Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel according to Thomas—or the Gospel of Thomas as it is commonly called—is a collection of wisdom sayings, proverbs, parables and prophecies of Jesus along the lines of the Wisdom literature of late Judaism, such as Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. Such collections were common in Greek culture and among the peoples of the Middle East. The Gospel of Thomas does not include any biographical narrative about Jesus but portrays him as the voice of divine Wisdom revealing herself to man.
These sayings present timeless truths about the nature of man and the world, the disciple’s proper relationship to the world, and the origin and the ultimate destiny of the elect. They have a mystical and sometimes enigmatic character. Like the puzzles of a Zen master, they force you to go beyond the words to discover their real inner meaning.
The only complete copy we have of the Gospel of Thomas was discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Buried for 1600 years, the text was accidentally unearthed by an Arab peasant along with some fifty other Gnostic texts. Scholars surmise that around 367 A.D., monks from a nearby monastery buried these texts to prevent them from being destroyed. 367 A.D. was the year that the Bishop of Alexandria declared that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were the only works that could be called scripture. He also denounced heretical books that he said falsely claimed to be the works of apostles. The Gospel of Thomas was no doubt among these so-called heretical works.
The Gospel of Thomas was controversial then and it’s controversial now. Ever since it was first published in English in 1959, it has been the subject of intense debate among scholars as to its authenticity and when it was written. But it has also captivated the imagination of a wide range of readers. Why is this short text of 114 sayings so intriguing? And why has the Church hierarchy, in this very day, declared it to be unorthodox?
Portrayal of Jesus
Through the Gospel of Thomas our eyes are opened to another side of our Brother Jesus—a side that the Bishop of Alexandria made certain we would never see in the New Testament. Whereas the New Testament Gospels emphasize the events of Jesus’ life, the Gospel of Thomas reveals almost no biographical details. Through the Gospel of Thomas our eyes are opened to another side of Jesus, as this Gospel emphasizes the words of the Master.
The Gospel opens with the saying, “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.” In the Gospel of Thomas we do not meet a Jesus who works miracles, or a Jesus who comes to judge the world, or who is called “the Lord” or “the Christ.” The Jesus who speaks to us in the Gospel of Thomas is simply, profoundly, masterfully, a teacher of wisdom. He guides his students on a path of self-discovery: the discovery of the divine self within. He explains what it means to be a true disciple—and a true master. He speaks not of outer deeds and rituals but of the inner life, and the inner walk with him.
This Jesus teaches about a savior—but one who is inside of you, not outside of you. He speaks of the inner Christ. Like the Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke, he speaks of the kingdom of God, but it is not a future kingdom that the Son of Man will establish when he returns to earth in the clouds with power and glory. Instead, it is a kingdom that can be attained in the here and now by those who understand and apply Jesus’ teachings.
The Gospel of Thomas claims to be a collection of the “secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Judas Thomas, the Twin, recorded.” According to one tradition, Judas Thomas was the twin brother of Jesus, and the apostle who brought Jesus’ teachings to India. On a more symbolic level Judas Thomas may be “the twin” of Jesus in the sense that he attained the goal of all Christians: to be one with Jesus Christ. Thomas so identified with Jesus that he became one with the Christ and one with his own inner Christ.
Scholars are divided on when the gospel was written. One group of scholars believes that the Gospel of Thomas was written in the middle of the second century. That would mean it was written about 120 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and eighty years after the earliest of the Four Gospels was written. This group of scholars claims that the author of the Gospel of Thomas borrowed sayings from the Bible. Then he edited them and mixed them up with some new sayings to suit his own brand of Christianity. They conclude that the Gospel of Thomas is a potpourri of borrowed Bible quotes and fabrications that does not preserve the original message of Jesus.
A second group of scholars strongly disagrees. They believe the Gospel of Thomas was written much earlier—between 50 and 100 A.D. This is the same time that the New Testament Gospels were written. According to these scholars, the author of the Gospel of Thomas did not copy biblical sayings but drew from sources that were even older than the Gospels.
They acknowledge that in later years some of Thomas’s original sayings may have been edited to reflect the theology of Gnostic Christians. But they are convinced that, for the most part, Thomas preserves earlier forms of Jesus’ teachings than those recorded in the Four Gospels. Therefore, the Gospel of Thomas, they say, must be given equal weight with the New Testament Gospels in any study of the origins of Christianity.
These scholars are convinced that the Gospel of Thomas preserves an early form of Jesus’ sayings for a very good reason: its sayings are often more crude or concise than the biblical version of the same sayings. They believe that the biblical versions are more expanded because later Christians embellished Jesus' original sayings.
Their opponents, however, use the same evidence to make the opposite point. They believe that Thomas’s sayings are more concise only because the author pirated the words of the Bible and then edited them.
This brings up the question of how the New Testament Gospels themselves were written. Although this may come as a surprise to many Christians, most scholars today agree that the Four Gospels probably were not written by their reputed authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These Gospels were most likely compiled thirty to sixty years after Jesus' crucifixion. They were composed from oral and written collections of his sayings, parables and miracles. Most scholars believe that the authors of the Gospels edited and at times embellished their works to conform to their own theological viewpoints and to address the needs of the growing church.
Thus, the Gospels may include more than just firsthand reports of Jesus’ life and sayings. If the Gospel writers embellished their works, then we must ask, Do the Four Gospels really preserve a more accurate account of Jesus’ sayings than the Gospel of Thomas? Or does the Gospel of Thomas more accurately portray Jesus’ teachings?
To shed light on these questions, El Morya has commented that the Gospel of Thomas was written in the first century, at the same time that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written. That tells us that the Gospel of Thomas is just as likely to be authentic as the Four Gospels in the New Testament. In fact, the Gospel of Thomas preserves an earlier version of Jesus’ sayings than do the Four Gospels. To many scholars, this would be an astounding and, perhaps, radical statement.
El Morya said that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did not personally write down the Gospels that bear their names. They could have been compiled by their students any time in the first century. But of course, the farther away from Jesus’ lifetime they were written, the farther they get from his direct words. The writers of the Four Gospels did edit and at times embellish their sources. And they did so to make them conform to their own theological viewpoints and to address the needs of the growing church. El Morya says they changed or edited their original sources by some 30 percent. Some of their changes were accurate but some were not.
Furthermore, Morya says that the Gospel of Thomas was originally written down by Thomas himself. There were some later elaborations and 10 percent of the Gospel of Thomas was edited. But later editors did not insert sayings from the New Testament Gospels into the Gospel of Thomas.
El Morya has also told us that the Gospel of Thomas is 85 percent accurate. The master’s comments tell us that the Gospel of Thomas is indeed founded upon “the sayings that the living Jesus spoke.” And many of these sayings are just as authentic—and perhaps more authentic—than the teachings that have come down to us in the New Testament Gospels.
The Gospel of Thomas is established upon the Rock of Christ and Jesus’ Christ consciousness, and we have in Thomas a profound teaching that expands our mind, our heart and our soul and brings us so much closer to our Lord. The fragments of Jesus’ teaching that are in this gospel are more real because they are rough. They’re not edited. They’re not poetically phrased. They are simply statements without elaboration or interpretation.
The reason that Thomas did not incorporate in his Gospel events in the life of Jesus Christ is because the synoptic Gospels which record those events were written later. He didn’t have those texts to incorporate that material. Secondly, Gnosticism emphasizes Jesus as a wisdom teacher, emphasizes the individual disciple, emphasizes Jesus’ sayings which we then assimilate as being our means to salvation.
So it is not intended to be a chronicle of Jesus’ life, which shows us that Jesus himself placed less emphasis on his life and more emphasis on his teachings. Thomas stressed what his Lord stressed. And each one of the sayings in his gospel is given to us as a teaching for life, for approaching God, for annihilating evil. It’s a method, a formula for the Path.
That’s what Gnosticism is all about. Jesus gave the wisdom sayings. When we study them and follow them and understand them and assimilate them, we are fulfilling Jesus’ command, “Except ye eat the flesh of the son of Man and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” The flesh and blood of Jesus Christ is gnosis, is the mind of God, and we have to eat these words. We have to listen to them again and again. They are like mantras. They fall from heaven. They tie us to heaven.
This wondrous teaching heals our souls, making us whole because through it we have new knowledge about ourselves, new knowledge about the Path, new knowledge about how Jesus had an ongoing dialogue with his disciples.
For more information
A number of lectures by Elizabeth Clare Prophet delivering commentary on the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas are available from Ascended Master Library.
Multiple translations and other resources of the Gospel of Thomas are available at The Gnostic Society Library.
Lectures by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, October 11, 1992; October 12, 1992; April 10, 1993.
- James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 3d ed., rev. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), p. 126.
- Ibid., p. 124.
- John 6:53.