What is the Gospel of Thomas about?
The Gospel of Thomas isn’t really “about” anything. Well, it isn’t and it is. That’s because the Gospel of Thomas doesn’t tell a story. It’s a collection -- a list -- of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, many just a sentence or two in length. The sayings usually don’t refer to any narrated action. The book therefore lacks a sense of plot or development, and it has no discussion of Jesus’ deeds, death, or resurrection, It reads like those page-a-day desk calendars, except that, instead of 365 Dilbert cartoons or definitions of fancy words, you get 114 quotations.
They aren’t even “greatest quotes.” Sometimes “strangest quotes” seems more appropriate. A lot of the pronouncements and parables come across as deliberately obscure, as you can judge for yourself (read the book here). No wonder no one’s tried to package it as a desk calendar -- yet.
No one knows who wrote the Gospel of Thomas, or even how widely read it was in the ancient world. A copy of the complete document was discovered only in 1945. (Small portions of the book had been found earlier.) Some ancient Christian authors refer to it, and when they do they are wary of how it depicts Jesus and his message. Still, we know that it circulated in multiple languages probably between the years 150 and 350.
Debates about the Gospel of Thomas and other “extracanonical books” (ancient writings that did not make it into the Bible) have come into vogue in recent years. The majority of New Testament scholars rightly doubts that the Gospel of Thomas offers much by way of new or unique insight into the real, historical Jesus of Nazareth.
What does it say?
A few of the book’s quotations resemble words we also find in the biblical Gospels. For example, the 54th saying in Thomas is very close to Luke 6:20 (“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”). Those sayings may reflect traditions, or remembrances, that many ancient Christians cherished, and that may go back to words Jesus actually spoke.
On the other hand, many quotations in Thomas are quite strange. Consider the 22nd saying, which reads: “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and what is above like what is below, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make a pair of eyes in place of one eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the Kingdom].”1
And you thought Jesus said some confusing stuff in the biblical Gospels.
As for understanding why the Gospel of Thomas isn’t in the Bible -- read it, and compare it to what you see in the New Testament. It’s a very different kind of book, presenting a quite different Jesus.
By and large, ancient Christians were willing to embrace the different emphases that can be observed across the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, however, just looked too strange, too unfamiliar to those readers -- much too far outside the mainstream memories of who Jesus was and what made his life and death so important.
After all, the Gospel of Thomas is hardly the only ancient “gospel” that was kept out of the Bible. More than 30 books written before the year 600 are referred to as a “gospel.” Again, most of these look very, very different from the four that got into the New Testament.
Where did it come from?
The Gospel of Thomas likely came from a group of people sometimes called “gnostics.” These folk tried to make teachings about Jesus mesh with certain philosophical principles that grew in popularity especially between the years 100 and 200. There’s a lot we could say about these gnostic ideas and their influence on Christianity, but most other ancient Christians firmly rejected them, considering them an innovation -- a departure from foundational Christian convictions about Jesus. Gnostic ideas tended to conflict with the belief that Jesus had been a real person with a real body, and that he spoke a message rooted in Jewish beliefs about the God revealed in the Hebrew scriptures (the Christian Old Testament).
A few scholars insist that Thomas -- or parts of it -- was written around the same time as, if not earlier than, the biblical Gospels (which are usually dated between the years 66–100). Maybe you’ve heard of The Jesus Seminar, which made a lot of fuss (and a lot of money) when they published a book called The Five Gospels in 1993. Those scholars tried to give Thomas a place at the table with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in their efforts to determine which gospel sayings may have really come from Jesus’ mouth.
Remind me again -- why should we care?
Certainly parts of Thomas reflect well-traveled and perhaps authentic words attributed to Jesus. Yet the book’s odder parts indicate that it was produced later, probably between the years 100 and 140, as gnostic ideas became more influential. Probably gnostic Christians took material from Matthew, Mark, and Luke and altered it, making Jesus more a disseminator of secret mysteries than an inaugurator of God’s kingdom on earth.
The Gospel of Thomas tells us more about different theological movements vying with one another about a century after Jesus left this earth than it tells us about Jesus and how his earliest followers understood him. That’s interesting stuff, but it also makes for a pretty good reason for not including the book in the Bible.
1. Translation by K. C. Hanson, available at: http://www.kchanson.com/PTJ/thomas2.html