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Historiography of Gospel of Thomas

Historiography is the study of the writing of history. The Gospel of Thomas is a New Testament or apocrypton completely preserved in a papyrus Coptic manuscript discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The book was bound in a method now called Coptic binding. Unlike the four canonical gospels, which combine narrative accounts of the life of Jesus with sayings, Thomas is a ‘sayings gospel’. It takes the less structured form of a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus including brief dialogues, the writing down of which is attributed to Didymus Judas Thomas.

The word Didymus and Thomas are both translated ‘twin’ giving emphasis to the name Judas, derivative of Judah. The gospel does not have a narrative framework, nor is it worked into any overt philosophical or rhetorical context. The Gospel begins mysteriously with the words “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down and he said, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death”. The work comprises 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Some of these sayings resemble those found in the four canonical Gospels.

When a Coptic version of the complete text of Thomas was found, scholars realized that three separate Greek portions of it had already been discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in 1808. The manuscripts bearing the Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas have been dated to about AD 200. The Gospel of Thomas is distinct and unrelated to other apocryphal or pseudepigraphal works such as the Acts of Thomas or the work called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which expands on the canonical texts to describe the miraculous childhood of Jesus.

The Gospel of Thomas is regarded by some individual as the single most important find in understanding early Christianity outside the New Testament. While this preeminence is not universally accepted, and the gospel attests to a diversity of viewpoints in early Christianity, including very different understanding of Jesus. It offers a window into the view of ancient culture and struggle within early Christianity.

It also assists in understanding early Christianity’s relationship and eventual split with Judaism. It is unique in that it is ostensibly written from the point of view of Judas Thomas and claims to contain special revelations and parables made only to Thomas. The opening of the gospel may elude a direct communication from Jesus to Judas through ‘the twin’ or earthly Jesus of Nazareth. This relationship between Judas Thomas and Jesus is what distinguishes this gospel from the other four.

The Gospel of Thomas stresses self-knowledge and the motif, seen in some canonical passages, which “the kingdom of God is within you. ” Traditional Christianity appears to want nothing to do with it: it’s only religious scholars who seem to take an interest in the text. The gospel of Thomas is mystical and emphasizes a direct and unmediated experience of the Divine through becoming a Christ and salvation is personal and found through spiritual introspection.

Some do not consider the Gospel of Thomas for the New Testament as an indication of its being of a later date: had it actually been written by the apostle Thomas, they argue, it would have been at least seriously considered by those in the century immediately following Jesus’ death. Additional Reference: 1. Nicholas Perrin, Recent Trends in Gospel of Thomas Research (1991-2006): Part I, The Historical Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels. Currents in Biblical Research, Vol. 5, No. 2, 183-206 (2007): This article, the first of a two-part series, reviews research between 1991 and 2006 dealing with the Gospel of Thomas.

It focuses on two questions: (1) whether the Coptic sayings collection preserves material going back to the historical Jesus, and (2) whether it is dependent on the synoptic Gospels or attests to an independent line of tradition, relatively uninfluenced by the canonical texts. In connection with the former issue, the article observes that Thomas is little used in contemporary Jesus scholarship and seeks to elucidate reasons for this 2. James McConkey Robinson et al. , The Nag Hammadi Library in English (4th rev. ed. ; Leiden; New York: E. J. Brill, 1996

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