Documents for the Study of the Gospels

By David R. Cartlidge; David L. Dungan | Go to book overview

The Acts of
the Holy Apostle Thomas

Introduction: The Acts of Thomas is one of five well-known extracanonical Acts; each tells of the adventures of an apostle of the church: Andrew, Peter, John, Paul, and Judas Thomas. Didymos Judas Thomas, the hero of the Acts of Thomas, is not well known to Western Christianity. His real name is Judas (“Judah,” in Hebrew); both Didymos and Thomas mean “twin.” Judas is the twin of Jesus. His fame was widespread from Egypt to Syria and on to India, where there is an ancient community of Christians which claims Judas Thomas as its founder.

This account of Judas Thomas’ adventures was most likely written in the first half of the third century. It makes use, however, of traditions which go back much earlier than that. The origin of the Acts of Thomas is considered by most historians to have been in eastern Syria, probably in the city of Edessa.

Thus the original language of the Acts of Thomas was Syriac, but the extant Syriac text has been “catholicized.” That is, it has been altered to be more in line with the Western Church’s theology. The Greek versions of the Acts of Thomas thus appear to be translations of a better text than the one now preserved in Syriac manuscripts. There are some exceptions to this rule; the most important is “The Hymn of the Pearl” in chs. 108–113.

The Acts of Thomas is often labeled “gnostic.” It fits this label to a great degree. The Acts of Thomas speaks of a mystical, saving knowledge which redeems the faithful from this world; its picture of Jesus is “docetic.” That is, the work rejects the concept that human salvation can take place as an historical event, brought about by a savior who is a fully human person. Thus, salvation in the Acts of Thomas involves a sharp denial of the world and its created, physical processes.

Radical world rejection in this work is accompanied by extreme asceticism. Only those who are ascetics can know salvation. This theme is propelled in the Acts of Thomas by plays on the word koinonia and its cognates. This family of words means “community,” “marriage,” and “sexual intercourse.” The stories in the document are often built upon plays of meaning which are possible when the same word can refer to the church community (ascetic), a heavenly, transsexual marriage (see chs. 12–15), and the sexual union of male and female (often known as “filthy koinonia”).

Thomas’ activity is truly an extension of Jesus’ in this work. Didymos Judas Thomas is not only Jesus’ “twin,” the two figures even mingle together and become interchangeable at one point (see ch. 11). Such ideas as these

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