The Hidden Gospels - Part 3: The Gospel of Thomas

01/07/09 | Posted by MattPage

Perhaps the most famous of the hidden gospels is the Gospel of Thomas. We've known about it ever since it was written, but it has only been more recently when we discovered what it actually said. In 1945 a copy of Thomas' Gospel turned up in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, amongst a collection of other ancient documents, and closer study revealed that a few fragments from it had already been found 50 years earlier.

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 Thomas is usually portrayed as a doubter. Here he is given special knowledge

It’s also one of the oldest gospels with parts of it being dated before 50CE. It would take perhaps another 70 years for it to reach the form we have today, and the fragments found at the turn of the 20th Century suggest that it continued to vary slightly. Even so these dates make it more contemporary with the gospels we find in the Bible than with the majority of the other “gnostic” gospels. That said, Thomas has no storyline - it’s just a collection of different bits of teaching.

Another reason for Thomas’ fame is its curious relationship to the other New Testament gospels. Whereas the Gospel of Mary mainly consisted of original material, a great deal of the Gospel of Thomas is similar, if not identical, to Matthew, Mark Luke and John. The kingdom of God, for example, is likened to a mustard seed ( Thom:20 and Matt 13:31-32), yeast (Thom:96 and Luke 13:21) a merchant finding a pearl (Thom:76 and Matt 13:45) and, most importantly, it’s described as something that is within us (Thom:3 and Luke 17:21). There are the parables of the sower (Thom:9 and Mark 4:3-8), the weeds (Thom:57 and Matt 13:24-30) and the vineyard (Thom:65 and Mark 12:1-9). And there are those pithy one-liners that are so hard to understand: “It is not possible for anyone to enter the house of a strong man and take it by force unless he binds his hands” (Thom:35 and Mark 3:27); “Whoever does not hate his father and his mother… cannot become a disciple” (Thom:101 and Luke 14:26).

On occasion, however, we come across material that is familiar from the Bible, but significantly different. So consider the way in which the beatitudes are spread out throughout the book and give a bit more explanation, or the way some translations use “congratulations to” rather than “blessed are”.The parable of the lost sheep is repeated, but Thomas ends with the shepherd telling the formerly lost sheep that he loves it more than the other 99 – seemingly a totally different message. Likewise, the parable of the buried treasure (Thom:109 compared to Matt 13:44) goes like this:

Jesus said, “The Kingdom is like a man who had a hidden treasure in his field without knowing it. And after he died, he left it to his son. The son did not know. He inherited the field and sold it. And the one who bought it went ploughing and found the treasure. He began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished.”

The Gospel of Thomas also contains a great deal of original material, much of which sounds weird or is hard to understand. Some of this uncertainty stems from the fact that the book does not have 2000 years of being translated, interpreted and argued over to clarify the more obscure parts. But Thomas’ authors also seem to pride themselves on the idea that Jesus’ teaching is such that only few can grasp it. 5 times Jesus says “Let him who has ears hear“ (Thom: 2, 21, 63, 65, 96) compared to just 4 times in the 4 canonical gospels, and understanding the gospel’s various sayings is meant to be the key to avoiding death (Thom:1). This emphasis on discovering hidden knowledge is one of the text’s key messages.

Having said all of that, some of the new sayings in Thomas are quite inspiring. The second half of saying 3 - “When you know yourselves, then you will be known” – seems to suggest that developing self-awareness helps us understand that we “are children of the living father”. Jesus’ followers are told not to charge interest on loans but to give it to someone who wouldn’t be repaying it (Thom:95), and so on.

Perhaps what is most inspiring is the books emphasis on Jesus being present with us. “Split a piece of wood; I am there. Life up a stone, and you will find me there. (Thom:77) is typical of the book’s emphasis of Jesus’ continuing presence with his followers as a “light within them”(Thom:83). And so this Jesus sums up his mission in this emotive way: “I took my stand in the midst of the world, and in flesh I appeared to them…My soul ached for the children of humanity, because they are blind in their hearts and do not see.” (Thom:28)

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‚ÄúSplit a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up a stone, and you will find me”...

Beautiful!

#1. By Stuart Murphy on October 12, 2010

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