The Gospel of Thomas: casting a new light on Early Christianity

While there may have been striking similarities between the Gospel of Thomas and those of the four Evangelists, closer examination reveals a subtle yet crucially different perspective on salvation.
gospel of thomas
A fragment of the gospel of Thomas, discovered in Egypt in 1945. (Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo)
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This essay originally appeared in ‘Religion : in the past, the present day and the future- Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar 2014′ published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020.

Traditional views of the history of Christianity, which take their clues from such sources as the New Testament Book of Acts, patristic writings and bishop Eusebius’ fourth-century Ecclesiastical History, often trace Christianity’s origin to basic structures of creed, canon and clerical authority; elsewhere in this volume, Diarmaid MacCulloch gives us a clear and elegant sketch of these traditional views. Yet since my own research engages the first three centuries of the history of Christianity, I suggest that taking creed, canon and church councils as starting points is problematic, since neither the Nicene view of Jesus as ‘God made man’, nor the fixed collection of writings that Christians would come to call their Bible, achieved anything like general consensus until 400–500 years after Jesus’ death. Yet when we investigate the beginnings of the Christian movement, we can see that it grew and thrived for at least 300 years before that – and before the councils of Nicaea or Chalcedon had ever been convened.

Yet despite the idealising picture drawn in the Book of Acts, or Eusebius’ rhetorical claim that that ‘the church was a virgin in those days’, those early centuries were by no means a golden age, free from controversy. On the contrary, leaders later called ‘fathers of the church’ like bishop Irenaeus of Lyons (c160–180 AD) devoted enormous energy for decades of their lives contending against Christians they called ‘heretics’ — an all-purpose category into which they cast those whose viewpoints differed on a wide range of critical issues. Such leaders and their followers so successfully campaigned to promote the views and writings they defined as ‘orthodox’ that subsequent histories, written by their admirers from the fourth century to the present, often read as if the Christian movement were a essentially a single entity, rather like a single-cell amoeba that eventually evolves into the dinosaur we call Christianity – its DNA clearly marked from the start. That is why we particularly appreciate the work of Professor MacCulloch, whose extensive history of Christianity embraces a great deal more than any single story. Yet the mid-20th century archaeological discoveries of whole libraries of ancient Jewish and Christian writings – especially that of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Israel, in 1946–47, and of the Nag Hammadi texts, discovered in Egypt the previous year – have offered unexpected new resources that complicate and expand our understanding of the earliest centuries of the Common Era. In some of these texts, virtually for the first time, we can to some extent hear the ‘heretics’ speak for themselves.

My own introduction to such research began with a different bishop — in fact, with the charismatic Swedish scholar, Krister Stendhal, Professor of New Testament at Harvard University, when I arrived there as a doctoral student intent on investigating the origins of Christianity. Like virtually everyone who enters that field, I went there expecting to find something very much like the traditional picture. Yet what we found was not what we expected — and, as Krister Stendhal liked to say, it’s only when we find what we’re not expecting that we may actually be discovering something.

When I first met Professor Stendhal, my doctoral adviser, who appeared to me rather like an Ingmar Bergman version of God, he abruptly asked: ‘So what did you come here to do?’ When I mumbled something about hoping to find ‘the essence of Christianity’, he looked at me sternly and said: ‘How do you know it has an essence?’ Startled, I realised at that moment why I had come: to be asked a question like that — challenged to rethink everything. When that first semester began, I was astonished to find that our professors of New Testament studies (besides Krister Stendhal, Helmut Koester, Dieter Georgi and the Jesuit scholar, George MacRae) had file cabinets filled with ancient Christian writings of which I’d never heard — gospels, revelation texts, treatises – discovered in 1945 in the desert of upper Egypt. So just as Martin Goodman has pointed out how the Dead Sea Scrolls document ‘ideas and practices not previously known’ to scholars of Judaism, these corresponding discoveries are doing the same for the history of Christianity. Especially since 2005, when we finally completed four decades of editing, translating and publishing these 52 ancient texts in over 20 volumes, we now recognise that they had most likely been translated from Greek originals into Coptic between the second and early fourth centuries and copied into books that Egyptian monks treasured in monastery libraries as a literature of spiritual formation.

Investigating these texts has offered several surprises. First, we’ve discovered that the anonymous Christian authors of the texts found at Nag Hammadi are far less bizarre than their opponents imagined. What’s surprising, in fact, is how much they share in common with their Christian contemporaries — most often taking their inspiration from the same sources — that is, from Genesis, Proverbs, Psalms and from Paul’s letters, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John — texts that these writers, too, revere and interpret.

Second, what surprised us even more are the ways that these sources not only allow, but require us to rewrite the history of Christianity. From this perspective, traditional accounts of the first three centuries are written as we might have had to write about, say, the Protestant Reformation if we only had Roman Catholic sources available — or as if we were writing about Catholic responses solely on the basis of sources written by followers of Martin Luther, John Calvin or Ian Hus. Yet now, when it comes to those early centuries, we have new resources to write about them in ways that reflect a range of diverse viewpoints much more accurately than we could have done before.

Here’s one example, to show how these discoveries are changing our understanding. The Gospel of Thomas, discovered at Nag Hammadi, opens with a line that claims to offer the ‘secret sayings of the living Jesus’, which this text says he entrusted only to certain disciples. The first stage of research involved a prominent group of European scholars who published the first edition in 1959 and who, quite naturally, took their cues from our traditional histories and from the massive second-century treatise against heretics written by bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, entitled the Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Gnosis. So when they began to edit the Gospel of Thomas, they thought they knew what they would find: this could not be a ‘real’ gospel, not a genuinely Christian one; on the contrary, it must consist instead of Gnosticism, a term adapted from Irenaeus’ polemic to designate heresy. These scholars apparently also assumed that since the genuine gospels — that is, those now in the New Testament — had been written c. 70–90 AD, the Gospel of Thomas must have been written considerably later and so they suggested a date of 140 AD (that is, twice as late as the New Testament Gospel of Mark). Furthermore, such scholars also knew what to expect in terms of content, since Irenaeus had told us that ‘gnostic’ texts were filled with dualism, docetism, bizarre mythology and philosophical speculation. During this first phase of research, when scholars found in the Gospel of Thomas no evidence of dualism, docetism, bizarre mythology or philosophical speculation — many simply read these into the text, often quite ingeniously — and some scholars do so to this day.

Yet between 1970 and 1990, Helmut Koester at Harvard initiated a second stage of research. Along with others who shared his interest in how Jesus’ oral teaching came to be written down, Koester began to examine the sayings in Thomas and compare them with the sayings found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and discovered that many sayings are the same, or similar. Some sayings in Thomas seemed to belong to what they regarded as the earliest known stratum of such sayings, the source that scholars call Q (short for the German term Quelle) that Matthew and Luke likely used to compose their gospels. Could this be what scholars regarded as the holy grail — never yet found — an actual transcription of Jesus’ teachings or, at least, a source that predates even the composition of the Gospel of Mark? Several scholars argued that it is and suggested a date of 50 AD.

At present, some of us are engaged in a third stage of research — one based on the recognition that the Gospel of Thomas seems to include a mixed collection of sayings, some that apparently come from early tradition, along with other, often more elaborated, sayings that are likely to be later. Analysis of the composition and the papyrus evidence suggests to me, for example, that the text we have now is likely to have been written toward the end of the first century, or during the second (c. 90–140 AD).

Did Jesus actually offer secret teaching? The source scholars generally agree is earliest, the Gospel of Mark, says explicitly that Jesus did offer secret teaching to his closest disciples:

‘When he was alone, those who were with him asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you the secret of the kingdom of God has been given, but for those outside, everything is in parables, so that they may look, but not perceive, and they may listen, but not understand.’

But Mark tells us nearly nothing about such secret teaching, which the Gospel of Thomas claims to reveal. But does it? Even if he did — and the example of other first-century texts make this seem likely — we cannot assume that this text accurately transcribes what Jesus actually taught: we simply have no way to know. Yet this text does tell us a great deal about the early Christian movement, since it shows how certain followers of Jesus interpreted his message and what they wrote down. So when we read the Gospel of Thomas in conjunction with other competing accounts of Jesus’ teaching — for example, with the New Testament Gospels of Luke or John – we may be able to listen in, so to speak, on intense, contentious conversations, perhaps more accurately described as arguments, that engaged various followers of Jesus during the generations after his death. The questions about which they were arguing are these: who is Jesus? And what is the ‘good news’ (gospel) about him?

According to the Gospel of Mark, the ‘good news’ is that the kingdom of God is coming very soon, initiating the end of time, which Jesus declares will happen within his disciples’ lifetime. But John’s gospel suggests that what Jesus really meant — and what he explained to his disciples in private — is that the kingdom of God, anticipated in the other gospels as an imminent cosmic cataclysm, is actually a present, and ongoing, spiritual reality, which one can find here and now.

When we turn to the Gospel of Thomas, we find something similar. According to saying three, for example, Jesus says, perhaps with irony, that the kingdom of God is not a specific place:

‘If those who lead you say to you, ‘the kingdom is in the sky’, then the birds will get there first. If they say, ‘It is in the sea’, then the fish will get there first. But the kingdom of God is inside you and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that it is you who are the children of the Living Father.’

Nor is the kingdom a specific temporal event. Instead, as in the New Testament Gospel of John, the Gospel of Thomas suggests that the kingdom is a state of being in which we may participate when we come to know who we really are — and that, when we do, we simultaneously come to know God. So while gospels like Mark have Jesus predict that the kingdom of God is coming at the end of time, the gospels of John and Thomas, on the contrary, point toward the beginning. So, according to Thomas’ saying 18, when the disciples ask Jesus when the end will come, he replies:

‘Have you found the beginning, that you look to the end?’ To understand, one has to go back to the beginning — the beginning of time.’

Yet how can anyone do that now? Thomas’ author clearly expects that the seeker would go back to the Genesis account of creation, to find out what existed before the beginning – even before the world’s creation. For the creation story begins by saying that, even before God created the world, he first called forth light: ‘ … and God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.’

Jewish teachers who discussed this passage often explained that this could not be ordinary light since of course the world, with its sun, moon and stars, had not yet been created. Instead, this must be the primordial light — an image for the divine energy which brought the world into being. For since Israel’s God, unlike other gods, could not be imaged in statues or graphic form, the only image that the prophet Ezekiel could mention when describing his vision of the divine being on the heavenly throne was that of light — the glory of God (in Hebrew, kavod). Thus, the prophet says that he saw all around that throne, brilliance of jewels, emeralds, rainbows, a sea of crystal, fire — light. And when the Genesis account goes on to say that God made Adam in his image, readers who puzzled over what kind of image that could mean were told that the image of God in humankind is light – divine light – hidden deep within.

Several accounts envision Jesus himself as divine light: so, in the Gospel of John, he declares that ‘I am the light of the world’ and, in Thomas, ‘I am the light that is before all things; I am all things; all things come forth from me; all things return to me. Split a piece of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and you will find me.’ Yet the ‘good news’ of the Gospel of Thomas is not only about Jesus, but also about you and me. So unlike in John’s account, in Thomas, Jesus tells his disciples that ‘you, too, come from the light; and so you shall return there again.’ In the baptismal sequence of Thomas’ gospel, Jesus instructs his disciples how to answer basic questions of who they are. ‘When they say to you, ‘Where do you come from?’ say, ‘we come from the light; where the light came into being from the beginning.’ And when they say, ‘Who are you?’ say, ‘We are children of the light – children of the living father.’

But when it comes to the question of how one finds access to the light, the authors of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John sharply diverge. According to Thomas, you have to look for it: ‘Jesus said, ‘Let the one who seeks not stop seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will be troubled; when he is troubled, he will be amazed.’ The author of John, however, says something very different. Yes, he agrees that the ‘good news’ is that Jesus is the light, the one through whom the divine presence radiates; but the ‘bad news’, so to speak, is that you and I are nothing like Jesus. On the contrary, he is not only the son of God, he is the only begotten son of God. The Greek term monogenes means ‘single one’, or ‘utterly unique’. This is John’s favourite word, since it encapsulates his whole message. Throughout the entire gospel, Jesus speaks in what scholars call the ‘I am’ sayings – ‘I am the door; I am the way; I am the truth; I am the life; I am …’ — whatever you need, the divine source in person. So finally Jesus says ‘before Abraham was, I AM’, claiming the divine name that the Lord gave to Moses. John insists that Jesus is God and you and I are only creatures, lost in sin and darkness, whose only hope is to ‘believe in him’. Thus John even has Jesus warn his followers that ‘you will die in your sins, unless you believe that I AM HE.’

And because John apparently knows the kind of teaching associated with the disciple Thomas (whether he knew the actual text, we cannot tell), he — and he alone — in his gospel turns Thomas into a character: actually, into the caricature whom we call ‘doubting Thomas’. For in the other gospels, Thomas appears only as a name on a list. But the author of John adds three episodes that picture Thomas as one who has no faith, who fails to understand — and who isn’t even a real disciple. For in chapter 20, where John says that the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples, transmitted to them the Holy Spirit and commissioned them as his representatives, John — and only John – declares that ‘Thomas was not with them when he came.’ So he suggests that Thomas never received the spirit, was never declared a disciple, was not commissioned by the risen Jesus — and when the others told him that they had ‘seen the Lord’, Thomas ‘the doubter’, as John pictures him, said: ‘I don’t believe it!’ So John adds another story — another story only in John’s gospel — that Jesus came a second time, specifically to rebuke Thomas (‘do not doubt, but believe!’), a scene in which John pictures Thomas suddenly capitulating, accepting John’s view, saying that Jesus is, as he now confesses, ‘my Lord and my God!’.

Within the early Christian movement, then, there were not only the views of Jesus we find in the New Testament gospels, but also this other view that seeks humankind’s creation ‘in the image of God’, as a hidden link of continuity between ourselves and God, while John’s gospel depicts sharp discontinuity, which can only be rectified by God ‘becoming flesh’ in human form, to offer himself to die as an atonement sacrifice for human sin.

A final word: when we were initially investigating and comparing these texts, I was so struck by the differences that, at first, I thought that the gospels of Thomas and John were complete opposites — John’s gospel written to challenge and refute what we find in Thomas. Now, however, we are at a fourth stage. We can see that there are several second-century texts that read both kinds of gospel as if they are compatible — gospels like Thomas not simply as ‘bad’ heretical gospels, but as the esoteric teaching, the secret teaching, taught only to those who had already received the exoteric messages found in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. For our purposes in this short account, I’ve chosen to talk about Thomas — but this, of course, is only one text out of more than 50. Others challenge orthodox Christians who glorify martyrdom as offering a direct route to heaven and the highest rewards; their critics say that ‘Christ died for us so that we would not have to die’ and argue that while sometimes martyrdom is necessary, it’s not a positive goal for which to strive. Other texts in the discovery challenge the leadership of bishops (one says that ‘these bishops are empty canals!’) and still others, like the Gospel of Philip, challenge the literal interpretation of virgin birth and bodily resurrection.

Because of the discovery of over 50 ancient texts, most of them completely unknown, we are now able to rewrite the history of Christianity in a much more dense, more human and more complex way than we could ever have done before, appreciating the insight in Jonathan Z Smith’s dictum that ‘the historian’s task is to complicate, not to clarify’.

Elaine Pagels

Elaine Pagels is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She has previously taught at Barnard College, Columbia University. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she is best known for her studies and writing on the Gnostic Gospels. Her books include The Gnostic Gospels (1979), Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988), The Origin of Satan (1995), Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), Reading Judas: the Gospel of Judas and the shaping of Christianity (2007) and Revelations: visions, prophecy and politics in the Book of Revelation (2012).

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