On the Gospel of Thomas and the “Gnostic” Label

In a post from a few days ago I made a passing comment about the notion of a “garden variety Gnosticism”–which is essentially a contemporary scholarly fiction–and it got me thinking again about the commonly-used but rarely-thought-out “Gnostic” label that is often applied to the Gospel of Thomas. I have written on this topic in several places, though I think I am ultimately going to write something more substantive on why this label is erroneous when applied to Thomas. Since this is on my mind today, I thought I would share my own brief assessment, taken directly from my recent book on the Gospel of Thomas (footnotes appear according to the original text):

Generally speaking, most early researchers regarded Thomas as a gnostic text,2 though Quispel3 and Koester4 both offered formidable challenges to that conclusion. The supposition that Thomas was gnostic seems to have been based, in large part, on its discovery among a group of mostly gnostic texts. Though some have questioned the earlier consensus, it has been somewhat difficult for Thomas to shake the “gnostic” label, especially in popular discourse.

Among those who challenge the old consensus, at least two issues have contributed to doubts about Thomas‘s gnostic outlook. First, that Thomas was used by Gnostics is not necessarily an indication of its thoroughgoing gnostic character. This conclusion is supported by the presence of other non-gnostic texts in the Nag Hammadi library. A growing number of recent commentators have recognized that while Thomas may contain some gnostic traditions or, at the very least, ideas that would have been attractive to second-century Gnostics, this does not in itself constitute a gnostic outlook.5 In recognition of this trend, Stevan Davies has commented that gnostic interpreters used “a range of scripture from Genesis to the Psalms to Homer, from the Synoptics to John to the letters of Paul.”6 Interpreters of Thomas must remain aware of the syncretistic proclivities of early Gnostics and evaluate Thomas’s theological outlook against that backdrop.

Second, the nebulous and elusive definition of “gnosticism” in the late first and early second centuries has also been an obstacle to identifying Thomas as a gnostic text.7 Scholars have argued that encratic, hermetic, and other ascetic traditions previously identified as “gnostic” have been improperly categorized. Suffice it to say that if one still wishes to argue that Thomas is a gnostic document, one must make a more careful and qualified case.

Current scholarship on the question of Thomas’s theological outlook has arrived at five major proposals: Gnosticism, Wisdom, Asceticism, Mysticism, and Platonism. Because these five categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it is difficult to discuss them all individually without referring to at least one of the others (What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas?, pp. 59-60).

I think in our academic writing and especially in our teaching, we need to be more careful in our distinctions about the theological outlook of important extracanonical works like the Gospel of Thomas.

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2 Among others, see Grant and Freedman, The Secret Sayings of Jesus; Wilson, Studies in the Gospel of Thomas; Gartner, The Theology of the Gospel According to Thomas; Kasser, L’Evanile Selon Thomas: Presentation et commentaire theologique; and Leipoldt, Das Evangelium nach Thomas.

3 For his part, Gilles Quispel regarded Thomas as a Jewish-Christian gospel that was based on a gospel that is now lost. The hypothetical “lost gospel” may have had some connection to the Gospel of the Nazoreans and/or the Gospel of the Hebrews. Since Quispel was one of the first scholars to examine Thomas thoroughly, his view should properly be considered the first scholarly opinion on Thomas‘s theological outlook. However, his viewpoint was quickly overtaken by the rampant speculation about Thomas‘s gnostic origins. See the pertinent sections in the following (in chronological order): “The Gospel of Thomas and the New Testament”; “Some Remarks on the Gospel of Thomas,” NTS 5 (1958/1959): 276-90; “L’Évangile selon Thomas et les Clementines,” VC 12 (1958): 181-96; “L’Évangile selon Thomas et le Diatessaron,” VC 13 (1959): 87-117; “The ‘Gospel of Thomas’ and the ‘Gospel of the Hebrews,’” NTS 12 (1966): 371-82.

4 As already stated, Helmut Koester regarded Thomas as an example of wisdom literature. His views and publications remain a fixture in discussions of Thomas‘s theological outlook. For a list of his important publications on this issue, see note 9 in Chapter One.

5 This point is made by a number of scholars, most recently by Petr Pokorny, A Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas: From Interpretations to the Interpreted (Jewish and Christian Texts in Contexts and Related Studies 5; London/New York: T & T Clark, 2009).

6 Stevan Davies, “Thomas: The Fourth Synoptic Gospel,” BA 46 (1983): 7.

7 On this topic, see Michael Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”” An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

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3 thoughts on “On the Gospel of Thomas and the “Gnostic” Label

  1. IT seems now that everyone is comfortable we need to examine each of the “so called” gnostic writings for their value rather than dismiss them to the scrap heap.

  2. “Gnostic” seems like such a slippery word in general. Would you say it remains a functional umbrella term for many other documents, excluding Thomas, or does it confuse more than explain other works traditionally labeled “Gnostic”?

    1. Brian, this is a really good question and I’m not sure exactly how I would handle it. I think those working with Christianities in the second century have done a good job demonstrating that there was never such a thing as what I call a “garden variety” form of Gnosticism. We know of specific type of Gnosticism that we labeled (e.g., Sethian, Valentinian) but we haven’t found evidence of a generic Gnosticism per se. However, the designation does seem to refer to a complex set of ideas that differs from what became proto-orthodoxy. I guess my answer would be, we could use the term in certain instances but be careful to indicate that we are using a term that is difficult to define.

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