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FOUNDATIONS - 6 : Thomas Should Have Made Canon

Posted on: March 25, 2017

Greek fragments of what was clearly a Christian gospel hitherto unknown were found at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt on two separate expeditions in 1897 and 1903. The archaeologists were Bernard Grenfell (1869-1926) and Arthur Hunt (1871-1934). The fragments composed 20 sayings, and though it was concluded they came from an non-canonical Gospel there was no certainty about their identity. In 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, an even more significant find occurred. In a tale of intrigue, suspense, and murder, somehow a complete Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas was uncovered. The new find made it clear that the early Greek fragments were in fact fragments of the Gospel of Thomas.

Thomas contains several sayings of Jesus closely paralleled in the synoptic gospels. Initially this observation suggested Thomas was derived from the canonical gospels and must be dated about 150. Then, Jesus in Thomas is not apocalyptic. He does not pronounce the end of the world, does not have titles like Lord, Son of God, and Saviour. Initially, this encouraged the conclusion that Thomas is a gnostic Gospel (that is, a Gospel emerging from a heretical form of Christianity).

These first conclusion did not stand up to scrutiny. Some recent conclusions about Thomas are:

1. Thomas is composed of 114 sayings, but the order of sayings shows no relationship to the order of sayings found in the synoptic gospels. Thomas did not know the synoptic gospels.

2. The wording of sayings in Thomas is different from the wording of sayings in the synoptics, even among sayings most similar.Thomas records the same oral tradition but without a common text.

3. The Gospel of Thomas is presented as a list of sayings (Jesus said, “...”). Lists of sayings and deeds were the earliest forms of Christian writing. The Gospel of Mark holds two lists of miracle cycles (occurring in chapters 3 to 8) and the Q Gospel is an obvious list of sayings.

4. Like the Q Gospel, Thomas has no titles for Jesus and no passion narrative.

Many scholars now date much of the sayings material in Thomas to the earliest strata of Christian writing. Literate Christians who had knowledge of the oral tradition made a list of the saying they knew, and this list was the first expression of the Gospel of Thomas. Since they did not know another existing list, their order of sayings is unique. The first list of Thomas appeared approximately 60 C.E.

There is one more anecdote to add before looking at theology in the Gospel of Thomas. It is often stated - and I have stated - that the Gospel of John has no value when it comes to the historical Jesus, but Thomas proves me wrong. The Gospel of John is composed of sayings recited by community leaders who spoke in the Spirit of Jesus as if they were Jesus. “I am the way” is not something Jesus said but is rather a saying of someone who spoke as if he or she was Jesus. Thomas is like this. The list of sayings are spoken by someone or a group who speak in the name of the “living Jesus.” While the earliest list of sayings reflects the oral tradition this community knew, later sayings added to the tradition are from leaders who (like in the Gospel of John) speak as if they were Jesus.

In terms of theology, there are three interesting things about Thomas.

1. Jesus is not apocalyptic: he is not coming back and he does pronounce endtime judgements. Like the Gospel of John, the Thomas community understands Jesus as a living, present, spiritual reality.

2. The sayings about the Kingdom of God begin and end this Gospel; however, the Kingdom of God is this present world. Saying 113, “The Kingdom of God is spread out in the world but people do not see it.”

3. The third point is that Jesus is not a Saviour. The Kingdom of God is something each person has to work at on their own. It’s not up to Jesus to make this “Kingdom” appear or become a reality. The Kingdom comes about through a person’s own seeking and finding. Saying 2, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find.”

Notes for Discussion
What would Christianity have been like through the ages if the theology of the Gospel of Thomas had been in the canon? What would Christianity have been like without an apocalypse?

The Gospel of Thomas does not present Jesus as a Savior but as one who points to the way. Jesus in Thomas is more like the Buddha. What is the psychology involved in desiring, needing, a savior, and what is the psychology involved in not needing one?

The “Kingdom of God” in Thomas is a present reality. Many scholars now feel this is closest to the vision of the historical Jesus. However, many scholar still believe Jesus was most likely an apocalyptic prophet. Discuss this distinction. What do you think Jesus really said and what evidence supports your opinion?

Wisdom has been a minority tradition in Christianity. Why do you think this is so?

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