I was on a long distance drive Monday night. I finished listening to “God’s Crime Scene”, and started “The Case for the Real Jesus”. Craig Evans’ discussion about the Gospel of Thomas stuck in my mind, so I’m turning it into a post.
Should the Gospel of Thomas be included with the four canonical gospels? Is it early? Is it the same historical genre as the four gospels? Does it give us eyewitness evidence of the life and teachings of Jesus?
Here’s an article about it that references the chapter from “The Case for the Real Jesus” that I was listening to.
First reason, Thomas has literary dependence on TONS of other New Testament books, which favors a date for Thomas AFTER the books it quotes:
The Gospel of Thomas Cites Too Much Of The New Testament. Publishing writings in the first century was nothing like it is today. If you want a copy of something, you take a quill and some papyrus and you just copy it. That is how the books of the New Testament circulated. It was a very slow process. By the early second century, only a few of the books of the New Testament were in full circulation. Christians of that time only had a few of the books of the New Testament to reference. The epistles of Ignatious, written in AD 110, does not even quote half of the New Testament.
But the gospel of Thomas shows familiarity with 15 of the 27 books of the New Testament! Doctor Craig Evans pointed out that he was not aware of any Christian writing which referenced this much of the New Testament prior to AD 150. The Gospel of Thomas simply references far too many books to be dated early. But despite that, the Jesus Seminar attempts to date Thomas between AD 60 and 70.
Further, this gospel not only cites too much New Testament material. It cites the later New Testament material. Mark was not very strong in Greek grammar and etiquette, so when Matthew and Luke quoted Mark, they polished his wording. The gospel of Thomas quotes the polished wording, the later version. In fact, Thomas even has material from the gospel of John – penned in about AD 90. How can a book from AD 60 or 70 quote a book from AD 90? Thomas is not independent of the other gospels, it quotes the later ones and it is not early, it quotes too much of the New Testament to be considered early.
Second reason, Thomas shows signs of being based on a Syriac translation:
The Gospel of Thomas Shows Syrian Development. The gospels are published in the Koine Greek language, which was the most conventiant language of that time if the goal was to spread them far and wide. But when Christianity began to spread eastward, the gospels were translated into Syriac. But this did not happen immediately.
A student of Justin Martyr named Tatian compiled a Syriac translation of the four gospels in AD 175, which was named the Diatessaron (meaning ‘through the four’). He made the four gospels available to those who spoke Syriac. What makes this significant is that the gospel of Thomas shows traces of the Syrian language forms! Indeed, the gospel of Thomas adopts concepts that were only found in the Syrian church. It refers to Thomas as Judas Thomas, which was a concept that began with the Syrian church. The Syrians did not like ascetics, wealth, businessmen, commercialism, and were interested in elitism and mysticism. Precisely everything that the Syrians were not interested in, the gospel of Thomas was not interested in, and that which they were interested in, the gospel of Thomas was interested in.
Further, and critically, if we read the gospel of Thomas in English, it sort of looks like a non-contextual group of proverbs and sayings. It is just randomly assorted. It appears randomly assorted in Koine Greek as well. But if you translate it to Syrian, it is not random at all. There are literally hundreds of catchwords in Syrian that are meant to help people memorize the gospel. There are memory aids written in Syrian. The gospel of Thomas was written in Syrian.
Two other reasons would be:
- it contains gnostic overtones, and that movement started in the 2nd century
- none of the early Church Fathers quote it, but they quote the four gospels and the letters of Paul, etc.
Not sure why people get so interested in this Dan Brown hypothetical stuff, but my job is to share with you the things I’m reading that are relevant. By the way, the audio versions of the unabridged “Case For” books are read by Lee Strobel himself – HIGHLY recommended. You will not lose interest.