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The Gospel according to Thomas is an ancient collection of sayings of Jesus said to have been recorded by Judas Thomas the Twin. Unlike other early Christian gospels, which typically consist of narrative accounts interpreting the life of Jesus of Nazareth and culminating in descriptions of his death, the Gospel of Thomas focuses specifically upon sayings of Jesus. The document claims that these sayings themselves, when properly understood, communicate salvation and life: "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death" (saying I).
The Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas came to light with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, within which the Gospel of Thomas is to be found as the second tractate, or document, of Codex II. According to Muhammad Ali of the al-Samman clan, who has told his story to James M. Robinson, this remarkable manuscript discovery took place around December 1945.
At that time (so the story goes), several Egyptian fellahin, including Muhammad Ali, were riding their camels near the Jabal al-Tarif, a huge cliff that flanks the Nile River in Upper Egypt not far from the modern city of Nag Hammadi. They were looking for sabakh, a natural fertilizer that accumulates in the area, and so they hobbled their camels at the foot of the Jabal al-Tarif and began to dig around a large boulder that had fallen onto the talus, or slope of debris against the cliff face. Much to their surprise, they uncovered a large Storage jar with a bowl sealed on top of it as a lid. Muhammad Ali hesitated before opening the sealed jar. Apparently he feared that thejar could contain a jinn, or spirit, that might be released to haunt him and do mischief. Yet he also reflected upon the legends concerning treasures hidden in the area, and his love of gold overcame his fear of jinns. He smashed the jar with his mattock, and as he has explained it, a golden substance flew out of the jar and disappeared into the air. As we "demythologize" his story, we conclude that what he saw was probably neither a jinn nor gold, but rather papyrus fragments that were golden in color and that glistened in the sunlight. For he had discovered the thirteen papyrus books ("codices") of the Nag Hammadi library; and the Gospel of Thomas within the library.
Prior to this manuscript discovery, scholars knew of scattered statements in the church fathers referring to a document called the Gospel of Thomas. We suspect that some of these testimonies may well refer to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian document that presents a series of legendary tales about the miraculous feats of the child Jesus. Other testimonies suggest that a Gospel of Thomas was used or even written by the Manichaeans, who were mystical, gnostic followers of the teacher Mani. In his Catechesis 6.31, Cyril of Jerusalem claims that the Thomas who wrote the Gospel of Thomas was not one of the followers of Jesus but instead a wicked follower of Mani. The fairly extensive parallels between the Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi library and Manichaean literature may substantiate that there was a connection between the Nag Hammadi Gospel and a gospel in use among the Manichaeans.
Other testimonies in the church fathers refer more obviously to elements in the Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi library. The most secure of these references occurs in the third-century author Hippolytus of Rome. In his, Refutation of All Heresies 5.7.20-21, he cites a statement from a Gospel of Thomas that was in use among the Naassene gnostics and that bears considerable similarity to part of Gospel of Thomas saying 4. The passage in Hippolytus reads as follows:
Later, in Refutation 5.8.32, Hippolytus quotes another Naassene statement that is not explicitly said to derive from the Gospel of Thomas, but resembles a portion of Thomas saying II: "So they say, 'If you ate dead things and made them living, what will you do if you eat living things?
In addition to these testimonies in the church fathers, three Greek papyri found in a rubbish heap at Oxyrhynchus (modern Bahnasa, Egypt) and published in 1897 and 1904 may also be linked to the Gospel of Thomas. These three papyri, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus I, 654, and 655, all contain sayings of Jesus. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 654.I-3 provides an incipit, or opening of the text, that is nearly identical to the prologue of the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas: "These are the [hidden] sayings [that] the living Jesus spoke [and Judas, who is] also (called) Thomas, [recorded]." Other sayings contained in these three papyri parallel Gospel of Thomas sayings 1-7, 24, 26-33, 36-39, and 77. When he published The Sayings of Jesus from Oxyrhynchus in 1920, Hugh G. Evelyn-White conjectured that these sayings in the Oxyrhynchus papyri may come from the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of the Egyptians, or the Gospel of the Hebrews. Now that we know of the Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi library, we can appreciate how insightful Evelyn-White's observations were: The Oxyrhynchus papyri represent Greek editions of the Gospel of Thomas.
Gospel of Thomas. Copyright © by Marvin W. Meyer. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.