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How the Gospel of Thomas Impacts Our Understanding of the New Testament

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Despite its exclusion from the canon, the Gospel of Thomas is believed by many to have preserved some of the actual teachings of the historical Jesus and has thus been named the "Fifth Gospel" by scholars. Unlike other early non-canonical gospels, the Gospel of Thomas has been preserved in its entirety and can be dated to the early second century. This text is widely considered to be the most important text found in the Nag Hammadi library, presenting the reader with 114 saying of Jesus many of which are without parallel in the other gospels. Although its message commonly contradicts the canonical gospels, the Gospel of Thomas serves as a valuable reference point from which to analyze the New Testament. The Gospel of Thomas is significant to our study of the New Testament because it supports the existence of Q, and because its distinct wording, content, and order suggests that its sayings may be older and closer to the actual teachings of the historical Jesus.

The Gospel of Thomas is composed entirely of Jesus teachings', and thus provides a concrete example of a "sayings gospel", the supposed genre of source Q. Biblical scholars commonly describe Q source as part of the two source hypothesis, a proposed solution to the synoptic problem. Although Q has never been discovered in its original format, it exists theoretically as an explanation of why so many parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke share the same wording. Experts familiar with ancient literature have however argued that Q could not be composed of only Jesus' sayings because such a genre simply did not exist in ancient times. Until the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, there had been no ancient text ever discovered consisting only of sayings and quotations. The Gospel of Thomas is unique in that it includes no narrative whatsoever and most surprisingly no mention of the actions of Jesus including his death and resurrection. The Gospel of Thomas is simply a collection of 114 "secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke" (Gosp. Thom. 0). The author emphasizes the important nature of these secret sayings through the say he places at the beginning of his gospel: "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death" (Gosp. Thom. 1). This opening declaration suggests author deliberately excluded all narrative passages in Gospel of Thomas because Jesus' sayings are of primary significance. As scholars continue to debate with the synoptic problem and the nature of source Q, the Gospel of Thomas contributes by providing a clear example of an ancient book composed entirely of sayings.

The Gospel of Thomas also furthers our understanding of the historical Jesus because of it reveals many new sayings, and presents many familiar sayings in a different light than the canonical gospels. Because the author of the Gospel of Thomas does not advance the same agenda as the canonical gospel writers, his sayings are not selected and arranged in the same way. While some may simply dismiss the Gospel of Thomas as a late restatement of the original canonical gospels, there are several strong arguments which suggest that the Gospel of Thomas was independently based on the actual sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. Differences in wording, order, and content set the Gospel of Thomas apart as an independent and perhaps even more accurate gospel.

First, differences in wording between Thomas and the other gospels suggest that the author did not use the canonical gospels as his sources. Although the complete manuscript found in Nag Hammadi library is in Coptic, the earliest fragments of the Gospel of Thomas found in Oxyrhynchus are in Greek and reveal that even in its original language the gospel was not worded similarly to the canonical gospels . Acknowledging that the Gospel of Thomas is not based on the canonical gospels, one must then determine whether the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are more or less accurate. One method employed by scholars involves selecting the text that is a plainest and simplest, recognizing the tendency for ancient stories to be embellished and expanded as they are retold. Using this criterion to compare the gospels, it appears that the Gospel of Thomas presents an earlier version of Jesus' sayings. For example, the Gospel of Thomas recounts: "Jesus said, 'If a blind man leads a blind man, the two of them fall into a pit'" (Gosp. Thom. 34). The parallel passage in Luke recounts this same saying in a slightly longer and more refined format: "He also told them a parable: 'Can a blind man guide a blind man? Will not both fall into a pit?'"(Luke 6:39, NIV). While it is reasonable to posit Luke would have rewritten Jesus' plain saying into a parable, it is difficult to explain why in the Gospel of Thomas it would have simplified Jesus parable into a dull statement. Although small differences such as this do not provide conclusive evidence of the authors' motives, the collective weight of these examples suggests that the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are closest to their original format.

Differences in order of Jesus' sayings also suggest that the Gospel of Thomas originated earlier than the synoptic gospels. For example, many of the sayings found in the Sermon on the Mount can also be found throughout the Gospel of Thomas, but in a scattered order. While it may be suggested that Luke



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