Interview with Simon Gathercole on the Gospel of Thomas (Part I)

GathercoleIt has been awhile since I conducted an interview with anyone working seriously on the Gospel of Thomas. Today I am glad to post the first part of my conversation with Simon Gathercole, Senior Lecturer in New Testament in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University. Dr. Gathercole has published numerous books on topics as wide-ranging as the christologies of the Synoptic Gospels, the soteriology of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Book of Tobit, and the Gospel of Judas. In recent years he has turned his attention to the Gospel of Thomas with essays on Thomas’‘s relationship to Paul and Luke, respectively. Dr. Gathercole’s forthcoming monograph, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences, is  set to be released next month. I wanted to catch him in advance of the book’s publication and provide him an opportunity to discuss his views. Thanks, Simon for agreeing to participate.

(CWS) 1. I have asked this question of every scholar I have interviewed on this blog: What initially sparked your interest in studying the Gospel of Thomas?

(SJG) Since first studying the New Testament I have always been interested in different views about Jesus, whether those purport to come from the NT or elsewhere. I suppose that both in the popular realm and in some scholarly circles there has been a growing interest in seeing the apocryphal gospels as equally legitimate interpretations of Jesus by comparison with the canonical gospels. I’m interested in evaluating the differing portraits of Jesus that one finds in all the gospels, both canonical and non-canonical.

 (CWS) 2. Several years ago you wrote an essay exploring Thomas’s relationship to the writings of Paul (“‘The Influence of Paul on the Gospel of Thomas [53.3 and 17]’, in J. Frey, E. E. Popkes, and J. Schröter, eds., Das Thomasevangelium: Entstehung – Rezeption – Theologie [BZNW 157; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008]). Very little has been written on this topic to date. To your mind, what, if any, is the relationship between Thomas and Paul?

(SJG) I don’t think there’s any direct literary relationship – at least it can’t be demonstrated that Thomas  had read Paul. (It’s impossible of course to prove that the author hadn’t.) But there are some telling similarities, in particular in sayings 3, 17 and 53 – the latter in particular with some very close parallels to Rom. 2.25-3.2. It may be, and here one is speculating, that Thomas emerged from a kind of “ultra-Pauline” circle, such as produced the Epistle of Barnabas, but it’s very difficult to know.

(CWS) 3. The relationship between the Synoptic Gospels and Thomas is a notoriously thorny issue for those working in Gospel studies. In a recent article on the relationship between Thomas and the Gospel of Luke, you write that “Thomas constitutes an interesting chapter in the reception history of Luke” [“Luke in the Gospel of Thomas,” NTS 57 [2011]: 114-44). Can you briefly summarize your position and explain why you think Thomas is (possibly indirectly) dependent on Luke rather than vice versa?

(SJG) I think that there are clear examples of instances where Luke has redacted Mark, and that some of those Lukan redactions of Mark appear in the Gospel of Thomas. I argued this in my NTS article (2011) [see bibliographic info listed above]. One of the things which strikes me most is that in three cases, Luke introduces an element into Mark, and then Thomas expands upon that Lukan element. So for example, in the image of the “light under the bushel”, Luke adds that the light is “for all who go in”, and Thomas expands it further to “all who go in and come out” (GTh 33); Luke adds a single “perhaps” into the parable of the wicked tenants, then Thomas includes this and adds another again (GTh 65); Luke adds a reference to prayer into the controversy about fasting, and Thomas includes this addition, and adds an extra reference to prayer (GTh 104). Again, I don’t think this is a matter necessarily of Thomas having read Luke (though this is impossible to rule out), but it reflects Thomas or his sources having known the stories in their Lukan forms, and elaborating on them further. So there is a gradual expansion, in these sayings at least, from Mark to Luke to Thomas, which I don’t think can be read in any other order (unless one denies Markan priority). The arguments for Thomas having influenced Luke in other sayings (which I also discuss in my article) seem to me to be based on very poor evidence.

Next time Simon will discuss his forthcoming book and his views on the recent theories of Perrin and DeConick. Stay tuned for Part II. . . .

Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part X)

In light of the foregoing considerations, it seems clear that at least some elements of Thomas’s theology developed later and on a much different trajectory than that of Paul. When the authors of the Gospel of Thomas found a given Pauline term, phrase, image, or discussion acceptable for use, they also invariably altered the received Pauline tradition to fit a uniquely Thomasine perspective. The authors of the Gospel of Thomas were familiar with certain Pauline ideas but ultimately rejected them as having legitimacy for explaining the significance of identifying with Jesus through confession. Keeping these different presentations of Jesus in mind, I close with five conclusions that arise from the previous nine posts:

1. There are several discernible parallels in the writings of Paul and the Gospel of Thomas.

2. In each Paul-Thomas parallel, it can be demonstrated that the Thomasine version is later than Paul’s version.

3. In each Paul-Thomas parallel, the Thomasine version shows dependence upon Paul, either directly or as an indirect result of oral transmission.

4. In each Paul-Thomas parallel, Thomas modifies the Pauline tradition to support a theological idea that is uniquely Thomasine and different from the idea represented by Paul.

5. Thus, the adaptation of Pauline traditions (or the characteristic use of Pauline language for Thomasine ends) is evidence of the Gospel of Thomas’s rejection of (at least some) of Paul’s theological ideas.

Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part IX)

Two questions with which I have been concerned in these posts are: (1) “What is the relationship between Paul and Thomas,” and (2) “In what way(s), if any, is Thomas a reaction to Paul and his legacy?”

In answer to the first question, I have argued that there are at least three instances where the Gospel of Thomas is dependent upon Paul for traditions that are subsequently modified. There also appear to be other, less clearly identifiable instances of Pauline influence on the Gospel of Thomas.

The second question is a little more difficult to answer. If the Gospel of Thomas made use of Pauline texts and/or traditions, it follows that substantive changes to the received materials support theological ideas different from those espoused by Paul. Some might be tempted to see a Paul-Thomas conflict or even an anti-Pauline polemic emerging from the Gospel of Thomas, and while such a conclusion would certainly be convenient given recent scholarly trends, I do not think the evidence can be pressed that far. However, Thomas’s altering of Pauline texts does raise questions that require further exploration.

In the case of Gos. Thom. 3 and its use of Rom 10.5-8, what are we to make of Thomas’s nearly complete reworking of both the shape and the context of the Pauline version? In Romans 10, Paul’s point is explicitly soteriological. The means of attaining salvation are understood quite differently in Paul and the Gospel of Thomas. For Paul, salvation is associated with a cluster of theological realities such as the sacrificial or representative death of Jesus, faith in or the faith of Jesus (depending on one’s view on the pistis christou issue), dying and rising with Christ, and the efficacy of the resurrection as a precursor to what will come for all believers. By contrast, the Gospel of Thomas states from the outset that eternal life can be attained by properly interpreting Jesus’ teachings. Absent from Thomas are discussions of Jesus’ sacrificial death, participation in Christ, limitations on law observance for Gentiles, and the sufficiency of faith as the response to the gospel. Instead, Thomasine soteriological sayings (e.g., 18b, 19c, 37, 111) focus on proper interpretation of the logia Iesou. Therefore, it makes sense that when Thomas makes use of a Pauline soteriological text like Rom 10.5-8, the material is altered in a way that will not contradict Thomas’s understanding of soteriology and will help support another Thomasine view—in this case, the internal presence of the ‘kingdom’.

In Gos. Thom. 17, the material from 1 Cor 2.9 has not been altered as radically as that in Rom 10.5-8. Nonetheless, Thomas modifies a Pauline instruction concerning wisdom that leads to maturity in Christ, into a rather abstract promise related to inheritance, and likely salvation. In its context, Paul’s statement is about the sanctification of the Corinthian believers and how God has already begun a process believers can appropriate. The version of this saying in Thomas deals with salvation rather than sanctification. Paul has a developed understanding of progressive growth ‘in Christ’ while such an emphasis is largely absent from Thomas. For Thomas, knowledge and wisdom appear to be the path to every spiritual blessing.

Finally, both Thomas and Paul reject circumcision as being a source of salvific merit or status, but Thomas’s rejection is more absolute than Paul’s. In Rom 2.25-29, Paul maintains that circumcision has some value since it springs from the religious traditions of the Jews. Gos. Thom. 53 however, rejects circumcision completely. The only circumcision that matters is ‘circumcision in the spirit’, which ultimately provides an absolute benefit. Thus, in typical Thomasine fashion, a great distance is put between Thomas’s theological agenda and anything that would have been of value to the Jews, whereas Paul continues to draw upon early Christianity’s critical link to Judaism.

All of these observations seem to indicate that the authors of Thomas decided to pick and choose elements from Paul (as well as other early Christian traditions) in order to develop and support their theological views. In the end we can simply say that where the authors of the Gospel of Thomas used Pauline material, they did so in a way that amounted to a rejection of Paul’s original point. Even if, in some ways, Thomas’s use of Paul is a begrudging nod to the validity of something in Pauline thought, the reworking nevertheless constitutes some degree of rejection. This rejection of Paul’s theological ideas appears to be a part of the warp and woof of Thomasine Christianity and its different developing theological perspectives.

Later this week I will conclude this series of posts on the Paul-Thomas relationship with a final statement of my conclusions.

Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part VIII)

A last set of texts that may reflect Paul-Thomas parallels deal with the flesh/spirit,  body/soul,  external/internal dichotomy.  There are a handful of places in both Thomas and Paul where this polarity appears. In at least three instances a plausible argument can be made for Thomas’s appropriation of Pauline language and imagery in a way that advances the argument that the authors of Thomas knew and modified Pauline formulations.

In Gos. Thom. 29 there is a reflection on how the ‘great wealth’ of the spirit has come to dwell in the ‘poverty’ of the human body. This is similar to Paul’s concept of the spirit residing in fragile jars of clay (2 Cor 4.7), though the link is admittedly weaker than the three parallels examined thus far. The two passages do not share a common vocabulary and evidence of editorial activity is missing. Still, the strong conceptual link exists and it may be that Paul has again influenced Thomas. There is not enough evidence to demonstrate that Thomas has used Paul (or vice versa), but in light of the conclusions offered in the previous three posts, I want to raise the suggestion in much the same way historical Jesus scholars use the ‘criterion of coherence’. The criterion of coherence states that what coheres with other established historical material is also likely to be historical. In the same way, material that coheres with established Pauline influences on the Gospel of Thomas may constitute evidence of further Pauline influence. We have already seen that the authors of the Gospel of Thomas radically reshaped several Pauline texts and, in the case of Rom 10.5-8, the final form in Thomas looks very different from the original Pauline form. Therefore, it is not outside the realm of possibility that this common theme found its way into Thomas through Pauline influence.

A second possible body/spirit parallel drawn from material in 2 Corinthians 4 is Gos. Thom. 70: ‘Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, that which you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within will kill you’. The imagery here may be related to 2 Cor 4.16-18, where Paul utilizes the distinction between the external (ho exw hemon anthropos) and the internal (ho esw hemon) to make his point. There he speaks of wasting away outwardly while being renewed inwardly. The inward/outward distinction is similar here in both Paul and Thomas but the texts reach very different conclusions. Plisch also sees a potential connection between these texts. He writes:

Especially interesting in our context is 2 Cor 4:16-18, for, on the one hand the opposites there make clear what the inner self signifies, on the other, because it evidences how different the notion in Gos. Thom. 70 actually is. According to 2 Cor 4:16-18, the inner being—contrary to the exterior being—the part that shares in transcedence and eternity, is the core of the person (p. 169).

 This parallel may represent another instance of Thomas borrowing Pauline language and imagery and using the material in a way different from Paul’s original intent.

A third example appears in Rom 7.13-25. There Paul writes at length about the war with sin going on inside his body as he longs for spiritual victory. In v. 24 he concludes the section with the woeful statement, ‘Wretched (talaipwron) man that I am! Who will rescue me from the body (ek tou swmatos) of this death?’ In Gos. Thom. 87 we read, ‘Wretched (ou talaiporon) is the body (pswma) that depends on a body (nouswma’). And wretched (outalaipwros) is the soul that depends on these two’.  The shared vocabulary is undeniable and the contexts deal with similar reflections on the internal (soul/spirit) and the external (body). Again, there is not enough evidence here to constitute hard proof, but further investigation may show that Thomas was dependent upon Paul in ways we have not yet fully realized.

In the end, it does seem possible that several Thomasine texts that focus on the interior/exterior polarity drew from and changed Pauline texts. An awareness of the possible connection between these texts may offer future prospects for further investigation of the Paul-Thomas relationship.

Our next two posts will complete the series of reflections on the Pauline corpus and the Gospel of Thomas.

Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part VII)

Our third potential Paul-Thomas parallel is Romans 2:25-29 and Gos. Thom. 53

Gos. Thom. 53

Romans 2:25-29

His disciples said to him, ‘Is circumcision useful or not?’ He said to them, ‘If it were useful, their father would produce children already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become profitable in every respect.’ 25 Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.


With the present parallel, we are on the firmest footing yet in suggesting the presence of a shared tradition between Thomas and Paul. Anyone familiar with Paul’s letters and his major theological emphases will immediately recognize the Pauline shape of Gos. Thom. 53. Given Paul’s ongoing dispute with the Judaizing faction (cf. Acts 15, Gal 2, and Phil 3:2), it can reasonably be assumed that questions about the value of circumcision arose first in the ministry of Paul rather than the Sitz im Leben of the Thomasine community. Issues such as circumcision, dietary laws, and the relationship of the believer to the Law constitute significant considerations in Paul’s letters. By contrast, the Jewish practice of circumcision is not a prominent concern for the Jesus tradition represented by the Synoptics, the Fourth Gospel, or Thomas, and the ‘the peculiar argument rejecting physical circumcision in the second sentence is quite unique and has no parallel in the New Testament or related Early Christian Literature’ (Plisch, 136)—all of which suggests the secondary nature of Gos. Thom. 53.

Most commentators on the Gospel of Thomas draw a connection between Paul’s discussion in Rom 2 and the disciples’ question in logion 53, even if simply in a footnote. However, few state the obvious connection as clearly as Plisch when he comments that in ‘the New Testament, the question of the value of circumcision is mainly confronted and theologically mastered by Paul’, and that Thomas’s similarity to Paul is quite close, almost verbatim’ (Plisch, pp. 135-36). Likewise, Antti Marjanen (‘Thomas and Jewish Religious Practices’, in Risto Uro, ed. Thomas at the Crossroads: Essays on the Gospel of Thomas [Studies of the New Testament and Its Word; Edinbugh: T & T Clark, 1998] 179) comments that ‘Thomas proves to be part of that tradition in which the “circumcision of the heart” brought about by the Spirit is considered the prerequisite for hearing the word, awakening faith, faithful service of God, and putting off the body of flesh.’ He goes on to say that this tradition is represented chiefly by Paul in Rom 2:25-29 and Phil 3:3, (though he stops short of arguing that Thomas is relying directly upon Paul), and that it is unlikely that Thomas’s version represents the earliest stage of the ‘circumcision of heart’ tradition. These scholars affirm the general impression that Thomas’s version appeared later than Paul’s.

There are a number of striking similarities between these texts: (1) both passages are concerned with the nature and especially the benefit of ‘circumcision’; (2) each rejects physical circumcision in favor of a spiritual circumcision (Thomas speaks of ‘circumcision in spirit’ and Paul writes of ‘circumcision of the heart’); (3) the question-answer format exists in both texts as Paul addresses an imaginary opponent in Romans 2 and Jesus addresses the direct question of his disciples in Gos. Thom. 53; and (4) Gathercole argues that there may be a faint connection between the language in Paul’s comment about the benefits of circumcision in Rom 3:2, (‘much in every way’, polu kata panta) and Thomas’s affirmation that circumcision is ‘profitable in every respect (lit. ‘has found absolute benefit’).  The connection between these two texts can hardly be questioned and the case for Pauline influence is almost unassailable.

As with the previous two parallels, it is difficult to imagine a plausible scenario in which the Thomas logion is earlier than Paul’s version, and given the multiple similarities between the two, the most logical deduction is that Gos. Thom. 53 made use of a Pauline text.

Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part VI)

Briefly recapping the last post, I argued that Gos. Thom. 17 has a number of secondary features. Among the elements that suggest the Thomas logion emerged later than 1 Cor 2:9 are Thomas’s inclusion of ‘hand’, alongside eye, ear, and heart, and the attribution of this saying to Jesus. First, Paul’s version of the proverb refers to the eye not seeing, the ear not hearing, and the heart not conceiving. Thomas’s version appears to add a reference to what the hand has not touched. This change would provide a fourfold structure and contribute to a greater sense of literary parallelism. Conversely, it would be difficult to explain why Paul would have omitted the phrase.

Second, as with the vast majority of its 114 sayings, the Gospel of Thomas attributes this saying to Jesus. It is also difficult to imagine Paul, who at times expends great energy in differentiating between his own words and those of the Lord (cf. e.g., 1 Cor 7) altering a received tradition where Jesus was thought to be responsible for the saying. On the other hand, since nearly all of Thomas’s sayings begin with ‘Jesus said’, it is not a stretch to imagine that Thomas transformed a received tradition into a saying of Jesus to fit the content and structure of other Thomas sayings. In addition, most of the later versions of the proverb preserve it as a saying of the Lord, while Paul does not. This is to say nothing of the fact that attributing the saying to Jesus would invest it with greater authority than it would otherwise wield in the diverse world of early Christianity.

In the case of Gos. Thom. 3 we argued for Pauline priority, in part, on the basis of Paul’s use of Deuteronomic themes and language. We can mount a similar argument here by appealing to Paul’s extensive use of the Isaian tradition. Paul cites from Isaiah 28 times, more than any other OT book, and his reasons for choosing Isaiah are clear. Hays comments that

Isaiah offers the clearest expression in the Old Testament of a universalistic, eschatological vision in which the restoration of Israel in Zion is accompanied by an ingathering of Gentiles to worship the Lord; that is why this book is statistically and substantively the most important scriptural source for Paul (p.162).

In Isaiah, Paul finds support for his major theological concepts, not the least of which is his understanding of the eschatological inclusion of Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of universal redemption. While several logia in the Gospel of Thomas show some familiarity with traditions influenced by Isaiah, (cf. logia 13, 111) little if anything can be said for Thomas’s direct or independent knowledge of Isaiah.

As was the case with our consideration of Rom 10:5-8 and Gos. Thom. 3, we must consider which scenario is more likely and more problematic. Given the similar uses of the proverb by Paul and Thomas, it is much easier to account for the changes in Gos. Thom. 17 if we assert Pauline priority than vice versa. Though the saying consists of original material from Isaiah, it is also possible that this particular form of the proverb originated with Paul, who consistently shows himself to be a sophisticated and creative interpreter of OT traditions (Gathercole argues that it came to Paul from a pre-existing tradition, p. 88-89). Even if that judgment turns out to be incorrect and the proverb does come to Paul from some pre-existing tradition, he was no doubt drawn to this proverb because of his affinity for the theology of Isaiah. In addition to this, it is clear that both Thomas and Paul use the proverb in ways that are similar to one another but different from other existing versions. There is more than enough evidence to conclude that those responsible for the composition of Thomas knew and used 1 Cor 2:9. It is not necessary to suggest that the logion in question was altered through oral tradition because both versions share such strong similarities, but we will remain open to the suggestion that the logion came to Thomas orally. Thus, Gos. Thom. 17 also shows evidence of having directly used a Pauline text.

In our next post we will look at the most obvious Paul-Thomas parallel, Rom 2:25-29 and Gos. Thom. 53.

Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part V)

The second Paul-Thomas parallel I want to look at is Gos. Thom. 17 and 1 Cor 2:9:

Gos. Thom. 17

1 Cor 2:9

Jesus said, ‘I will give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.’ But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’


The similarities between 1 Cor 2:9 and Gos. Thom. 17 are evident right away though questions about the sharing of tradition prove difficult to answer. To begin with, the proverb appears to draw upon elements of Isa 52:15, 64:3-4, and/or 65:16, though no part of the saying represents a direct quotation of any OT passage. This was no doubt an important proverb in the early church as different versions appear in 1 Cor 2:9, Gos. Thom. 17, 1 Clem 34:8, 2 Clem 11:7, Dial Sav 57, Acts Thom 36, Acts Pet 39, Protrepticus 10.94.4 (an exhortation of Clement of Alexandria to the Greeks), and the Turfan Fragment M 789. Similarities are also present in 1 John 1:1, though the context and situation addressed by the Johannine epistles may suggest its independence from the tradition shared by these other texts. The widespread appeal of this proverb makes tracing its transmission history a complex endeavor.

If we exclude 1 John 1:1, it is clear that Thomas and Paul represent the two earliest extant versions of this proverb. Therefore the first question to explore is, which version preceded the other? Scholars are split on this question. April DeConick includes Gos. Thom. 17 in her list of earliest Thomas sayings, arguing that it reflects the eschatological views of the earliest Thomasine Christians (see Recovering, 97, 113, 118, 129). Stephen Patterson, who also regards logion 17 as pre-Pauline, offers the following unqualified assertion about Paul:

[I]n 1 Corinthians 2 he uses the wisdom style of these opponents to compose his own ‘wisdom speech’ (2:6-16), only to correct their views with a few well-placed Pauline twists. Interestingly, in the midst of this speech Paul quotes a saying from the Gospel of Thomas. . . .The version of the saying quoted here by Paul is not paralleled word-for-word in Thomas, but reflects the sort of differences one would expect to have resulted from oral transmission (from “Paul and the Jesus Tradition,” Harvard Theological Review 84 [1991] 36-37).

Thinking along the lines of those who argue that the communities of John and Thomas were embroiled in a theological conflict, Plisch suggests that Thomas may have altered the saying in response to 1 John 1:1, which would mean that Thomas’s version is later than Paul’s. Gathercole argues that Gos. Thom. 17 has a number of secondary features, indicating it emerged later than Paul’s version. There seem to be as many opinions on this parallel as there are scholars who take a position.

Several features of Gos. Thom. 17 suggest that it is later than 1 Cor 2:9. First, Thomas includes a reference to “what no hand has touched.” This does not appear in the Pauline version and would seem to be an ‘improvement’ as it provides greater parallelism in the saying. Second, Thomas’s attribution of this saying to Jesus is surely to be regarded as secondary. Most later versions of the proverb preserve it as a saying of the Lord where Paul does not. All of this would suggest Paul’s version is earlier.

It appears that the Thomas logion emerged later than Paul’s version of the proverb, but demonstrating that it is earlier than Paul is not the same as demonstrating its dependence upon Paul. In our next post we will ask the question, “Is there any compelling evidence that Gos. Thom. 17 used 1 Cor 2:9?