Research

The Gospel of Thomas

The beginning of the Gospel of Thomas

In 1945, whilst digging for fertilizer, an Egyptian farmer named Mohammed Ali al-Samman discovered a jar containing twelve ancient codices and part of a thirteenth. This discovery has been at least as significant for the study of Gnosticism as the more widely known Dead Sea Scrolls have been for the study of orthodox Christianity and first century Judaism. The codices, now known as the Nag Hammadi library, date back to the fourth century CE and are written in Coptic. The library contains 52 tractates and gave scholars access to forty previously unknown writings, thirty of which are fairly complete texts, and ten of which are more fragmentary. The picture above is of the first eight lines of Nag Hammadi Codex II,2 – otherwise known as The Gospel of Thomas. Incidentally, I don’t think that Thomas is a Gnostic text.

When I first applied to be accepted as a candidate for a masters by research degree my supervisor (that’s adviser for North Americans), Prof Majella Franzmann, and I told the Postgraduate Committee that my thesis title was something like A Comparison of the Parables that Appear Both in the Gospel of Thomas and in the Canonical Synoptic Gospels. Since then, I’ve narrowed the scope somewhat and the current working title is A Comparison of the The Reign of God Parables in the Gospel of Thomas and the Canonical Synoptic Gospels and I might even stick with that. On the other hand, I might come up with something a little more informative, seeing what I’m really interested in what kind of community might accept the Gospel of Thomas as Scripture.

How I became interested in Thomas

In early 2004, an email from Majella came around the campus inviting anyone interested to join a class in the Coptic language, with the aim of doing some reading in The Gospel of Thomas (GTh). I really like languages and was in need of some intellectual stimulation, so I rang up and put my name down. The class was very small, so I did all the assessment work and at the end of semester 2, Majella suggested that it would be a shame to waste all the work I’d put into it, seeing I’d done so well in the assessments. After some thought and some research, I decided that Thomas sounded interesting and at the end of February 2005, I enrolled in a Masters Honours (ie by research) programme, part time.

The focus of my research

Two years down the track, I was well and truly hooked, both on Coptic and Thomas, so much so that I upgraded my candidature to PhD status. Much of the comparison work that has been done on the parallels between Thomas and the Synoptics has been interested in whether the Thomas versions are more or less authentic than the canonical versions and whether or not Thomas is dependent on one or more of them. While I find these questions interesting, I am much more interested in GTh for its own sake. Why would the author use these particular stories, told in this particular way? I’m interested in April DeConick’s work, first articulated in “The Original ‘Gospel of Thomas’” (Vigiliae Christianae 56 (2) 2002) and further developed in Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (T & T Clark, 2005), which looks at how GTh may have developed. I’m also intrigued by the work of scholars like Walter Ong, John Miles Foley, Vernon Robbins and Werner Kelber on oral transmission of texts and am in the process of bringing my reading up to date in this area. In the text itself, one of my special foci is on why Thomas almost always describes the Reign as like a person who acts, rather than like an object.

In April and May 2007, I was very fortunate to be able to spend five weeks at Rice University in Houston, Texas, as a Visiting Scholar working with April on refining my research methodology. My visit has had significant effects on my work and was also the inspiration for “Eyewitness Testimony in Psychological Research: Some Consequences for Richard Bauckham’s Work”, the paper I presented at the 2008 SBL conference in Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand. This was something of a sidetrack from the main purpose of my research, but very important in helping me to understand the kind of material with which I am dealing.

2 thoughts on “Research

  1. I have discovered your blog just recently, and I find your musings very interesting. I occupy myself with GTh as an interested layman. It’s mainly a spiritual challenge for me, and also a scientific one.

    I am from Bavaria, where religion is still an important issue for a lot of people. Being politically left since the eighties I had turned away from everyday religion, and then from religion at all. In 2010 I have turned to religion again rediscovering it in a new manner, i.e. recognizing instead of believing as a radical different approach.

    I think that’s a core feature of GTh, too. Because in young years you have to believe what the elders say. They hid the keys of knowledge from you (GTh 39). GTh is a rebel gospel, therefore once buried and now raised. Coptic GTh 5 need not to say this explicitly as Greek GTh 5 does, because now you can recognize what is in front of your face: it’s Coptic GTh with its history.

    Discovered in 1945 when a) the Old Church isn’t any more powerful enough to ban it, b) the digital age was awaking and today we spread all things around the world via the internet, and c) the interest in spirituality is growing in our “zombie world” (GTh 56).

    Why Thomas almost always describes the Reign as like a person who acts, rather than like an object? I think because we are acting persons making the Reign visible, which is within us and outside of us (GTh 3) and spread out upon the earth (GTh 113).

    In my opinion GTh as a work is a collection of excerpts from edifices of ideas from the eastern Mediterranean area and the Orient at that time (Jewish, Hellenistic, Christian, Mystic, Gnostic, and even Buddhist). Briefly: it’s a survey to form a general idea.

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