Doubting the Gospel of Thomas (Part 3 of 3)

Today, I continue what could be called “My Conversation with Michael the Heathen Gnostic.” As Michael and I traded comments about the Gospel of Thomas (among other issues), the issue came up of which were/was likely written earlier — those manuscripts that became the four Gospels in the Bible OR the Gospel of Thomas (GTh). If fact, Michael said at one point:

Codex IV of Nag Hammadi library manuscripts> Give me a break. This is no proof of
> anything. All four Gospels could easily have
> been written based on one singluar other
> work.

Since there were many comments/accusations being made that I wanted to respond to, I had to put off researching this particular issue for awhile but eventually came back to it. I did my research and posted the following:

“I thought I would take a little closer look at why the consensus among scholars is that the Gospel of Thomas dates after the canonical Gospels and relies on them for roughly 1/3 to 1/2 of its content. Here’s what I found.

Probably the four main reasons are as follows:

1) Thomas’ Gospel contains parallels to each of the 4 canonical Gospels and to every “layer” of the Gospel tradition — i.e., material common to all 3 Synoptics, the hypothetical “Q” material, and information unique to each of the 4 canonicals. It seems much more likely that Thomas knew & relied upon the other four than that every Gospel & Gospel source independently used Thomas at an earlier date.

2) Various series of sayings within Thomas’ Gospel itself show how Jesus’ original words got more & more “gnosticized”. Take Sayings 73-75, for example:

[73] Jesus said, “The crop is huge but the workers are few, so beg the harvest boss to dispatch workers to the fields.”

This saying has close parallels in Matthew 9:37-38 and Luke 10:2.

[74] He said, “Lord, there are many around the drinking trough, but there is nothing in the well.”

This one has no canonical parallel but makes a similar point — i.e., Jesus’ followers should be recognizing where true spiritual maturity would lead them, but they aren’t.

[75] Jesus said, “There are many standing at the door, but those who are alone will enter the bridal suite.”

This final passage again tries to make the same point but uses two notably Gnostic terms — i.e., “those who are alone” as the true Gnostics, and “enter[ing] the bridal suite” for their initiation into a ‘deeper life’. One can see here the successive adaptation of Jesus’ original teaching, and there’s no reason to believe any of it predates the Matthew & Luke accounts.

3) Other series of sayings seem to be in a particular order only because that is how they appeared in the Synoptics. Take Sayings 65 & 66, for example. The former gives a version of the ‘wicked tenants’ parable found in Mark 12:1-8, and the latter follows up with a version of the ‘cornerstone’ teaching from Mark 12:10-11. Without a connector like Mark 12:9, what is there to link the two? Is it more probable that the writer of GTh knew the Synoptics and chose to leave out the link (making it more typical of the isolated sayings throughout the book), or that Mark (or whomever) created a connected narrative out of two previously independent ideas?

painting of Jesus and fishermen4) Several minor characteristics of the Coptic translation (AD 400 or later) of Thomas’ Gospel correspond to changes made to Gospel tradition found in later 2nd-4th century manuscripts, such as Coptic translations of the canonical Gospels. Other distinctives of the Coptic GTh can be seen to parallel development of the canonical tradition in the Diatessaron (i.e., late 2nd-century harmony of the Gospels), in works attributed to Clement of Alexandria (ca. AD 200), as well as in 6th-century variants of the Gospels. For instance, take the parable of the dragnet. In Thomas’s version (Saying 8), the fishermen keep only one “fine, large fish” and toss the rest back. Not only is there evidence of Gnostic elitism in this reinterpretation of Matthew 13:47-50, but it is very close to Clement’s later adaptation (Strom.95.3), where a fisherman keeps one “choice” (or “elect”) fish for himself out of the entire catch.

The combined effect of these and other arguments led N.T. scholar Robert Grant and O.T. scholar David Freedman to conclude Thomas’ reliance on the four canonical Gospels. Its lack of both apocalyptic and historical content reflects the Gnostic philosophy, which does not care for God’s redemptive acts in history.

“It is probably our most significant witness to the early perversion of Christianity by those who wanted to create Jesus in their own image…. Ultimately it testifies not to what Jesus said but to what men wished he had said.” (Grant & Freedman, The Secret Sayings of Jesus, 1960)

More recent studies concur — e.g., see works by Michael Fieger, Christopher M. Tuckett, James H. Charlesworth and Craig A. Evans. Generally speaking, today’s scholars are a little more open to the possibility of some traditions having made their way into Thomas’ Gospel that were independent of the canonical Gospels (e.g., the otherwise unverified parables of the empty jar (Saying 97) and the assassin (Saying 98)). But few would date the whole document prior to the mid-2nd century.”

Unfortunately, Michael had already decided to end the discussion by this point, so we didn’t have a chance to pursue this. It was a fascinating discussion, though, and I certainly learned a lot in my research. I hope you’ve gotten some value from it, too. If you have a question or comment about the interchange itself or about the topics discussed, please do let me know. Maybe we can kick around some of this ourselves.

I’ll probably post a few more excerpts from “My Conversation with Michael the Heathen Gnostic” over the coming weeks/months.

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