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Dating the Gospel of Thomas

July 12, 2014

There’s a lot of debate about whether Gospel of Thomas is a second century writing, as pretty much all the Gnostic gospels appear to be, or if is possibly a first century writing? My thinking is that there are some evidences or characteristics that lean toward possibility of first century.

First of all is to compare its style – wisdom sayings – to the hypothetical Q gospel, which is also wisdom sayings. Some scholars think that this more primitive format of strictly teaching sayings of Yeshua may be the earliest form of Christian writings (outside of Paul’s letters). The quasi-biographical Synoptic Gospels, in contrast, are definitely more complex writings and also are expressive of greater complexity as to motive and purpose in reflecting the goals of respective authors. In contrast, the wisdom sayings gospels merely convey the wisdom sayings teaching concepts themselves without attempt in elaboration of theology as, say, commentary.

If the hypothetical Q Gospel existed as a manuscript it would have preceded Matthew and Luke as these two of the Synoptic Gospels both have the Q material (and indeed that is what defines Q – that which is in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark).

The Gospel of Thomas shares verses, or has parallel forms, across all three of the Synoptic Gospels. If Mark is the earliest of these gospels, then the Gospel of Thomas is thereby positioned to perhaps be even earlier.

The Gospel of Mark is considered the earliest written gospel. (The epistles of Paul predate Mark but Paul never knew a flesh and blood Jesus and relates absolutely no biographical information about any flesh and blood historical Jesus, other than that Paul knew Jesus had a teaching on divorce. Paul only had a mystical encounter with some being – comparable to, say, how Mohammad or Joseph Smith report having mystical encounters with angels.) As such, Matthew and Luke were found by German scholars in the 19th century to have drawn heavily on the text of Mark, tweaking it a bit here and there. So Matthew and Luke come later (and then John much later still and is completely unlike the prior three Synoptic Gospels – and has contradictions with them).

It turns out that these 19th century German scholars found Matthew and Luke also draw on some other source for some common textual material. Once they accounted for the redactions of Mark material, and separated out the stuff that was unique in Matthew and Luke respectively, they were left with what they dubbed the Source gospel. And due to the German word that means source, we English speakers took to just referring to it as the Q gospel. The Q gospel doesn’t relate any biographical narrative of Jesus, but amounts to being wisdom sayings attributed to Jesus – just like the Gospel of Thomas. And of course the Q gospel is a source (oral or textual) that at least predates Matthew and Luke. (If one subscribes to the theory that Luke redacted Matthew, then the tradition of these Q sayings at least predates Matthew.)

My thinking is that some of the earliest Christian writings, aside from Paul’s authentic letters (some of the Pauline letters in the New Testament are regarded as second century and written so as to impersonate Paul and thus take on his mantel of authority) and the Gospel of Mark (the earliest biographical narrative), were therefore these wisdom sayings gospels – that is, the Q Gospel and the Gospel of Thomas.

The mentioning of James, the brother of Yeshua

The Gospel of Thomas references James, the brother of Yeshua, as being the preeminent head of the Church when Yeshua is no longer in his followers’ midst (Yeshua instructs his apostles to look to James as their leader and gives very high praise to James). Yet after the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Romans, this earliest Christian church ceased having influence (Paul’s churches took over pretty much and Christianity became defined by Paul’s teachings). James, by some accounts, is reported to have been killed in 62 AD.

I think it very peculiar that any writing from the second century would bother to still talk about James as a personage so as to figure so prominently in the Christian movement. Yet the Gospel of Thomas squarely does that – which makes me think it may indeed be first century.

It should not go without notice here on this point that Paul’s undisputed authentic letters are regarded as THE earliest of all Christian writings, that unlike the Synoptic Gospels, are written in first person testimony of what Paul says in his own words he experienced, and that it is from Paul that we get witness of James, brother of The Lord [Yeshua], as the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Further, Paul recognizes that church as authoritative over the Jesus movement. On this the Gospel of Thomas is in complete accord with Paul’s witness.

In Mark 6:3 we see James listed as a brother to Yeshua (agreement with Paul). In Acts 15:19 James is seen delivering the final and important opinion on whether gentile believers need to be circumcised; in Acts it is clear that James leads the Jerusalem church (agreement with Paul). In Acts 21:18 Paul obeys the request from James that he ritually purify himself in the temple, placing himself in subservience to James’ authority (agreement with Paul’s writings where James is portrayed as the authoritative leader that Paul recognized as such).

On the matter of James there is unity of presentation across: Paul’s letters, the Gospel of Mark, and the Book of Acts (written by the author of Luke – essentially a Luke part 2), and the Gospel of Thomas. This knowledge of and witnessing of James can be said to be peculiar to the first century Christian writings – and in the case of Paul’s letters and Mark, the very earliest of these.

Placing the death of James at 62 AD and the sacking of Jerusalem at 70 AD, James ceases to figure in Christian writings occurring thereafter (allowing the Epistle of James being one possibly authentic testimony to James – and hence perchance a glimmer of the earliest church’s theology). When we get to the second century, James is practically a non entity and indeed is a bit of an embarrassment to proto orthodox Christians as they have by then framed the theology of Mary (mother of Yeshua) being a perpetual virgin – hence Yeshua could not have had any biological siblings (the contend he must have been a half brother or even a cousin). For this reason James would have become an awkward personage to make note of or reminder of. Likewise, with the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, the church there ceased to be a dominant influencer – the churches founded by Paul in Asia Minor and then churches in remote places such as Rome, emerged to fill this vacuum.

Plausibility of the alternative explanation

If the Gospel of Thomas is taken to be a second century writing, then one must consider the plausibility of what this implies. The author would have had to scour through the synoptic gospels and only gleaned out wisdom sayings verses (also changing them up a bit here and there), and then, of course, added on some additional sayings. The tenor of the teachings found in much of the Gospel of Thomas is gnostic in character and presumably the author would want to advance that perspective. However, the author is then choosing to compete against the vibrancy and drama conveyed by the biographical and heavily theologically oriented gospels that went on to became part of canon. The stories and the passion of these gospels grip readers – no one can be so simple as to overlook this point. To construct and introduce a new gospel in order to advance a different way of viewing Yeshua – that is, strictly in the light of being a profound teacher – purposely omitting all the other aspects of Yeshua that these source materials relate, is truly a bizarre undertaking. And how on Earth could such an author have positioned James to be such an important figure in this brand new gospel – his church’s teachings were not particularly gnostic in character (but neither were they Pauline)? No where else in gnostic writings is James singled out so – if the Gospel of Thomas is second century then the prominence of James stands in contrarian juxtaposition to such a thesis.

The totality of this plausibility factor is really the biggest strike against the second century authorship opinion. And yet it still goes further than that in matters of incongruity: Many scholars recognize that the theological/spiritual content of the Gospel of Thomas sayings has a gnostic tenor, however, there has been retreat from actually classifying this gospel as a so-called gnostic writing. Much of the corpus of writings regarded as gnostic (and of no earlier than second century authorship) are imbued with gnostic cosmology. There is none of that typifying signature of Gnosticism to be found in the Gospel of Thomas; none of its peculiar terminology, divinity or archonic figures appear. Yet another strike against a second century authorship thesis.

Does the Gospel of John slight Thomas (and hence the gospel of his namesake)?

Elaine Pagels elaborates this possibility in her book on the Gospel of Thomas. She notes that the authors of early Christian writings, and different factions or communities, tended to have favored apostles. The proto-orthodox Christians that would eventually emerge as the Catholic Church, for instance, favored Peter as the preeminent apostle. The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) even portrays Mary M. as an apostle to the male apostles, regarding her, in a sense, as superior.

The Gospel of John is the chronologically latest authored narrative-style gospel appearing in canon. It’s author frequently makes reference to an apostle that Yeshua loved more so than the rest. Thomas means ‘twin’ and applied as a nickname could have metaphorically meant that Thomas was on the same spiritual wavelength of understanding with Yeshua. Hence the apostle that Yeshua loved, repeatedly referenced throughout John, is a kind of one-up-manship over the apostle Thomas being merely a twin spirit of deeper understanding regarding Yeshua’s teachings, that is, love trumps gnosis.

There are two factors in the Gospel of John that give cause to think that such a ploy may have been aimed at Thomas – and hence the community of followers of the Gospel of Thomas. It is the Gospel of John that relates the account of Thomas being the apostle that did not have sufficient faith to believe that Yeshua had indeed risen from the dead; he was only convinced when he could meet the risen Yeshua and examine the scars of his crucifixion wounds. Thomas thereafter becomes forever tagged as Doubting Thomas. Secondly, the Gospel of John, such as in 11:16, Thomas is referred to as “Thomas Dydamus”, literally meaning “twin twin” – as opposed to “Judas called Thomas” as per the Gospel of Thomas [Greek version]. This distortion, playing on the nickname of the Apostle Thomas, could be viewed as a kind of tendentious portrayal of that apostle’s name (especially when viewed in combination with the other presented factors).

One can also look at this from the perspective that the Gospel of a John establishes a higher Christology than the preceding Synoptic Gospels. Those gospels had tried to establish that Yeshua was the fulfillment of the Messiah expectations of Judaism in general (and especially the apocalyptic Essenes in particular). They had to concern themselves with recasting the Messiah into a suffering servant as opposed to the divinely appointed conquer and king that was expected. The Gospel of John goes much further, though, and portrays Yeshua and the Divine Creator as being one and the same, and that this Divinity incarnated into human form as Yeshua. The author of John, therefore, needs to advance a more radical understanding of who Yeshua was/is and that would entail somehow suppressing rival concepts of Yeshua – such as, say, Yeshua being a teacher of divinely wise knowledge. Here we see another possible motivating factor for this gospel to seek to diminish the Gospel of Thomas as the Gospel of Thomas would have been a rival gospel connoting a very different manner of Christological understanding. The Christology of the Synoptic Gospels and Paul’s epistles could be spring boarded from, but the Gospel of Thomas needed to be superseded or trumped.

The argument recapped here, per the Gospel of John, indicates that the Gospel of Thomas must have preceded the Gospel of John, thus making it a first century document too. However, verses of the Gospel of Thomas are found redacted or paralleled in the Synoptic Gospels, which could implicate that the Gospel of Thomas is the earliest of all the gospels, and thus the earliest tradition as to the teachings of Yeshua.

The notion that the author of the Gospel of Thomas redacted the Synoptic Gospels can be flipped to where it was the authors of the Synoptic Gospels redacted the Gospel of Thomas while steering away from those teachings that were not sufficiently congruent to their own biases. The matter of James and the other points of incongruity compel this to be the more plausible scenario.

Did Gnostic Christian Concepts Originate in Second Century or First Century?

This article has been couched around the mainstream deductive estimates of: authentic epistles of Paul in late 50s, Gospel of Mark mid 60s and prior to 70 AD (destruction of Jerusalem temple by the Romans), Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the 70s – possibly 80s, and the Gospel of John in the 90s with the John epistles as early second century.

A centerpiece anchoring concept found in the Gospel of Thomas is the Kingdom of God is Within You teaching found in logion 3:

Greek manuscript version:
3) Jesus said, “If those leading you say, ‘Look! The Realm is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you, or if they say to you, ‘It is under the earth,’ then the fish of the sea will precede you. The Realm of God is inside you and outside you. Those who know themselves will find it; and when you know yourselves, you will know that you are children of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you are in poverty and you are the poverty.

Other Gospel of Thomas logia will echo the underlying concept conveyed in this core teaching.

The Kingdom of God is Within You teaching, a teaching of gnostic philosophic tenor, is not unique to the Gospel of Thomas. It is found in one of the Synoptic Gospels, Luke 17:20-21:

20 Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”

It can be seen that the Gospel of Thomas has a richer version of this verse but it is also clear that there is a referencing to a common core tradition of teaching. Most significant to realize here on this point is that the Gospel of Luke authorship is dated to the first century by mainstream scholarship.

Based on the greater complexity and richness of the Gospel of Thomas version of this teaching, one has good cause to view it as perhaps being the closest to the authentic tradition of this teaching. Given that the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the Synoptic Gospels, has parallels to logia found in the Gospel of Thomas, and for the reasons that have already been elucidated in this article, such as the prominence of James found in the Gospel of Thomas, there is compelling implication that the Gospel of Thomas may have origins predating any of the Synoptic Gospels. As we see here, we do not need to advance to the second century AD in order to bump into gnostic Yeshua teachings.

Another important aspect of the Luke 17:20-21 verses are that it highlights the differentiating context of gnostic Yeshua teaching vs. the Judaic apocalyptic Messianic views of the Pharisees and especially the Essenes (the latter known as the Herodians or Scribes in the New Testament). These opponents of Yeshua anticipated an ushering in of an Earthly Kingdom where an expected Messiah figure would appear with divine assistance, defeating the enemies of the faithful, leveling judgment against the unfaithful, and establishing a new era of a presumably divinely inspired and sanctioned kingdom on Earth. Thus in the first century AD there appeared a differing perspective of realm of God that squared as a contradiction to the strongly held dogmatic beliefs of the Pharisees and the Essenes.

A Schism with Apocalyptic World View and Awakening

In a future posting I will consider the matter of: Did Yeshua experience a Gnostic Awakening to where he thereafter departed from the apocalyptic Essenes world view that predominated the Galileen region he conducted his ministry in?

Mt 5:43-45: You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your Father who is in Heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the unjust.

Here it will be contended that Yeshua is preaching directly against the Essenes, their attitudes, and daily ritual practices (to pray curses upon those they viewed as their enemies).

Related link:
Which Jesus? (Gnosticism in the New Testament Gospels)

MyCoreArticles (and some related links)
[awakening, synchronicity, Gnosticism, AAT, nature of reality/consciousness, etc.]


  1. Reblogged this on Anzaholyman's Blog and commented:
    Interesting thoughts if you don’t mind questioning what you though you knew.

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  1. Which Jesus? (Gnostic Teachings of the New Testament) | VossNetBlog

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