A gospel is an account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of Thomas, however, takes the form of a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. When a complete copy of it in Coptic was found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, it was then realized that Greek portions of it had been discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in 1898. The Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas have been dated to about 200, and the Coptic version to 340. Although the Coptic version is not quite identical to the Greek fragments, it is believed that the Coptic version was translated from a prior Greek version. Origen mentioned it in 233 among the heterodox gospels, as did Cyril of Jerusalem some time later.
There is currently much debate about when it was composed, with scholars generally falling into two main camps. The early camp argues that since it consists of mostly original material and does not seem to be based on the canonical gospels, it must have been transcribed from an oral tradition. Since the practice of considering oral tradition authoritative ended during the 1st century, the Gospel of Thomas therefore must have been written before then, perhaps as early as around 50. Since this date antecedes the dates of the traditional Four gospels, there is some claim that the Thomas gospel is or has some connection to the Q gospel —the name for an unknown, theorised text (or oral verse) which may have spawned Gospels of Matthew and Luke known today.
The late camp, on the other hand, contends that there are literary indications that the Gospel of Thomas was derived from the Synoptic Gospels or even the Diatessaron and was therefore probably written in the second century. They take the view that the Thomas gospel is derived of earlier (lost) copies of the known Gospels —that the known Gospels, not the Thomas Gospel, are authoritative.
The Gospel of Thomas is, in any case, one of the earliest accounts of the teaching of Jesus outside of the canonical gospels and so is considered a valuable text. The Jesus Seminar sometimes calls it the "fifth gospel". Some say that this gospel makes no mention of Jesus' resurrection, an important point of faith among Christians. Others, however, interpret the opening words of the book, "These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down" (Nag Hammadi Library translation, 2d. edition, ISBN 0-06-066935-7) to mean that the sayings are being presented as the teaching of Jesus Christ after the resurrection.
Some scholars consider this gospel to be a gnostic text, since it was found in a library among other, clearly gnostic texts. Others reject this interpretation, because Thomas lacks the full-blown mythology of Gnosticism as described by Irenaeus of Lyons, c. 185. No Christian group accepts it as canonical or authoritative.
The gospel is ostensibly written from the point of view of Didymus Judas Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus (who appears in the Gospel of John as "doubting Thomas"). It claims that special revelations and parables (recorded in the text) were made only to Thomas. However, the gospel is only a collection of sayings and parables, and contains no narrative account of Jesus' life, something that all four canonical gospels include.
Differences between translations
In translating ancient texts, often the meaning of words is revealed only in abstraction, and must be transliterated, after being translated, in order for the meaning to be addressed. This is the case with all translations, as each reveals the limits and changes of languages, in the divergent tasks of; being sufficiently descriptive, and being easy to use in common speech. In the Thomas Gospels, the 66th is one famous example of how translation often differs subtly in its proper transliteration.
The use of the word "corner-stone", in the Brill edition, is inaccurate for the meaning, and the correct word is "keystone", as in the Patterson-Meyer translation. To understand the difference, we must think through the parable for its intended meaning. As in all Christian parables, the deeper meaning reflects a moral story; In this case, in the analogy of the construction of an arch:
- In selecting stones for the arch, the most odd-shaped, useless stone is rejected, and cast aside. The builders select the cornerstones first; they must be strong, squarish blocks and must serve well as the foundation. As each separate pillar is built to the top, the stones are chosen for their slight curvatures, to bring the tops of the columns together.
- Finally, the keystone must be selected. It must be of a particularly acute angle to accommodate the characteristics of each of the two arch halves: According to Jesus's parable, it is the stone which was first rejected, by the initial estimations of the builders, and only when the rest of the pieces are in place do they see their mistake.