An excerpt from The Gospel of Thomas: The Enlightenment Teachings of Jesus:
Peasants digging at the base of a cliff along the Nile River, in 1945, unearthed a tall, sealed clay jar that had been secreted beneath a boulder. The site of the discovery—near the village of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, about 200 miles south of Cairo—is three miles from what had been the ancient Christian monastery of St. Pachomius, founded in the 4th Century.
The jar, when broken open, held thirteen leather-bound volumes, or codices, which contained 52 tractates, now collectively known as the Nag Hammadi Library.
The writing on the papyrus tractates was in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language (still used in rituals of the Coptic Church in Egypt and Ethiopia).
In 1978, the first complete English translation was published as The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James Robinson of Claremont Graduate School—“an enormous influence on the study of early Christianity,” as one scholar has remarked on the volume.
As long ago as 1985, there were already 397 treatises that had been published on one of the tractates alone—the Gospel of Thomas, which has now come to be known among New Testament scholars as “The Fifth Gospel”.
Here are a few of the phrases that some of the New Testament experts have used to describe the discovery of this text:
“An influential and provocative source in discussions of the historical Jesus and early interpretations of Jesus.”
“The single most important non-canonical book yet to be uncovered.”
“A very important discovery…probably doing more as a single text to advance our understanding of the historical Jesus (and of the transmission of his teachings) than all the Dead Sea Scrolls put together.”
“Any discussion of the history of the synoptic tradition today must take into account the newly discovered Coptic gospel of Thomas, for here we have a gospel radically different from the synoptic gospels.”
“No composition from Nag Hammadi has generated more excitement or controversy than the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.”
“One of the most important archaeological finds in the history of New Testament scholarship…every bit as revolutionary for the study of the New Testament as the Dead Sea Scrolls are for the study of the Hebrew bible…an entirely independent ‘sayings’ gospel.”
“The most important part of the [Nag Hammadi] library for understanding the historical Jesus…”
“A gospel that understands ‘salvation’ to come from some other means than a ‘risen’ Jesus.”
“Could this new gospel fill in some of the gaps left by the canonical portrayals of Jesus, his life, his preaching?”
Unlike most of the other documents in the Library, the Gospel of Thomas is a complete volume in its entirety, although (like the others) there are some words that are missing occasionally among the sentences: surmised substitutions are usually indicated by parentheses in the translation.
The composition presents (what have been numbered as) 114 “sayings” or teachings that are attributed directly to Jesus, recorded in what appears to be a random pattern.
A list of what the Gospel of Thomas is not will indicate how different it is from all other scriptures (including those in the Library):
- It has no chronological narrative; no biographical detail, such as a birth scene; no account of a ritual with John the Baptist.
- There are no miracles; no crowds of followers; no temple confrontations.
- No crucifixion or resurrection tales; no theology of sin, judgment, hell or redemption.
- No misogyny (Salome and Mary are two of the five disciples named); no discussion of founding a church; no talk of a Second Coming; and no pious rephrasing of Old Testament commandments.
Excerpted from the first few pages of The Gospel of Thomas: The Enlightenment Teachings of Jesus.