The Fifth Gospel: Thomas on Trial

Article ID: DG040-2 | By: Douglas Groothuis

The following is an excerpt from article DG040-2 from the Christian Research Journal.


The Nag Hammadi text that has provoked the most historical scrutiny is the Gospel of Thomas. Because of its reputation as the lost “fifth Gospel” and its frequently esoteric and mystical cast, it is frequently quoted in New Age circles. A recent book by Robert Winterhalter is entitled, The Fifth Gospel: A Verse-by-Verse New Age Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas. He claims Thomas knows “the Christ both as the Self, and the foundation of individual life.”31 Some sayings in Thomas do seem to teach this. But is this what the historical Jesus taught? The scholarly literature on Thomas is vast and controversial. Nevertheless, a few important considerations arise in assessing its veracity as history. Because it is more of an anthology of mostly unrelated sayings than an ongoing story about Jesus’ words and deeds, Thomas is outside the genre of “Gospel” in the New Testament. Yet, some of the 114 sayings closely parallel or roughly resemble statements in the Synoptics, either by adding to them, deleting from them, combining several references into one, or by changing the sense of a saying entirely. This explanation uses the Synoptics as a reference point for comparison. But is it likely that Thomas is independent of these sources and gives authentic although “unorthodox” material about Jesus? To answer this, we must consider a diverse range of factors. There certainly are sayings that harmonize with biblical material, and direct or indirect relationships can be found to all four canonical Gospels. In this sense, Thomas contains both orthodox and unorthodox material, if we use orthodox to mean the material in the extant New Testament. For instance, the Trinity and unforgivable sin are referred to in the context of blasphemy: “Jesus said, ‘Whoever blasphemes against the father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven.’”32In another saying Jesus speaks of the “evil man” who “brings forth evil things from his evil storehouse, which is in his heart, and says evil things33 (see Luke 6:43-46). This can be read to harmonize with the New Testament Gospels’ emphasis on human sin, not just ignorance of the divine spark within. Although it is not directly related to a canonical Gospel text, the following statement seems to state the biblical theme of the urgency of finding Jesus while one can: “Jesus said, ‘Take heed of the living one while you are alive, lest you die and seek to see him and be unable to do so’” (compare John 7:34; 13:33).34At the same time we find texts of a clearly Gnostic slant, as noted earlier. How can we account for this? The original writing of Thomas has been dated variously between A.D. 50 and 150 or even later, with most scholars opting for a second century date.35 Of course, an earlier date would lend more credibility to it, although its lack of narrative framework still makes it more difficult to understand than the canonical Gospels. While some argue that Thomas uses historical sources independent of those used by the New Testament, this is not a uniformly held view, and arguments are easily found which marshall evidence for Thomas’s dependence (either partial or total) on the canonical Gospels.36Blomberg claims that “where Thomas parallels the four gospels it is unlikely that any of the distinctive elements in Thomas predate the canonical versions.”37 When Thomas gives a parable found in the four Gospels and adds details not found there, “they can almost always be explained as conscious, Gnostic redaction [editorial adaptation].”38James Dunn elaborates on this theme by comparing Thomas with what is believed to be an earlier and partial version of the document found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, near the turn of the century.39 He notes that the Oxyrhynchus “papyri date from the end of the second or the first half of the third century, while the Gospel of Thomas…was probably written no earlier than the fourth century.”40Dunn then compares similar statements from Matthew, the Oxyrhynchus papyri, and the Nag Hammadi text version of Thomas:

Matthew 7:7-8 and 11:28 — “…Seek and you will find;…he who seeks finds…Come to me…and I will give you rest.” Pap. Ox. 654.5-9 — (Jesus says:) ‘Let him who see(ks) not cease (seeking until) he finds; and when he find (he will) be astonished, and having (astoun)ded, he will reign; an(d reigning), he will (re)st’ (Clement of Alexandria also knows the saying in this form.) Gospel of Thomas 2 — ‘Jesus said: He who seeks should not stop seeking until he finds; and when he finds, he will be bewildered (beside himself); and when he is bewildered he will marvel, and will reign over the All.’41

Dunn notes that the term “the All” (which the Gospel of Thomas adds to the earlier document) is “a regular Gnostic concept,” and that “as the above comparisons suggest, the most obvious explanation is that it was one of the last elements to be added to the saying.”42 Dunn further comments that the Nag Hammadi version of Thomas shows a definite “gnostic colouring” and gives no evidence of “the thesis of a form of Gnostic Christianity already existing in the first century.” He continues: “Rather it confirms the counter thesis that the Gnostic element in Gnostic Christianity is a second century syncretistic outgrowth on the stock of the earlier Christianity. What we can see clearly in the case of this one saying is probably representative of the lengthy process of development and elaboration which resulted in the form of the Gospel of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi.”43Other authorities substantiate the notion that whatever authentic material Thomas may convey concerning Jesus, the text shows signs of Gnostic tampering. Marvin W. Meyer judges that Thomas “shows the hand of a gnosticizing editor.”44 Winterhalter, who reveres Thomas enough to write a devotional guide on it, nevertheless says of it that “some sayings are spurious or greatly altered, but this is the work of a later Egyptian editor.”45 He thinks, though, that the wheat can be successfully separated from the chaff. Robert M. Grant has noted that “the religious realities which the Church proclaimed were ultimately perverted by the Gospel of Thomas. For this reason Thomas, along with other documents which purported to contain secret sayings of Jesus, was rejected by the Church.”46Here we find ourselves agreeing with the early Christian defenders of the faith who maintained that Gnosticism in the church was a corruption of original truth and not an independently legitimate source of information on Jesus or the rest of reality. Fitzmyer drives this home in criticizing Pagels’s view that the Gnostics have an equal claim on Christian authenticity: “Throughout the book [Pagels] gives the unwary reader the impression that the difference between ‘orthodox Christians’ and ‘gnostic Christians’ was one related to the ‘origins of Christianity’. Time and time again, she is blind to the fact that she is ignoring a good century of Christian existence in which those ‘gnostic Christians’ were simply not around.”47In this connection it is also telling that outside of the Gospel of Thomas, which doesn’t overtly mention the Resurrection, other Gnostic documents claiming to impart new information about Jesus do so through spiritual, post-resurrection dialogues — often in the form of visions — which are not subject to the same historical rigor as claims made about the earthly life of Jesus. This leads Dunn to comment that “Christian Gnosticism usually attributed its secret [and unorthodox] teaching of Jesus to discourses delivered by him, so they maintained, in a lengthy ministry after his resurrection (as in Thomas the Contender and Pistis Sophia). The Gospel of Thomas is unusual therefore in attempting to use the Jesus-tradition as the vehicle for its teaching. . . . Perhaps Gnosticism abandoned the Gospel of Thomas format because it was to some extent subject to check and rebuttal from Jesus-tradition preserved elsewhere.”48Dunn thinks that the more thoroughly the Gnostics challenged the already established orthodox accounts of Jesus’ earthly life, the less credible they became; but with post-resurrection accounts, no checks were forthcoming. They were claiming additional information vouchsafed only to the elite. He concludes that Gnosticism “was able to present its message in a sustained way as the teaching of Jesus only by separating the risen Christ from the earthly Jesus and by abandoning the attempts to show a continuity between the Jesus of the Jesus-tradition and the heavenly Christ of their faith.”49What is seen by some as a Gnostic challenge to historic, orthodox views of the life, teaching, and work of Jesus was actually in many cases a retreat from historical considerations entirely. Only so could the Gnostic documents attempt to establish their credibility.