Does it really come from the first century?

First, a bit of an introduction.

The debates about the Gospel of Thomas are still ongoing. Since its discovery in 1945, scholars of early Christianity have been fascinated by this document. It has been described as a Gnostic gospel by more than one scholar, and yet some authorities disagree with that designation. The reason for this is that the very definition of the word "Gnostic" is disputed. Many scholars believe that Gnosticism, as such, is a rather late phenomenon that came into being in the second century C.E. This may well be so, in the sense that Gnosticism as a _developed movement_ is documented fully only in the second century (in the writings of Church Fathers). When talking about the first century, scholars often use the term _proto- gnosticism_.

The Gospel of Thomas does not possess the characteristics of fully developed Gnosticism, with its special myths and concepts. In this sense, this gospel is a proto-Gnostic document. So is Thomas from the first century? What is its relationship to the canonical gospels? These are some of the matters looked at in the following exchange.

One thing is clear, the study of Thomas is making some significant waves in the world of New Testament studies. The work of the Jesus Seminar (this is a group of rather "radical" scholars who have become quite well known recently because of some of the theories they proposed about the "Historical Jesus") is centring on Thomas to a very large extent. Jesus Seminar members believe Thomas to be a crucial piece of evidence that casts much light on the Jesus of history. Most of them certainly believe Thomas to be very early, and they believe that it contains some of the earliest sayings of Jesus.

Things move rather slowly in the world of Academe, to be sure. It takes decades for "radical" new views to be accepted in the mainstream. The process of the evaluation and assessment of the Gnostic Library of Egypt that started in 1945, after its discovery, came to a high point only in the seventies, when translations of these documents into modern languages were made public. This process is still continuing.

Among the scholars of Thomas, a rather narrow group of researchers, the view that Thomas preserves the earliest sayings tradition of Jesus is now all but universally accepted. But this is not something that all, or the majority, of other NT scholars accept as yet. For the most part, they are simply not so well informed about the discussions that went on for decades among the Thomas scholars. The explanation of this probably can be found in the fact that the world of scholarship, besides being in general fairly conservative, is also quite fragmented and even somewhat parochial -- this is another distinguishing feature of the Academe.

Whatever the case may be, people are talking about the Gospel of Thomas. On the Internet, you can find many versions of this document, and many files dedicated to it. Prof. Stevan Davies' THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS HOMEPAGE is highly recommended (he is a well known Thomas scholar, and a correspondent of mine).

an exchange

I am talking about these matters here with two scholars who are members of an academic discussion group specialising in this subject area. Larry Hurtado is a very prominent scholar of early Christian history with many important publications. Paul Moser more or less started the discussion when he expressed the more traditional opinion that the Gospel of Thomas is a later document. I questioned him about it. This is only a selection of the longer discussion. The posts by other participants are quoted in my replies.

Date: Mon, 16 Oct 1995
From: Prof. Paul Moser, Loyola University of Chicago
Subject: Gospel of Thomas


Just for the record, the current discussion about GThomas
concerns *evidence* for dating in the 1st century, not
biographical considerations about who is openminded about
what.  Koester's confidence about a 1st century date
fails to move most NT scholars, as the latter demand
supporting evidence.  It certainly isn't surprising that
the 2nd century author of GThomas would compose in ways
that suggest a basis in the earliest Christianity.  May
I ask why you have such a hard time comprehending this?
Why wouldn't a later author seek credibility by historical
allusion?  I don't see the problem here.  Another consideration:
If GThomas had status in the 1st century, why the almost
complete absence of reference to its contents in the
1st century (that is, its contents not borrowed from
the canonical tradition)?  It seems likely that GThomas
wasn't around in the 1st century.

Paul Moser, 

Loyola University of Chicago. 


Date: Fri, 13 Oct 1995 18:46:45 EDT
From: Yuri Kuchinsky 
Subject: Re: Re: Gospel of Thomas

On Mon, 9 Oct 1995, Paul Moser wrote about the Gospel of Thomas.
Dear Paul Moser,
The question of the dating of the Gospel of Thomas is certainly a
very complicated one, but the rewards that can be obtained by
investigating it and seeking for some clarity in this matter can, no
doubt, be great.
After all, quite a few reputable scholars believe that the Gospel of
Thomas preserves some of the authentic teachings of "historical
Jesus" in the form that is perhaps close to the way they were taught
by the Master himself.
You write in your post:
For a list of the special Matthean, special Lukan, and Johannine
material borrowed by the writer of GThomas, see J. Charlesworth
and C. Evans, *Agrapha and Apocryphal Gospels," in B. Chilton & C.
Evans, *Studying the Historical Jesus* (Brill, 1994), 496-502.
But were they "borrowed by the writer" or perhaps by the editor(s),
or by the Coptic translator of the Gospel? By phrasing your
statement the way you did, you seem to have settled the matter _a
You write further:
If Gthomas isn't second-century, how can we account for all the
canonical material, even redactional canonical material, found in
I have suggested some possible answers above.
Answer: We can't.  
This is certainly debatable. And you write further:
Two other sober treatments of the topic are: John Meier, *A Marginal
Jew*, vol 1 (ABRL; Doubleday, 1991) and C. Tuckett, "Q and Thomas:
Evidence of a Primitive Wisdom Gospel?," *Ephemerides Theologicae
Lovanienses* 67 (1991), 346-60. Tuckett's conclusion:
"We can only work with the ms. evidence we have and the number of
times that GTh appears to reflect the redactional activity of the
synoptic evangelists seems too great to be ascribed very easily to
later scribal assimilation on every occasion" (p. 359).  

One can agree with the statement above and still think that Thomas
preserves some very early traditions. Does it contain some unique textual
traditions that go to the first century? I believe C. Tuckett is open to
such possibility. 
The question of the development of the text of Thomas is complex. Clearly
there has been such development over a period of time. But is it still
possible that much of Thomas goes back to the first century? 
I would like to suggest a question for your (and other list
members') consideration. Let us look at Gos. Thom. Logion 12
      The disciples said to Jesus, "We know that You will depart
      from us. Who is to be our leader?"
      Jesus said to them, "Wherever you are, you are to go to James
      the righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into
Now, this is clearly an endorsement of the authority of James, "the
brother of Jesus", (who was, of course, the leader of Jerusalem
Church before 62). Perhaps you can suggest why the Gospel of Thomas
would have made such an endorsement if it was written in the second
Best wishes,

Yuri Kuchinsky


Date: Tue, 17 Oct 1995 15:24:58 EDT
From: Yuri Kuchinsky 
Subject: Re: Re: Gospel of Thomas

On Mon, 16 Oct 1995, Paul Moser wrote:

> Perhaps the main issue regarding GThomas is not whether a
> few of the sayings happen to go back to Jesus (Bruce Chilton
> has argued, with considerable caution, that 54, 82, and
> 99 do),

Nevertheless, this is, certainly, an important matter that can play a
crucial role in helping to establish the dating.

> but rather whether we can plausibly treat it as
> representing what Koester calls a 1st century "wisdom
> gospel."  

The above two are certainly related. 

At the risk of re-igniting the controversy about the Q-source, the
_genre_ (gattung) of Q is obviously the same as that of Thomas (or very
close). If one accepts the Q hypothesis, one should generally have no
difficulty seeing the Gospel of Thomas as (mostly) 1 century source. I
suppose, conversely, the Q-denial camp (whose denial, it would seem, has
much to do with the considerations of their ideology/faith) will also
extend their denial to the early date for Thomas. 

Here's a quote from C.M. Tuckett, NAG HAMMADI AND THE GOSPEL TRADITION, 
1986, p. 6.

"There is ... the possibility that Thomas may preserve genuine 
sayings of Jesus which would otherwise have been unknown."

> The available evidence indicates that 
> Koester's reconstruction of earliest Christianity is
> deeply flawed.

This certainly seems like an egregious (and perhaps unduly emotional) 

All the best,

Yuri Kuchinsky


Date: Wed, 18 Oct 1995 05:16:30 EDT
From: Yuri Kuchinsky 
Subject: Re: Re: Gospel of Thomas

On Mon, 16 Oct 1995, Paul Moser wrote:

> Why wouldn't a later author seek credibility by historical
> allusion? I don't see the problem here. 

Dear Paul,

Are we to understand that the only reason the author of the Gospel of 
Thomas endorses the authority of James is to mislead the readers into
believing that the Gospel is genuinely historical?

Well, at least it's a theory... But, in this case, we would still have to
explain why did the writer think that his/her mentioning of James will
increase the credibility of the Gospel with its intended audience. Did
second century "gnostic heretics" have a special fondness for the legacy
of James? 

In any case, asking some questions about James reference in Thomas 
may provide some interesting results...

> Another consideration:
> If GThomas had status in the 1st century, why the almost
> complete absence of reference to its contents in the
> 1st century (that is, its contents not borrowed from
> the canonical tradition)? 

I am having a bit of a difficulty following your line of reasoning here. 
Source criticism (and that would, to a certain extent, include C.M. 
Tuckett, who you respect a great deal) has identified dozens of passages
in Thomas (paralleled in the Synoptics) that seem clearly earlier and more 
primitive than the Synoptic versions. Would that qualify as "reference 
to its contents"? 

The weight of these instances of earlier traditions preserved in GThomas
certainly outweighs the relatively few instances (that you never tire of
pointing out) where some dependence on the canonicals has been

Also, Thomas is very well attested archeologically. Oxyrhynchus fragments
demonstrate that it (different developments of it!) circulated widely in
the 2 century. Its attestation seems just as strong as that for the
canonical gospels. 

> It seems likely that GThomas
> wasn't around in the 1st century.

Finally, let me make this point. The parts of the New Testament canon
dating from before the end of the 1 century include plenty of
anti-gnostic documents and passages. (Examples are, 1 and 2 John, Jude,
Hebrews, Ephesians, bits of the Revelations, and others.) Some of these
passages, such as those in the genuine letters of Paul, are _very_ early. 
So the _presence_ of (some kind of) gnostics in a wide geographic area is
certainly very well attested in the 1 century. 

Are we to believe that those early (proto)gnostics had no written or oral
documents of their own at all at that time? This, you may agree, would be
very unlikely. Isn't it more logical to conclude that they had _some_
written or oral materials and that some early version of the Gospel of
Thomas (and it may be generally characterised as proto-gnostic) would 
fit in very nicely into that historical context? 

As most of us would agree that (proto)gnostics were plentiful in the
first century, the lack of gnostic compositions dating from the first
century would be mighty strange. 

(Of course, there's also a theory kicking about that the early version of
the Gospel of John was basically gnostic, but this is a different story

All the best,

Yuri Kuchinsky


Date: Wed, 18 Oct 1995 21:51:14 EDT
From: Yuri Kuchinsky 
Subject: Re: Re: Gospel of Thomas

On Wed, 18 Oct 1995, Paul Moser wrote:

> I gave you 

{Bill Arnall is meant here}

> a reason for thinking that
> canonical Xty was normative from the earliest days, at least
> in the sense that kerygmatic-apocalyptic Xty prevailed
> since the 30's (instead of some wisdom gospel or cynic
> message). 

Dear Paul,

Over some time now, most of the participants on this list have generally 
agreed that 

a) there was much pluralism in the 1 century Judaism. And
b) the lines of separation between early Christianity and Judaism have 
been very vague for perhaps a couple of generations after the 
Crucifixion. In fact Jewish Christianity continued its own tradition 
well into the 2 and 3 centuries. 

In light of the above, it is certainly very puzzling to see you insisting 
with such vehemence that a "canonical" and "normative" Xty somehow
materialised (in a _deus ex machina_ sort of way, perhaps?) "from the
earliest days". 

One may add to this that there is considerable evidence for the existence
of a pre-Christian (or at least non-Christian) Jewish "gnosticism". (With
a respectful tip of the hat to certain notorious terminological


Yuri Kuchinsky


Date: Thu, 19 Oct 1995 00:16:33 EDT
From: Yuri Kuchinsky 
Subject: Re: Re: Gospel of Thomas

Dear Larry,

In reply to your kind request for more information about the points that
I have raised, I include quotations from the well-respected Helmut

Re: The Epistle of Jude. "The author does not characterize his opponents 
in any detail. They were certainly gnostics, as is clear from the 
polemical reversal of the gnostic claim to true spirituality in Jude 19: 
"worldy people (_psychikoi_), devoid of the Spirit (_pneuma_)". Many of 
the biblical examples which are employed by the author also belong to 
the typical equipment of gnostic speculation: Sodom and Gomorrah (Jude 
7), Cain (11), as also the fallen angels (6)." (p. 247)

Re: 1 John. "According to his characterization of the opponents, it must
be assumed that they wre members of the Johannine churches. ... The
opponents read the Gospel of John and appealed to it, apparently claiming
that the Jesus depicted in that gospel fully supported their gnostic
theology. They boasted of their knowledge of God (1 John 2:4; 4:8), of
their love of God (4:20), of their sinlessness (1:8-10), and of their
walking in the light (2:9). Like Jesus himself, they claimed to be "from
God" and to speak with the voice of the spirit (4:2-6). But they denied
that Jesus had come in the flesh (4:2) and they denied the identity of
the (heavenly) Christ and the earthly Jesus (2:22)." (p. 194)

"Ephesians presupposes that many theological concepts to which Paul would 
have raised vigorous objections had become accepted or natural: these 
included the understanding of Christ's death and resurrection, and of 
the gospel, the message of these events, as a "mystery" (Eph 3:3f); the 
interpretation of baptism as the accomplishment of the resurrection with 
Christ, so that the Christians could understand themselves as being 
raised already and as being transferred into the heavenly regions 
(2:5f); the concept of Christ as the heavenly _anthropos_ to whom the 
church is linked as his heavenly _syzygos_ (2:14ff; 5:25-32); and 
finally the transformation of the eschatological expectation of the 
parousia into a hope for personal salvation after death (6:10ff)." (p. 

"Gnostic concepts are found frequently in Hebrews and are crucial for
understanding its arguments. Hebrews not only emphasizes the preexistence
of the redeemer, although using philosophical terminology related to
Philo (Heb 1:3), it also speaks about the descent of the redeemer through
the heavenly realms (9:11ff, 24). The common origin of the redeemer and
the redeemed is presupposed (2:11). Another gnostic concept is the
understanding of the believers as those who are on their way the their
heavenly home, a thought that occurs repeatedly throughout the work. But
in contrast to Ephesians, Hebrews enters into a critical theological
controversy with Gnosticism by refuting the gnostic understanding of both
the redeemer and the process of salvation." (p. 274)

I must humbly decline your invitation to define precisely either 
gnosticism or proto-gnosticism. As you pointed out yourself, these 
definitions are extremely elusive. Yet Koester provides in the foregoing 
quotes descriptions of many of the "gnostic" teachings. And yes, the 
concepts of docetism and "radical-realised eschatology" that you 
mention can certainly be counted as part of that tradition.

Finally, I wish to close with the quote from 2 Timothy 20-21:

"O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid profane babbling 
and the absurdities of SO-CALLED KNOWLEDGE (_pseudonumou gnoseos_). By 
professing it, some people have deviated from the faith." 

Does the writer of this document know the definition of gnosticism? Maybe
not, but he/she probably knows exactly whereof he/she speaks. 

Perhaps this should be enough of my "profane babbling".

All the best,


On Wed, 18 Oct 1995, Larry W. Hurtado wrote:

> I'm following the lively (if not always enlightening) discussion re: 
> GosThom with some interest.  One point in a recent posting caught my 
> eye:  the assertion that "most" (NT scholars??) agree that there were lst 
> century (proto)gnostics, and that Paul and the Johannine epistles are 
> evidence.  Questions:
> (1) What specifically are we to take (proto)gnostics to be?  I take it 
> they are not gnostics, but thought to be some earlier form of the species 
> later designated "gnostics".  What morphological indicators do we have 
> that the species connection is there?  Given that the Messina conf. could 
> not agree on a def. of "gnosticism", and that "gnostics" seem to be not a 
> unified tradition (i.e., the Bultmann/Jonas paradigm is overly 
> simplistic), could proponents of the view in question tell us what they 
> mean by "gnostics" (and distinguish them from what are called "docetists" 
> for example), and how to recognize "(proto)gnostics".
> (2) What specifically in Paul and/or the Johannine epistles = evidence of 
> "(proto)gnostics", as distinguished, say, from Christians espousing (a) a 
> radical-realized eschatology (as may be reflected in 1 Cor.), or (b) the 
> somewhat vague indicators of a christological issue in 1 John.
> Larry Hurtado, Religion, Univ. of Manitoba 

Yuri Kuchinsky


Date: Sat, 21 Oct 1995 15:04:38 EDT
From: Yuri Kuchinsky 
Subject: Re: gnosticism & the NT

On Thu, 19 Oct 1995, Larry W. Hurtado wrote:

> Thanks to Yuri K. for the quotations from Koester, even though I'm 
> familiar with them.  A careful examination, Yuri, will show that what we 
> have in the various NT passages are ad hoc, individual features that we 
> group together to form the construct we call "gnosticism", features some 
> of which are grouped together in *some* 2nd cent. & later groups we call 
> gnostics--in the light of which we *can if we wish* identify the 
> individual features in NT documents as "gnostic".  But we don't have 
> clusterings of "gnostic" features in the NT documents, only here a couple 
> and there a couple.  So, are the Christians in question "gnostics"?  How 
> many particular "gnostic" features makes a person a "gnostic"?  Bultmann 
> was called a gnostic--was he?  Or do a few "gnostic" features make one a 
> "proto-gnostic"?  How many features make one this, or which was are 
> crucial?  Does "proto-gnostic" = people whose religious beliefs generated 
> later "gnostics" or only people whose religious beliefs resemble 
> incompletely later "gnostics"? Is there some historical connection to be 
> asserted in the use of the term "proto-gnostic" or only a limited 
> morphological similarity?  
> 	These are the kinds of methodological, historiographical 
> questions I was presssing, questions which I do not think are addressed 
> in the quotes from dear Helmut.

Dear Larry,

The questions that you raise are both difficult and important. I am far 
from claiming that I can answer them to your satisfaction. In any case, 
the answers will probably take up a few books.

With all due respect, this thread was (at one time?) about the dating of
Thomas. It seems to me, the Gospel of Thomas is basically from 1 century.
Although this question of dating is far from simple, it is probably
marginally easier than the questions in your post. 

In order to prove my case, I tried to present the following argument: if
we can demonstrate (using NT text, for instance) that "gnostics" 
(speaking loosely, of course) were plentiful in the 1 century, and,
further, seeing that GThomas is generally considered "gnostic", this will
help to demonstrate that GThomas may go back to the 1 century. 

The quotes from Koester that I posted were intended to demonstrate that 
"gnostics" were plentiful in the 1 century. So far no proof to the 
contrary has been presented. But Paul Moser has plenty of posts to 
answer already, so he may yet get round to that one later?

So, as you can see, the question of the definition of "gnostic" was not
central to my thesis. I certainly see that this is relevant, I just
didn't want to stray too far from the issue of dating. 

I summarize my perception of this debate also to answer another
contributor who confessed to being unable to see what the discussion is
really about. 

Best wishes,

Yuri Kuchinsky

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