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Copyright © BRI/IMCF 1981, 2010, 2015 All Rights Reserved Worldwide by Les Aron Gosling, Messianic lecturer (BRI/IMCF)
EXPOSITIONS ON THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS
The Agrapha of Christ
Les Aron Gosling, Messianic Rebbe
“Although the fringes of the emerging canon remained unsettled for generations, a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the New Testament was attained among the very diverse and scattered congregations of believers not only throughout the Mediterranean world, but also over an area extending from Britain to Mesopotamia” - Bruce Metzger
My purpose in creating this new series of expositions on the Gospel of Thomas
is not to rehearse at length what others have postulated as to the books origins, nor to extrapolate on the finer details of the 114 sayings attributed to Yeshua in relation to the same or near-identical sayings found in the four canonical Gospels. These, and associated technical factors, can be accessed in any of the many books and scholarly works available to the public in libraries (and of course even on the Internet, the highway of plagiarism). For me to pursue the technical side of Thomas
would be entirely redundant and highly repetitious.
Having said this, allow me a moment to grant an easy overview of the apocryphal book.
In the late nineteenth century, in 1897 to be exact, three tattered texts of an unknown Greek ms
[manuscript] or mss
[manuscripts] which contained what appeared to be original sayings of Yeshua, were discovered in Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. A little later, in 1903, two more fragments came to light in the same immediate region. Scholars dated them from circa 200-250 CE. Then, in 1905, yet another textual fragment of similar sayings came to light. Scholars determined that this latter text predated the others. While the source was unknown these previously unknown sayings of Yeshua were regarded simply as Logia Iesu
. (Please note “Iesu
In 1945 a collection of Gnostic mss
were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, and among them was a Coptic papyrus document entitled The Gospel of Thomas
. Scholars were astonished to find the source of the previously unearthed fragmentary sayings of Yeshua in this long-lost “Gospel.” This Coptic version dates from about 340 CE. Within its pages we find memories of certain Jewish-Christian traditions which resurfaced, remarkably, in the 14th century Zohar
and associated teachings of the Kabbalah.
Why were these writings spirited away and buried? For one very good reason: the Gnostic Gospels (along with the Thomas
list of “Yeshua Sayings”) were hidden on account of the pastoral letter of Athanasius in the latter half of the fourth century (367 CE) which declared Gnostic material heretical. By hiding these documents it was hoped that both the scrolls, and the adherents who used them and considered them to be sacred Scripture, would escape the sword. This was the period in which the Church, now the official religion of the Roman Empire and having gained official status, began to “purge” and “cleanse itself” of the outer fringes of (that which was seen to be) a lunatic “Christianity” (Ian Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence
, 1984, 24).
Intriguingly, the Coptic ms
is not an exact representation of the Greek fragments, and the sayings are all ordered differently in one fragment – these facts alone reveal (among other things) that the Gospel of Thomas
had undergone a series of revisions, and intimated also that its popularity was such that it is likely a number of translations and editions were widespread among the believers who subscribed to Thomas's particular form of Christianity – not just in Egypt but elsewhere. But, and this is most enlightening, while the Gospel was located among Gnostic works the Gospel of Thomas
cannot be classified as one of them. It is distinctly “Jewish-Christian,” and while it is apparent that some of its sayings
have been “overworked” by later Gnostic hands (and the tampering, while slight, is very evident) it remains essentially an original
reflection of thinking that dates to about the middle of the first century.
According to the general opinion of a majority of scholars the original Gospel of Thomas
had to have originated prior to the destruction of Jerusalem
by the Romans. This is what makes this Gospel so vitally important to our understanding and growth in the knowledge of the life and times of Our Lord Yeshua.
Let me say this as well. The Gospel of Thomas
is not really a “Gospel” at all in the sense of the four Gospels which we locate in the NT codex, for it is just a list of 114 sayings (and composites of multiple sayings) attributed to Our Lord Yeshua which take the form of answers to questions asked by his disciples and they are listed with no rhyme or reason in a confused jumble of annotations that defy any resemblance of order. Thomas
consists of “sayings” (or logia) of Yeshua and short dialogues attributed to him. Most of the sayings of Yeshua in Thomas
can be located in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and in John, while others were not known until its discovery. There are no special titles attributed to Yeshua, and no account of his crucifixion and resurrection. Most of the speech attributed to Yeshua is overwhelmingly concerned with the mysterious “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven.” Professor Elaine Pagels believes that Thomas
suggests other dimensions of meaning other than that which is read on the surface of the fragmented document (The Gnostic Gospels
, 1979, xiii). Likewise Professor Helmut Koestler of Harvard University postulates that the Thomas
document (although compiled circa 140 CE) may include authentic sayings of Yeshua older than the Gospels of the NT canon “possibly as early as the second half of the first century” (meaning circa 50-100 CE) (Introduction to the Gospel of Thomas, The Nag Hammadi Library
, 117).THE ORAL TRADITION – THE “YESHUA SAID” LIST
We are informed by Luke that at the time of his writing there were innumerable sources of the life and sayings of the Messiah in circulation and he apparently drew upon a wide volume of source material which had distinct commonalities (which is invariably the safe route to travel when undertaking a circuitous and perhaps precarious voyage of this nature). We also know of the existence of lists of “Yeshua Sayings” for Rav Shaul alludes to their actuality by remarking “remembering the words the Lord Yeshua himself said
.” These things were “said
.” They were oral
traditions. They were not
originally “written down” until much later. That the Messianic Rabbi drew upon one of these lists of oral
traditions is self evident: “Yeshua said
... 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'” (Acts 20.35
We find another of these list-sayings preserved by Rav Shaul in 1 Cor 11.24,25
in which he purports to quote the Mashiach's statements before the “Last Supper,” using words that are similar but certainly not identical to those recorded by Luke (Lk 22.19,20
). Again, Rav Shaul's physician records another saying in Luke 6.5
– a saying which appears in a single ms
and which records the following statement made by Yeshua to a man found deliberately performing work on the Sabbath day. Yeshua says, “Friend, if you know what you are doing, you are blessed; but if you do not, you are accursed as a breaker of the Law [Torah]” which is an interesting comment indeed, considering the times in which he lived and the immediate context of Luke 6
in which the rejected text appears.
(I am not suggesting the latter text is legitimate, I am merely pointing out the existence of “Agrapha
.” In scholarly circles these unknown sayings attributed to Yeshua are called “the Agrapha
” (Gk, meaning “unwritten things”).
There exist more Agrapha
in the Syriac Didascalia
. In this document we find the saying of Yeshua, “A man is unapproved, if he be untempted” (Didasc. Syr
., II, 8]. Agrapha
can also be located in the writings of Jerome: “In the Gospel which the Nazarenes are accustomed to read, that according to the Hebrews [the Gospel According to the Hebrews
], there is put among the greatest crimes he who shall have grieved the spirit of his brother” (Jerome, Ezech
., xviii, 7): In the same Gospel (Jerome, Eph
., v, 3 sq.): “In the Hebrew Gospel
too we read of the Lord saying to the disciples: And never, said he, rejoice, except when you have looked upon your brother in love.” Again, located in Apostolic Church-Order
, 26: “For he said to us before, when he was teaching: That which is weak shall be saved through that which is strong.” In Acta Philippi
, 34: “For the Lord said to me: Except you make the lower into the upper and the left into the right, you shall not enter into my kingdom.” This latter statement is referring, of course, to the repentance expected of humankind from God the Father. It involves a complete turn around to face another direction
Traditional sources of Agrapha
are also to be located in the following Patristic writings.
Justin Martyr: “Wherefore also our Lord Jesus Christ said, In whatsoever things I apprehend you, in those I shall judge you” (Dial
Clement of Alexandria: “For ask, he says for the great things, and the small shall be added to you” (Strom
. I, 24, 158). “Rightly therefore the Scripture also in its desire to make us such dialecticians, exhorts us: Be approved moneychangers, disapproving some things, but holding fast that which is good” (Strom
. I, 28, 177). “For not grudgingly, he says, did the Lord declare in a certain gospel: My mystery is for me and for the sons of my house” (Strom
. V, 10, 64).
Origen: “But the Saviour himself says: He who is near me is near the fire; he who is far from me, is far from the kingdom” (Homil. in Jer
., XX, 3).
Traditional sources of Agrapha
are also to be located in the Oxyrhynchus Logia
“Yeshua said, Except you fast to the world, you shall in no wise find the kingdom of God.”
“Yeshua said, I stood in the midst of the world, and in the flesh was I seen of them, and I found all men drunken, and none found I athirst among them, and my soul grieved over the sons of men, because they are blind in their heart, and see not.”
“Yeshua said, Wherever there are two, they are not without God; and wherever there is one alone, I say I am with him. Raise the stone and there you shall find me; cleave the wood, and there am I.”
“Yeshua said, A prophet is not acceptable in his own country, neither does a physician work cures upon them that know him.”
“Yeshua said, A city built upon the top of a hill and established can neither fall nor be hid.”
“Yeshua said, You hear with one ear...”
We have very early indications of the popularity of this Gospel for it is quoted in the writings of Hippolytus of Rome (c.222-235 CE) and Origen (c.233 CE). We must exercise extreme caution however in the case of Hippolytus for his quotations from a scroll of the same name vary distinctly from the mss
we have at our fingertips. It well may be the case that he is quoting not from the Gospel of Thomas
but from a fabricated work which was entitled The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
. The original ms
of the Gospel of Thomas
remains the property of Egypt's Department of Antiquities
Who was this Thomas?
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