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When was the Gospel of Thomas written?

Two pieces of evidence indicate that the Gospel of Thomas dates to ca. 135–200 C.E.: the relationship between the parallels in the Gospel of Thomas and in the Synoptic Gospels and the tone of the Gospel of Thomas’s anti-Jewish sayings.

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1
Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1 (P.Oxy.I 1)

The early Christian, noncanonical text, the Gospel of Thomas, was discovered among the Nag Hammadi codices in Egypt in 1945. The question of when the Gospel of Thomas was written remains highly controversial because the date one assigns to Thomas’s composition determines whether or not similar material in Thomas is based on the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), or vice versa. If the Gospel of Thomas was written before the Synoptics, it could provide us with an earlier or even more authentic presentation of the historical Jesus than the four canonical gospels. If the Gospel of Thomas is later, it is important for what it reveals about early Christianity.

It is clear from the current dating of the earliest Greek fragments of Thomas, that the work cannot have been composed later than the end of the second century (ca. 200 C.E.). So, how much earlier might it have been written? Some scholars use form criticism to argue that Thomas is the earliest gospel or the earliest Christian document in existence. Form criticism assumes that shorter versions of a saying are earlier than more elaborate traditions. In the case of the Gospel of Thomas, some scholars argue that certain sayings of Jesus are more simple and shorter than the Synoptic parallels and so are earlier in date. Yet recent work has demonstrated that this form-critical principle does not always hold true. In fact, Thomas contains a number of sayings that are actually longer than their Synoptic parallels. Thomas’s version of the parables of the Wedding Banquet (GosThom 64) and the Sower (GosThom 9) are longer than the versions found in Luke’s Gospel, proving form-critical arguments are not as useful as was once thought.  

The scholars Mark Goodacre and Simon Gathercole contend that the Synoptics are earlier than Thomas, which they date to the mid-second century. This argument is based on the similar phrases between the texts and Thomas’s negative attitudes toward Judaism. For example, Goodacre argues that wording of particular sayings of Jesus such as Thomas’s use of Matthew’s unique phrase, “the kingdom of the heavens” (GosThom 20, 54, 114) betrays Thomas’s knowledge of the Synoptic Gospels. Thomas’s rejection of “the Jews” (GosThom 43) and the Hebrew Bible (GosThom 52), and the text’s disparaging views of Old Testament figures (GosThom 85), reveal a cool, distanced attitude toward what the author considers an irrelevant institution. In Saying 71, Jesus says: “I will destroy this house, and no one will be able to build it.” This house appears to be the Jewish temple, which will be irrevocably destroyed (compare Mark 14:58, where Jesus promises to rebuild the temple of his body). Thomas’s use of harsh rhetoric about the non-rebuilding of the temple probably dates the text to the period after the destruction of the second Jewish temple (ca. 132136 C.E.). If this is true concerning Saying 71, then the Gospel of Thomas as a whole could fit within the period of 132 to 200 C.E., a time when certain Christian authors considered the rejection of the Jewish temple to be final.

A later date for the Gospel of Thomas is not a negative judgment. It simply shifts the text’s historical value from shedding light on Christian origins or the historical Jesus to illuminating the world of early Christians and their ideas about Jesus.

  • burke-simeon

    Simeon Burke is a Wolfson Scholar and PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, where he is writing his thesis on the pre-Constantinian reception of Jesus’s command to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” His MPhil thesis, completed at the University of Cambridge, was on the subject of the Gospel of Thomas’s representation of Judaism.