The Gospel of Thomas

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (June, 2005)

This is the Nag Hammadi document that has attracted most admiration and study. It was found in Codex 2, which included also the Gospel of Philip. The work presents Jesus as a sage, uttering enigmatic sayings with depths of wisdom. It is increasingly accepted that in its original form it dates from the first century.

It is manifestly gnostic, holding that only Knowing Ones can find the interpretation of the sayings, and that their knowledge will save them from death. Their knowledge is in part self-knowledge - the first step to a higher spirituality. The opening sayings include:

(2) Jesus said, "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all." (3) Jesus said, "If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the kingdom is in the sky, then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea', then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty."

The work is a favorite with feminists, with its teaching that gender differences do not matter in the fusion of all opposites in an ideal humanity.

(22)...Jesus said to them, "When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness, then you will enter [the kingdom]."

There appears to be a contradiction to this in the final saying: (114) Simon Peter said to them, 'Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."

Since this is the final saying, it looks very much like an addition, designed to tone down the pure idealism of saying 22. The gnostics were celibate monastics, while Peter belonged to the village class of married men. He and those like him had difficulty in grasping an absence of gender differences for the sake of a common humanity.

The link with the bridal chamber imagery of the Gospel of Philip is found in another saying: (75) Jesus said, "Many are standing at the door, but it is the solitary who will enter the bridal chamber." This makes it clearer that the bridal imagery was for monastics, sublimating their sexual drive into a pure spirituality.

Another saying concerns gnostic privilege: (19) Jesus said, "Blessed is he who came into being before he came into being. If you become my disciples and listen to my words, these stones will minister to you. For there are five trees for you in Paradise which remain undisturbed summer and winter and whose leaves do not fall. Whoever becomes acquainted with them will not experience death."

A number of the parables of the Synoptic gospels appear, in a form different from the canonical one, leading to the observation that they are not derived from the canonical gospels but represent a different and probably early version. They include the parable of the Sower in (9), of the Banquet in (64), of the Rich Man in (63), of the Tares in (57), of the Vineyard in (65), of the lost sheep in (107).

The status of John the Baptist is described, so as to class him as the best of mere mortals, lower than the spiritual gnostics. (46) Jesus said, "Among those born of women, from Adam until John the Baptist, there is no one so superior to John the Baptist that his eyes should not be lowered (before him). Yet I have said, whichever one of you comes to be a child will be acquainted with the kingdom and will become superior to John."

The book opens with "These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down." These words have helped to revive the belief that Thomas, whose name Didymus means "Twin" was a twin brother of Jesus. With the inclusion of Judas in the name, it has been connected with the fact that the third brother of Jesus, after James and Joses, was called Jude (Mark 6: 3). But it strains the evidence considerably to make the third brother a twin of the eldest. Moreover, there is an explanation of both names in the pesher of the gospels.

The name Didymus, meaning Twin, is to be accounted for in terms of the Abraham imagery given by the pesher. (See 'Abraham' in 'The Church before the Church' in The Pesher Technique section on this site.) It was used for the leaders of the mission to the Diaspora in the organisation of Herod the Great (37-4 BC). In the New Israel, the new "Abraham", the Father, was Hillel; the new "Isaac" was Menahem the Essene, the patriarch of the east; and the new "Jacob" was Heli, the grandfather of Jesus, appointed patriarch of the west. Alongside the "Jacob" there was his "twin", Esau, the one who lost his birthright (Genesis 27: 1-41). It had been seen near the end of Herod's reign that it was a suitable pseudonym for the son of Herod who had lost his right of inheritance when his mother Mariamme II and his grandfather Simon Boethus were found to be complicit in a plot to poison the insane king (Ant. 17, 78). This son in his maturity was a member of the mission council in the period of the gospels and Acts, the man called Thomas Didymus, or Thomas the "Esau". Another version of "Esau", meaning "red" was Rufus, "red" in Latin. The same man was the Rufus of Mark 15:21 and of Romans 16:13.

Numerous traditions link Thomas with the east, where he acted as bishop, a counterpart to his "twin", Jacob in the west. The tomb at Kashmir in India to which tourists are shown as the tomb of Jesus would be that of Thomas. Since it came to be believed that Jesus was incarnate in all bishops, it was only symbolically the tomb of Jesus. Peter the successor of Jesus had a tomb in Rome, having been appointed bishop of Rome.

The additional name Judas was a title, not a name. Five men appear in the history called Judas. Originally a name, it became a title meaning "Judaizer". A "Judas" was a proselytising missionary who insisted that Gentiles should be circumcised, adopting Jewish identity. This doctrine was customary in the east. It was preserved by James and Jude the brothers of Jesus, whose epistles in the New Testament reveal their attitudes. Thomas, sharing the nationalism of the east, supported the Judaizing party.