Book review: The Fifth Gospel

by Stephen J. Patterson, Hans-Gebhard Bethge, and James M. Robinson


This is an excellent commentary on the Gospel of Thomas. It’s concise and in places speculative, but immensely informative, representing the latest scholarship on this fascinating find.

Part 1 presents a translation of the gospel; Part 2 provides commentary; Part 3 tells of its discovery at Nag Hammadi. It’s a skinny little book, but very full.

The most controversial question about this gospel seems to be its dating. Is it a collection of late second- or even third-century Gnostic sayings, or does it date back to the first century and contain the words of Jesus? The answer seems to be both. As a saying gospel, it’s much more malleable than a storyline gospel, and probably the collection grew over time. Some of the sayings seem very early; others seem quite late, surely not added until the Coptic version in Egypt began to form. (The most complete version we have is in Coptic, discovered in upper Egypt, and dating back to the fourth century.)

There are several reasons for dating parts of Thomas back to the first century. First, many sayings are quite similar to other first-century documents. Second, the rivalry it displays tends to suggest a time in early Christianity when local communities claimed loyalty to a particular well-known figurehead. Finally, its Christology is quite low. Jesus is not the Son of God or even the Son of Man. He’s just Jesus.

The association with “Thomas” should not be confused with the “doubting Thomas” of John chapter 20. Rather, it is more likely the “Judas Thomas” of John 14, Luke 6, and Acts 1. The same Judas Thomas of the Acts of Thomas, and the person to whom the epistle of Jude is attributed. If the Acts of Thomas carries any historic authenticity, then this is possibly the brother of Jesus; the Jude of Mark 6:3. Thus, we have uncovered a gospel possibly attributed not merely to one of the Twelve, but to a blood brother of Jesus.

Another confusion about this gospel is its so-called “Gnostic” bent. There just seems to no longer be a simple description of what “Gnostic” means; you won’t find any hints in Thomas of the evil creator who surfaces in other Gnostic writings. Instead, Thomas reads very much like John’s Gospel and Paul’s epistles, both in theme and theology. If Thomas is Gnostic, it’s not much more so than canonical New Testament writings, which can be just as exotic.

Yet it also appears that the Gospel of Thomas provides an independent source. Might Thomas have something to teach us about the original Jesus movement? As the book’s introduction claims, it “has reshaped the discussion of Christian origins by introducing students of early Christianity to a new set of ideas and practices that, a generation ago, one could hardly imagine as deriving from the words of Jesus.”

1 Comment

  1. This sounds fascinating. I’d not heard of all the various Thomas’s, or Judas Thomas. Very cool. Many thanks.

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