Chapter 12 Aprocryphal Gospels

A Historical Introduction to the New Testament
by Robert M. Grant

Chapter 12 Aprocryphal Gospels

In addition to the four gospels which alone were accepted by the Church during and after the time of Irenaeus, there were many apocryphal gospels which were favoured by Gnostic and other heretical groups. The most important of these gospels deserve some consideration.

Perhaps the oldest are those named after the groups which employed them: those according to the ‘Hebrews’, the ‘Egyptians’, and the ‘Ebionites’. Hebrews seems to consist essentially of a modification of the Gospel of Matthew in the direction of Jewish Christianity; its hero is James the Lord’s brother, recipient of a special resurrection-appearance (cf. I Cor. 15.17), and head of the Jerusalem church. Egyptians, on the other hand, contained traditions of the sayings of Jesus which portrayed him as having come to ‘destroy the works of the female’, specifically the work of reproduction. The gospel used by the Ebionites stated that Jesus had come to destroy sacrifices; unless sacrifices were terminated (in the temple at Jerusalem) men would not be saved. These gospels exist today only in fragments from which it is hard to draw definite conclusions. It is probable, however, that none of them was written before the second third of the second century.

In addition to these gospels, scholars have discovered a second-century papyrus which contains episodes in the life of Jesus and some sayings ascribed to him; these materials seem to be based on John and the synoptics, along with some extraneous legends.

Two gospels ascribed to apostles are more important. The first, ascribed to Peter, exists in part in a papyrus fragment which describes the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and breaks off when the author says, ‘But I, Simon Peter, and Andrew my brother, took our nets and went away to the sea, and with us there was Levi, son of Alphaeus, whom the Lord. . .’ This gospel was known to and criticized by Serapion, bishop of Antioch, about 190. The second was discovered in a Coptic version in 1945 but not identified until 1952. This is the famous Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 112 or 114 sayings of Jesus.


This work was discovered in a library of forty-nine Gnostic writings in thirteen leather-bound volumes. Earlier, nothing was known about it except the fact that it was used by several heretical groups such as the Naassenes; some church writers denounced it but did not describe it. Only when Thomas was found could the fragmentary ‘sayings of Jesus’, published in 1897 and 1903 in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, be assigned to it.

The words of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas are present as ‘secret’, i.e. not known in the common tradition of the Church, and it is said that ‘whoever finds the interpretation of them will not taste death’ (Preface). The idea presented here resembles that found in John 8:52: ‘whoever keeps my word will never taste death’ -- along with the notion that the words of Jesus have a hidden meaning (cf. Mark 4:10-12, 33-4). The true interpreter (saying 1) is he who does not cease from seeking until he finds (cf. Matt. 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-10). No matter how obvious the meaning of various sayings may seem to be, all have a hidden significance, and Jesus spoke all of them after his resurrection.

The literary (or pre-literary) forms in which the various words are cast are strikingly similar to those used in the canonical gospels, especially the synoptics. They include parables, aphorisms, brief dialogues, and pronouncements beginning with ‘I’. (The dog in the manger of saying 102 is paralleled in Aesop’s fables.) As in some parts of the synoptic gospels, a good many of the sayings seem to be linked by verbal association rather than by similarity of subject matter. In many of Thomas’s sayings, too, we encounter reflections of the Semitic parallelism found not only in the synoptics but also in the Old Testament; this feature does not, however, prove the authenticity of any of the sayings, for it could easily be due to imitation.

It is equally important to observe how different the ‘Gospel’ of Thomas is from the gospel-form employed in the Church. In Thomas there is no attempt at providing a historical framework for the ministry of Jesus (as already noted, the sayings are regarded as spoken after his death); there are no miracles; there is no passion narrative; there is no correlation with the Old Testament. Indeed, there is practically no action of any kind. This means that the final editor of Thomas understood the word ‘gospel’ in the sense in which it sometimes occurs in Matthew and Mark to refer to the message of Jesus about the kingdom of God. The term is not, however, to be found in the book itself; where we hear of ‘secret words’ or of the ‘mysteries’ of Jesus (62) or of ‘the word of the Father’ (79) Thus while the compilation of Thomas is in form not unlike the collection or collections of sayings of Jesus which may underlie the materials common to Matthew and Luke, there is no reason to suppose that the two are related, or that either was originally known as a gospel. Thomas might also be related to a collection of sayings underlying the Gospel of John, but the existence of such a collection is purely hypothetical (see Chapter XI).

Since Thomas is the first of the early apocryphal gospels to be recovered entire, it is important to assign some date to it. The earliest reference to it which we possess occurs in a homily on Luke which Origen wrote at Alexandria before 231, or else in the Refutation of his older contemporary Hippolytus. Since Hippolytus tells us that it was used by the Naassenes, it can be dated no later than the end of the second century. Unfortunately we cannot tell how much older it may have been, since no second-century writer makes use of it or refers to it. The parallels we find in such writers, orthodox and Gnostic alike, are not necessarily derived from this book. It is possible that, as some scholars hold, Thomas was written as early as 140. On the other hand, there seems to be no proof that it was not written a generation or two later.

The theology of Thomas is remarkably similar to that of the Naassenes (cf. Hippolytus, Ref 5, 7-8), though they seem to have used a form of the book somewhat different from the Coptic form; there are significant variations between Hippolytus’s quotations and Coptic sayings 4 and II. But we do not know the precise date or provenance of the Naassenes. They seem to have been an offshoot of the equally mysterious Ophites.

The name Didymus Judas Thomas may point towards Syria, where the Acts of Thomas originated, but the parallels with traditions and apocryphal books known to Clement and Origen suggest Alexandria instead. If this supposition is correct, Thomas sheds some light in the almost total darkness which surrounds Egyptian Christianity in the late second century.

Many of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are very much like those found in the four gospels, especially the synoptics. It is a question whether Thomas derived his synoptic-type sayings from the synoptic gospels as written documents or from oral traditions also used by the synoptic evangelists. Similarly, when Thomas makes use of sayings which are also found in such apocryphal gospels as those ‘according to the Hebrews’ (i, perhaps 12, 104) and ‘according to the Egyptians’ (22, 37, perhaps 61), we cannot be absolutely sure whether he was using written documents or some of their sources, perhaps including oral traditions. Some of the sayings which he relates are ascribed to oral tradition by the Church Fathers; others are to be found in Gnostic sources which the Fathers quote. If it can be shown that Thomas made use of the synoptic gospels in their present form it becomes fairly likely that he also employed apocryphal gospels in written form. The presence of a good deal of material transmitted orally, however, is not excluded.

It is hard to determine the precise relation of Thomas to oral and written sources because of the fluidity of the situation in second-century Christianity. Perhaps around 125, Papias knew some written gospels but stated his preference for oral traditions; by 150, Justin at Rome reflects a situation where written gospels have superseded most of the oral tradition; but even later at Alexandria oral traditions were still prominent, though tending to be confined to Gnostic groups. Among the Naassenes there was an emphasis on both written and oral materials. A quotation from them given by Hippolytus (Ref 5, 8,11) shows how by combining written materials they could produce the impression that they were relying on secret tradition. ‘Unless you drink my blood and eat my flesh (John 6:53-6), you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20; 18:3); but if you drink the cup which I drink (Mark 10:38), where I go, there you cannot enter (John 8:21; 13:33).’ Analogously, the fact that parts of sayings in Thomas can be paralleled in several gospels does not prove that the author used a source earlier than them; it may well indicate simply that he was combining gospel words.

Some of the sayings in Thomas fairly plainly reflect his use of our gospels. Thus in saying 14, Jesus rejects fasting, prayer and almsgiving, and then says, ‘if you go into any land and wander in the regions, if they receive you, eat what is set before you, heal the sick among them; for what goes into your mouth will not defile you. . . .’ The ‘land’ and the ‘regions’ are Thomas’s substitute for the ‘city’ of Luke 10:8, a verse from which receiving and eating what is set before one are derived; ‘heal the sick among them’ comes from Luke 10:9, though in Thomas it is quite irrelevant to the subject of dietary laws, with which the rest of the saying is concerned (cf. Matt. 15:11). Presumably the first compiler was simply copying from Luke.

Sometimes Thomas separates sayings which in the synoptic gospels were combined. Thus in saying 65 he relates the parable of the vineyard (Mark 12:1-9 and parables; Thomas Omits the Old Testament allusions). In the synoptic gospels this parable is concluded with a mention of the cornerstone which the builders rejected (Mark 12:10 and parallels). Thomas turns this conclusion into a separate saying (66), again omitting a reference to the Old Testament.

Another way in which Thomas uses the synoptic tradition or, more probably, the synoptic gospels is by adding materials which make sayings of Jesus look more ‘Semitic’ because of their parallelism. ‘No prophet is acceptable in his village’ comes from Luke 4:24; Thomas balances the saying with the false addition, ‘no physician heals those who know him’ (31). Similarly, in Matt. 5:14 we read that ‘a city lying on a mountain cannot be hid.’ Thomas expands these words thus: ‘a city built on a high mountain and fortified cannot fall and cannot remain hidden’ (32). His addition is both confused and false.

The most probable conclusion to draw from passages of this sort is that either Thomas or earlier Gnostic tradition made use of the canonical gospels at points where we find parallels, and that there is no reason to suppose that any passage in Thomas (in spite of interesting textual variants) provides an earlier or a more reliable version of any saying of Jesus.

Some sayings in Thomas suggest that it, or part of it, arose in a Jewish-Christian environment. For example, Jesus tells his disciples that after he departs they will ‘go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into existence’ (r 2). James the Just is prominent in the Gospel according to the Hebrews, but also among the Naassene Gnostics, who claimed to have traditions derived from him. As a whole, however, Thomas is radically anti-Jewish. If circumcision were ‘profitable’ (cf. Rom. 3:1), would be born circumcised (53); fasting, prayer, almsgiving and dietary observances -- the cardinal duties enjoined in Jewish piety -- are explicitly condemned (6:14). Jesus will destroy the temple in Jerusalem (71). All external rites are irrelevant; when Jesus speaks of fasting to the world and of keeping the Sabbath as Sabbath (27) he is speaking symbolically.

The goal, and in part the present possession, of the true believer is the Kingdom, also called the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of the Father. This Kingdom is not in heaven or (for that matter) in the sea; instead, it is within the Gnostic (cf. Luke 17:21) and the Gnostic is within it; he comes to it by knowledge of himself, i.e. of his true nature as a son of the Living Father (3). He enters it again because he has come from it (49), from the Light (50). The Kingdom is already spread out upon the earth, even though most men do not see it (113). In other words, Thomas has removed most of the eschatological element from Christian teaching. The Kingdom can be entered only when sexual distinctions have been overcome or obliterated. ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the upper as the lower, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female will not be female . . . then you will enter the Kingdom’ (22). Such a process is equivalent to becoming like a child (37; 46); it means that women have to become male in order to enter the Kingdom (114). This notion, perhaps developed from Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 (‘in Christ there is . . . neither male nor female’), is also found in apocryphal tradition reflected in II Clement 12:2 and in the Gospel of the Egyptians. Another picture of finding the Kingdom is set forth in terms apparently derived from the Gospel of the Hebrews. ‘Let him who seeks not cease seeking until he finds (cf. Matt. 7:7-8), and when he finds he will be troubled, and when he has been troubled he will marvel and will reign over the All’ (2; ‘trouble’ is not mentioned in Hebrews).

The place of Jesus in the system of Thomas is very high. He is, of course, the revealer of these secret sayings (and cf. 28). Simon Peter and Matthew presumably misunderstood him when they call him a ‘righteous angel’ and a ‘philosopher’; Thomas himself should not have called him ‘Master’ (13; cf. Mark 8:27-9; 10:17). Apparently he was not ‘born of woman’ (15, contrary to Gal. 4:4); he is either the Father or one with the Father. He is the Son of the Living One (37) and he is himself the Living One (52; 59). More than that, he tells his hearers, ‘I am the Light that is above them all, I am the All, the All came forth from me and the All attained to me. Cleave wood, I am there; lift up the stone and you will find me there’ (77). Even ‘God’ is subordinated to Jesus. ‘Give what is Caesar’s to Caesar, give what is God’s to God, and give what is mine to me’ (100; cf. Mark 12:17 and parallels). This may be the meaning of saying 30: ‘where there are three gods, they are [merely?] gods; where there are two or one, I am with him.’

In Thomas the Jewish and Christian doctrine of election is pushed to its Gnostic extreme. ‘I shall choose you, one out of a thousand and two out of ten thousand’ (23); the disciples are few in number (73-6; 107); only those who are worthy hear the mysteries or secrets (62). They are hated and persecuted (68-9); in turn, they hate father, mother, brothers, and sisters (55) though at the same time they either truly love their father and mother or else love their true, heavenly father and mother (101). In telling the parable of the dragnet (Matt. 13:47-8) Thomas therefore has to change its point entirely. In the parable, good and bad fish alike are retained until the last judgement; in Thomas, only one good fish is kept (8).

Along with sayings based on the gospels and on known Gnostic traditions, Thomas provides some highly mysterious materials which reflect his theology. One such item is found in saying 7: ‘Blessed is the lion which man eats and the lion will become man; and cursed is the man whom the lion eats and the man will become lion.’ This may mean that by killing and ‘eating’ the world the Gnostic overcomes it by assimilating it to himself; if the world eats the Gnostic he is, of course, vanquished. Again, in saying 11, we read that ‘on the days when you were eating that which is dead, you were making it as that which lives; when you come into the light, what will you do?’ The Gnostic consumes dead matter and makes it live, but when he comes into the light he will have nothing to do with matter. ‘Whoever has known the world has known a corpse, and whoever has found a corpse, of him the world is not worthy’ (56; cf. 80). The ‘corpse’ here seems to be the inner, spiritual man who has died to the world, as in Naassene theology.

The principal problems raised by the existence and nature of the apocryphal gospels -- especially Thomas -- concern the historical and theological value of traditions not preserved in the canonical gospels. A priori it is quite possible that ‘apocryphal’ traditions can be valuable historically. As Jerome suggested, there may be gold in the mud. It may be possible to show, however, that (1) sayings reported in Thomas but not in the canonical gospels reflect special (e.g., Gnostic) tendencies, while (2) sayings reported in Thomas and in the canonical gospels have come from the canonical gospels to Thomas. Admittedly, absolutely convincing proof cannot be provided in all instances. It may be that sometimes Thomas uses written sources, sometimes oral. But it should be added that since the norms for determining authenticity must lie in the canonical gospels, it is hard to see what contribution apocryphal gospels could make even if some of the materials in them should be judged genuine. It should also be said that their theological outlook can be of great assistance in dealing with the history of doctrine, but that since the Church generally rejected them at an early date (see Chapter 1) they illuminate byways or alternatives rather than the main roads of Christian thought.