After examining the papyrus and the script, many archaeologists estimated the dating of these texts to be 350-400 AD, while others argued that they were written much earlier in the second century. Regardless of these views, one thing is certain: these texts were buried and remained unknown for nearly 2000 years. So what are the writings about?
Fact or Fiction?
I became intrigued by the Gospel of Thomas and decided to see for myself what was actually written, instead of relying on other peoples' opinions about it. After all, what would be a better source of revelation than the very text itself? Thanks to the Salvation Army Booth College of Mission Library, I found a copy of the translated Gospel of Thomas published in 1959. The original manuscript, now preserved in the Coptic Museum of Old Cairo, had been collated in the book like an interlinear Bible.
The Gospel of Thomas is well preserved logia (a collection of 114 "sayings of Jesus"). Some scholars claim that it provides insights into the Oral gospel traditions of early Christianity. This leads to an important question: Is the Gospel of Thomas a 'forgotten' inspired writing or a 'banned' fiction of heretics? Its title claims to contain the gospel. But unlike the four gospels in the New Testament, the text identifies itself as a 'secret' gospel. Many of the sayings also seem to be placed in unusual contexts. As a whole, the text came across quite disjoint.
Almost half of the Gospel of Thomas are familiar sayings of Jesus in the Bible (e.g. the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the sower). However, I found the rest quite mystical, and some of the sayings highly controversial. Although I attempted to read it with an open mind, my spirit was not at peace with the text. I quoted some of the unusual passages below. You be the Judge!
"These are the secret words which the Living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote."
"Jesus said: I am not thy Master, because thou hast drunk, thou hast from the bubbling spring which I have measured out… Whoever drinks from My mouth shall become as I am and I myself will become he, and the hidden things shall be revealed to him."
"Jesus said: I tell My mysteries to those who are worthy of my mysteries… The Pharisees and the Scribes have received the keys of Knowledge, they have hidden them."
"Jesus said: when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female not be female … then shall you enter [the Kingdom]."
"His disciples said: When wilt Thou be revealed to us? Jesus said: When you take off your clothing without being ashamed, and take your clothes and put them under your feet as the little children and tread on them."
In one of the passages above, Jesus tells Thomas that they can become each other, implying Jesus is not presented as Lord, but as spiritual guide. This challenges the core Christian belief that Jesus is both divine and human who is forever distinct from the rest of humanity he came to serve. Some historians suggested that Buddhist enlightenment ideas might have influenced the writing from India through trade routes.
The Gospel of Thomas is a Gnostic writing. Gnosticism is any religious reliance on special insight and wisdom that is not available to the uninitiated and those unprepared for it. This so-called 'secret' knowledge was only available to the selected few. The Gnostics combined folk religion and Greek philosophy with Hebrew-Christian thought. It also promoted the idea of "one's own God-self within" (sounds familiar?). In other words, self-knowledge was regarded as the secret of knowing God. Yet Gnostics considered themselves Christians, claiming they believe in Jesus.
Both the early catholic church fathers and the reformers have steadfastly opposed all forms of Gnosticism based on the conviction that true Gospel is a public, objective and open revelation of God in Jesus Christ and Scripture. The guiding principle has been "seek God and you shall find Him", rather than "secret revelation through self-enlightenment".
Having read the Gospel of Thomas, I believe that it is a mystical fiction, not an inspired writing. It gave me a glimpse into why Gnostic books featuring incoherent and alternative beliefs have been excluded from the Bible. In an age when skepticism about the Bible is prevalent, the best way to find out the truth is to actually read the Bible. And if we find ourselves skeptical, we also need to be skeptical about our skepticism.
Daniel Jang is a Graduate Diploma in Theology (GradDipTh) student at Laidlaw Bible College in New Zealand.
Daniel Jang's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/daniel-jang.html