus Rejected Judaism. Why? IUniverse, 2008.