The Sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas

Simon Gathercole examines the enigmatic Gospel of Thomas


This third-century papyrus leaf—known as POxy 1—was discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt and contains sayings of Jesus written in Greek. Scholars later determined the text was from the elusive Gospel of Thomas referenced by early Church Fathers. Photo: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Jesus says, “Blessed is the lion that a person will eat and the lion will become human.”

Jesus says, “Every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

These bizarre statements are two of the 114 sayings of Jesus found in the Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas is a non-canonical collection of the sayings of Jesus reputed to have been dictated to the apostle Thomas. In “The Gospel of Thomas: Jesus Said What?” in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole examines what these 114 sayings of Jesus reveal about the early Christian world in which they were written.

A work called the Gospel of Thomas has long been known from references by Church Fathers as far back as the third century. What was actually in the Gospel of Thomas, however, remained elusive until the 20th century. Excavations at an ancient garbage dump in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, around the turn of the 20th century uncovered papyri fragments containing sayings of Jesus that had been dictated—the papyri claimed—by Jesus to his disciple Thomas. Scholars date these papyri to the early to mid-third century C.E.

Did these Greek fragments from Oxyrhynchus belong to the Gospel of Thomas? The discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in late 1945 to early 1946 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, verified that the Oxyrhynchus fragments were indeed from the Gospel of Thomas: In one of the Nag Hammadi codices was a complete Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas’s sayings of Jesus.

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oxyrhynchus-mapIs the Gospel of Thomas “Gnostic”? Were these sayings of Jesus attributed to a religious group—“the Gnostics”—who offered an alternate view of early Christianity? Simon Gathercole unpacks the meaning of these questions in his BAR article:

Those who have thought that Thomas is Gnostic have seized upon the negative views of the body and the world evident in the book. And it is certainly true that the body and the world are seen in a negative light in Thomas. For example, in talking about the fact that the soul or spirit has come into the body, Jesus says: “I do marvel at how this great wealth has come to dwell in this poverty!” (Gospel of Thomas 28.3). The opposition of “wealth” and “poverty” shows up the sharp contrast between the precious soul and the worthless body. Jesus is similarly negative about the material cosmos: “Whoever has come to know the world has found a corpse” (Gospel of Thomas 56.1). In Thomas, to be dead like a corpse is to be in the realm of ultimate perdition; to be classed as “dead” is about as bad an insult as can be hurled.

Nevertheless, it has always been something of an embarrassment for the “Gnostic” view of Thomas that there is no talk of an evil demiurge, a creation that is intrinsically evil, or of other familiar themes such as “aeons” (a technical term for the divine realms in the heavens). […] But neither does it work to see Thomas as simply a stone’s throw from the kind of Christianity or Christianities evident in the New Testament and in “apostolic fathers” such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius and Polycarp.

What else does the Gospel of Thomas say? Click here to read the 114 sayings of Jesus as translated by Stephen J. Patterson and James M. Robinson. And learn more about the Gospel of Thomas and what it reveals about Jesus and early Christianity by reading the full article “The Gospel of Thomas: Jesus Said What?” by Simon Gathercole as it appears in the July/August 2015 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “The Gospel of Thomas: Jesus Said What?” by Simon Gathercole in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Related reading in the BAS Library:

Helmut Koester and Stephen J. Patterson, “The Gospel of Thomas,” Bible Review April 1990.

April D. DeConick, “Biblical Views: What’s Up with the Gospel of Thomas?” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2010.

Stephen J. Patterson, “The Oxyrhynchus Papyri,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2011.

James Brashler, “Nag Hammadi Codices Shed New Light on Early Christian History,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1984.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

Is it possible to identify the first-century man named Jesus behind the many stories and traditions about him that developed over 2,000 years in the Gospels and church teachings? Visit the Jesus/Historical Jesus study page to read free articles on Jesus in Bible History Daily.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on June 29, 2015.


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  • Peter says

    Did the gospel of Thomas as well as other church letter written by Paul and Peter …etc actually write in Hebrew language and were translated in Greek ?

  • Wes says

    Whew. Do you suppose the author or authors of these texts intended to create controversy?

    Or to put it another way, did they get up one morning and say, “Gee, I think I’ll write a book for the New Testament”?

    The latter case has to depend on when the Christian community decided that there would be such a document. If the books of Thomas are old, it is doubtful and a presumption that either we placed on them – or perhaps a few of his Gnostic fellow believers.

    Aside from their existence, how else can we examine their provenance?
    For example, it is mentioned as well that there is a tradition that the Apostle Thomas went off to preach in India. And it is observed that there are many tributes in India to such a ministry – whether they are all, partially or none of them authentic or not.
    Now, given that Thomas had a persona in other Gospel accounts – and he had a legacy in India, is there any consistency in the picture that is drawn?

    For many reasons there are questions about how the 4 canonical Gospels were written. After all, as testimony, there are variations in their accounts. But Matthew seems like an expansion of Mark. Luke seems comes with a consistent sequel in the form of Acts. And John seems to have very different emphasis, but much the same narrative. Connections of other writings ( the epistles) to the Apostles and Paul are debated ( the latter case Hebrews – and in the case of the last Biblical book a distinct “John”), but there is a lot more tangible connection. If nothing else, I can see a church or an early Christian community that had writers who wrote what they did carefully and thoughtfully, perhaps in collaboration, loosely speaking, with scribes if they were not already called on by profession to write. Just the fact that we can debate whether one or another Gospel was originally in Hebrew or Greek is indicative as much – or the fact that another language such as Aramaic can fit in the text.

    But in the case of Thomas, which came first: Coptic or Greek? And if we are to suppose that they are attributed to Thomas, what was his native language? Not Coptic I presume.

    So with these documents, we’ve got provenance problems all over the place.
    And evidently the Church fathers felt the same way. They are archeology and history, but not something we should fall all over ourselves to venerate or espouse.
    They are reflective of disputes in the early Christian community among many, just as there are today.

    But the trouble with taking the side of offense to their existence based on an assumed universal orthodoxy… When it comes to that, I think we will find, that not only will we discover that we ourselves are in disagreement about what we believe is orthodoxy, but also what we were taught to believe as such.

  • Rebecca says

    The Gospel of Thomas is complete Apostasy.
    No Wisdom, just rubbish, and Lies.
    Any that chooses to endorse, or follows this abject heresy…
    They are clearly bound for Hell.

    • Johanne says

      So much rubbish is uttered by those who profess to know God as well

  • Joseph says

    The “Gospel of Thomas” is about as authentic to Jesus as Lord of the Rings fan-fiction is to Tolkien, and probably less. It’s an attempt to appropriate Christ by early Gnostic writers who were adversaries of Judeo-Christianity, Luciferians, who hold to mystic pagan ideologies that are the opposite of what Christ taught, but disguise that by incorporating some of what he actually said in the authentic accounts of him.

    There are plenty of extra-biblical texts that are worthy of re-examination in light of the canonical gospels and their place therein, e.g., 1 Enoch, which was considered canonical by Jesus and his1st Century Christian followers. The corrupted Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi are not amongst them, and in fact, the New Testament writers frequently warn Christ-followers to beware of false apostles and false teachings which differ from the truth of what Christ taught.

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