Q: A friend of mine recently read The Five Gospels, which I understand was written by the "Jesus Seminar." She tells me that the fifth Gospel is the Gospel of Thomas and that it is as authentic and trustworthy as the Gospels in the Bible. Is this true? What is this Gospel of Thomas and where did it come from? Why isn't it part of the New Testament?

Norma Erickson Poling
Scottsdale, Arizona

A:One hundred years ago, three Greek fragments of what is called the Gospel of Thomas were found in the dry sands of Egypt. They dated to the third century after Christ. Then, shortly after World War II, a complete manuscript of Thomas was found, also in Egypt. It was written in the Coptic language and dated to the middle of the fourth century. This complete Thomas is made up of 114 sayings with no narrative framework and no mention of Jesus' Passion or Resurrection.

Scholars have studied this text with great interest since its discovery. 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.

So why does the Jesus Seminar interpret it differently? This group of scholars and pastors—which does not represent a broad cross section of biblical scholarship—continues to be in the news and popular media. On the basis of ten years of deliberations over the sayings of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels, they have color-coded the words of Jesus according to their reckoning of authenticity (red = Jesus really said it; pink = close to something Jesus said; gray = Jesus probably did not say it, or the members of the seminar were sharply divided; black = Jesus definitely did not say it). Their work is conveniently displayed in the book you mentioned, The Five Gospels (Macmillan, 1993).

Thus, the seminar claims to have deduced what Jesus actually said and didn't say. According to its thinking, however, the New Testament Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas contain a relatively small amount of authentic material. Virtually nothing in the Gospel of John is rated red or pink, while only about one-quarter of the Synoptic Gospels is favored with these colors. By minimizing the authenticity of the four Gospels and elevating the authenticity of at least some of the sayings in Thomas, the seminar not only calls into question the traditional understanding of the biblical canon but also how we should view the historical Jesus.

The Jesus that emerges in the writings of the Jesus Seminar is an itinerant philosopher who calls for justice and the implementation of egalitarian principles. In itself this is not objectionable. But it stops conspicuously short of answering why the earliest Christians claimed Jesus was God's Son and Israel's Messiah whose death on the cross fulfilled Scripture and whose resurrection from the grave vindicated his claims and gave humanity new hope.

This may explain the seminar's preoccupation with the Gospel of Thomas. As in the case of many of the authors of postcanonical writings (consider, for example, just those apocryphal pieces using Thomas's name: Acts of Thomas, Apocalypse of Thomas, Infancy Gospel of Thomas), the author or compiler of the Gospel of Thomas wished to present Jesus in a way that was compatible with his views. Jesus appears as a mysterious figure, strangely aloof from his world. He speaks in riddles, has anti-Semitic tendencies, has no positive interest in Israel or her Scriptures, and has embraced some aspects of early Gnosticism.

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other earlier writings from Palestine, scholars are recognizing, in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures, the complete Jewishness of Jesus, which makes the use of Thomas for understanding Jesus even less tenable. The Jesus of Thomas is indeed very different from the Jesus of the New Testament Gospels. And it is not surprising that the early church, guided by the Holy Spirit, passed over Thomas, just as it passed over many other writings, in the long process of deciding what belonged in the New Testament canon and what did not. Although serious scholars will continue to study Thomas, it is unlikely that they will ever embrace the eccentric views of it espoused by the Jesus Seminar.

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