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The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas, Nag Hammadi, Jesus Seminar

The Gospel of Thomas

Non-Christian The Gospel of Thomas


The Jesus Seminar places high value on the historical basis of the Gospel of Thomas--that it recovers for us words Jesus actually spoke that are not found in our four Gospels. But many other scholars, conservatives and liberals alike, view this document more cautiously. Most think that it is no more than a second-century collection of sayings loosely based on the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and other writings, and that it offers nothing that is original or older.
Source: Craig Evans, Doubting Thomas' Gospel, Christianity Today, June 15, 1998 Vol. 42, No. 7, Page 53

Now if the historical Jesus is not the Jesus of the gospels, the supernatural Jesus, then how do sceptical scholars figure out who the historical Jesus really was? Well, that leads to the second presupposition which I wanted to discuss, namely, sceptical critics presuppose that our most primary sources for the life of Jesus are not the Gospels, but rather writings outside the New Testament, specifically the so–called apocryphal gospels. These are gospels forged under the apostles’ names, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Philip, and so forth. These extra–biblical writings are said to be the key to correctly reconstructing the historical Jesus.

Professor Luke Johnson, a distinguished New Testament scholar at Emory University, points out that all of the recent spate of books claiming to uncover the real Jesus follow the same, predictable pattern:

1. The book begins by trumpeting the scholarly credentials of the author and his prodigious research.
2. The author claims to offer some new, and maybe even suppressed, interpretation of who Jesus really was.
3. The truth about Jesus is said to be discovered by means of sources outside the Bible which enable us to read the Gospels in a new way which is at odds with their face value meaning.
4. This new interpretation is provocative and even titillating, for example, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene or was the leader of a hallucinogenic cult or a peasant cynic philosopher.
5. It is implied that traditional Christian beliefs are therefore undermined and need to be revised.{8}

If you hear of books following this familiar pattern, your critical antennae ought to automatically go up. You are about to be duped. For the fact is that there is no source outside the Bible which calls into question the portrait of Jesus painted in the gospels.

Let me take just a couple of examples which are favorite sources of the Jesus Seminar. First, the so–called Gospel of Thomas. The Jesus Seminar considers this such an important source that they include it along with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in their edition of The Five Gospels.

Now what is the Gospel of Thomas? It is a writing which was discovered in Egypt just after World War II. It was part of a collection of Gnostic documents. Gnosticism was an ancient near–eastern philosophy which held that the physical world is evil and the spiritual realm is good. Salvation comes through secret knowledge of the spiritual realm, which liberates the soul from its imprisonment in the physical world. The so–called Gospel of Thomas is shot through with Gnostic philosophy. It was no doubt part of the literature of a Gnostic Christian cult, much like New Age cults in our own day. Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas as old as AD 200 have been found, and most scholars would date the original to have been written in the latter half of the second century after Christ. One evidence of this fact is that the Gospel of Thomas uses vocabulary that comes from second century translations and harmonies of the four gospels.

Thus, the vast majority of scholars today regard the Gospel of Thomas as a derivative source from the second century after Christ which reflects the view of Christian gnosticism.

Incredibly, however, fellows of the Jesus Seminar regard the Gospel of Thomas as an early, primary source concerning Jesus and use it to revise the portrait of Jesus found in the Gospels. Now what reasons do they have for dating the Gospel of Thomas so early? Amazingly, their whole approach to this question is reasoning in a circle. It goes like this:

1. The Gospel of Thomas is an early, primary source.

“How do you know?”

2. Because no apocalyptic sayings are found in the Gospel of Thomas.

“Why is that evidence of an early date?”

3. This is evidence of an early date because Jesus wasn’t into Apocalyptic.

“How do you know he wasn’t?”

4. Because the Gospel of Thomas proves he wasn’t.

“Why believe what the Gospel of Thomas says?”

1. The Gospel of Thomas is an early, primary source.

Thus, Howard Clark Kee of Boston University hails this procedure as "a triumph of circular reasoning!"{9} British New Testament scholar Thomas Wright says it’s like Winnie the Pooh following his own tracks in the snow around a clump of trees and each time he sees more tracks he takes this as evidence that his quarry is even more numerous and more real than he thought before!{10} No wonder that the fellows of the Jesus Seminar haven’t been able to convince very many of their colleagues by means of arguments like this!

A recent tactic of radical NT scholarship today seeks to find documents to replace the so-called "stranglehold" upon discussion that is held by the canonical gospels. As well accounted in Philip Jenkins' work, Hidden Gospels, any other document that presents an "emasculated Jesus" is welcomed with open arms - and thus it is no surprise to observe the recent attempt to give the Gospel of Thomas equal footing with the Gospels of the canon, or at least see it as an "independent source of data" [Funk.5Q, 15] from which we may gather information about the historical Jesus.

But here is a surprise for the "uninitiated": Modern proponents of this view, ranging from Helmut Koester and his students to the Jesus Seminar, are proposing nothing really new. Suggestions that the Gospel of Thomas may contain early material, or drew upon an independent tradition, are found as early as 1960. [Wils.SGThom, vi, 46, 116] At the same time, arguments refuting that view are found just as early. [GrFree.SSGThom; Gart.TGThom] This is therefore an argument that has been "had" before - and not surprisingly, the issues have changed little in the intervening 20-30 years.

It should come as no surprise to us that the GThom Jesus has been given so much attention by the academic community of the Jesus Seminar and their ideological cousins. Behind this attention lies a desire to find a Jesus with no eschatology, no demands upon our person, and no outrageous claims to be the Son of Living God - as indeed is frankly admitted by Harold Bloom in his commentary at the end of Meyer's work. Appeals are made to the idea of seeing Christianity in "a fresh light" [Camer.FECy, 392]- is the traditional view somehow "stale"? Not at all: This is no more than a matter of saying, "Gosh, there's no way the traditional view can be TRUE! Let's look for a better way!" The view of GThom held by these scholars reflects "a simplistic tendency to regard extracanonical witnesses as the key to true Christianity as contrasting with a narrow-minded censorship represented by the New Testament." [Stant.GT?,78]

How appropriate, then, are the words of Grant and Freedman here, applied to the original author of GThom, but hauntingly fitting to the modern work of Koester, Patterson and Cameron, to Davies, and to the Jesus Seminar. GThom, Grant and Freedman write, is "probably our earliest significant witness to the early perversion of Christianity by those who wanted to create Jesus in their own image." And: "Ultimately (GThom) testifies not to what Jesus said but to what men wished he had said." How different, then, are the tactics and purposes of the Jesus Seminar and the GThom proponents? "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (Eccl. 1:9)
Source: Thomas Gospel Tizzy "An Examination of Arguments Favoring the Gospel of Thomas" by J.P. Holding


Christian Doubting Thomas' Gospel (Contra) By Craig Evans, professor of biblical studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia.
Christian The Gnostic Gospels: Are They Authentic? by Douglas Groothuis (See also part 1)
Christian Is the Gospel of Thomas Reliable? (Contra) by Michael J. Bumbulis
Christian The Jesus Seminar and the Gospel of Thomas: Courting the Media at the Cost of Truth by James White
Christian The Nag Hamadi Gnostics and the Gospel of Thomas "The Jesus Seminar : Select Your Own Jesus" (Contra)
Christian The Gospel of Thomas: A Worthless Document "An Examination of Arguments Favoring the Gospel of Thomas" (Contra) by J.P. Holding


In addition to attempting to find postmodern, multiple, nontraditional interpretations of traditional biblical texts, the renowned Jesus Seminar has published texts from outside the traditional canon, heralding them as new discoveries that suggest reinterpretation of traditional Christian theology and practice. In this book, Jenkins counters the interpretations of Jesus Seminar scholars, concisely and evenhandedly introducing their theories and presenting historical and textual evidence to contradict them. He questions their "discoveries" of texts that have been known to biblical scholars for at least two hundred years, challenges their dating of texts in order to impart them greater weight and traces many of their purportedly new interpretations to age-old traditions ("heresies" to the early Church) such as Gnosticism. He ascribes to the seminar scholars "inverted fundamentalism," claiming that these critics, ironically, assign great authority to historically questionable noncanonical texts, such as The Gospel of Thomas, while simultaneously challenging the authority and validity of the long-established canon. He attributes this bias to both a postmodern search for meaning and a lay audience hungry for religious truth, while noting that only new interpretations advance academic careers and attract media attention. In short, he argues that the Jesus Seminar offers nothing new under the sun. Jenkins closes out this forceful critique by noting "we can only hope" that when new biblical texts surface, they might be "evaluated on their merits, and not solely for their value in cultural battles."
Source: Publishers Weekly, quoted at Amazon.com


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Non-Christian The Gospel Of Thomas Homepage (Pro) Maintained by Stevan Davies, Professor of Religious Studies, College Misericordia, Dallas, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

About this page:
The Gospel of Thomas
First posted: June 18, 1998
Last Updated: Oct. 26, 2004
Editor: Anton Hein
Copyright: Apologetics Index
Link to: http://www.apologeticsindex.org/g08.html
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