The Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic pretender
Style and content
The Gospel of Thomas is a numbered collection of sayings, proverbs and short dialogues. However, it lacks the narrative framework of the canonical gospels and is only a fraction of their length. The significance of this gospel comes from its format and its inferred date of composition.
The collection is traditionally divided into 114 ‘sayings’, 68 of which have biblical parallels (Cameron 1992, 6:536). Amongst the rest there is material that seems alien to both the Judaic and Christian traditions (e.g. Saying 30).
Relationship to the synoptic gospels
As a loose collection of disconnected sayings and records of incidents, it represents the sort of ‘sayings gospel’ advocated by proponents of the hypothetical Q source. Moreover, its content has undeniably close ties to the synoptic gospels. But did it pre-date the canonical texts? Even if it did, then to what extent could it possibly have played a part in their composition?
In the absence of any firm archaeological evidence, for the relationship between Thomas and the Synoptic gospels, such matters remains hotly debated (Cameron 1992, 6:536). However, Vermes concludes that “a good many of the direct parallels to the Synoptic Gospels contained in it have been reworked and they are often tainted with heretical (‘Gnostic’) ideas” (Vermes 2004, xiii). In those sections that pertain to the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon’s version is, in some cases, more Semitic in tone and worldview, and is therefore demonstrably attributable to either Jesus (as other evidence suggests) or, at least, comes from a period closer to the time of its Semitic origin (and therefore pre-dating the version in Thomas).
The Gospel claims to be a first-hand record of Jesus sayings, as recorded by Didymos [means Twin] Judas Thomas. That it invokes apostolic authority helps date its origin and the choice of apostle is also considered significant. An early cult that honoured the apostle Thomas as Jesus’ supposed twin brother, had its centre in Syria. It is worth noting that, because being like Jesus was a noble aspiration, Didymos would be an obvious honorific title for a community to assign.
Parallels with the Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon is well represented amongst the biblical parallels in the Gospel of Thomas, at least in the translation of the Nag Hammadi manuscript as presented by Patterson, Robinson and Bethge (1998).
- Saying 49 is without parallel amongst the Sermon’s beatitudes;
- Saying 54, concerning the kingdom belonging to the poor, parallels Matt 5:3;
- Saying 58, concerning the man-who-has-suffered finding life, approaches the sentiments of Matt 5:11, whilst divorcing the suffering from any particular cause;
- Sayings 68-69 have vague similarity with Matt 5:10-11 (blessed are those persecuted for righteousness), but draw a different conclusion. Whilst the latter part of saying 69 parallels Matt 5:6 in an abbreviated form.
Saying 32 concerns a fortified city on a hill and declares that it cannot fall, but neither can it be hidden (cf. Matt 5:14b). Saying 33 then develops upon this, with a call to preach from the housetops because nobody hides a lamp under a bushel (cf.Matt 5:15, Luke 11:33 and part of Mark 4:21)
Saying 95, concerning lending to those from whom you will not get the money back, is, through Luke 6:34, parallel with Matt 3:42, on loving your enemies. However, the wording is far closer to that in Luke than that in Matthew.
Saying 14 addresses the same three pillars of Jewish piety that the Sermon on the Mount addresses in Matt 6:1-8, and in the same order. However, whereas the Sermon seeks to explain how to undertake these activities properly, Thomas claims that Jesus discouraged them. In Saying 14 alms-giving harms the spirit, prayer brings condemnation, and fasting invites sin. The tradition from the Sermon on the Mount would seem the more reliable, given that the early disciples clearly saw prayer and alms-giving as important priorities (cf. Acts 4:31, 10:2; 1 Thess 5:17; Jas 5:13; Acts 11:29-30; 2 Cor 9:7-9; Phil 4:18). The author of Thomas, appears to have known of the teaching found in the sermon, but to have misunderstood, or deliberately distorted, it.
Saying 62 contains a ‘right hand know what your left hand is doing’ phrase comparable to that in Matt 6:3, but in the completely different context of Jesus choosing who to reveal his mysteries to. The hint at esoteric revelation provided in Thomas particularly befits a Gnostic work.
A blunt statement that it is impossible to serve two masters (cf. Matt 6:24) is found in saying 47, whilst saying 36 contains a brief, single-sentence, encouragement not to be continually concerned what you will wear (cf. Matt 6:25, 31)
Saying 2 contains an admonition to continue seeking until you find, which sounds a bit like Matt
7:7, but with more of an emphasis on persistence in seeking.
Saying 26 contains a version of the familiar mote and beam warning of Matt 7:3-5. However, this one is linked through parallelism, between the first and second halves of the verse, to saying 25, a statement that resembles the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12), see below.
Saying 34 contains a warning, about the blind leading the blind, very similar to that which immediately precedes the parable of the mote and the beam in Luke (Luke 6:39), however this section is missing from the Sermon on the Mount, the saying being found in a completely different context in Matthew (Matt 15:14).
Taken together, sayings 92-94 centre round seeking and finding and are loosely equivalent to Matt 7:7, with a promise of additional revelation added and a saying similar to Matt 7:6 (dogs and swine) inserted in its midst (cf. also Luke 11:9-10).
In saying 25, a statement concerning loving your brother like your own soul resembles the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12). See note on linkage to Matt 7:3-7 above. The form in Matthew is closer to a known rabbinical saying.
Saying 43 with its contrast of attitudes toward trees and fruit might seem to relate to Matt 7:17 (a good tree bearing good fruit etc.) However, it deploys the metaphor in the form of accusation, levelled at his disciples, of becoming like the Jews, loving the tree but then hating its fruit, or vice versa. The metaphor is not continued into saying 44, which concerns blasphemy against the Spirit. However, saying 45 is a clear parallel for Matt 7:16’s not picking grapes from thorns or figs from thistles (cf. also Luke 6:44-45).
The overall pattern
The material common to both Thomas and the Sermon shows an interesting distribution. Sayings related to revelation are well represented in Thomas, as might befit a gnostic work. By contrast, the material related to the particular concerns of Judaism, such as priesthood, the eternal law, sacrifice, prayer, fasting, the way of righteousness and good foundations, finds scant mention. In other words, those parts that argue for the relative antiquity of the Sermon and best support the contention that the Sermon’s sayings are authentically from Jesus, tend to be selectively omitted from Thomas. Indeed, when compared to Matt 6:1-8, Thomas goes one step further and positively discourages the three basic acts of Jewish piety, implying that they are inherently evil.
Whatever the origin of Thomas, the subset of material it shares with the Sermon on the Mount shows a distinctly anti-semitic flavour.