Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Thomas: The Fifth Gospel?

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Thomas: The Fifth Gospel?

Article excerpt


Whereas for years those in quest for the historical Jesus have been content to pursue their investigations within the canonical Gospels, recent developments in source criticism along with certain twentieth-century papyrological discoveries have widened the field. Little could the discoverers of the Oxyrhynchus fragments have realized back in 1898 that their Greek fragments containing sayings of Jesus, along with the much fuller, Coptic trove discovered in the Nag Hammadi desert fifty years later, would one day become a staple of historical Jesus research. John Dominic Crossan, for example, sees Thomas as essential to the investigation of Jesus of Nazareth, for he writes that "the collection is very, very early."1 Burton Mack maintains a similar position, claiming that by the mid-1980s "it was well known, for instance, that the Gospel of Thomas was thoroughly nonapocalyptic in tenor and that it contained sayings from the very earliest period of the Jesus movements," and for these reasons must also have been closely associated with the Q community.2 Like Mack, Stephen Patterson also draws attention to the similarities between Thomas and Q, and maintains that between these two documents the tide has now turned against the apocalyptic Jesus of yore. For Patterson, a new day in Jesus studies has dawned:

. . . no new quest of the historical Jesus can proceed now without giving due attention to the Thomas tradition. As an independent reading of the Jesus tradition, it provides us with a crucial and indispensable tool for gaining critical distance on the Synoptic tradition, which has so long dominated the Jesus discussion.3

From those seeking to show what we can really know about Jesus to those seeking to show what we can really know about early Christianity, the list of scholars goes on.4

Clearly, the game has changed. Whereas those in search of the historical Jesus have previously been accustomed to looking for their most-wanted man somewhere near the intersection of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, a new line of scholarship has appeared on the scene and, finding the Synoptic witness as giving us too little to go on, are turning to other haunts. If Jesus was to be seen anywhere, it is presumed, he would most likely not be caught dead (much less resurrected) in the neighborhood of the Synoptics. Instead, we would do best to look for Jesus in the earliest strata somewhere closer to the vicinity of Thomas and Q street.

But quite apart from the question of Q, one must ask whether the testimony of Thomas is actually as useful as much of NT scholarship has led us to believe. We have found Thomas, we have brought him downtown to the station, we have taken down his story, and now with this important new lead we are off to new beats and stakeouts. But have we really done the necessary background check? We have Thomas's story on Jesus, but do we really have the story on Thomas! Undoubtedly the author who stands behind the Oxyrhynchus fragments and the Coptic collection is witness to something. But how can we be so sure that Thomas is after all "very, very early"? How can we be certain that the Gospel of Thomas is witness to the historical Jesus? If the proposal that this collection be viewed as a "Fifth Gospel" largely rests on the sayings' usefulness as a witness to the historical Jesus, then another way of asking the question is this: may Thomas in fact be rightfully deemed the Fifth Gospel?


1. The basic argument. In the following essay, I wish to argue that Thomas's purported first-century roots and the correlated claim to its being on par with the canonical Gospels are both subject to serious question. As I have argued more fully elsewhere, the evidence seems to show that the Coptic gospel is not so much a witness to the historical Jesus, but instead a witness to early Syriac Christianity.5 Following a linguistic analysis of the Coptic collection, with particular attention to the use of catchwords, it appears that Thomas was not written-per the standard and prevailing assumption-in Greek, as an evolving sayings collection, dating back to the first or early second century. …

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