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The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas


More curious readers of the Bible sometimes wonder if there are ‘missing’ books, blocked from entering the canon or removed after-the-fact. After all, Paul mentions letters he wrote which are not found in the New Testament. The historical narrative of the Hebrew Bible likewise attests to the existence of texts like ‘the Book of the Upright’ and the ‘Book of the Wars of Yhwh’. However, these sorts of texts have been lost to history, falling out of usage (if they even existed) long before the idea of a ‘bible’ came about.

In distinction from these, we do have a range of ‘apocryphal’ texts that have survived.

Perhaps the most well-known book to be ‘left out’ or ‘removed’ from the Hebrew Bible is 1 Enoch (it wasn’t). It was written in the Second Temple period, and is roughly contemporary with canonical books like Tobit, Daniel, and Wisdom. First Enoch may owe its presence in the public consciousness to the fact it is quoted by name in the Letter of Judah—among its other, less-recognized uses in the New Testament—putting it on a line between canonical and non-canonical for the majority of Christians today. (It is, in fact, canonical for a small Eastern Orthodox sect.)

Where many ask if 1 Enoch should be included in the Hebrew Bible, we might consider its New Testament counterpart to be the Gospel of Thomas.

Thomas tends to be overshadowed in public thought by more scandalous texts like the Gospel of Philip (thanks to The Da Vinci Code), the Gospel of Judas (a publication sensationalized by National Geographic), or the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (an explosive fragment of a text that was proven to be a modern forgery within just two years of its publication). However, Thomas is dated to an earlier time range than any of these, with the middle of the range being 100 CE. This would make it contemporary to about half of the books in the New Testament.

Though I have read the Gospel of Thomas a handful of times in the past, it is a fairly difficult book to get a handle on, and misunderstanding abounds. In the process of cleaning up and organizing my biblical studies resources, I decided to dig into the book and share what I found.


Let’s begin with the bare facts.

The Gospel of Thomas survives primarily in Coptic, which is universally agreed to be a translation from a Greek copy of the text. Some Greek fragments also survive.1

There is debate if the Greek is the original language, or if the Greek was itself translated from an earlier Semitic-language version. A few passages in the book are verbally translatable, but conceptually incoherent (i.e. we can translate the words themselves, but the resulting sentence has no meaning).2 In these cases, plausible explanations have been offered by reconstructing a hypothetical Syriac or Aramaic original text that was mistranslated into Greek. However, it is probable that by the time these passages reached the Gospel of Thomas they were already in Greek.3 This would explain the occasional string of Greek text shared verbatim with the synoptic gospels—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—without requiring direct dependence of Thomas on the other gospels.4

The book consists of a superscription and one hundred fourteen short ‘sayings’—often called logia—attributed to Jesus, in the shape of proverbs, parables, prophecies, and a few brief dialogues. Here are some examples (translated by Thomas Lambdin).

Thomas 2

Jesus said, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All.”

Thomas 26

Jesus said, “You see the mote in your brother’s eye, but you do not see the beam in your own eye. When you cast the beam out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to cast the mote from your brother’s eye.”

Thomas 77

Jesus said, “It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all. From me did the all come forth, and unto me did the all extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

Many of the logia have parallels in Mark, Matthew, and Luke (and a couple in John). In some cases, the parallels are verbatim. This has raised a long-running debate on the relationship between Thomas and the synoptic gospels. Conservative Christian theologians insist Thomas is no earlier than the second century CE, a theological corruption that used the synoptics, worthless for historical inquiry into the personality and teachings of Jesus. Others think direct dependence on the synoptics is unlikely.5

Hidden Gnosis

What sets the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Judas apart is they are both ‘Gnostic’ gospels. Gnosticism was a heretical Christian movement beginning in the second century. Its chief doctrine is that Israel’s god, Yhwh, is just a lower deity from a larger pantheon that consisted of pairs of divinities. The malevolent Yhwh is the ‘demiurge’, who created the material universe and trapped divine beings within corrupted, material bodies (humans). The key to salvation is to attain hidden gnosis, ‘knowledge’, conveyed in Gnostic literature with complex, bizarre, and downright nonsensical mythologies.

The supreme god, previously unknown to humanity, sent a representative in the guise of a human being. This apparition of a man, Jesus, taught the hidden gnosis before returning to the cosmic union of divinities. Some humans are innately able to grasp this gnosis, while some others must struggle to attain it, and yet others are incapable of doing so. For those able to receive this knowledge, reunion with the divine All awaits when the physical body dies.

The Gospel of Thomas opens so:

These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.

And he said, “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.”

The book contains ‘secret sayings’, of which it is proper ‘interpretation’ that grants eternal life. Thomas, it appears, was an early example of the sort of literature Gnostics produced.6 No wonder, then, that the first complete copy of Thomas was discovered among a trove of long-lost Gnostic texts.

The 1945 discovery of several dozen Gnostic texts has redefined the study of early Christianity. The jewel in the crown of these texts is the Gospel of Thomas […] A Gnostic component of the text suggests that these are secret teachings of Jesus, knowledge which will free one’s spirit from the material world.7

Or at least, all this is a popular impression of the Gospel of Thomas, especially among theologically conservative circles.8 This understanding is based on several misconceptions about Gnosticism that persist even now, nearly eighty years after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts. There were diverse Gnostic sects: Basilidians, Carpocratians, Marcionites, Naasenes, Ophites, Sethians, Valentinians, etc. The range is so broad that some think ‘Gnosticism’ itself is too poorly defined to be useful.9

Despite the common thought that Thomas was a Gnostic text, no one is able to pinpoint which sect it came from.10 In fact, other than its broader sense of esoterism, the Gospel of Thomas lacks essentially all of the distinctive ideas shared by Gnostic sects: Yhwh is not a subordinate, malevolent deity, and the material world is not inherently corrupt.11 The ‘problem’ inherent to the text is that it says next to nothing about Jesus’ crucifixion (there appear to be a couple of brief allusions), let alone that his death is the means by which God has provided salvation. This seems to why the book is misattributed to Gnosticism. If the book did not come from Gnostics, who was responsible for the Gospel of Thomas’ apparent knowledge-based theology?

Heavenly Wisdom

Scholars who have studied the Nag Hammadi texts in-depth have recognized that not all of the texts in the collection qualify as ‘Gnostic’.12 In regards to Thomas, some scholars, including members of the Jesus Seminar, concluded the gospel—or an earlier version of it—is one of the oldest surviving Christian texts, predating the canonical gospels and possibly even Paul.

For them, Thomas provides a glimpse into Jesus as, above all else, a sage.13 Contrary to the apocalyptic flavor of a later Christianity, Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas provides wisdom absent of violence or vengeance. The authentic Jesus of history taught a sapiential salvation, with himself as the font of wisdom.

While the precise lineage is unclear, there is an obvious continuity between the apocalypticism found in the likes of 1 Enoch and Daniel with that found in Paul, the synoptics, the Letter of James, Jude and the Petrine epistles, the Johannine epistles, or the Revelation of John. Non-apocalyptic forms of Judaism existed in the first century; how could the followers of Jesus depart from his non-violent wisdom theology so drastically, if that truly is what Jesus taught?

Some Christian theologians are less than charitable to the Jesus Seminar members, resorting to discrediting them by calling them antisemitic or comparing them to bogeyman like Marx or Nietzsche.14 However, even setting aside these brash, borderline slanderous accusations, the reconstruction of the historical Jesus (as depicted in Q or the Gospel of Thomas) as primarily a wisdom teacher has met strong resistance from all sides, and rightly so.

There appears to me to be the desire in many scholars’ works, particularly those working in North America, to see Thomas as a church document, but one that reflects a very early form of Christianity, a sapiential Christianity unadulterated by cross theology or apocalyptic thinking. Further, there has been the tendency to identify this sapiential theology with Jesus’ teaching, an identification which essentially has collapsed Thomas’ theology into Jesus’ theology, as if it has been forgotten that Thomas’ theology is a church theology created by the community for communal reasons.15

It is difficult to otherwise account for the apocalyptic eschatology that permeated the Jesus movement of the first century if we dispense with all trace of apocalypticism attributed to him in the earliest available texts.

Contradictory Logia

Like the canonical gospels, it is widely accepted the Gospel of Thomas was not written by its namesake. However, accurate interpretation of the Gospel of Thomas has been hindered by a problematic assumption. For a long time it was taken for granted the book was written by a single author, that all its logia reflect a cohesive theology (whether ‘Gnostic’ or ‘sapiential’).16 This can hardly be the case, given the presence of logia which flatly contradict one another, such as the following.

Thomas 14

Jesus said to them, “If you fast, you will give rise to sin for yourselves”

Thomas 27

“If you do not fast as regards the world, you will not find the kingdom.”

We should consider the situation with the synoptic gospels. The earliest of the three, Mark, very likely used a few existing written sources about Jesus (e.g. a brief collection of miracles stories, a collection of parables, a passion narrative). In the decades to follow, readers of Mark found the book inadequate for various reasons. The abrupt ending (16.8) was unsatisfactory, so scribes invented new ones. They had additional written sources about Jesus, and felt they needed to be included. The result was at least two new gospels, Matthew and Luke, each one intending to update and replace Mark, as well as versions of Mark that continued after its original ending. One of the sources hypothesized to have been used in the making of Matthew and Luke is called Q, a collection of Jesus sayings, roughly contemporary with Paul’s letters. While Q has a bit more narrative content than Thomas, their form and function is overall not terribly dissimilar.17

Though we call Thomas a ‘gospel’, its history of composition (and Q’s, for that matter) would not resemble the writing process for Mark, Matthew, or Luke (or John). The three synoptics were each created with a clear intent: here is the base narrative, here are episodes to expand on the narrative, here is the conclusion to the narrative, and here are the themes to be stressed along the way. Thomas’ development would instead be more comparable to books like Isaiah or Jeremiah, which some call a ‘rolling corpus’.18

An early version of Isaiah, for example, may have contained something like chapters 1–12, 14.24–23.18, and 28–33. With the fall of the northern kingdom, new oracles concerning that event were added (14.4b–21; 24–27). More time passed, and the Babylonian exile prompted another scribe to add yet another oracle (13; 14.1–4a, 22–23), along with a series of anti-Babylonian interpolations. Later, with Babylon’s conquest by Persia just over the horizon, a new prophecy was appended, written by a student of the existing book, but in a radically different style (chapters 40–55), and narrative from 2 Kings was inserted and edited to bridge the old material with the new (chapters 36–39). Some time after the exile ended and a second temple had been built in Jerusalem, disillusionment set in with the failure of a golden age to manifest, so further prophecies were added (56–66). And, finally, someone with a vengeful streak against Edom added one final oracle, borrowing heavily from the earlier layers (34–35). Over the course of about two and a half centuries, one occasion after another provided successive scribes the opportunities to expand the Book of Isaiah, providing authority to their own contributions.

The Gospel of Thomas is the result of a similar process, though in a much smaller range of time (a century, at most). While the identification of the different layers comprising the book, and the assignment of specific logia to those layers, may be difficult to make with exact confidence, attempts at reconstruction have been made. We may not be able to pin down every individual logion, but exploring these possibilities will make the more enigmatic parts of Thomas far more accessible and comprehensible. The presence of contradictory logia is not an indication a single author purposely made a book full of ‘riddles’. Rather, it is best read as coming from multiple authors in a stream of evolving theology.19

Imminent Apocalypse

Roughly half of the logia in the Gospel of Thomas have parallels in the synoptic gospels. Some of them are nearly identical.

Thomas 34

Matthew 15.14

Jesus said, “If a blind man leads a blind man, they will both fall into a pit.”

‘And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’

Others have obvious differences.

Thomas 68

Matthew 5.11

Jesus said, “Blessed are you when you are hated and persecuted. Wherever you have been persecuted they will find no place.”

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.’

Many of these carry a distinctly apocalyptic message, commonly misunderstood through the filter of ‘Gnosticism’. Let’s look at Thom 2 as an example. It is typically translated like this (Thomas Lambdin):

Jesus said, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All.”

This last item, ‘the All’, is usually understood in reference to a Gnostic concept called the Pleroma, the union of divinities beyond the material world, where a person’s divine spark is restored to when they are saved. Yet, this is not a unique term in Gnosticism. It’s a generic word that can mean ‘everything’, as rendered in a different translation (April DeConick here, and all following Thomas quotes):

Jesus said, ‘Whoever seeks should not cease seeking until he finds. And when he finds, he will be troubled. And when he is troubled, he will be amazed, and he will be a king ruling over everything.’

The concept of ‘seeking’ and ‘finding’ is taught by Jesus in the synoptics (Matt 7.7–8; Luke 11.9–10). Jesus also taught that the Twelve would ‘sit on twelve thrones’ (Matt 19.18; Luke 22.30). In the Book of Wisdom, the pursuit of wisdom is also established as leading not simply ‘to God’, but ‘to a kingdom’ (Wis 6.12–20).20 However, reference to ‘a king ruling over everything’ is only found in the Coptic version of Thomas. The Greek fragments instead speak of this ‘king’ attaining ‘rest’. Again, the Book of Sira suggests the pursuit of wisdom will make one like royalty (Sir 6.27, 29–31) who has found rest (6.28). What seems at first glance like a mysterious Gnostic saying is instead at home within a form of Second Temple Judaism that unifies both wisdom and apocalyptic traditions.

Many of the logia with parallels in the synoptics focus on this arrival of God’s kingdom. In several cases, Jesus emphasizes the sudden arrival of the kingdom, the divisiveness of his message, and even the violence inherent to this imminent eschaton.

Thomas 10

Jesus said, ‘I have cast fire upon the world. And look! I am guarding it until it blazes.’

Thomas 20.1–4

He said to them, ‘It is like a mustard seed, smaller than all seeds. But when it falls on cultivated soil, it puts forth a large branch and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.’

This extends to logia that have no parallel in the synoptics, but strongly resemble the style of Jesus’ teachings found in them. At least some of these non-canonical proverbs are very likely to come from Jesus himself.

Thomas 42

Jesus said, ‘Be passers-by.’

Where this is taken as Gnostic instruction to escape the corrupt material world (i.e. to ‘pass through’ it),21 a more appropriate interpretation may be that Jesus was instructing his followers to become wandering heralds of God’s kingdom, like Jesus himself, during the transient period before the eschaton (cf. Matt 8.20; Luke 9.58),22 or that Jesus was teaching them to ‘pass by’ the doctrines of other religious leaders and listen only to him (cf. Thom 34, 39, and 45, nearby logia that instruct to reject the authority of Jesus’ theological opponents).

A few non-canonical parables are found in Thomas. They have as much the possibility of being authentic teachings from Jesus as those found in Mark 4 or Matt 13.

Thomas 97

Jesus said, ‘The Kingdom of the Father is like a woman carrying a jar filled with meal. While she was walking on the road still a long way out, the handle of the jar broke. Behind her, the meal leaked out onto the road. She did not realize it. She had not noticed a problem. When she arrived at her house, she put the jar down and found it empty.’

These logia represent the core of the Gospel of Thomas, a layer that may be contemporary with Paul or Q and a decade or two older than the Gospel of Mark.

[Thomas] began as a smaller kernel of old apocalyptic sayings23

Nothing contained in this layer requires much elaboration. It is completely intelligible as the product of an early community of Jesus-followers, preserving (at least in part) the apocalyptic message he conveyed through parables and proverbs. As in the synoptics, building on the Hebrew Bible, ‘salvation’ would be a decisive event when God rescued Israel from their worldly troubles; in this case, the apocalyptic arrival of his kingdom.

Realized Eschatology

Though the idea of an imminent apocalypse is found in most of the New Testament, some texts promote a different kind of eschatology. The Gospel of Mark anticipated these things to happen not much time after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Paul believed the return of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead would happen within his lifetime. For him, Jesus was ruling in heaven, progressively dismantling the opposing powers of the world. History would conclude when the last of these powers was defeated.

1 Corinthians 15.24–26

Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

In most historical examples of apocalyptic groups making such predictions that promptly fail, responses tend to fall into two categories. The first is to delay the predicted time, whether by identifying a prerequisite event or a miscalculation in the date-setting. The second is to spiritualize fulfillment. Different Christian communities responded in their own ways as the first century drew on and the eschaton failed to arrive at the expected time.

We find the first response, for example, in 2 Pet 3.1–10. The pseudonymous author, writing in the first quarter of the second century, delays the eschaton by offering the creative explanation that barely any time has passed at all, since an entire thousand years is merely a ‘day’ from God’s perspective. The second response, deemphasizing salvation at a future climax of history in favor of salvation through spiritual union with Jesus, can be seen in two of the pseudo-Pauline letters, which claims that Jesus has already succeeded in defeating the enemy powers.

Colossians 2.13b–15

God made you alive together with [Jesus], when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

Ephesians 1.20–23

God put this power to work in the Messiah when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Ephesians 2.5–6

even when we were dead through our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with the Messiah—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in the Messiah Jesus

A final end of history is not entirely absent from these texts, and though Paul himself does show hints of the concept of ‘realized eschatology’ at times (e.g. Rom 6.1–11), these pseudo-Pauline letters elevate it to much higher levels.

The Gospel of Thomas, seen through a haze by many readers, begins to take a clearer shape when viewed through the lens of ‘realized eschatology’, dealing with the delayed eschaton.24 But this gospel’s manifested soteriology is markedly distinct from the pseudo-Pauline letters.

Thomas 19

Jesus said, “Blessed is he who came into being before he came into being. If you become my disciples and listen to my words, these stones will minister to you. For there are five trees for you in Paradise which remain undisturbed summer and winter and whose leaves do not fall. Whoever becomes acquainted with them will not experience death.”

Salvation is still predicated on Jesus’ crucifixion in Colossians and Ephesians, but the Gospel of Thomas says essentially nothing about his death. While the identification of Thomas as a Gnostic text may be put away, the idea that it contains concepts of salvation rooted in wisdom should not be discarded.25 Time stretched on, and the community that used Thomas developed its understanding of Jesus’ message so that the future salvation he spoke about was believed to be attainable in the present. This understanding was then attributed to Jesus himself; new sayings were written and inserted into the Gospel of Thomas, and old sayings were ‘updated’ to account for Jesus’ physical absence from the world (i.e. the lack of his visible return in the end times). Teachings of an impending eschaton were transformed into teachings of a realized eschatology.

the eschatological materials were de-emphasized in favor of a mystical theology that appears to be a precursor to Eastern Orthodoxy.26

This can be seen in Thom 21, where two separate sayings about the eschaton are merged into a dialogue about wisdom and leaving behind the corrupted form of the present world for the innocent form of the ancient world (conveyed through nakedness, as Adam and Eve were before they sinned).

Matthew 24.43 // Luke 12.39; Mark 4.29

Thomas 21

Mary said to Jesus, ‘Who are your disciples like?’ He said, ‘They are like little children sojourning in a field that is not theirs. When the owners of the field come, they will say, “Leave our field!” In front of them, they strip naked in order to abandon it, returning their field to them. For this reason I say,

‘But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.’

if the owner of a house knows that a thief is coming, he will keep watch before he arrives. He will not allow him to break into his house, part of his estate, to steal his furnishings.

You, then, keep watch against the world. Arm yourselves with great strength so that the robbers do not find a way to come to you, because the possessions you are looking after, they will find. There ought to be a wise person among you!

‘But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’

When the grain has ripened, he came quickly with his sickle in his hand. He harvested it. Whoever has ears to hear should listen!’

The difficulty in identifying this message of a realized eschatology (outside of the incorrectly defined ‘Gnostic’ context) is a fault brought on by the minimalist format of the Gospel of Thomas: it provides the sayings, but almost no narrative framework for those sayings to be interpreted within. The missing key to unlocking the ‘secret sayings of Jesus’ is not an esoteric gnosis granted only to the spiritual elite. Rather, it is the first chapters of the Book of Genesis.27

Where the various Gnostic sects taught the material world was inherently corrupt, and that salvation was escaping it for the superior spiritual reality of Jesus and the unknown god, the attainable salvation taught in the newer parts of the Gospel of Thomas must be understood as a return to the conditions of Gen 1–2, before Adam sinned and brought death into the world.

In the early version of the Gospel of Thomas, the ‘rest’ mentioned in Thom 2 was the reward that would come to God’s people in the future new creation, a reward after the final judgment. For the later generation of the book’s readers, this ‘rest’ was reinterpreted as a person orienting themselves as a person of the ‘seventh day’, when God rested from his work.

Thomas 4

Jesus said, ‘The old man will not hesitate to ask a little child seven days old about the place of life, and he will live. For many who are first will be last, the last will be first, and they will become a single people.’

In the Gospel of Thomas, then, Jesus guides people toward this wisdom. They are to seek Jesus out because he has reached this spiritual orientation of living as a new Adam (cf. 1 Cor 15.21–22, 45–49; Rom 5.12–19), but he himself is not ‘an essential element in salvation’.28 They are saved by becoming like Jesus, a new Adam.

Thomas 37

His disciples said, ‘When will you appear to us? When will we see you?’ Jesus said, ‘When you strip naked without shame, take your garments, put them under your feet like little children, and trample on them. Then you will see the Son of the Living One and you will not be afraid.’

This condition of perfected creation is closely associated with ‘the light’, and the condition of sinless humanity described as the ‘image of God’. These ideas are common to allegorical interpretations of Gen 1.29 One of the earlier logia has Jesus describe a person’s good works as a light shining from within them (cf. Matt 5.16, 22–23; Luke 11.34–36).

Thomas 24.2–3

He said to them, ‘Whoever has ears should listen! There is light inside a person of light. And it lights up the whole world. If it does not shine, it is dark.’

This is reinterpreted as a discussion about ‘the place’ where Jesus is, the primordial condition of sinless creation made real in the present, and used as a starting point for other logia concerning the ‘light’ and ‘image’.

Thomas 24.1–3

His disciples said, ‘Teach us about the place where you are, because we must seek it.’ He said to them, ‘Whoever has ears should listen! There is light inside a person of light. And it lights up the whole world. If it does not shine, it is dark.’

Thomas 83

Jesus said, ‘The images are visible to people, but the light in them is concealed in the image of the Father’s light. The light will be revealed, but his image is concealed by his light.’

Thomas 84

Jesus said, ‘When you see the likeness of yourselves, you are delighted. But when you see the images of yourselves which came into being before you—they neither die nor are visible—how much will you suffer?’

For the Gospel of Thomas, humanity lost being God’s image when Adam sinned. Paul wrote that Jesus’ followers would reflect God’s image by being shaped into the image of Jesus (2 Cor 3.18; Php 3.21; Rom 8.29; 12.2), which would ultimately be fulfilled in the eschaton (1 Cor 15.20–25, 34–49). This younger layer of the Gospel of Thomas dispenses with a future eschaton altogether, insisting instead that restoration to this image was accessible in the here and now, and finding it would result in salvation, eternal life, and reunion with God.30 The identification of these teachings as ‘secret sayings’ that required ‘interpretation’ was not to create a mystery religion only available to the spiritually elite (as Gnosticism is commonly portrayed). Rather, it was to indicate the necessity for serious devotion to Jesus’ message. After all, the same concept is found in the canonical gospels.

Mark 4.10–12

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”‘

Luke 9.44–45

‘Let these words sink into your ears: the son of man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

1 Corinthians 4.1

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.

By the end of the first century, Christianity was taking on an explicitly misogynstic tone. The pseudo-Pauline pastoral letters command that women may not teach and that elders and deacons must be men (1 Tim 2.11–12; 3;12; Titus 1.6; contrary to authentic Paul in, e.g., Rom 16.1). The Revelation of John incorporates a tradition that God’s elite consists of virgin men who have not been ‘defiled with women’ (14.4). In similar fashion, the author who contributed the layer of realized eschatology to the Gospel of Thomas was also responsible for the bluntly misogynistic final logion of the book.

Thomas 114

Simon Peter said to them, ‘Mary should leave us because women do not deserve life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, in order to make her male, I myself will guide her, so that she too may become a living spirit—male, resembling you. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’

Women may not be saved except by masculinizing themselves.31 This concept is not unique to the Gospel of Thomas; similar sentiment is found in the literature of ‘orthodox’ Christians of the second century onward.32

So, for example, in the case of Pelagia [of Antioch], her prostitution measures the extremity of her sinfulness. Her conversion to Christianity is spectacular and awesome, but it does not provide equal measure to the degree of sinfulness her previous life had shown. The successful taking on of her male identity—or, as the writer implies, the achievement of a life so holy that only a man could have lived it (hence the shock of the crowd at the realization that Pelagios was not a man)—this deed alone suffices to measure the degree of her achieved grace in proportion to her former sin.33

The realized eschatology that says Jesus’ followers are to become like pre-sin Adam takes this to an extremely literal level: Eve did not exist yet, so humanity was intrinsically male and celibate. This is just one component of a larger asceticism promoted by this author.34

Intermediate Development

Amid the core layer conveying Jesus’ teaching of an eschaton rapidly approaching from over the horizon, and these later additions of eschatology realized within people in the present, we find a handful of logia that have other concerns.

One of them focuses on the succession of leadership among Jesus’ followers.

Thomas 12

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 came from, you should go to James the Righteous One, for whose sake heaven and earth exist.’

The synoptics indicate that Jesus’ brother James (Mark 6.3) was not part of his movement before Jesus’ death, opposing his activities (Mark 3.19b–21), while Jesus himself debased the value of biological family (Mark 3.31–35). Logion 12 cannot come from Jesus himself.

However, writing in the mid-50s CE, Paul claimed that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to James (1 Cor 15.7), and Paul presents James as the de facto leader of the church in Jerusalem (Gal 1.19; 2.9, 11–12; cf. Acts 12.17; 15.13; 21.17–18; Josephus, Judean Antiquities 20.9.1). The same identification of James by the epithet ‘the Righteous One’ (or ‘the Just’) is also found in the Gospel of the Hebrews, which narrates Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to his brother. James’ position of leadership was recognized by the middle of the first century, and was preserved in some traditions for a while.

At the same time, the author who added the logia of realized eschatology (near the end of the first century or early in the second) elevated Jesus’ disciple Thomas, not his brother James (nor even Peter, as in Matt 16.13–19). The superscription defining the book as containing ‘secret sayings’ claims they were revealed to Thomas, and we see this heroization of Thomas as the most in-tune of Jesus’ disciples portrayed in logion 13.

Most likely, we have a layer of sayings attributed to Jesus that were actually invented in a time between the core apocalyptic layer and the later realized eschatology layer. In this time period, the community is beginning to recognize that Jesus’ absence was going to last longer than they initially expected (the disciples stand in for them, saying ‘We know that you are going to leave us’), which prompted people to begin wondering about about their community’s longevity (the disciples ask ‘Who will be our leader?’ under the mindset that Jesus must have had a long-term plan in mind). Jesus identifies his successor as his own brother, despite that Jesus’ family rejected his mission while he was yet alive—complete with an exaltation of James befitting a later period, saying he is ‘the Righteous One, for whose sake heaven and earth exist’ (cf. 2 Bar 14.19).

Since this logion is meant to validate James’ leadership, there is a strong chance it was written before his death in 62 CE. The first detail in Jesus’ appointment of James as his successor specifies that ‘no matter here you came from’, James was to be the leader. This small hint further indicates that the saying was composed in a time when the community was growing beyond Jerusalem,35 perhaps even among non-Israelites. This would correspond strongly to the 50s and early 60s CE, when the demographics of Jesus’ followers started shifting toward a gentile majority. These additions would not necessarily be restricted to just this time; it only shows that the question of gentile inclusion began around this time.

On this topic, we find several interpolations and logia giving contradictory instructions on whether following the Torah was required (i.e. for gentiles). Some demand it.36

Thomas 27.2

‘If you do not observe the Sabbath day as a Sabbath, you will not see the Father.’

Thomas 60.1–5

A Samaritan was carrying a lamb as he travelled to Judea. He said to his disciples, ‘That man is binding the lamb.’ They said to him, ‘So that he may slaughter it and eat it.’ He said to them, ‘While it is alive, he will not eat it. Rather, after he has slaughtered it and it is carcass.’ They said, ‘He is not permitted to do it any other way.’

Others forbid it. (Some see these not as anti-Torah, but as limited to a denial of the corrupted world in favor of the perfect primordial creation, identifying these logia as belonging to the later time of the realized eschatology. I don’t find this interpretation particularly convincing.)37

Thomas 6.1; 14.1–3,5

His disciples question him and said, ‘How should we fast? How should we pray? How should we give alms? What diet should we observe?’ […] Jesus said to them, ‘If you fast, you give birth in yourselves to sin. And if you pray, you will be condemned. And if you give alms, you will harm yourselves. […] For what goes into your mouth will not make you unclean, rather what comes out of your mouth. It is this which will make you unclean!’

Thomas 53

His disciples said to him, ‘Is circumcision advantageous or not?’ He said to them, ‘If it were advantageous, the father would conceive them in their mother already circumcised. Rather, circumcision in the spirit is true. This person has procured all of the advantage.’

It could be that the pro-Torah passages are earlier, contemporary with the pro-James logion, while the anti-Torah ones are later, owing to the new gentile majority rejecting Torah observance.


Under this theory, the Gospel of Thomas was most likely composed over a period of about sixty years by multiple hands, each writing for a new situation. Each ‘layer’ could itself have gradually acquired new sayings, such that more than simply three different authors were involved.

The earliest layer, the original core of the book, consists of proverbs, parables, and other teachings from Jesus. Many of them run parallel to the synoptics, and provide a window (however foggy it may be) into the historical personality of Jesus as an apocalyptic teacher. This layer carries expectations of an imminent eschaton, the event when God’s kingdom would manifest in the world, which would come as a shock to many. This collection may have been composed around the same time as Paul’s earliest letters and the Q source.

A second layer developed over subsequent decades. This included logia that validated the leadership of Jesus’ brother James, showed the community’s awareness of the eschaton’s delay, and provided (conflicting) instructions on how new believers (gentiles) were to integrate into the community as it grew and spread. These logia come from a period spanning 50 to 100 CE.

A third and final layer directly confronted the problem of the eschaton’s delay. The dilemma was resolved by completely reinterpreting the idea of salvation coming by means of an impending resurrection, judgment, and new creation. Instead of a climactic event at the end of history, involving all people at once, salvation was achieved on an individual basis. By devoting one’s self to the wisdom of Jesus’ example and his teachings, a person could actualize their salvation in the present. The way this was achieved was by reorienting one’s self to resemble pre-sin Adam, when he lived in God’s light as God’s image. There is also the possibility that some of this layer and its redactions to the earlier layers reflect knowledge of the canonical gospels, and sought to harmonize the text with them.

Contrary to the common understanding of the Gospel of Thomas, the book is not a Gnostic text, though Gnostic sects may have found its ironically opaque and ambiguous metaphors conducive for their theology. Each stage of its theology has parallels in the New Testament, rendering it far more recognizable than seems at first glance. Instead of reflecting a time and worldview completely removed from first century ‘Christianity’, each of its layers can teach us about Jesus38 and the first few generations of his followers. Its realized eschatology is unusual only through the assumption that a more Western (that is, Roman Catholic, and by descent, Protestant) theology hyper-focused on Jesus’ crucifixion was the baseline for all of the early generations of his ‘orthodox’ followers.39 In reality, there was no singular orthodoxy; the Jesus movement branched out in several directions from the same roots.


1 April DeConick, The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, 11–12; Helmut Koester, ‘The Gospel of Thomas’, The Nag Hammadi Library (ed. James Robinson) 124.

2 Cf. DeConick, Original, 192, 198.

3 Simon Gathercole, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences, 125.

4 Contrary to Mark Goodacre’s argument in Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics. Compare, for example, Obad 1–4 and Jer 49.14–16, which are nearly identical, yet most scholars agree each author independently borrowed from a preexisting source.

5 Koester, ‘Thomas’, 125.

6 DeConick, Original, 2.

7 James Fieser & John Powers, Scriptures of the World’s Religions, 387.

8 E.g., three conservative Christian scholars—Ben Witherington, Darrell Bock, and Daniel Wallace—identify the Gospel of Thomas as a Gnostic text in this discussion (46:10; 1:09:53).

9 DeConick, Original, 3.

10 Koester, ‘Thomas’, 125–126; Gilles Quispel, Gnostica, Judaica, Catholica: Collected Essays of Gilles Quispel (ed. Johannes van Oort), 177.

11 DeConick, Original, 3.

12 Quispel, Gnostica, 157.

13 Koester, ‘Thomas’, 125.

14 Wright, ‘Five Gospels but No Gospel: Jesus and the Seminary’, Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (ed. Bruce Chilton) 96, 108.

15 DeConick, Original, 7.

16 Stevan Davies, ‘The Christology and Protology of the Gospel of Thomas’, JBL 111.4, 663–664.

17 Koester, ‘Thomas’, 125.

18 DeConick, ‘The Original Gospel of Thomas’, Vigiliae Christianae 56, 180.

19 Ibid., 180.

20 Quispel, Gnostica, 183.

21 Koester, ‘Thomas’, 126.

22 Quispel, Gnostica, 178.

23 Ibid., xvii, cf. 94.

24 DeConick, Original, 8.

25 Quispel, Gnostica, 184.

26 Quispel, Gnostica, xvii; cf. DeConick, Original, 6, 9.

27 Davies, ‘Christology’, 664.

28 Ibid., 664; 673–675.

29 Ibid., 664–668. Cf. Aristobulus of Alexandria (via Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 6.3, 16; Eusebius, Preparation 3.11–12; 7.13–14); Philo of Alexandria, Allegorical Interpretations 1.43; 3.96; John 1.1–5.

30 Davies, ‘Christology’, 664.

31 DeConick, Original, 297.

32 DeConick, Original, 297; Quispel, Gnostica, 137. Cf. Clement of Alexandria, Excerpta ex Theodoto 79; Perpetua 10; Acts of Paul and Thecla 25, 40.

33 Sebastian Brock & Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, 24.

34 Quispel, Gnostica, 192.

35 E.g. Quispel (Gnostica, 183) sees Thom 68 as allusion to the community fleeing Jerusalem just before its destruction in 70 CE.

36 Quispel, Gnostica, 104, 196ff.

37 Davies, ‘Christology’, 673.

38 Ibid., 663.

39 DeConick, Original, 4.

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