In my previous article
in this series on early heretical movements in the Christian
church, I noted that one of the criteria for determining whether something was orthodox (correct teaching,) was its adherence to and harmony with
scripture, and that one of the criteria for determining whether something was accepted scripture was its Apostolic connection. If something was
written by someone who had no Apostolic connection (either wasn't an Apostle, or wasn't writing for one,) it wasn't necessarily wrong, but it wouldn't
be considered to be scriptural.
So we have plenty of early Christian writings, such as Clement's First Epistle to the
, which have value, both historically and theologically, but which are not part of scriptural canon. This is very important to
Protestants, specifically, because of their strict holding to the premise of Sola Scriptura -- "By scripture alone", which means that everything
necessary for salvation is present in the Bible, and nothing can be added after the fact to change that. The edict of Pope Pius IX in 1854 which
established the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, for example, is rejected by Protestants not because of its truthfulness (or lack of
it,) but because the edict says that if you don't agree with this, you are not in harmony with the Catholic Church, and subject to excommunication or
being barred from taking the Eucharist. Protestants look at that and say "there is nothing in scripture regarding this, so you can't deny sacraments
that are necessary for salvation to those who disagree."
By establishing such a hierarchy of authorship, the church made document forgery very tempting. With modern notions of currency forgery in mind, one
might assume that it means that a document is untrue, but in the historical analysis of these religious documents, forgery has a very specific
definition -- a forged document is one which claims to be written by someone who did not write it. The technical term is Pseudepigrapha, it wasn't
limited to religious writing, and was actually a very common practice, though, for a somewhat understandable reason.
If I was to write an account of some sort of religious event and call it "The Gospel of Adjensen", I would likely have an audience of one, my Mom.
But if I take that same document and call it "The Gospel of Simon the Zealot", interest will be considerably higher. Thus, we have things like
The Acts of Pilate
The Gospel of Mary
The Apocalypse of Peter
, all books that purport to be written by a
person of note, though all evidence is that they were written by someone else.
Two things regarding forgeries and the New Testament need be noted. First, it is claimed, and seems rather likely, that some of the books of the
Christian Bible are forgeries (again, bearing in mind that the inaccuracy is not with the text, but rather with the claimed authority of the author.)
Second Peter is almost universally held to have been written by someone other than Peter, and there are significant questions about First Peter and
the Pastoral Letters of Paul (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) and lesser controversy over others. The defense of these books is that Peter probably didn't
write, but the letters were dictations and the differences between them is accounted to different scribes taking Peter's spoken words and restating
them for the Greek text (nothing is so much like 1 Peter as 2 Peter is) and that Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus differ from his other letters
because of the nature of the content and his relationship to the recipients. None the less, it is not inconceivable that some of these books are not
written by who they say they are.
The second thing to note is that a number of books have their authorship inferred, and that may well be wrong. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is
traditionally held to have been written by the Apostle Matthew, but the author never identifies himself. Similarly, the author of the book of James
does not claim to be any specific James, but evidence points to him being James, the brother of Jesus. As well, tradition holds that the author of
Revelation of John is John the Apostle, but the author never makes this claim, so if the author was John the Evangelist, John of Patmos or some other
person named John, the text is not a forgery.
So now we turn to an early Christian text which did not meet the criteria for inclusion in the canon, but which is intriguing in its own right,
The Gospel of Thomas
. Unlike the Gospels in the Bible, Thomas is not a narrative, but
rather is a collection of 114 purported sayings of Jesus. About half of the sayings are also found in the Gospels in the Bible, although generally in
much different form. The remainder are sayings that are unique to Thomas, which, if true, would represent an amazing find.
Unfortunately, there is a problem with Thomas -- it is a forgery. Contrary to popular belief, it does not claim to have been written by the Apostle
Thomas (he of "Doubting Thomas" fame,) but by an even less likely person. Prior to the sayings, the author attests to his identity:
These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.
"Didymos Judas Thomas" is an unusual name, but it's not really a name, so much as it's a name flanked by a description. Didymos is Greek for "twin"
and Thomas is Aramaic for "twin", so the author is claiming to be Judas (or Jude), the twin. Twin of who? The twin brother of Jesus, as attested to
in Acts of the Holy Apostle Thomas
. Jesus had a brother named Jude, of course, but it was only
in Syriac Christianity that there was a belief that Jude was actually a twin, and referred to as Thomas to avoid confusion with Judas Iscariot.
None the less, we have a claimed authority of authorship which cannot be correct, whether Jude or Thomas, because the text was written long after both
the those Apostles had died. This can be ascertained by an analysis of the claims made in the Gospel itself, which testify to the nature of the
underlying philosophy. Scholars differ on whether the Gospel of Thomas is a Gnostic document or not, but the arguments for it being one are stronger,
and the majority, and I, agree that it is.
I will be dealing with Gnosticism itself in a later article, but if we look back to Marcion from the previous piece, we see a bit of what the Gnostics
believed. They were dualists, who believed that spirit was good, and matter was bad. They were polytheistic, and viewed the God of the Jews to be an
ignorant bumbler (how could the creator of this terrible material world be good?) And they believed that salvation, which was simply escaping the
material form, came through the obtaining of secret knowledge -- Gnosis.
We earlier saw in the preface that Thomas is claiming that the contents of the document are the "secret sayings" of Jesus -- Gnosis.
Saying 1: And he said, "Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death."
Here we see the claim that salvation comes, not from Christ's death and resurrection, or through faith or works, but by hearing, interpreting and
understanding these sayings.
Saying 29: Jesus said, "If the flesh came into being because of spirit, it is a wonder. But if spirit came into being because of the body, it is a
wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty."
Here, Christ appears to be testifying to classic dualism -- the body coming into being from spirit is one thing, but how is it possible that the
spirit came into being from the body? He expresses amazement at the fact that a good spirit can exist in this horrible material body.
Saying 108: Jesus said, "He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be
revealed to him."
Those who listen to the words of Christ and correctly discern how to be like him will find the secret knowledge.
There are three types of sayings in The Gospel of Thomas -- things that Jesus said and are also found in the New Testament Gospels; things that Christ
clearly did not say, such as these clearly Gnostic sayings; and things that Jesus might have said, and are not found in the Bible.
Looking at the first type of saying -- things present both in Thomas and in the Bible -- which, as I said, represents about half of the sayings,
textural critics make the interesting observation that the versions of the sayings that appear in Thomas are likely more accurate portrayals of the
actual oral tradition words of Christ. The more complicated a passage is, the more likely is the case that it has been "polished" by the author. For
example, consider this instance:
Saying 63: Jesus said, "There was a rich man who had much money. He said, 'I shall put my money to use so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my
storehouse with produce, with the result that I shall lack nothing.' Such were his intentions, but that same night he died. Let him who has ears
Luke 12:16-21: And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What
shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there
I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.'
But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.
Clearly, though the core of the messages is the same, the passage in Luke is much more refined, so, from a textural standpoint, it is more likely that
Thomas has the saying closer to what Christ really said. From an historical basis, this is what makes Thomas an intriguing document, because it seems
to point to a different, but similar, source of the words of Christ than that used by the Gospels in the Bible. Because of this, it is entirely
possible that some of the sayings in the second category of them -- things that Jesus might have said, but are not otherwise known -- are actually
true quotes that could help us to get a fuller picture of the sayings of Christ. There is nothing earthshaking there, because we need to dismiss the
overtly Gnostic sayings, but they are of value, if they are correct.
Unfortunately, it ends on that point, though, because the Gospel of Thomas is not merely a forgery, it is intentionally written in such a way as to
make it impossible to determine whether those sayings are legitimate or not. The author has deliberately mixed authentic statements of Christ with
things he clearly did not say, sometimes in the same passage. For example:
Jesus said, "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be
astonished, and he will rule over the All."
This starts out like Matthew 6:33 ("Seek ye first the Kingdom of God") but then veers off into the notion that what you find (the material world) will
be repugnant to you, but once you are repulsed, you will find the truth (the spiritual world), and then you will be saved.
That is the inherent problem with The Gospel of Thomas
-- the value that the orthodox Christian might find in such a document must be
discounted because of the unreliable nature and motives of the text's authorship. Because of the fact that it is both a forgery and contains
heretical teaching, Thomas was never seriously considered for inclusion in the Orthodox Christian scriptural canon, contrary to popular belief.
edit on 5-3-2011 by adjensen because: organization