by Alan Wolfe
from Signs of the Times No. 59 - Oct 2015
We all know that Athanasius in 367 AD recommended a ‘canon’ of four gospels and 23 other books for the New Testament, which was generally (but not instantly) accepted by all Christianity.
We nowadays believe the four canonical gospels were all written during the first century (possibly even before 70 AD) and based on the first-hand testimony of those who knew Jesus. We also believe there were more than a hundred gospels and other books on Christianity available for Athanasius to choose from. In order to impose a common faith and to remove heresies, the Church declared most of the other books to be heretical and attempted to have them destroyed.
To be fair many of them were written long after all eye-witnesses had died, and some were written for the political purposes of such cults as Gnosticism.
However, we now know this censorship was only partially successful; many people who were attached to the gospels and other books they had been reading (and perhaps were brought up on) kept them and even hid copies for posterity. We now call such volumes ‘apocryphal’, which does not mean ‘fictional’ but rather ‘concealed‘, implying ‘with less authority’.
While occasional Biblical treasures appeared throughout history, it was not until the science of archaeology was developed in the mid-19th century that ancient manuscripts began to be found in quantity, hidden in caves and ancient monasteries, or buried in the desert sands: on clay tablets, vellum scrolls or papyrus codices. Many were fragments unidentifiable at first until complete manuscripts were found such as the Codex Sinaiticus at St. Catherine’s Monastery and the papyri at Oxyrynchus in Egypt.
One such major discovery was the so-called Nag Hammadi find in Egypt in 1945. This consisted of 52 codices hidden in a cliff by a (probably) Gnostic monastery in the fourth century. They were in Coptic, almost certainly translated from Greek written down in earlier centuries. The most important is the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of the sayings of Jesus, with no mention of the Nativity, Resurrection or miracles. While this is the only known copy believed to be complete, we have earlier fragments, some dating back to the second century. It is possible that it was therefore first begun in the same era as the rest of the canonical New Testament and added to later.
It was drawn to public attention in 1993 by The Jesus Seminar (a group of about 50 highly-qualified Biblical theologians) who decided that only a very small number of quotations in the New Testament were the authentic words of Jesus, and that a higher proportion could be found in the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of John than in the three ‘synoptics’. Since then, historical theory has pointed out that nowadays, with cameras, tape recorders and other electronic audio-visual aids, we expect all quotations of the spoken
word to be ‘verbatim’; whilst 2000 years ago, writers could only seek out eye-witnesses to take from them a consensus of the exact meaning of a quotation.
The author of Why the Gospel of Thomas Matters (a Baptist minister, university tutor and member of ecumenical groups) also believes we should pay attention to it. He includes a high-quality modern translation of all 114 sayings, and chapters on who Thomas was, why he wrote his gospel, how it relates to his ‘doubts’, and where did he end up?
The least satisfactory issue is the first. Thomas claims other nicknames: Jude (or Judas) and Didymus (the Aramaic form of the Greek Thomas both meaning ‘Twin’). Thomas was a common name, mentioned often in the New Testament as an apostle, and a brother of Jesus was called Jude. There are many legends, and although his gospel suggests he was a close friend of Jesus who often had one-to-one conversations with Him, the writer never admits any of them.
Certainly ‘the twin’ was a dedicated follower of Jesus, whom he firmly believed to be the Messiah, who would liberate Israel from the Romans and other oppressors. So when Jesus was executed as a common criminal, Thomas was perhaps even more shattered than the other disciples and wandered off, thereby missing the first news of the Resurrection, and so raising the famous ‘doubts’. However, they were fully resolved and he became a dedicated apostle converting thousands, especially in India.
At any rate, the 114 sayings (translated here into very modern English) make fascinating reading and reinforce a specific view of Jesus’ teaching (which is closest to that found in John). To give two examples, of which the first seems recognisable (Matt 22:19-21). The second is the last and may, therefore, have been added in the second or third centuries, but it is interesting that at this time Christians must have found it an acceptable memory of Jesus:
Somebody showed Jesus a large coin and said, ‘The Emperor’s agents make us pay our taxes.’ Jesus said, ‘Give to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, give God what belongs to God, and give me what belongs to me!’
Simon, otherwise known as ‘Rocky’, said to the others ‘Maggie should leave us. “Life to the full” is not for women!’ Jesus said, ‘I intend to train women like Maggie to do all the things that men can do and to give them the same freedoms you have. Every woman who insists on equality with men is fit to be a citizen of God’s New World’
Just one critical comment, the word ‘incertainty’ is taken from a Shakespeare sonnet, not a Biblical source, and to me reads rather like a printer’s error, of which there are several in the book!