A matter of unusual interest at the moment of writing is the publication of the text and translation of the Gospel According to Thomas. This “Gospel” is the most important of the documents discovered by chance in Upper Egypt in 1946 in a jar which was standing in one of the tombs of an ancient cemetery in the neighborhood of the town, Nag Hamadi. The 49 works which these papyrus books, 13 in number, contain had evidently belonged to the library of a community whose views were tainted Gnostic teachings. The text is in the Sahidic dialect of the Coptic language, and the documents are believed to date back to the end of the fourth century or possibly a little later.
The name Gospel According to Thomas (which is found only at the end of the work) is in fact misleading, for there is no correspondence in form to any of the canonical (or, for that matter, apocryphal) Gospels. The work consists simply of 114 logia or sayings of Jesus, without narrative or connecting links.
The question which most people will be asking is this: Can we accept these sayings as authentic utterances of Jesus himself? On examining them, we find that many, at least half of the total, correspond in whole or in part so closely with sayings in the New Testament that they are plainly derived either from the New Testament or from some common source. Here are some examples: No. 26. “The mote that is in thy brother’s eye thou seest, but the beam that is in thine eye thou seest not. When thou cast the beam out of thine eye, then thou wilt see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye” (cf. Matt. 7:3–5). No. 41. “Whoever has in his hand, to him shall be given; and whoever does not have, from him shall be taken even the little which he has” (cf. Mark 4:25). No. 73. “The harvest is indeed great, but the labourers are few; but beg the Lord to send labourers into the harvest” (cf. Luke 10:2).
There are some whose teachings correspond recognizably with that of our Lord, but the lessons of which are illustrated by similes not found in the New Testament. Here are examples: No. 47. “It is impossible for a man to mount two horses or to stretch two bows, and it is impossible for a servant to serve two masters” (cf. Matt. 6:24). No. 102. “Woe to them, the Pharisees, for they are like a dog sleeping in a manger of oxen, for neither does he eat nor does he allow the oxen to eat” (cf. Matt. 23:13; Luke 11:52).
A number of the sayings, however, do not correspond with anything in the canonical Gospels. No. 97. “The Kingdom of the Father is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal while she was walking on a distant road. The handle of the jar broke. The meal streamed out behind her on the road. She did not know it, she had noticed no accident. After she came into her house, she put the jar down, she found it empty.” No. 110. “Whoever has found the world and become rich, let him deny the world.”
Others, again, reveal an admixture of Gnostic concepts. No. 1. “Whoever finds the explanation of these words will not taste death.” No. 77. “I am the Light that is above them all, I am the All, the All came forth from Me and the All attained to Me. Cleave a piece of wood, I am there; lift up the stone and you will find Me there.”
The Gnostic influence is evident, indeed, in the formula which introduces the sayings, namely: “These are the secret words which the Living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote.” Also significant in this connection is the attribution to Jesus of the saying, “I will give you what eye has not seen, and what ear has not heard, and what hand has not touched, and what has not arisen in the heart of man” (No. 17), so closely reminiscent of the words cited by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:9 which was a favorite text among the Gnostics. A comparison of the Gospel According to Thomas with the apocryphal Acts of the Apostle Thomas shows that there is a similarity of Gnostic outlook and also a similarity in the canonical sayings which are reproduced. In the latter, too, Thomas is spoken of as “Judas, who also is Thomas,” and he claims to have received from Jesus Christ the revelation of secret mysteries.
As Professors Oscar Cullman and Henri-Charles Puech have said, “it is particularly important to note that a Gnostic saying has often been interpolated into the original order of non-Gnostic sayings. This proves that it was not only the last editor who, with the aid of other Gospels, had the idea of making a collection of sayings without a narrative framework, but that our Gnostic collection presupposes an earlier collection, less Gnostic, which in turn was probably a recasting of a more ancient orthodox collection.” These two distinguished scholars further suggest that the stringing together of a number of sayings with the aid of the formula “And He said,” is probably “even the oldest Christian literary form.” May it not be that Mark’s Gospel betrays the use of such a collection of sayings in a passage like that of the fourth chapter where this formula is found linking a sequence of sayings of Jesus (see vv. 2, 11, 21, 26, and 30)—a number of which, interestingly enough, are present in the Gospel According to Thomas?
Much research remains to be done, especially the comparison of these recently discovered sayings with other post-apostolic writings and traditions, patristic as well as apocryphal. Although these Thomas Logia, taken all in all, offer little new that has an authentic ring about it and there is no possibility of establishing whether any of the noncanonical sayings were genuine utterances of Jesus, yet they are important because of the primitive form in which they are cast and because of the corroboration they give to many of the New Testament sayings and parables of our Lord. A linguistic study of the variations they display (apart from those which are clearly Gnostic additions) may in some measure help to point us back to an Aramaic original.
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