The Gospel of Thomas: What Does the Orthodox Church Teach?

Fr. Dr. K. M. George

(Principal, Orthodox Theologicial Seminary)

Occasionally western journalists and curious seekers come to us with the question: "Does your church in India accept the Gospel of Thomas as holy scripture?" They seem to assume that since the ancient Church in India traces its origin to St. Thomas the so - called "gospel" attributed to him is important for us in the Indian church. But the Malankara Orthodox Church, like other ancient apostolic churches, accepts only 4 gospels as part of the canonical scripture, namely those of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John.

What is the Gospel of Thomas?

It is a collection of some 114 "sayings of Jesus." Several of these sayings are found in the four canonical gospels. But there are other sayings not found in them, and even contrary to them.

The origin of the gospel of Thomas is disputed by scholars an in the case of many other ancient documents. The full text in the Coptic language was brought to light together with the large number of "Gnostic" Christian writings discovered in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The Coptic version as found in Nag Hammadi has the complete text while some portions of it in Greek were known to scholars from a discovery in Oxyrhynchus in Egypt in 1898. Some scholars date the book from early 3rd century. Some dispute that the gospel of Thomas belongs to the category of Gnostic writings at all. However, it is clear that some of the references in the text suggest Gnostic line of thinking and approach. For example, the very introductory words of the text emphasize the secrecy and esoteric character of the teaching of Jesus. This sort of esotericism is not accepted by the Church:

These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos judas Thomas recorded.

1. And he said, "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death."

2. Jesus said, "Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all (And after they have reigned they will rest.)."

Another example of strange sayings attributed to Jesus goes like this:

Jesus said "Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human, And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human."

The Gospel of Thomas claims to reproduce the sayings of Jesus, some of which are certainly found in the four canonical gospels. But our faith in Christ is not confined to the words of Jesus. The four gospels have a narrative style and they tell us about the whole life of Jesus as the word incarnate of god the father. Our Salvation according to the orthodox Christian tradition, depends on the Orthodox Christian tradition depends on the incarnation of god in Jesus of Nazareth by which god assumed our human nature and saved it form the power of evil and death.

Even the four gospels do not attempt to give us a full biography of Jesus Christ or a complete recording of all that he spoke. The later ‘Gnostic’ writings play on these missing links in the life of Jesus or his lost words. With a fertile imagination and preposterous claims of special revelation, they weave sensational stories about Jesus like his 12 "hidden years" or his relationship with women disciples and so on. Modern media pick up these stories for commercial reasons from time to time. They do not however, serve the great and unique purpose of the salvation of humankind which the gospel of Jesus announced and carefully built into the living Tradition of the Church.

It was to be noted that the gospel of Thomas does not directly refer to the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The crucified and risen Christ is the central theme of the canonical gospels as constituting the mystery of our salvation while it is only of marginal or indirect interest in the pseudo - gospels.

From 3rd century on we find writings that were produced in certain circles like the Gnostic sects that claim to have special knowledge of god or Christian faith. "Gospels" attributed to well known early Christian figures like peter, Thomas, Philip and Mary Magdalene were produced.

What is Gnosticism ?

Gnosticism is an umbrella word for a broad spectrum of esoteric beliefs and ritual practices that variously combined elements of Christian faith, pre - Christian pagan beliefs, Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas in the early Christian centuries. It is hare to define them with any precision just as it is difficult to delineate the phenomenon of New Age in our times. Yet some of the general features that characterized the Gnostic approach may be mentioned.

a. The Gnostics claimed that they have a special spiritual knowledge or revelation of the divine mystery hidden to others who were outside the realm of gnosis (= knowledge). The Gnostics had elaborately worked out esoteric ways and means of acquiring this so-called special insight which constituted for them the crux of salvation. Christian Gnostics had their own interpretation of the scripture and they produced "new scripture" like the Gospel of Thomas or Peter or Philip.

b. Many Gnostic Groups had a dualistic understanding of matter and spirit. What counted for them was the spirit, and matter and material body were looked down upon. Salvation was for the soul, and the body had to be controlled and eventually suppressed by extremely severe ascetic practices in order to liberate the soul. In some Gnostic streams the same argument in favour of the spirit permitted licentious debasing of human body.

c. Some Gnostic streams were misogynic and taught that women were the source of evil. They identified body with the female, and spirit with the male. Both woman and material body, according to them, were channels of evil forces.

Some of the pseudo-gospels and other Gnostic writings showed this anti-woman and anti - body trait. It is to be noticed that in the four canonical gospels Jesus never condemned women or looked down upon them simply because they were women. Instead he showed compassion, understanding and respect towards women. Here is a saying attributed to Jesus and appearing at the end of the "gospel of Thomas" (some say it is a later addition):

114. Simon peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life." Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven."

Formation of the canon and the Gospel of Thomas

What we call the formation of "Canon of the Scripture" or the books of the Bible approved by the Church took a long time. There are still unresolved questions. For example, in the Syrian tradition the books of St. Clement of Rome (end of 1st century AD) are listed as canonical scripture while the Book of Revelation is not recommended for public reading on liturgical occasions. This is not so in the Western Church. In the Old Testament also there are books like Maccabees, Judith, Tobit and some others which Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches accept as part of the Bible while the protestant Churches do not. Such books are sometimes called ‘apocrypha’ (hidden writings) or better "deutero - canonical" books or books of secondary canonical status. They are not generally printed in the Bible published by Protestant Bible societies.

Though there were some open questions in the complex process of the formation of the conon of the Bible, there was never any doubt in the Church about the four Gospels and their primary significance as the Holy scripture of the Church, witnessing to the saving events in the life of the incarnate Christ. The disputed Gnostic writings of later origin and the so - called gospels like that of Thomas or Philip or Peter do not belong even to the deutero-canonical books. They are simple outside the authentic Tradition of the Church. Even a Quick reading of them will tell us why the Church rejected such later writings that betrayed ambiguous and distorted interpretations of the life and message of Jesus Christ as handed down to us by the Apostles. They may have a value as ancient writings reflecting the thought pattern of certain marginal groups or individuals in the Greco - Roman civilization in the early Christian period. But they can never claim to be part of the Holy Bible of the Church.