The Sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas

Simon Gathercole examines the enigmatic Gospel of Thomas

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2015.—Ed.


 
poxy1

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.

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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.
 


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


 

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.
 


 

Posted in Bible Versions and Translations, Jesus/Historical Jesus, Post-Biblical Period.

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  • Pannobhasa says

    It’s kind of depressing to me to read comments to many of these articles. I’m not sure why Bible fundamentalists who believe only the standard narrative even bother to read anything outside the Bible, unless it is to troll the comments section. The Gospel of Thomas may be later than, say, Mark, but the Gospel of John also was written long after the time of Jesus, and is very different in its message than the other three synoptic Gospels, and is considered by many biblical scholars to be the ideas of John put into Jesus’s mouth. But of course it’s heresy to say it. A closed mind does not realize truth.

  • Jonathan says

    The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar determined that of the 114 sayings, 3 were to be unequivocally (within the constraints of their voting system) attributed to Jesus, i.e., the words in “red.” They found about 35 passages that resemble something Jesus said, i.e., the words in “pink.” The rest of the sayings they categorized colloquially as, “Well, maybe” or (far and away the majority) “There’s been some mistake.” All the red passages in Thomas are found easily in the canonical gospels, the pink ones likewise with few emendations. None of the passages quoted in the article belong to either red or pink. (Incidentally, the saying about “wealth” and “poverty” to be found in Thomas 28.3 is actually 29.3.)

  • Barbara says

    Thank you, Biblical Archaeology Review for publishing material and sending it to me to read every month. I find interesting articles and beautiful photos. I have always had a great love of history and archaeology. I admire your objective attitude. You don’t avoid controversial material, and are not afraid to follow an idea where it might lead. Often, over the years, I have laid the magazine down and considered for a great long time the material I have read. Reading your magazine has caused me to reread again, and again, passages of the Bible. I feel I have much more insight into the meaning of the books because of articles you have written. When others berate you for publishing archaeology, or introducing history that makes them uncomfortable, don’t be discouraged. Some people (probably not enough of us) truly value your work. You have opened my eyes, and mere words can not thank you enough.

  • george says

    B A is an excellent source for atheists; and that is why I did not renew my subscription.

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