Thomas: The Other Gospel
By Nicholas Perrin
Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
19.1 (Spring 2008) : 134-136
In the first decade after its 1945 discovery amid the sands of Egypt, the Gospel of Thomas was overshadowed by over a dozen other ancient texts discovered near the Dead Sea. Now that the storm over the long-unpublished texts from Qumran has passed, scholarly attention turned afresh to the most famous of the Coptic texts known as the Nag Hammadi Library. The so-called Gospel of Thomas (GT) has emerged as the darling of the “lost Christianities” crowd of alternative American scholars, many of whom are associates of the (in)famous Jesus Seminar. Certainly this text, consisting of 114 sayings of Jesus supposedly preserved by the apostle Thomas, has been a source for a large number of best-selling books, especially Elaine Pagels, whose popular works on GT have appeared on the bestseller lists for over a decade. Her current one is entitled Beyond Belief. The popularity of the GT among scholars in the Jesus Seminar stems from the fact that a sayings Gospel like GT appears to be similar to the hypothetical “Q” document that was supposedly a sayings Gospel as well.
Many evangelicals have tended to stay away from this discussion, even contemptuously casting the whole matter aside. But it is not evangelical books that are on the best seller lists— it is Pagels, Karen King and Bart Ehrman who command a large readership today. They often present an apparently cogent argument for a first-century date for this document—a fact that Nick Perrin allows. But he is not willing to let this assault on traditional views of Jesus to go unnoticed any longer. He has taken the battle to them with a hard-hitting and scholarly satisfying work that weighs the most popular forms of Thomas scholarship, and finds them wanting.
Nicholas Perrin teaches at Wheaton Graduate School and once served as N. T. Wright’s research assistant after receiving his doctorate from Marquette University. His dissertation was on the GT and was published as Thomas and Tatian (Brill, 2002). This new book is a more popular work that examines the most recent writings of three GT authors: Stephen Patterson, Elaine Pagels, and April DeConick, as well as a host of others influenced by the Bultmannian school (e.g., Helmut Koester, James Robinson).
Perrin’s work is a model of thorough, painstaking scholarship expressed in a felicitous style. He is eminently fair to those with whom he disagrees, even pointing out the valuable arguments of the three Thomas scholars and acknowledging when their observations are correct. But Perrin mounts a withering attack on the supposed first-century date of the GT, and brings his considerable knowledge of both Coptic and Syriac to bear on the questions of both the dating and the conceptual world in which the author of the GT lived and wrote. One surprising observation is that Perrin does not see the GT as part of the Gnostic movement of the second century. He does place it, however, within an ascetic movement that was prevalent in Edessan Syria at the end of the second century.
In this reviewer’s opinion, he has established beyond doubt that the author of GT drew on the first Gospel harmony, the Diatessaron by Tatian, which was completed in Syria around A.D. 173. He does this by a painstaking comparison of some Jesus sayings in Tatian’s Diatessaron with how they are expressed in GT. The sayings are closer to the Diatessaron than to the canonical Gospels. He also illustrates that the aberrant theology of Tatian, a mix of Hermeticism and anti-Jewish mysticism, can be clearly discerned in GT.
The conclusion is simple. If the GT was penned after A.D. 173, it does not derive from the first century and its value as another source for understanding the “real” Jesus is sorely diminished! Furthermore, though it may be a valuable source for understanding Syrian Christianity in the late second century, it pales in value before the eyewitness testimony of the canonical Gospels, each of which dates from the first century.
Perrin’s painstaking search for the “real” Gospel of Thomas reads like a scholarly detective story. After he has finished his scholarly destruction of the firstcentury date for GT, Perrin has some perceptive comments about the Jesus that emerge from the document. He is a teacher who does no miracles, who does not die and rise again, who has shed all his Jewish context, and who provides no objective salvation for anyone, but points people to know themselves from within. His personal comments at the end of his own search are quite perceptive.
“Somehow, I suspect, we have heard this message before. Somehow we have met this Jesus before. The Gospel of Thomas invites us to imagine a Jesus who says, ‘I am not your saviour, but the one who can put you in touch with your true self. Free yourself from your gender, from your body, and any concerns you might have for the outside world. Work for it and self-realization, salvation will be yours— in this life.’ Imagine such a Jesus? (a veiled reference to a John Lennon song?) One need hardly work very hard. This is precisely the Jesus we know too well, the existential Jesus that so many western evangelical and liberal churches already preach. Perhaps the original Thomas community was pleased to have a Jesus who could be divested of his Jewish story and domesticated to their way of seeing things. Perhaps too the early church fathers rejected this sayings collection because they had little patience for anyone or anything that might confuse their hope of a new creation with something approaching a Christianized self-help philosophy” (139).
We owe Nicholas Perrin a great debt for his meticulous research and for sharing the results with readers in a most understandable manner. I wish this work a widespread readership. It is highly recommend for those who may be unduly impressed with a writing that well-deserved its rejection by the church in the third and fourth centuries.