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-The Gospel of Thomas and the Historical Jesus

by Dr. D ~ October 6th, 2017

The Gospel of Thomas?


(From our Apologetica page):

Much has been written about so-called ‘lost Christianities’ in the last decade or so. The Gospel of Thomas is always among the early books mentioned that supposedly demonstrate a possible variety of understanding and teaching in early Christianity.

First of all, there are a number of sayings contained within the ‘Gospel’ that are comparable to passages in the NT gospels and the collection of scholars that made up the Jesus Seminar actually named a few as authentic. However, there are many other sayings in Thomas which obviously contradict teaching in the canonical gospels. Plus there is no actual narrative or story to provide context.

Then there is the question of dating and authorship. Several of my old professors in seminary (Claremont) supported a first century dating. Nevertheless, most scholars opt for an early second century completion. Then there is the question of authorship. Few entertain the idea that the ‘doubting apostle’ had any kind of hand in it.

But the real question is this: Does it really have anything to tell us about the historical Jesus and his actual teaching?

Here’s an excellent article by Dr. Ben Witherington dealing with that question:

Doubting Thomas: The Relevance of the Gospel of Thomas for Historical Jesus Studies


The following is a quote from the conclusion of the article:

There were actual boundaries of belief and behavior even in the first century A.D., boundaries beyond which Jesus’ followers knew they should not go, and Thomas and the even later Gnostic documents clearly had long since crossed those boundaries in various ways. As it turns out the lost Christianities so often touted today were not so much lost as abandoned for good reasons. They were not suppressed because they offered an alternative, earlier, and more true version of Christian origins. They were tried and found wanting in the 2nd through fourth centuries because they betrayed the essentially Jewish monotheistic, eschatological character of Jesus and his movement.

<Read the whole article>


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2 Responses to -The Gospel of Thomas and the Historical Jesus

  1. Brian

    If you had visited an early Christian community (say 120 AD), people in that community would have said things to you like: “My grandfather heard Paul preach” or “When I was a young man, I met the apostle John”.

    There was a period which lasted several generations when first hand testimony of eye witnesses, or remembered testimony from a parent or grandparent, was available to Christians.

    What does this have to do with the Gospel of Thomas? Early Christians basically accepted a number of books into the New Testament that had credentials – ties to known figures who wrote the book or vouched for the book.

    In essence, in order to be an accepted book to mainstream early Christians, the author had to be linked to one of four key figures, each of whom was a leader of the early church:

    — Paul – note that Luke was a fellow-traveler with Paul so Paul “vouched” for Luke, and also for Timothy.

    —- Simon Peter

    — John

    — James

    Every book of the New Testament was either written by one of these four individuals, or by someone closely associated with at last one of the four (ok, I know that there was an early dispute about who wrote Hebrews, which continues to this day, but there was an acceptance and acknowledgment that Hebrews was written by someone closely associated with Paul)

    So, for 50-100 years after the events described in the New Testament, people could say: “We know that Luke wrote his gospel, because we have a recollection of testimony from folks who have passed away, or from elderly folks who are alive now, that this is Luke’s own work – and we know Luke is an inspired writer because Paul vouches for him”

    But 150 years after the events described in the New Testament, new writings started to appear, including Thomas. There were two problems with these new writings:

    — They did not have the credentials of having been written by one of the early apostles – no one could say that this is an inspired writer and, in many cases, the authorship was simply unknown.
    — They contained theological statements adverse to the existing body of Christian writings (there is a key point that gets frequently overlooked!)
    — They kept coming! New gnostic writings kept appearing for a century or two after Thomas, and long after anyone could reasonably have contended that these works were the actual writings of Mary Magdalene, or of Barnabas, or of any other early Christian figure.

    So mainstream Christians rejected these writings. Gnostics accepted these writings, but they were never mainstream. Gnosticism existed for a couple of centuries, but its relationship to mainstream Christianity would be analogous to the modern relationship between conservative, orthodox Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses – “you act like Christians, you talk like Christians, many non-Christians think of you as Christians, but we don’t think you really are Christians”.

    Bottom line – there was a body of late writings, never accepted by the lion’s share of Christians, but which were advanced by/used by/preached by the gnostics. These works included the Gospel of Thomas.

  2. Dr. D

    Thanks Brian, your information here is 100% correct and very contrary to current popular notions supplied by a variety of incorrect sources like the mega hit ‘fiction’ novel and movie: The Da Vinci Code
    See my article on the problems in that book:“The Da Vinci Code”: Top Ten–False Claims Made In The Book

    Also see my extended evaluation of a popular book written by the major scholar behind the ‘lost Christianities’ idea- Bart Ehrman: “Misquoting Jesus”: An Evaluation And Review

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