Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Gospel of Thomas: Lecture Notes

Here is the outline I used today in class to cover the Gospel of Thomas.

The Gospel of Thomas

1.     Nag Hammadi library

a.     Discovered in 1945

b.     Translated into English in 1977

c.      13 leather bound books (codices)

d.     Manuscripts dated AD 350-380

e.     Written in Coptic (Egyptian written in the Greek alphabet)

2.     Oxyrhynchus

a.     Discovered in 1890’s

b.     Greek fragments: unknown at time of discovery what they were but with the discovery at Nag Hammadi it was realized that these Greek fragments were pieces of Thomas

c.      About 20% of Thomas in three papyri

                                               i.     P. Oxy 654 = Thomas 1-7, part of 30

                                              ii.     P. Oxy 1 = Thomas 26-33

                                            iii.     P. Oxy 655 = Thomas 24, 36-39, 77

d.     Manuscripts dated AD 200-300

3.     Two views on origins and translation

a.     Greek to Coptic

b.     Syriac to Greek; Syriac to Coptic

4.     Thomas and Gnosticism

a.     Not full-blown Gnosticism but definitely Gnostic elements[1]

                                               i.     Definition of Gnosticism:

1.     Dualism: mixture of good and evil in creation and man; distinction between good transcendent unknowable God and God who created the world.  “The knowable God who is a projection into the creation is the Creator, while the unknowable God is over everything but is too transcendent to be directly involved with the creation.  The true God and the Creator God of Genesis are not the same thing.” [2]

2.     Cosmogony: dualism in the creation itself; “anti-cosmic dualism” which rejects the physical material world as evil and inferior.[3]

3.     Soteriology: “Salvation and redemption are understood primarily in terms of knowledge about creation’s dualistic nature.  Salvation of the nonmaterial spirit or soul within a person is what matters, not a salvation of the creation or of the flesh.  In fact, the flesh is not redeemable.  There is no resurrection of the body from the dead.”[4]

4.     Eschatology: “one understands where existence is headed, namely, the redemption of the soul and the recovery of the creation into the ‘fullness’ or ‘pleroma’ that is where good dwells.”[5]

                                              ii.     See especially verses 18, 29, 36-39, 50, 77, 83-84

b.     Thomas 1 and John 11.25-26

                                               i.     Thomas 1: “And he said, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.’”

                                              ii.     John 11.25-26: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?’”

1.     “Now we can see how John’s message contrasts with that of Thomas.  Thomas’s Jesus directs each disciple to discover the light within (‘within a person of light there is light’ [24]) but John’s Jesus declares instead that ‘I am the light of the world’ and that ‘whoever does not come to me walks in darkness’ [8.12].  In Thomas, Jesus reveals to the disciples that ‘you are from the kingdom, and to it you shall return’ and teaches them to say for themselves that ‘we come from the light’; but John’s Jesus speaks as the only one who comes ‘from above’ and so has rightful priority over everyone else: ‘You are from below; I am from above …. The one who comes from above is above all.’ [8.23; 3.31]  Only Jesus is from God, and he alone offers access to God.  John never tires of repeating that one must believe in Jesus, follow Jesus, obey Jesus, and confess him alone as God’s only son.  We are not is ‘twin,’ much less (even potentially) his equal; we must follow him, believe in him, and revere him as God in person: thus John’s Jesus declares that ‘you will die in your sins, unless you believe that I am he’ [8.24].”[6]

2.     “At the same time, I was also exploring in my academic work the history of Christianity in the light of the Nag Hammadi discoveries, and this research helped clarify what I cannot love: the tendency to identify Christianity with a single, authorized set of beliefs—however these actually vary from church to church—coupled with the conviction that Christian belief alone offers access to God.”[7]

3.     Pagels is challenged spiritually by Thomas.  For example, verse 70 reads: “Jesus said, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.  If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’”  Pagels comments: “The strength of this saying is that it does not tell us what to believe but challenges us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves; and, with a shock of recognition, I realized that this perspective seemed to me self-evidently true.”[8]

5.     Contents of Thomas

a.     Missing Gospel elements in Thomas

                                               i.     No narrative

                                              ii.     No passion/cross

                                            iii.     No resurrection

                                            iv.     Non-eschatological (i.e., Thomas 18)

                                              v.     No “Jewish-ness”: Jewish language and concepts are used but are give a different, non-Jewish understanding

“One of the most telling weaknesses in the whole Q-and-Thomas hypothesis, it seems to me, is the presence within Thomas of sayings about the ‘kingdom of god’, or, as the book regularly calls it, the kingdom of the Father [3, 22, 46, 49, 97, 113, 114].  From our earlier study of the Jewish evidence, it is unthinkable that this motif should be introduced into a community from scratch with the meaning that it comes to have in Thomas, i.e. the present secret religious knowledge of a heavenly world.  It is overwhelmingly likely that the use of this emphatically Jewish kingdom-language originated with an overtly Jewish movement which used it in a sense close to it mainline one, i.e. which spoke of the end of exile, the restoration of Israel, the rebuilding of the Temple, the return of YHWH to Zion, and so forth, however much these ideas were transformed within the ministry of Jesus and the lives of his first followers.  If there has been a shift in the usage one way or the other, it is far more likely to have been from this Jewish home base into a quasi-Gnostic sense, rather than from a Gnostic sense, for which there is no known, or imaginable precedent, to a re-Judaized one—a shift which, on the hypothesis, must have taken place somewhere between an early Thomas and a later Mark.”[9]

b.     Thomas doesn’t fit “gospel” message or genre

“When the early Christians picked up the term ‘gospel’, they had in mind the good news of things Jesus had done, while also including some of his teachings.  For example, the earliest Gospel, Mark, is mostly action—focusing on Jesus’ deeds.  It is doubtful that the earliest Christians would have seen a mere collection of teachings, without a recounting of Jesus’ saving activities, as a Gospel… On this account it’s doubtful that we should see the Gospel of Thomas, mostly a collection of teachings, as a Gospel.”[10]

6.     Dating the Gospel of Thomas

a.     Two views

                                               i.     Early: 50-60 (Jesus Seminar)

                                              ii.     Late: 150-185 (majority of scholars)

b.     Arguments for late date

                                               i.     Thomas knows many of the NT writings

                                              ii.     Thomas contains material from the Gospels that many scholars regard as late (i.e., M, L, John)

                                            iii.     Thomas reflects later editing in the Gospel

                                            iv.     Thomas shows familiarity with traditions distinctive to Easter, Syrian Christianity that emerged in the middle of the 2nd century (i.e., name Judas Thomas)

“The attribution of the Gospel to ‘Didymus Judas Thomas’ (prologue) shows that it derives from the East Syrian Christian tradition, centered in Edessa.  It was only in this tradition (from which come also the Book of Thomas and the Acts of Thomas) that the apostle was known as Judas Thomas and regarded as a kind of spiritual twin-brother of Jesus.  Thomas was thought (perhaps correctly) to have been in some sense responsible for the founding of the church in this area, and it is probable that the oral Gospel traditions of this church were transmitted under the name of Thomas and that the Gospel of Thomas drew on these oral traditions.  Its points of contact with other literature from this area and especially its probable use by the Acts of Thomas (end of second or early third century) confirms this hypothesis.”[11]

c.      Arguments for early date

                                               i.     Form is like Q (collection of sayings without narrative) which is early

                                              ii.     Sayings in Thomas are more simple than parallels in canonical Gospels

Example: parable of the wicked tenant farmers (Mt 21.33-41; Mk 12.1-9; Lk 20.9-16; Thomas 65)

                                            iii.     Sayings in Thomas do not follow the order in Synoptic Gospels

7.     Answering the arguments for an early date

a.     “Form is like Q.”

                                               i.     Q is a hypothetical construct; no manuscript evidence

                                              ii.     Q could have contained a narrative—who knows?  Speculation abounds.

b.     “Simple sayings = early sayings.”

“Advocates of Thomas’ independence of the canonical Gospels often point to the abbreviated form that many of the parables and sayings have in Thomas.  One of the best known examples is the parable of the wicked tenant farmers (Mt 21:33-41; Mk 12:1-9; Lk 20:9-16; Gospel of Thomas 65).  In the opening verse of Mark’s version approximately eleven words are drawn from Isaiah 5:1-7 to form the backdrop of the parable.  Most of these words do not appear in Thomas.  Crossan takes this as an indication that the older form of the parable has been preserved in Thomas, not in Mark, which supposedly preserves an expanded, secondary version.  However, in Luke’s opening verse only two words from Isaiah 5 (“planted vineyard”) remain.  We have here a clear example of abbreviation of the tradition.  Other scholars have concluded that the version in Thomas is an edited and abridged form of Luke’s version of the parable.  The same possibility applies to the saying about the rejected stone (Mt 21:42; Mk 12:10-11; Lk 20:17; Gospel of Thomas 66).  Mark’s longer version quotes Psalm 118:22-23.  But Luke only quotes Psalm 118:22.  Once again Luke, who depends on Mark and is further removed from the original form of the tradition, has abbreviated the tradition.  The shorter form also appears in Thomas.  Thus, it is risky to draw firm conclusions relating to priority on the basis of which form of the tradition is the shortest and appears abbreviated.  It is thus possible that Gospel of Thomas 65 and 66 are neither separate logia nor derived from pre-Synoptic tradition, but constitute an edited version of Luke’s abbreviation of Mark’s parable.”[12]

c.      “Sayings in Thomas are not in the same order as Synoptic Gospels.”

                                               i.     Gnostic writers of the 2nd century customarily arranged material around themes/catchwords

                                              ii.     We know of one place for certain where the Coptic writer changed the order from the “older” Greek version (P. Oxy 1) to organize it around catchwords. 

1.     The saying on “splitting the wood” which in P. Oxy 1 is at the end of saying 30 becomes part of the 2nd half of saying 77 in the Coptic version.

2.     This creates a link-word between 77a+b; both halves of the spliced verse contain the Coptic verb meaning “attain” or “split”[13]

     [1] Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospel (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2006), 66-67.
     [2] Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianites (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2006, 19.
     [3] Bock, The Missing Gospels, 19.
     [4] Bock, The Missing Gospels, 19.
     [5] Bock, The Missing Gospels, 19.
     [6] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Vintage, 2003), 68-69.
     [7] Pagels, Beyond Belief, 29.
     [8] Pagels, Beyond Belief, 32.
     [9] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1992), 440-441—boldface added.
     [10] Ben Witherington III, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Da Vinci (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2004), 97.  Also see Simon Gathercole’s discussion—“ Jesus, the Apostolic Gospel and the Gospels”—summarized at Steve Walton’s blog online: http://stevewalton.info/simon-gathercole-on-the-canonical-and-non-canonical-gospels/
     [11] Richard J. Bauckham, “Gospels (Apocryphal)” in Joel B. Green, et al., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers, Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 287.
     [12] Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 71—boldface added.
     [13] See Glenn Miller’s online essay “What about the Gospel of Thomas?” for details and further bibliographic information.  Online: http://christianthinktank.com/gthomas.html