Gnostic Gospels - The Gospel of Thomas
Although the Gnostic gospels considered up to this point are important and available for much fruitful research, by far the majority of the scholarly (and popular) energies have been directed toward The Gospel of Thomas. In one sense, the term "gospel" is misapplied here as well, for there is no narrative element to the loose collection of 114 sayings that constitute The Gospel of Thomas.8 In fact, "no collection of sayings of Jesus can properly be called a Gospel because by its nature it has no passion narrative," which is the "core of the essential gospel."9
Although introduced as "the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Judas Thomas the Twin recorded," this attribution to Thomas is most likely false.10 Thomas's loose structure makes it difficult to pinpoint a unifying theological theme, but it can be described as a gospel of wisdom, in which "Thomas' Jesus dispenses insight from the bubbling spring of wisdom (saying 13), discounts the value of prophecy and its fulfillment (saying 52), critiques end-of-the-world, apocalyptic announcements (sayings 51, 113), and offers a way of salvation through an encounter with the sayings of 'the living Jesus'." 11 If the sayings in Thomas and the other Gnostic gospels truly are authentic (as supposed by many scholars), and if the authentic sayings of Jesus truly are authoritative (as supposed by evangelical Christians around the world), then a problem arises. For clearly even these briefest of treatments of the Gnostic gospels are enough to show the sharp disagreement, even contradiction, between the Jesus of the canon and the Jesus of Nag Hammadi. In light of this difficulty, it seems appropriate to examine briefly the reliability of the canonical gospels, and then compare their status with that of the Gnostic gospels.
Are the Gnostic Gospels Reliable?
The Reliability of the New Testament Gospels Two standards are useful in any evaluation of the reliability of biblical texts, particularly in the areas of manuscript transmission and preservation. These standards are genuineness, in this case referring to truth in authorship of a particular biblical text; and authenticity, referring to truth in content.12 Given the standards up to which the Bible holds itself, e.g., "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16 ESV), it is clear that for a book to be considered canonical, it must be both genuine and authentic. Space does not permit a full exploration of the claims for the reliability of the canonical gospels, but the reader is encouraged to consult one of the many useful texts that have been written on this topic (one example is A General Introduction to the Bible, by Geisler and Nix).
Are the Gnostic Gospels Canonical? If it can be assumed that the canonical gospels are both genuine and authentic (and therefore reliable), a logical question to ask is whether the Gnostic gospels are themselves canonical. For if they are canonical, and if canonical gospels are reliable, then the Gnostic gospels are clearly reliable as well (setting aside for the moment the negative implications, as regards the consistency of the biblical record as a whole, that such a conclusion entails). Unfortunately, however, whatever one can say about their reliability, the Gnostic gospels far fall short of the canonical standard.
Take, for example, The Gospel of Thomas. Since it is the most interesting-and seems to have been afforded the most privileged status among the so-called Gnostic gospels-an examination of Thomas's reliability (or lack thereof) should shed much light on the Gnostic gospels, and perhaps even the entire Nag Hammadi corpus. For example, if it can be shown that Thomas's credibility suffers from serious challenges, then there is reason to consider discounting, at least in terms of what is useful for faith and practice, most if not all of the other Gnostic works as well.
Does, then, The Gospel of Thomas exhibit the primary earmark of inspiration, apostolic authority? It would seem that the answer must be in the negative. Despite all of the attention given to Thomas, the scholarly consensus seems to be that the attribution to Judas Thomas the Twin is almost certainly false. The first strike against apostolic authorship for Thomas is the late date of likely authorship. Scholars disagreeing with this assessment, at least one of whom is a well-documented advocate of Thomas,13 seem to think that the independent portions of Thomas (those which do not correspond directly to canonical material) point to a source earlier than that of the New Testament gospels-a text parallel to or predating the Q source.14 However, "the more obvious interpretation of the Nag Hammadi documents is that they are all typically syncretistic," and as such they are "wholly explainable in terms of what we now know about second- and third-century Gnosticism."15 It is therefore plausible that Thomas predates and informs the canonical gospels; but it is more likely that it incorporated bits and pieces from a wide range of religious influences.
Further evidence of false attribution shows up even in the most enthusiastic students of Thomas. One scholar, when discussing genuineness, does not attempt to make arguments for apostolic authorship of Thomas, but instead tries to equate it with the canonical gospels by discrediting their origin. For if in fact "few [scholars] today believe that contemporaries of Jesus actually wrote the New Testament gospels," and "we only know that these writings are attributed to apostles … or followers of the apostles," then to say that "Gnostic authors, in the same way, attributed their secret writings to various disciples" does no damage to the authority of the Gnostic gospels.16 However, as has been shown, there is little reason for such skepticism as to the origin of the canonical gospels. Therefore The Gospel of Thomas, despite scholars' best attempts to equate them with the canonical gospels, has nowhere near the claim to authority enjoyed by the latter.