Is the Gospel of Thomas genuine or heretical?

Last page of Gospel of Thomas

(image courtesy Wikipedia)

By Spencer D Gear

Is the Gospel of Thomas, discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in December 1945, a representative sample of the writings of biblical Christianity? Is it an authentic gospel that should be considered for inclusion in the New Testament along with the four recognised Gospels? Or should it be rejected as heretical as some of the church fathers concluded (see below)?

On Christian Forums (December – January 2010-2011), there was this discussion on the Gospel of Thomas. The thread began with a post by Yoder777:

Mainstream Christians are often dismissive of Thomas as a Gnostic Gospel, without really trying to understand the history that surrounds it.

Scholars make a distinction between the Gospel of Thomas and Gnosticism. While Thomas’ focus is on restoring the nature of man as it was before the fall, Gnosticism is world-negating. Thomas is better seen in light of Jewish wisdom literature than Gnosticism.

Thomas was not universally rejected in the early church. For example, 2 Clement quotes from it. The Orthodox Christians of India and Mesopotamia trace their heritage to the Apostle Thomas. If he visited those regions, it could explain some of the Gospel’s eastern tinge.

Thomas can be a valuable resource for our spiritual lives, since it illuminates and expands on passages found in the canonical Gospels. It also goes into the deeper spiritual meaning of Jesus’ message, just as John does.

The following contain some of my (OzSpen) responses on this thread. DaLeKo (#15) wrote:

So girls aren’t in need all that grace and faith stuff to be saved, they just need to have an operation ..

114) Simon Peter said to Him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I responded (OzSpen #36):

You have beautifully illustrated by this quote why the Gospel of Thomas is ‘another gospel’.

Nicholas Perrin in his assessment of The Gospel of Thomas, concludes that

The Gospel of Thomas invites us to imagine a Jesus who says, ‘I am not your saviour, but the one who can put you in touch with your true self. Free yourself from your gender, your body, and any concerns you might have for the outside world. Work for it and self-realization, salvation, will be yours – in this life.’ Imagine such a Jesus? One need hardly work very hard. This is precisely the Jesus we know too well, the existential Jesus, that so many western evangelical and liberal churches already preach (Perrin 2007:139).

Originally posted by Yoder777:

What if Thomas was available in a different geographical region, isolated from Matthew and Luke? What if, like John, Thomas was written independently of Matthew and Luke?

I wrote (OzSpen #53) that the church father, Origen, writing about AD 233, mentioned that

there is passed down also the Gospel according to Thomas, the Gospel, according to Matthias, and many others.

This seems to indicate that in the early part of the third century, the Gospel of Thomas, was known in the region where Origen lived.

After this time, it was labelled as heretical. Eusebius (ca. 265-339) includes the Gospels of Thomas, Matthias, and Peter in his list of heretical writings. See Eusebius’ greatest work, Ecclesiastical History 3.25.6, where he wrote:

But we have nevertheless felt compelled to give a catalogue of these also, distinguishing those works which according to ecclesiastical tradition are true and genuine and commonly accepted, from those others which, although not canonical but disputed, are yet at the same time known to most ecclesiastical writers— we have felt compelled to give this catalogue in order that we might be able to know both these works and those that are cited by the heretics under the name of the apostles, including, for instance, such books as the Gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias, or of any others besides them, and the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles, which no one belonging to the succession of ecclesiastical writers has deemed worthy of mention in his writings.

The church father, Origen, lived ca. 185-254. These are his views concerning other gospels than the four canonical Gospels accepted by the church.

From Origen’s Homily on Luke (1:1), according to the Latin translation of Jerome:

That there have been written down not only the four Gospels, but a whole series from which those that we possess have been chosen and handed down to the churches, is, let it be noted, what we may learn from Luke’s preface, which runs thus: ‘For as much as many have taken in hand to compose a narrative’ . The expression ‘they have taken in hand’ involves a covert accusation of those who precipitately and without the grace of the Holy Ghost have set about the writing of the gospels.

Matthew to be sure and Mark and John as well as Luke did not ‘take in hand’ to write, but filled with the Holy Ghost have written the Gospels. ‘Many have taken in hand to compose a narrative of the events which are quite definitely familiar among us’ . The Church possesses four Gospels, heresy a great many, of which one is entitled ‘The Gospel according to the Egyptians’, and another ‘The Gospel according to the Twelve Apostles’. Basilides also has presumed to write a gospel, and to call it by his own name. ‘Many have taken in hand ‘ to write, but only four Gospels are recognized. From these the doctrines concerning the person of our Lord and Savior are to be derived. I know a certain gospel which is called ‘The Gospel according to Thomas’ and a ‘Gospel according to Matthias’, and many others have we read – lest we should in any way be considered ignorant because of those who imagine that they posses some knowledge if they are acquainted with these. Nevertheless, among all these we have approved solely what the Church has recognized, which is that only the four Gospels should be accepted (emphasis added).

The earliest mention we have of the Gospel of Thomas is from Hippolytus of Rome who was a martyr and died ca. 236. It is in, “The Refutation of all heresies. Book V”. He states:

And concerning this (nature) they hand down an explicit passage, occurring in the Gospel inscribed according to Thomas, expressing themselves thus: “He who seeks me, will find, me in children from seven years old; for there concealed, I shall in the fourteenth age be made manifest.” This, however, is not (the teaching) of Christ, but of Hippocrates, who uses these words: “A child of seven years is half of a father.” And so it is that these (heretics), placing the originative nature of the universe in causative seed, (and) having ascertained the (aphorism) of Hippocrates, that a child of seven years old is half of a father, say that in fourteen years, according to Thomas, he is manifested.

Hippolytus of Rome is said to have been a disciple of Irenaeus.

The evidence from the early church is that the Gospel of Thomas was an heretical gospel. Perrin has made his doctoral dissertation on the Gospel of Thomas available to ordinary folks (Perrin 2007). I recommend it as an excellent assessment of the origin and value of this “other gospel”. Perrin states that

the Gospel of Thomas was a Syriac text written in the last quarter of the second century by a careful editor who arranged his material largely on the basis of catchword connection. As far as his sources, Thomas drew primarily on Tatian’s Diatessaron , but also undoubtedly drew on his memory of a number of oral and written traditions. It cannot be ruled out that Thomas preserves authentic sayings of Jesus….

Our author Thomas was inspired not only by Tatian’s gospel harmony but also by Tatian’s Encratistic theology, which saw Jesus not as Saviour, but as the one who can show us how to be saved. Through abstinence and vegetarianism, the moral soul could aspire to be reunited to the divine Spirit….

By so clothing Jesus in a deeply Encratistic and Hermetic guise, the Thomas community no doubt incurred the displeasure of the Edessean proto-orthodox Christians, who were on the cusp of formalizing their connection with Serapion of Antioch. While accepted by some soi-distant Christians, the Gospel of Thomas was rejected by many others, but not before attaining international status and popularity. It continued to be used predominantly among the Syrian-based Manichaeans who were sympathetic to its stripping away of the Jewish elements of Christianity (Perrin 2007:137, URL links added to the quote).

What type of Jesus is revealed in the Gospel of Thomas? Perrin’s view is that

the Gospel of Thomas invites us to imagine a Jesus who says, ‘I am not your saviour, but the one who can put you in touch with your true self. Free yourself from your gender, your body, and any concerns you might have for the outside world. Work for it and self-realization, salvation, will be yours – in this life.’ Imagine such a Jesus? One need hardly work very hard. his is precisely the Jesus we know too well, the existential Jesus that so many western evangelical and liberal churches already preach (2007:139).

This is in contrast to John Dominic Crossan’s associating the Gospel of Thomas with the authority of the apostle Thomas, known as “doubting Thomas”. Crossan wrote of Thomas, the apostle:

This is the figure here immortalized as Doubting Thomas. We know about his leadership and authority, and his competition with alternative figures such as Peter and Thomas, from the Gospel of Thomas 13 (Crossan 1994:188-189).

Crossan then quotes Thomas 13 (Crossan seems to have used his own translation):

13 Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to something and tell me what I am like.”

2Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a just angel.”

3 Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.”

4Thomas said to him, “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.”

5 Jesus said, “I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended.”

6 And he took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him.

7When Thomas came back to his friends, they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?”

8 Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you.”

In contrast to Perrin, Crossan believes the Gospel of Thomas ‘may have been composed in two major steps’, the first stage being dated to ‘the the 50s and 60s of the first century…. The second stage has many sayings special to itself, dates to the 70s and 80s of that first century’ (Crossan 1995:26-31). How could it be that two scholars arrive at radically different conclusions concerning the writing of the Gospel of Thomas. For Crossan it is in the mid-late first century while for Perrin it is written in the latter part of the second century.

Could it have something to do with their presuppositions?

Based on the evidence from the early church (e.g. Origen & Eusebius), the Gospel of Thomas is to be regarded as an heretical document, another gospel.

What is heresy?

In New Testament Greek, the term from which we get “heresy” is hairesis. Arndt & Gingrich’s Greek Lexicon states that hairesis means ‘sect, party, school’. It was used of the Sadduccees in Acts 5:17; of the Pharisees in Acts 15:5. Of the Christians in Acts 24:5. It is used of a heretical sect or those with destructive opinions in 2 Peter 2:1 (“destructive heresies” ESV).

The article on hairesis in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 1, p. 182ff) states that its “usage in Acts corresponds exactly to that of Josephus and the earlier Rabbis” but the development of the Christian sense of heresy does not parallel this Rabbinic use. When the ekklesia came into being, there was no place for hairesis. They were opposed to each other. This author states that “the greater seriousness consists in the fact that hairesis affect the foundation of the church in doctrine (2 Pt. 2:1), and that they do so in such a fundamental way as to give rise to a new society alongside the ekklesia” (Kittel Vol I:183).

From the NT, we see the term, heresy, being used to mean what Paul called strange doctrines, different doctrine,
doctrines of demons, every wind of doctrine (See 1 Timothy 1:3; 4:1;6:3; Ephesians 4:14), as contrasted with sound doctrine, our doctrine, the doctrine conforming to godliness, the doctrine of God (See 1 Timothy 4:6; 6:1,3;2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1, 10).


Crossan, J D 1995. Who killed Jesus? Exposing the roots of anti-semitism in the gospel story of the death of Jesus. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Kittel, G (ed) 1964. Theological dictionary of the New Testament, trans. & ed. by G. W. Bromiley (vol 1). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Perrin, N 2007. Thomas, the other gospel. London: SPCK.


Copyright © 2011 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 28 October 2016.