The Gospel of Thomas

By Aelred Edmunds in Articles

comments about this alternative gospel

The complete text of the Gospel of Thomas is now available to us
after over 2000 years. Discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in
Egypt, it opens up some fascinating and startling perspectives on
some of the little known aspects of primitive Christianity. It also
encourages us to broaden and deepen our appreciation of the
perhaps too familiar figure of Jesus. Many centuries of familiarity
with the canonical New Testament have encouraged widespread
complacency: all that is necessary to faith and salvation is
contained in its sanctified pages. What the Gospel of Thomas has
done - among other things - is to show us a Jesus who is, yes,
familiar, but also startlingly new and unfamiliar. It has reinforced
the long-held view that there was no one orthodox collection of
Jesus' teachings. It has also demonstrated, yet again, that there
was no one, uniform understanding of who or what Jesus was.
"Certainty" (actually imposition!) only came with the formal
theological definitions laid down by the Council of Nicea in
325AD. We still live with those impositions.
There are still those who argue that the Gospel of Thomas is
just another heretical Gnostic ("hidden wisdom") gospel - one of
many which the early Church dismissed as confusing and
irrelevant. This view will not pass muster. For one thing, there is
nothing of the complicated metaphysical speculation (on the
"celestial hierarchies", for example) which is typical of the Gnostic
literature. The Gospel of Thomas is very down-to-earth indeed. It
is made up of a collection of 114 "sayings" of Jesus which are
concerned with the practicalities of finding the Father's Kingdom
in this present life. The level of practicality is such that the texts
are, for the most part, concerned with Jesus' teachings on this.
There is no reference to the later themes of crucifixion and
resurrection. There is no infancy narrative. There is no reference
to Jesus' status as Messiah or Christ. One of the most likely
reasons for the absence of these familiar elements is that the
Gospel of Thomas was compiled before these Christian themes
were fully developed. It follows that this must be a very early text.
Actually, scholars point out that The Gospel of Thomas is an
example of the most primitive form of written tradition - a simple
list of "sayings". It is not even well-organized. Much of the text
does not "flow." In a strange way, this is encouraging to the
modern reader because it suggests that the text has not been
"polished" for a theologically sophisticated audience. It has not
been modified by Church councils! We are at the point where a
community's writings have not yet given way to other more
complex forms of literature such as the narrative story or
dialogue. For this reason, it is suggested, we are close to some of
the earliest perceptions of Jesus.
Surely this is very exciting to consider! It is now actually
possible to touch some of the original Christian "core" material.
Some writers go so far as to suggest that at this very early stage
in the history of the Jesus Movement (as it is sometimes called),
Jesus was still sometimes "just Jesus" - the friend, the teacher,
the brother. Indeed, this gospel may actually be seen as a
genuinely new text: roughly half of the Gospel of Thomas sayings
have no parallel with the Synoptic tradition at all (Matthew, Mark,
Luke). In other words, it seems that Thomas represents a thread
of primitive tradition that is autonomous and distinct. When I first
read this gospel, I knew that I was seeing a literally unique
collection of Jesus' teachings. While the Dead Sea Scrolls had
been fascinating, the Thomas material was more so. I was
meeting a hitherto largely unknown Jesus.
What was the Gospel of Thomas, then, in its context and time
(certainly early 1st century)? Perhaps it was a kind of catechism -
a convenient, easily-memorized collection of the teachings of
Jesus. If you purchase a copy of the gospel you will see why this
suggestion seems sensible. There is no narrative holding things
together. Each saying demands individual and deep reflection.
One saying might well require many hours (even years)) of
focused attention. The sayings are concerned mainly with the
many and varied mysteries of the Father's Kingdom. Is it, then, a
manual/catechism of Kingdom mysticism? I am inclined to think
so. Certainly it is vitally concerned with HOW this Kingdom may
be entered, and this "how" involves much more than doctrinal
belief or "simple faith."
I will finish by sharing with you just some of the sayings which
concern the Kingdom, sayings which are not found in the
canonical New Testament gospels. My hope is that you will find
them as startling, refreshing and challenging as I did. This is a
Jesus you have probably never encountered.
Saying 5 - Jesus says: "Come to know what is in front of you, and
that which is hidden from you will become clear to you."
Saying 51 - His disciples said to him: "When will the
of the dead take place, and when will the new
world come?"
He said to them: "That (resurrection) which you are
awaiting has (already) come, but you do not recognize it."
Saying 113 - His disciples said to him: "The kingdom - on what
day will it come?"
"It will not come by watching (and waiting for) it. They
will not say: 'Look, here!' or 'Look, there!' Rather, the kingdom of
the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see
Saying 106 - Jesus says: "When you make the two into one, you
will become sons of man."
Saying 82 - Jesus says: "The person who is near me is near the
And the person who is far from me is far from the
Saying 75 - Jesus says: "Many are standing before the door, but
it is the solitary ones who will enter the wedding hall."
Saying 58 - Jesus says: "Blessed is the person who has
struggled. He has found life."
Get your own copy! I recommend Stevan Davies,The Gospel of
Thomas Annotated and Explained. (Skylight Paths Publishing
Aelred Edmunds