|THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS: Annotated and Explained Translation and Annotation by Stevan Davies Skylight
Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT. $22.00 Cdn. 2002. ISBN #1-893361-45-4.
|This winter, the people who gather at St. Davids church every Wednesday
morning for bible study are doing something a bit different. We are studying
a non-canonical book of the New Testament - namely the Gospel of Thomas.
Of course, we are always ready to welcome new members to our group! Just
show up in the TM room, any Wednesday at 8:00 AM!
We are engaging Thomas in his own right and by association (through similar
texts) with the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the distinctive
gospel of John. Our hope is to see how Thomas helps us broaden and deepen
our understanding of Jesus. We are not interested in advocating a special
place for Thomas as part of a revised biblical canon. We want to shun rivalries
between Thomas and other gospels. Rather, we wish to focus on both the
distinctives and the complementarity existing between the classic gospels
we know and one we do not.
|This study is not intended to be a clear guide to Thomas. To make Thomas
unambiguously clear is to spoil him. This study is not an attempt to advocate
for the admission of the Gospel of Thomas into the New Teatament canon.
Thomas will probably have a greater impact if he never becomes part of
the offical New Testament collection.
Thomas is an enigmatic and not an easily understood book. And that is exactly
what he is intended to be. The reader needs to seek and to find meanings
in the text. When this occurs the finder will be both ądisturbed and astonishedą
(Saying 2, page 3). The Gospel of Thomas was written for truth-seekers
who are willing to work to become finders.
Scholars have known of the existence of the Thomas gospel for centuries,
but the book always languished with a guilty reputation because of its
association with heretical texts that were not accepted into the offical
biblical canon during the early evolution of Christian orthodoxy. This
process of doctinal development and defining the true faith began in the
first few centuries of the Christian era and continues to this day.
Orthodox Christianity consigned much of what it could not abide and gave
it the dismissive term - gnostic (or heretical) writings. We have come
to see that there never was an actual gnostic Christian church per se.
There were only sets of writings that true Christians were told not to
read because their contents were deemed untrue by orthodox authorities.
Surprizingly, after many centuries, the fortunes of the Gospel of
Thomas took a turn for the better when a complete copy in Coptic translation
turned up at Nag Hammadi, Upper Egypt, in 1945. All the other texts in
this magnificant discovery - the most significant for New Testament studies
in the 20th century - were of the gnostic garden variety (eg. the Gospel
of Philip, the Gospels of Mary, etc). But Thomas was not like the others.
Scholars such as Elaine Pagels, who popularized Nag Hammadi in a book entitled
The Gnostic Gospels, (1979) helped us to begin making a distinction between
Thomas and the other books in this significant find. It has taken 60 years
for the value of this discovery to be recognized by many folk who do not
claim to be biblical scholars and specialists. Now, our time has come!
Thomas encourages his readers to seek and find the secrets inherent in
the sayings. In so-doing, however, we must discern a personal meaning -
not some official teaching - from the text. It is important to recognize
that, unlike the biblical writers, Thomas encourages a personal, not an
|Thomas Is Different
Thomas is different, more basic and more primitively original than the
New Testament gospels commonly known to us. Like the collected sayings
of many great teachers of the past this book provides no background narrative
or storyline. Just sayings.
Thomas is a collection of statements (150 in all, contained in 114 verses).
About half of these sayings also appear (in nuanced fashion) in the biblical
synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Many scholars believe
that an original, though non-available source for the synoptics called
Quelle, or Q was probably written in much the same format as Thomas. While
the contents of Q and Thomas are undoubtedly quite different, both were
probably basic collections of Jesusą sayings.
Unquestionably, a new and different kind of Christianity is portrayed in
Thomas. His verses are meant to be read carefully, saying by saying, to
allow the meaning of the entire collection to build gradually and cumulatively.
Why was Thomas not admitted to the official New Testament canon? We donąt
know the answer. Nor do we know what canonical criteria were used to admit
or reject orthodox books. It is quite possible that those charged with
the official process of inclusion and exclusion were ignorant of the existence
of the Thomas gospel.
|Thomas Represents a Major Addition to Our Understanding of Who Jesus Was
and What He Taught
One thing is quite apparent about the Gospel of Thomas. Unlike the formulation
of the synoptic gospels, Thomas represents a direct oral transmission to
text. He is closer to the original form of the gospel message proclaimed
by Jesus. What we read in Thomas - taken together - is more likely
to be accurate sayings of Jesus than those with parallels in the official
Thomas represents a primitive Christian tradition that existed some time
before the emergence of the community that created the gospel writings
with which we are familiar. The Thomas tradition need not be considered
competition to the one we came to know first. Rather, we can celebrate
it as a exciting and helpful complement to it!
Thomas is important because he provides us with a living and vital new
source for who Jesus was and what he taught. He is a refreshing addition
after almost 2,000 years of Christian history!