Before we can approach the subject of Paul’s relationship to the Gospel of Thomas, we must first take into account a few concerns.
Issue #1: Dating Thomas and Paul: There are a number of theories about when Thomas was composed and there seems to be no consensus in sight. Some argue that Thomas was composed in the mid- to late second century (130 to 170 CE) and others argue that Thomas emerged as early as the Gospel of Mark (ca 70 CE). At least two recent scholars suggest that at least a portion of Thomas existed in a pre-Pauline sayings tradition (ca 30 to 50 CE).
Apart from the letter of James (generally dated to 48 CE or so), there is a near consensus among scholars that the writings of Paul are the earliest Christian writings we possess, though this consensus in itself proves nothing. There is a high degree of probability that there was a substantive, stable Pauline corpus in place prior to the emergence of the Thomas sayings tradition, but I will not take that assumption for granted here. In the next few posts we will attempt to examine potential parallels from Paul and Thomas without assuming an overarching theory of compositional chronology.
Issue #2: Limits of Literary Comparison: Because there is only one complete extant copy of Thomas, and that preserved in Coptic, it naturally follows that we are severely limited when it comes to looking for strict verbal parallels with the Greek texts of Paul’s letters. (The Greek fragments from the Oxyrhynchus papryi add little to this discussion.) Nonetheless, the nature of such a study is literary and we must necessarily focus on the texts themselves. This means we must seek to identify in Paul and Thomas, the same or similar words, phrases, ideas, and contexts. An investigation of this sort will then assist us in answering questions about which texts preceded and influenced the others.
Issue #3: Oral and Textual Transmission: We must also keep in mind that the earliest Christian documents emerged in what was largely an oral culture. In the regions where Christianity developed most rapidly, few people could read and write. Scholars have long recognized that most early Christian storytelling existed in performative, liturgical, and homiletic forms before it ever became fixed in a documentary form. This means that the vast majority of the early followers of Jesus were not able to read the story for themselves, but rather relied upon a small group of educated individuals to either read to them or perform for them. An awareness of these factors has implications for our question inasmuch as it is not always possible to establish that a relationship between two or more ancient Christian documents goes back to a written text. A given saying may have circulated widely in oral form, and the decision to incorporate that saying into a written text may have been made without recourse to a written source. This fact must be kept in mind so as to avoid the illegitimate application of a modern “cut and paste” model to our discussion.
The next post in this series will look at our first potential Paul-Thomas parallel.