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Question 118:

What do you think about the so-called Thomas Gospel?

 

Answer: There are several apocryphal writings under the name of Thomas: the Acts of Thomas; the Apocalypse of Thomas; an Infancy Gospel of Thomas; further: the Gospel of Thomas.

In Christian theology these writings are known as apocryphal or as apocrypha which were not included in the canon of the biblical scripture; yet but by way of their title or alleged origin – the name of their authors being familiar names of the Old or New Testament – they lay claim to inclusion. The New Testament apocrypha – usually Greek, later Latin and in other languages – follow the composition of the New Testament: Gospels (frequently only fragments remain), Acts of the Apostles, letters and apocalypses. The universal Church never allowed these writings a place in the canon. A comparison with the canonical books reveals clear differences: with a few exceptions, the apocrypha owe more to fantasy and imagination than to reflection on historical tradition. Their significance lies not in a possible contribution to expanding our knowledge of the life of Jesus or the times of the apostles, but in the possibility of discovering Christianity in a later era and on a very different level than that of the great theologians.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas, whereby the reader is probably referring here to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, bears no relation to the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, which we refer to later. It is the primary exponent of the so-called infancy gospels that relate Jesus childhood.

The popularity of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is evident from the numerous translations and their variety: Greek, Latin and Syrian, Ethiopian, Arabic and Georgian and ancient Slav. Then there are also Arabic and Armenian infancy gospels that have taken material from them. The different versions diverge substantially and reveal how the material was partly expanded, partly abbreviated, and sometimes changed in content. The contents of these writings consist of loosely connected stories of Jesus childhood and conclude with the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple taken from Luke. Despite the reference to Jesus age in some of the events recorded and the citation from Luke 2:52 at the end, there is no genuine attempt to describe Jesus growth or development. The author’s intention is to present the boy Jesus as a child genius. The Jesus presented here is often quite simply not the Jesus of the canonical Gospels: While there are some direct healing miracles, other stories belong to the realm of folklore. Stories that tell of Jesus moulding clay birds on the Sabbath may be harmless; others portray him as quick to anger, invective and malicious. It must be said, however, that all the victims of his malice regain their health and all their limbs before the story ends. The legend was not primarily interested in Jesus adolescence and early adulthood between the age of twelve and the thirty-year-old who presents himself for baptism in the Jordan, but the earlier years of the twelve-year-old boy reported in Luke’s stories (Luke 2:41-52). For, it is precisely the young boy who is to be presented as a childhood genius. All the miracles that Jesus later performs are anticipated here in a particularly obvious way. However, there is a considerable difference between these miracles and those reported in the canonical Gospels. Here the external material is simply entered into Jesus story without even a minimal attempt to adapt this to the image of Christ. Were it not for Jesus name next to the term child or boy, it would never occur that these tales of the high-spirited boy-God are supposed to supplement the oral tradition of Jesus. A particularly large number of parallels with Krishna and Buddha legends, as well as with all sorts of fairy tales, can be made here. The more crude and amazing the miracle, the more this finds favour with the compiler who does not even begin to question its authenticity. The child is to herald not only Jesus the miracle performer, but also Jesus the teacher. What Luke reports relatively soberly regarding the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple now escalates into the grotesque to the extent that the boy not only possesses all the wisdom of the age, but also embarrasses all human teachers with his profound and often dark words of wisdom. Despite the lack of good taste, moderation and discretion, it must be said that the compiler of these legends, who created the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, possesses a talent for telling stories with a naive world view. This is particularly true of the scenes of everyday childhood life.

(For the German translation of the text, see: Wilhelm Schneemelcher, Neutestmentliche Apokryphen, 5th Edition, Vol. 1. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1987, pp. 353-361; the English translation in Schneemelcher, Engl. tr., Vol. 1 (1963), pp. 388-401. See also: Bart D. Ehrmann and Zlatko Pleše, The Apocryphal Gospels. Texts and Translation. Oxford: OUP, 2011)

The Coptic Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas, originally written in Greek, was discovered as a Coptic translation amongst the papyri excavated in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945-6. It is now preserved in the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo. The Greek original dates from maybe 150, the Coptic version, which contains some additions, dates from around 400. In the title, Didymus Judas Thomas claims to have written the text. Unlike the canonical Gospels, which are historical, this text consists of a series of concise sentences and allegorical speeches attributed to Jesus. Some believe it is possible that this Coptic Gospel of Thomas includes some words of the Lord that are not included in the canonical Gospels and that trace back to an authentic tradition. Overall the content does not justify the exaggerated assertions made in its favour when it was first made public in 1959. The Greek Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Nos. 1, 654 and 655, preserved fragments of a Greek text that coincide – albeit not precisely − the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas found in Nag Hammadi. However, this work appears to be of Gnostic origin.

(German Text and Introduction in Schneemelcher, I (1959), pp. 199-223; Eng. tr. Schneemelcher I (1963), pp. 278-307. More recent German translation and introduction: G. Lüdemann & M. Janssen, Bibel der Häretiker. The Greek writings from Nag Hammadi. Stuttgart, 1997, pp. 129-148; Bart D. Ehrmann and Zlatko Pleše, The Apocryphal Gospels. Texts and Translation. Oxford: OUP, 2011).

 

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