Sunday, February 26, 2017

Should the gospel of Thomas be in the Bible?

What is the Gospel of Thomas?
Some biblical scholars have recently portrayed The Gospel of Thomas as another account of Jesus Christ that may be as authentic as the four biblical gospels. A number of books have been written indicating that Thomas is a “lost gospel” which contains the “lost words of Jesus” or the “hidden sayings of Jesus”. Other scholars include Thomas as one of the “Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into The New Testament”.[1] Many people today wonder if this alleged gospel and a number of other similar ones could have or should have been included in the canonical Bible. That is a legitimate question. Since Thomas presents some information that is very different from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it is critical that we determine its reliability.

In 1945, a nearly complete papyrus codex of the Gospel of Thomas, in the Coptic language (Egyptian), was found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. In addition to this discovery, three portions of Thomas written in Greek were found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in 1897, 1903, and 1905. The Coptic manuscript has been dated to around A.D. 340, while the Greek portions were likely written shortly after A.D. 200. 

What is it?
The Gospel of Thomas contains 114 sayings, allegedly made by Jesus Christ and recorded in writing by Thomas.  Many of these are direct quotes or references to the canonical gospels, such as Saying 34:
            “Jesus said, "If a blind person leads a blind person, both of them will fall into a hole"
(cf. Matthew 15:14).
Some of the sayings reflect distortions or mixing of N.T. quotes. For example, Saying 4:
            “many of the first will be last, and will become a single one" (first half is Mark 10:31).
Others show some Gnostic thought, such as Saying 77:
Jesus said, "I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there."

Common Second Century Practices
Interestingly, Thomas appears to be the oldest gospel that purports to be of apostolic authorship. None of the four canonical gospels makes that claim for itself.[2] The practice of writing under an assumed name was common in the second century of the early church. Other works generally acknowledged as pseudonymous include: Didache, 2 Clement, Barnabas, Apostolic Constitutions, Gospel of Peter, and others. Serapion, Bishop of Antioch (c. 190-210 A.D.), is quoted by Eusebius concerning another pseudepigraphal work, “The So-called Gospel of Peter”:
“We, my brothers, receive Peter and all the apostles as we receive Christ, but the writings falsely attributed to them we are experienced enough to reject, knowing that nothing of the sort has been handed down to us. When I visited you, I assumed that you all clung to the true Faith; so without going through the ‘gospel’ alleged by them to be Peter’s.”
Eusebius noted that Serapion “wrote to refute the lies in that document.[3]

The date in which the original Gospel of Thomas was written is critical for the reliability of the information. If there are good reasons to date it in the first century, at least the possibility (not certainty) exists that it contains valid information. However, if the document is dated after the first century, it is less likely (though, not absolutely) to be reliable. Some biblical scholars, such as Elaine Pagels and John Dominic Crossan, place the original writing between the approximate dates of A.D. 60-90, and possibly as early as the 50s. Craig A. Evans, Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Claremont Graduate University, is the author or editor of more than 50 books, and founder of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University. Dr. Evans has examined the Gospel of Thomas in regard to the date of its writing.

Evans provides several pieces of information indicating The Gospel of Thomas was most likely written no earlier than A.D. 175 and probably close to 200. For example, Thomas contains quotations, parallels, or allusions to fourteen or fifteen of the New Testament documents, including The Gospel of John. It would be very unusual for the writer to have access to that many documents prior to the end of the first century, especially John, which most scholars date in the 90s. Even Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, writing around A.D. 110, does not quote that much of the New Testament.[4]

Dr. Evans mentions the year 175 as a lower limit specifically because that is when Tatian’s Diatessaron was written. The Diatessaron (meaning “through the four”) was a blend of the four canonical gospel accounts written in the Syriac (a form of Aramaic) language. During this blending, Tatian created some new distinctive forms which show up in Thomas. The original four gospels were published in Greek, then later translated into Syriac as they moved east, also pushing the dating ahead. Another clue to the dating is the use of the name “Didymos Judas Thomas”, which was only found in the Syrian church. A third point made by Evans is that, while the 114 sayings in Thomas appear to be random in English or Coptic, when translated into Syriac, certain words become evident that served to assist the reader in memorization. For example, Saying 2 contained a certain word that led to Saying 3 and so on.[5] So, not only did the writer of Thomas use Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, he also likely relied upon the Diatessaron.

As Norman Geisler points out, “The evidence for the authenticity of the Gospel of Thomas does not even compare with that for the New Testament. The New Testament dates from the first century; the Gospel of Thomas, the second. The New Testament is verified by many lines of evidence, including self-references, early canonical lists, thousands of citations by the early Fathers, and the well-established dates for the Synoptic Gospels.”[6] Since Thomas contains almost no narrative and much of the source material contained therein may be found in the canonical gospels, there is little or no value in it concerning the life of Christ. However, this pseudepigraphal work may offer some insight concerning early Gnostic beliefs.

[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into The New Testament (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003)
[2] Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 337.
[3] Eusebius, The History of the Church, translated by G. A. Williamson (New York, NY: Dorset Press, 1965), 252.
[4] Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), p. 36.
[5] Strobel, pp. 37-38.
[6] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999), 298.

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