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The document with which we are concerned at present, the Gospel of Thomas, does not bear a
Gnostic appearance on its face. Only when we examine it more closely do we see how well
adapted it is to the literary company which it keeps.
This document is a compilation of about 114 sayings ascribed to Jesus. It is described in the
colophon as The Gospel according to Thomas. The significance of this title is amplified in the
opening words of the document:
These are the secret words which Jesus the Living One spoke and Didymus Judas
Thomasl wrote down. And he said: ‘Whosoever finds the interpretation of these sayings
shall never taste death.6
Jesus said: ‘Let not him who seeks desist until he finds. When he finds he will be
troubled; when he is troubled he will marvel, and he will reign over the universe.’7
It is not the sayings themselves that are secret, but their interpretation; and that was evidently
an interpretation in line with the principles of a particular Gnostic school.
This emerges more clearly from a curious variant of the Caesarea Philippi incident which is
related in the Gospel of Thomas (Saying 13):
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Compare me and tell me who I am like.’ Simon Peter said to
him: ‘You are like a holy angel.’ Matthew said to him: ‘You are like a wise man and a
philosopher.’ Thomas said to him: ‘Master, my face is quite unable to grasp who you are
like, that I may express it. ‘Jesus said: ‘I am not your Master, for you have drunk; you are
intoxicated with the bubbling spring which belongs to me and which I have spread
5 Cf. Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, v. 1-6. They were also called Ophites, from the Greek word for
‘serpent’ (ophis).
6 Didymus (Greek) and Thomas (Aramaic) both mean ‘twin’. The name Judas Thomas suggests a Syrian origin;
in the Old Syriac Gospels Judas not Iscariot ‘ of John xiv. 22 is identified with Thomas.
7 A Johannine expression (cf. John viii. 51 f.), recurring elsewhere in the Gospel of Thomas.
F.F. Bruce, “The Gospel of Thomas,” Faith and Thought 92.1 (1961): 3-23.
abroad.’ Then he took him and drew him aside, and spoke three words to him. When
Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him: ‘What did Jesus say to you?’
Thomas answered: ‘if I tell you one of the words which he spoke to me, you will take
stones and throw them at me, and a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up!8
One of the Gnostic sects, the Naassenes, believed stones to be animate beings, and held that
the existence of the world depended on three secret words―Canlacau, Saulasau, Zeesar.9
These words certainly
convey an impression of mystery, until one realises that they are simply corruptions of the
Hebrew phrases in Isaiah xxviii. 10, 13, translated ‘line upon line’, ‘precept upon precept’,
and ‘here a little’! And it is probably more than a mere coincidence that Hippolytus refers to a
Gospel of Thomas which he says was used by the Naassenes.10
About half of the sayings preserved in this document are identical with, or quite similar to,
sayings recorded in our canonical Gospels. Some of the others were already known from
quotations in early Christian writers, or from the fragmentary sayings of Jesus found on some
papyrus scraps from Oxyrhynchus.
About the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth considerable
excitement was caused by the announcement that papyri had been found at Oxyrhynchus
containing sayings of Jesus most of which were previously unknown. From an unfortunate
association of these sayings with the Dominical Logia mentioned by Papias they came to be
widely known as the Oxyrhynchus Logia. Seven of these sayings were found in Oxyrhynchus
Papyrus i, discovered in 1897; six years later six further sayings were found in Papyrus 654
and two or three in Papyrus 655.11
It is now established that these fragments belong to the Greek original of the compilation
which has now come to light in a Coptic translation as the Gospel of Thomas. The Coptic
version indeed seems to represent a somewhat different recension from that represented by the
Oxyrhynchus papyri, but there can be little doubt about the essential identity of the two.
It is plain from our canonical Gospels that Jesus was accustomed to say memorable things in a
memorable way, and it is in any case unlikely that none of His sayings was remembered apart
from those which the four Evangelists have recorded. In fact one saying is explicitly attributed
to Him in Acts xx. 35 which has no precise canonical parallel: ‘ It is more blessed to give than
to receive.’ There may be other echoes of His words in the New Testament which we cannot
detect so certainly because they lack an express ascription to Him. Christian writers in the
post-apostolic generations preserve other sayings which they ascribe to Him. These sayings
are commonly

April 2018
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