Simon Gathercole examines the enigmatic Gospel of Thomas
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.
Is 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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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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