There is a growing consensus among scholars that the Gospel of Thomas – discovered over a half century ago in the Egyptian desert – dates to the very beginnings of the Christian era and may well have taken first form before any of the four traditional canonical Gospels. During the first few decades after its discovery several voices representing established orthodox biases argued that the Gospel of Thomas (abbreviated, GTh) was a late-second or third century Gnostic forgery. Scholars currently involved in Thomas studies now largely reject that view, though such arguments will still be heard from orthodox apologists and are encountered in some of the earlier publications about Thomas.
Today most students would agree that the Thomas Gospel has opened a new perspective on the first voice of the Christian tradition. Recent studies centered on GTh have led to a stark reappraisal of the forces and events forming “orthodoxy” during the second and third centuries. But more importantly, the Gospel of Thomas is awakening interest in a forgotten spiritual legacy of Christian culture. The incipit (or “beginning words”) of Thomas invite each of us “who has ears to hear” to join in a unique quest:
These are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke,
and that Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down. And He said:
“Whoever finds the meaning of these words will not taste death.”
The Gospel of Thomas Collection in the Gnostic Society Library catalogs materials about the Gospel of Thomas available both in our archives and elsewhere on the internet. Included are audio lectures about GTh, links to a wide variety of internet resources including several academic articles and essays, and a bibliography of GTh manuscript sources. Despite the wealth of material available here, the reader should also consult a few important books on the subject. An annotated selection of the best available translations of GTh and publications about GTh is provided in the suggested readings section of our Bookstore. We sincerely hope these resources help you in your studies of this most remarkable document.
English Translations of the Gospel of Thomas
Three excellent and widely used translations of the Gospel of Thomas are available in our Library collection. We prefer the Lambdin translation for personal reading, but each edition adds its own nuance of understanding. This is a text that reveals itself freshly with each new reading. Take it slowly — each saying stands independently full of meaning.
For those interested in viewing the original Coptic version of the text, a Coptic/English interlinear translation has been compiled by Michael Grondin. (His site also includes several useful references on Coptic language):
Greek Fragments from the Gospel of Thomas
At the very beginning of the twentieth century three separate fragments from Greek versions of the Gospel of Thomas were discovered during archeological excavations of an ancient library in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. (Fragments of the Gospel of Mary were also found at Oxyrhynchus.) The three papyrus fragments of Thomas – known as the Oxyrhynchus fragments – date to between 130 – 250 CE.
Translations of the sayings found in these Greek fragments of Thomas are presented here, followed by versions of the same sayings as they appear in the Coptic manuscript found at Nag Hammadi (we have used the Lambdin translation of GTh).
Other Texts from the Thomas Tradition
In early Christianity there existed traditions, often geographical localized, that honored a specific Christian apostolic figure as patron and initiatory source. The Pauline and Johannine traditions are commonly recognized examples of this early division in Christianity, and each left its own textual legacy. Though less well understood, there apparently also existed a Thomas tradition. Geographically, the name of Thomas was associate with the region of Syria, perhaps because Thomas or disciples claiming him as apostolic sponsor once located themselves in the area. Unfortunately, writings associated with the Thomas tradition – prominently including the Gospel of Thomas – fell out of favor during the formation of orthodoxy, and by the end of the fourth century most had been condemned and destroyed.
Three important documents from the Thomas tradition have nonetheless survived: The Gospel of Thomas, The Book of Thomas the Contender, and the Acts of Thomas. The latter two were recovered in the Nag Hammadi Library. Several copies of the third text, the Acts of Thomas, survived over the centuries in monastic collections.
Imbedded within the Acts of Thomas we find a beautiful and complete statement of a classic Gnostic myth describing the exile and redemption of the soul. The text is known as the “Hymn of the Pearl”. What astounds most is that such a clear rendition of the Gnostic mythos was allowed to survive within a text which resided for centuries on the back shelves of orthodox archives.
Hymn of the Pearl (from the Acts of Thomas) This beautiful text, excerpted from the Acts, is highly recommended reading.
The Acts of Thomas The complete text the Acts of Thomas, from The Apocryphal New Testament, translated by M. R. James. (Important Note: Virtually all digital versions of the Acts of Thomas found on the internet are copies of a single file that has resided in our Archives since 1994. Unfortunately we have recently found that this original file had an internal formatting error. As a result, many short sections of text are lost in pirated copies of the file, making the text unintelligible in several places. We ask those who have reproduced this file to take note of the problem and help correct the error.)
The Book of Thomas the Contender (from the Nag Hammadi Library Collection)
Though not integrally related to the central Thomas tradition surrounding the Gospel of Thomas, several other ancient noncanonical Christian documents claimed authority in the name of Thomas. For completeness, these are listed here:
Online Audio Lectures about Thomas
The following lectures by Dr. Stephan A. Hoeller, a noted authority on Gnosticism, are available here in RealAudio format (RealPlayer required). Many more lectures focused on the Gospel of Thomas are available in high-quality MP3 format at BCRecordings.net. (Check our Web Lectures page for a selection of lectures available online.)
Redemption and Redeemer in the Gospel of Thomas The Gospel of Thomas is one of the most important Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi. In this lecture, Dr. Hoeller explores the “soteriology” – the concept of a redeemer and the process of redemption – as developed in the text of the Thomas Gospel. (MP3 audio format, 79 min.)
The Hymn of the Pearl: A Gnostic Tale of the Soul’s Exile and Redemption Despite efforts of the evolving orthodoxy to destroy all Gnostic scriptures and documents, a few texts did survive which contained extensive sections of clearly Gnostic character and provenance. One primary example is the “Hymn of the Pearl” found within the Acts of Thomas. Dr. Hoeller explains the function of myth in Gnosticism and then examines this classic Gnostic tale of the soul’s exile and redemption. While listening to the lecture, you may wish to read along in The Hymn of the Pearl from the Acts of Thomas. (MP3 audio format, 75 min.)
Gnosticism and its Legacy Despite intense persecution, the Gnostic tradition has survived as an important force in Western culture for nearly two thousand years. In this lecture, Dr. Hoeller gives a brief introduction to the history of Gnosticism in Western culture and discusses twelve characteristics that have distinguished Gnosticism as a distinct, living tradition. (MP3 audio format, 77 min.)
Forums for Discussions of The Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas (General Discussion) Located at Yahoo groups, “this is a discussion list for those interested in exploring the meanings of the 114 sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas. An invitation is extended to individuals of all faiths and traditions who bring a sincere desire for increased understanding, appreciation and fellowship.” This forum welcomes basic questions and comments. There is a complete collection of previous posts.
The Gospel of Thomas (Academic Discussion) Also located at Yahoo groups, this forum is much more scholarly in focus and welcomes only serious students of the GTh. Introductory level questions or comments are not appropriate for this list. The collection of previous posts provides a wealth of information dealing with technical aspects of translating and interpreting the Thomas gospel.
Internet Sites Focused on The Gospel of Thomas
Gospel of Thomas Homepage (maintained by Stevan Davies, Professor of Religious Studies, College Misericordia). One of the first internet pages dedicated to the GTh, for many years this site has archived related materials. Unfortunately, as new material has been added, the site layout has become rather chaotic and difficult to navigate. Many of the most important articles and essays archived by Prof. Davies are organized and linked in our resources sections, below. We recommend his Thomas FAQ for quick answers to some common questions about Thomas.
The Metalogos Index (maintained by Paterson Brown and The Ecumenical Coptic Project). Texts of the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, and other Valentinian writings are provided in English and Spanish, along with commentaries and notes.
Gospel of Thomas Commentary (compiled by Peter Kirby). This excellent resource provides commentary on each of the 114 sayings in GTh. Included for each saying are: the Coptic text; three English translations of the saying; links to parallels in canonical texts and pOxy Greek Thomas fragments; and a few excerpts from academic commentaries on the saying.
Online Books at the Gnosis Archive
The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Twin of Jesus, a complete online book by Herbert Christian Merillat which gives a useful overview of the place of the Apostle Thomas and Thomas literature in Gnosticism. The author has kindly contributed this file to The Gnosis Archive. It is also now available in print from at Amazon.com.
Bibliography of Manuscripts and Translations
A complete listing of ancient manuscript sources for Thomas, along with a bibliography of scholarly editions of the manuscripts and of published translations of the GTh text.
The Gospel of Thomas and the Hermeneutics of Vision
In its opening words the Gospel of Thomas offers a stunning hermeneutic challenge: “whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.” Unfortunately, modern readers comes to this incipit devoid of a technique of interpretive reading — anhermeneutics — that grants entry into the mysterious meaning vouchsafed by such words. This essay, The Gospel of Thomas and the Hermeneutics of Vision by Dr. Lance Owens, explores answer to a compelling question: “Was there an original tradition of interpretation – a hermeneutic technique – implicit in early transmissions of the Thomas tradition that gave an organic coherence to readings of the text, and if so, is that hermeneutic method still accessible? Can modern readers meet the challenge of the Thomasincipit?”
Essays and Academic Articles Online
This is a selection of the some of the articles available online, a few of which are interesting. They give an idea about the breadth of discussion focused on the Thomas Gospel. We find that links to pages outside our own permanent collection very frequently change or disappear. A Google search will of course find many things that might be of interest. Recently, all of these external resources seem to be available (many are archived on Stevan Davies’ Gospel of Thomas site):
Introductory Essays on the Gospel of Thomas by Drs. Elaine Pagels and Helmut Koester, published online as part of the 1998 PBS Television Frontline series, “From Jesus to Christ”.
The Gospel of Thomas and the Hermeneutics of Vision by Dr. Lance Owens. Was there an original tradition of interpretation – a hermeneutic technique – implicit in early transmissions of the Thomas tradition that gave an organic coherence to readings of the text, and if so, is that hermeneutic method still accessible?
Rhetorical Composition and Sources in the Gospel of Thomas (pdf), by Vernon K. Robbins, Society of Biblical Literature 1997 Seminar Papers, pp. 86-114. An excellent paper, with a very useful introductory summary of current scholarly approaches to the GTh.
Enthymemic Texture in the Gospel of Thomas, by Vernon K. Robbins, Society of Biblical Literature 1998 Seminar Papers, pp. 343-366. Quoting from the introduction: “…Some enthymemic [= ‘reasoning’, ‘pondering’] logia in Thomas contain explanations or descriptions…. Many logia that contain explanations or descriptions are part of the ‘bedrock of tradition’ in the variant forms of Q, synoptic, and Thomas tradition.”
History of the Discovery of Thomas and Comments on the Text by Matthew Thomas Farrell. A readable introduction to Thomas, written for the general reader.
Observations and Discussions of the Gospel of Thomas by Dr. Mahlon Smith’s (Assoc. Professor of Religion, Rutgers University). Dr. Smith here collects a number of his very learned comments about the Gospel of Thomas, submitted over the years to variety of friendly internet discussions.
On Mark’s Use of the Gospel of Thomas: (Part One) (Part Two) by Stevan L. Davies, Neotestamentica 30 (2) 1996 pp.307-334 Technical but interesting. The arguments here suggest that Thomas existed prior to the earliest canonical Gospel and was used as a source by the author of Mark.
Johannine Sayings in the Gospel of Thomas: The Sayings Traditions in their Environment of First Century Syria by Alexander Mirkovic, PhD (Graduate Dept. of Religion, Vanderbilt University). An exploration of the relationship between the Thomas and Johannine Gospels, suggesting that Thomas was a source document for John. This makes interesting reading in the context of Elaine Pagels’ recent best-selling book, Beyond Belief.
An Internet Discussion of the Gospel of Thomas and Gnosticism between William Arnal (Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto) and Stevan Davies (College Misericordia), from the Ioudaios-L Internet List in mid-December of 1995. An interesting introduction to the types of arguments common within GTh studies groups.
The Christology and Protology of the Gospel of Thomas by Stevan L. Davies, Journal of Biblical Literature Volume 111, Number 4, Winter 1992. Another succinct title.
Q // Thomas Parallels in the Thomas version An abbreviated summary of parallels between Q and GTh. There is no introduction or explanation provided to these brief notes, but if you already are familiar with Q document research this may be of interest.
The Circle of the Way: Reading the Gospel of Thomas as a “Christzen” Text, by Kenneth Arnold, from Cross Currents, Winter 2002, Vol. 51, No 4. Quoting from the introduction, “When Jesus opens his mouth in the Gospel of Thomas, there is a Buddha sitting on his tongue….”