Discovering the Original Gospel of Thomas

I have been re-reading with the greatest learning and pleasure April DeConick’s book, Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas. The price is a bit higher than one is used to paying for a paperback book ($40) but this is a serious academic book, yet it is written in a style and on a level that the interested non-specialist can surely follow. I highly recommend this book for any “Christian Origins” library, as well as a long visit to April’s incredible blog, “Forbidden Gospels.” Before she began “blogging” in 2007 we had talked about my own experiences with this fairly new medium of “biblioblogging” and I encouraged her to take the plunge–which she surely has done with gusto since! Her posts are often short and pithy, and sometimes long and involved, and one could spent days reading all the worthwhile materials she has posted.

Anyway, I mention the Gospel of Thomas here because it seems to me that the controversy between so-called “conservative” scholars such as Craig Evans or Ben Witherington, and more “critical” scholars such as John Dominic Crossan or DeConick, on the historical value of works such as The Gospel of Thomas has really been miscast. There is no point in batting back and forth the old conundrum of which text is more “legendary” or “mythological,” Mark or Thomas, or even Q or Thomas, since all of these texts reflect the heavily theologized/mythologized viewpoints of their authors/communities. Scholars are agreed that we have no ancient texts on the life or teachings of Jesus that can be understood as “history as it actually happened”–which is a naive concept at best, as most historians surely realize. So the Gospel of Thomas is neither “early” nor “late,” it is both!

What I think DeConick’s work has done is provide us with a way of looking at the complex traditions that come to us in this collection of 114 saying of Jesus preserved for us in this 2nd-3rd century Copic collection we know as the Gospel of Thomas. This contents as we now have them are indeed “secondary,” “embellished,” and “developed,” and “theological.” And the same can be said of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Even the scholars who have greatly valued this text as a historical resource have recognized our need to read it critically. It neither dropped from heaven nor was it taken down stenographically from the mouth of Jesus.

What DeConick does is attempt to trace the developing history of this text, with its various expansions and and interpretive glosses. Not only does this allow us to see how a given saying attributed to Jesus in an earlier period was developed and recast, and what sort of community perceptions the various stages reflect, but through her groundbreaking work we are offered a glimpse back to the “original” and earliest layers of this work. DeConick identifies what she calls “kernel” sayings, and lo and behold, those materials seem to give us a rare glimpse into the Jerusalem community of James the Just, the brother of Jesus.

When I have my students read the Gospel of Thomas in my basic course in Christian Origins my experience is that they are either immediately attracted or strongly repelled, depending on their own presuppositions. Some find it different and strange in contrast to what they have become used from Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John; while others find it “exotic” and appealing in that they think it offers them some mystical/secret alternative version of things that the Church has repressed and kept back from us.

Anyone who is interested in Christian Origins needs to become thoroughly familiar with this fascinating collection of the sayings of Jesus. Can you imagine the excitement when this text was discovered in 1945, as part of the Nag Hammadi collection? Just to think that a new Gospel had surfaced! It is simply not to be missed, but few people, even if interested in the historical origins of Christianity, have actually bothered to read this precious text. I encourage my readers to read the text for themselves, available in several good translations here. To understand Thomas one needs a bit of background, so as a beginning I would recommend April DeConick’s posts and the links here on Thomas, and then her book. It takes some hard work, just as with the Synoptic tradition and John, to sort through the various layers and read with sensitivity and critical skills “beyond” the surface meaning of the text in its present form, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.

Some years ago I posted this short essay by DeConick on the accuracy and reliability of the New Testament Gospels. Hers were wise words then and still are now. My guess is that some might think her statements are exaggerated. Surely the material in the New Testament is of infinitely more value historically than a fairly “whacko” book like Thomas (a description of one of my students on an exam last semester). But this would be to miss her very valuable point. A critical reading and historical examination of the kinds of non-canonical texts she mentions, and others as well, offers us the chance to construct a much fuller portrait of the movement that John, Jesus, and James inaugurated. If Acts and Eusebius are not “the story,” as I have recently asserted, then we have a lot of hard work before us. The good news is that much survives and I can’t think of any field of historical investigation that is more exciting than Christian Origins at the beginning of this third millennium. Those of use who specialize in “first millennium studies” to coin a phrase that loosely describes the religions of antiquity with which I work, truly have a wealth of riches, with our trove growing day by day with new discoveries and a technology to bring it all together at the touch of our fingertips.