Courtesy BAS Library
In the first part of our series about the Gospel of Thomas we saw that Robert Funk, The Jesus Seminar and Westar Institute proposed a fifth gospel to the original Four Gospels in the New Testament. They also believe that the Gospel of Thomas may be more accurate than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Are they right? Should we accept the Gospel of Thomas into the Canon of the New Testament?
I don’t think so.
[Podcast version available at the end of this post.]
Thomas is unlike the Four Gospels. It says nothing about Jesus’ birth, death or resurrection. Instead, in line with other Gnostic writings, it contains “secret” sayings of Christ. We looked in our last study at some of the 114 sayings in Thomas and saw that most were “unlike” the sayings of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
“These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” Gospel of Thomas, Translated by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer
“Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
“Jesus said, ‘Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.” #7
“Jesus said, ‘Look, the sower went out, took a handful (of seeds), and scattered (them). Some fell on the road, and the birds came and gathered them. Others fell on rock, and they didn’t take root in the soil and didn’t produce heads of grain. Others fell on thorns, and they choked the seeds and worms ate them. And others fell on good soil, and it produced a good crop: it yielded sixty per measure and one hundred twenty per measure.” #9
“The disciples said to Jesus, ‘We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?’ Jesus said to them, ‘No matter where you are you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.” #12
“Jesus said, ‘Congratulations to the one who came into being before coming into being. If you become my disciples and pay attention to my sayings, these stones will serve you. For there are five trees in Paradise for you; they do not change, summer or winter, and their leaves do not fall. Whoever knows them will not taste death.” #19
“Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, ‘These nursing babies are like those who enter the (Father’s) kingdom.’ They said to him, ‘Then shall we enter the (Father’s) kingdom as babies?’ Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom].” #22
“Jesus said, ‘Where there are three deities, they are divine. Where there are two or one, I am with that one.” #30
There really is no comparison between Thomas and the Four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are historical and evidential narratives. Thomas is secretive sayings belonging to the gnostics.
Funk and his group of “scholars” believe that the Four Gospels were written after 70 AD, too late for the real Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to have written the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. They are wrong about dating the Four Gospels, but we’ll lay that aside for the purpose of determining whether Thomas is worthy to be added to the Gospel count.
So, when was Thomas written?
The writings that are part of the Nag Hammadi Library are thought to be from the 4th century AD, but some scholars believe the Gospel of Thomas was written during the 2nd or 3rd centuries.
Did the early Church Fathers know about it? Good question.
The earliest of the Church Fathers who were writing at the end of the 1st century and early and middle 2nd century do not refer to a Gospel of Thomas and do not quote from it at all. Those Church leaders quoted heavily from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but not from Thomas. That would indicate, most likely, that Thomas was written at a later time.
Since Thomas was one of the original Twelve disciples of Christ, he would have certainly been dead by the end of the 1st century. If he had written a “gospel” account, it would seem that the early Church Fathers would have known about it and either quoted from it as one of the “Five Gospels” or warned Christians to beware of its theology as being dangerous. Since we have no record of any early Church Father quoting from Thomas or warning about it, it would seem fair to say it didn’t exist during the first century and early second century of the Church.
There is this quote in 2 Clement that sounds a bit like Thomas, so let’s look at it for the possibility of Clement supporting the Gospel of Thomas, at least by quoting from it.
Here’s a quote from 2 Clement –
“For the Lord Himself, being asked by a certain person when his kingdom would come, said, When the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside, and the male with the female, neither male or female.” 2 Clement 12:2
Here’s a quote from Thomas –
“They said to him, ‘Then shall we enter the kingdom as babies?’ Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom].”
Could it be that 2 Clement quoted from Thomas? If so, would that make Thomas the Fifth Gospel?
Another question would be whether the author of Thomas quoted 2 Clement? Which one was written first?
Ancient Church historian Eusebius wrote this about 2 Clement –
“But it must be observed also that there is said to be a second epistle of Clement. But we do not know that this is recognized like the former, for we do not find that the ancients have made any use of it.” Eusebius, Church History, Book III, Chapter 38, point 4
Clement of Rome wrote a letter, known as 1 Clement, that is acknowledged by Church Fathers to have been written by him at the end of the 1st century AD. However, none of the Church Fathers mentioned or quoted from a second letter by Clement. Eusebius (in the 4th century) is the first to mention the doubtful claim of a second letter. It seems more likely that the author of the Gospel of Thomas quoted from 2 Clement, which appears to have been a homily preached prior to the 4th century.
So, when was the Gospel of Thomas written and what did early Christian apologists (prior to Eusebius in the 4th century) say about it?
“In 1897 and 1903 three ancient papyrus fragments from Greek copies of the Gospel of Thomas were discovered during archeological excavations on the site of an ancient town at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. These excavations eventually recovered over 5000 papyrus fragments of ancient Greek texts, including both sections from the Gospel of Thomas and fragments from the Gospel of Mary. (In ancient times, Oxyrhynchus was the chief town of its district and the seat of a local governor. In the Roman period it was a flourishing place with about twenty temples, colonnaded streets, and an open air theatre. When Christianity came, it was famous for the numbers of its monks and nuns. Most of the papyrus documents found had been discarded in the ancient town’s garbage sites.)
The three fragments of Thomas found at Oxyrhynchus apparently date to between 130 – 250 CE, and each probably represents a separate unique copy of the Gospel. The textual source of the sayings contained in the fragments was initially unclear; based on the logion found in pOxy 654 – now identified as containing the prologue and first saying – it was speculated they might represent remains of the lost Gospel of Thomas. The Nag Hammadi discovery in 1945 which unearthed a complete and well-preserved version of Thomas in Coptic made it possible to definitely identify the Oxyrhynchus texts as fragments from a lost Greek edition of the Gospel.” The Gospel of Thomas Collection
The three fragments of the Gospel of Thomas contain 20 of the 114 saying. That find would seem to confirm what Eusebius wrote about the document. It was written before the 4th century.
The fact that the early Church Fathers and apologists writing at the end of the 1st century and during the 2nd century don’t mention a Gospel of Thomas would seem to indicate that they were unfamiliar with it or deemed it unnecessary to address.
Christian apologists in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries mentioned Thomas negatively and not as a “real” gospel account of the sayings of Jesus.
Hippolytus of Rome mentioned the Gospel of Thomas in the early part of the 3rd century. He wrote in Book V of Refutation of All Heresies that the Naassenes gnostics used it as part of their ancient mystery cult.
Here are some other thoughts on the legitimacy of Thomas as a “fifth gospel” –
“Should the gospel of Thomas be in the Canon?
The early church councils followed something similar to the following principles to determine whether a New Testament book was truly inspired by the Holy Spirit: 1) Was the author an apostle or have a close connection with an apostle? 2) Was the book being accepted by the Body of Christ at large? 3) Did the book contain consistency of doctrine and orthodox teaching? 4) Did the book bear evidence of high moral and spiritual values that would reflect a work of the Holy Spirit?
The gospel of Thomas fails all of these tests. The gospel of Thomas was not written by Jesus’ disciple Thomas. The early Christian leaders universally recognized the gospel of Thomas as a forgery. The gospel of Thomas was rejected by the vast majority of early Christians. The gospel of Thomas contains many teachings that are in contradiction to the biblical Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. The gospel of Thomas does not bear the marks of a work of inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” What is the gospel of Thomas?
“Craig Evans argues that the Gospel of Thomas was not written prior to A.D. 175 or 180. He believes that Thomas shows knowledge of the New Testament writings and that it contains Gospel material that is seen as late. Evans adds that the structure of Thomas shows a striking similarity to Tatian’s Diatessaron which was a harmonization of the four New Testament Gospels and was written after A.D. 170. This late date would exclude Thomas from consideration for the canon because it would be too late to have a direct connection to one of the apostles.” The Gospel of Thomas – A Christian Evaluation
“While the text claims to have been authored by the Apostle Thomas, scholars reject this attribution. The Gospel of Thomas appears far too late in history to have been written by Thomas or any other reliable eyewitness of the life of Jesus. The oldest manuscript fragments of the text (found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt) are dated from 130 to 250AD, and the vast majority of scholars agree that the Gospel of Thomas was written no earlier than the mid-2nd Century. These scholars cite several passages in the text appearing to harmonize verses from the canonical Gospels. This would require the canonical Gospels to be in place before the writing of this text. In addition, scholars believe the Gospel of Thomas borrows from the language of Luke rather than the language of Mark. If this is the case, then this text must have followed Luke, a gospel which is known to have borrowed from Mark (and was, therefore, later than Mark). Some scholars even believe the Gospel of Thomas is dependent on Tatian’s “Diatessaron” (an effort to combine and harmonize the four canonical Gospels, written after 172AD), based on the use of Syriac colloquialisms. Bart Ehrman argues the Gospel of Thomas is a 2nd Century Gnostic text based on the lack of any reference to the coming Kingdom of God and return of Jesus. The earliest leaders of the Church also recognized the Gospel of Thomas was a late, inauthentic, heretical work. Hipploytus identified it as a fake and a heresy in ‘Refutation of All Heresies’ (222-235AD), Origen referred to it in a similar way in a homily (written around 233AD), Eusebius resoundingly rejected it as an absurd, impious and heretical ‘fiction’ in the third book of his ‘Church History’ (written prior to 326AD), Cyril advised his followers to avoid the text as heretical in his ‘Catechesis’ (347-348AD), and Pope Gelasius included the Gospel of Thomas in his list of heretical books in the 5th century.”
I think we’re within good historical scholarship to say that Thomas is NOT the fifth gospel. It was not written by an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, it was probably a 3rd century gnostic writing pretending to be secret words of Jesus. Christians should reject the false claims of Thomas and all such gnostic writings.
Not surprisingly, Robert Funk, The Jesus Seminar and Westar Institute are wrong, again.
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