In the story, The Adventure of Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes confronts a mystery of a horse that has been stolen and its trainer murdered. He solves the mystery by what he calls “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”. When it is pointed out to him that the dog did nothing in the night-time, Sherlock replies: “That was the curious incident”. In The Gnostic New Age, there is also a dog that does not bark, the curious omission of the Gospel of Thomas.
DeConick is a well known Gospel of Thomas expert. She produced two books, Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (2005) and The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation (2006) which have been highly influential. She has also worked on the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of John and more widely on Gnosticism in general. Yet it is for her Thomas work that she is best known.
In her introduction to The Gnostic New Age, she recounts the story of how she started as a trainee nurse but realised that this was not her true vocation “with the first catheter I had to insert”. At the impressionable age of eighteen, she was left wondering what to do with her life when her mother gave her a copy of The Other Gospels by Roy Cameron. It was in this volume that she first came across The Gospel of Thomas and it was this very gospel that gave her the inspiration to go into academic life. No wonder she was drawn to the study of Thomas. This story is covered on pages 1-2, so I was looking forward to how she dealt with Thomas in the main body of the book. But amazingly, she doesn’t! This story of her eighteen-year-old self reading Thomas is the only mention of the Gospel in the whole book!
If anyone were to write a book about the development of Gnosticism in the early centuries AD and not cover the Gospel of Thomas, it would be odd. But when one of the foremost experts on the Gospel of Thomas does this, it is more than odd. It is suspicious. Does it point to where the dead bodies lie?
Perhaps she is having difficultly relating her theory of the development of Thomas to her theory of Gnostic origins. According to her Thomas theory, the gospel arose by a process of accretion. It starts with a very early apocalyptic gospel, which she calls the kernel, dating from 30-50 CE and structured around five speeches attributed to Jesus. She then sees this kernel gospel as being developed with a rolling series of accretions. These additional elements are a large proportion of the gospel, and she dates them to three time periods, 50-60 CE, 60-100 CE, and 100-120 CE. The more mystical or “Gnostic” elements she assigns to the later timeframe.
It is much to her credit that she regards much of Thomas as going back to a very early era. Unlike most scholars, she takes Thomas seriously. However, I do not like her accretion theory. It is rather too convenient. She can explain any anomalous element by simply assigning it to a later period. And would a real document have developed like this? Sure, texts get redacted over time, but such redactions tend to be relatively modest; a new line added here, a few words changed there. If you needed something more extensive, then you would simply forge a new document pretending to go back to some early figure. We find many examples of this both in the New Testament (the fake letters of Paul) and outside. What you did not do is substantially rewrite an existing text. Why not? Because your readers would be well acquainted with that text and would angrily reject your changes.
Thomas and John
The problem DeConick faces is how to relate her theory of Thomas to her theory of the emergence of the Gospel of John which she sees as the wellspring of Christian Gnosticism. The connections between Thomas and John are numerous and obvious. When Thomas was first discovered, it was thought that the author had used John extensively as a source. A new generation of scholars challenged this belief, pointing out that although the two gospels shared a similar “Gnostic” worldview, it was not obvious if Thomas were copying John or if both were independent witnesses to the same spiritual tradition.
Over the last decade or so, some scholars have gone further and proposed that John used Thomas. The most significant development of this idea was probably Elaine Pagels’ bestselling book Beyond Belief. In this book, she regards the Gospel of John as having been written against the Gospel of Thomas. She points out that both Gospels revolve around the concept of “light”, but with an important difference. In John, it is Jesus who is light of the world. Those Christians who live after Jesus’ appearance on earth can only attain the light by faithfully loving and believing in him. However, in Thomas, the light is within the individual disciple. As Thomas 24 says: “There is light within a person of light, and he becomes light to the whole world. If he does not become light, he is darkness.” This idea that the individual disciple carries the light within him or herself has a startling consequence. A person with the light within does not need external authorities or even sacred books. So we should not be surprised that the developing proto-orthodox church was uncomfortable with this “Gnostic” idea.
A major part of Pagels’ argument revolves around the figure of Doubting Thomas. In the well-known story, Thomas is not present when the other disciples witness the resurrected Christ. He tells the others he will not believe unless he sees the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and places his own hand in these nail holes and in Jesus’ side. A week later, Jesus appears to Thomas and invites him to do just this. He tells Thomas to “stop doubting and believe“. Thomas simply replies, “My Lord and my God!”. Pagels sees this story as a reaction to the Thomas Christians’ quest for gnosis and the direct spiritual experience of Jesus. Those who wrote John depreciate Thomas because they reject gnosis and emphasise the preeminence of faith and belief.
Pagels draws particular importance to the fact that Thomas is not present when Jesus first appears to the disciples. It is at this time that Jesus gives the disciples the Holy Spirit, and the power to either forgive or not forgive sins (John 20:21-24). The implication is that Thomas, unlike the remaining eleven, is not given the spirit and does not have the ability to forgive sins! She sees this as an attempt by the authors of John to deny the authority of the Gospel of Thomas.
John and Simon Magus
So what has this to do with The Gnostic New Age? The difficulty DeConick faces is that under her theory that the Gospel of John has emerged from the sect of Simon Magus following their conversion to Christianity. She sees gnosis as entering Christianity through Simon. But if so, what is the connection between John and Thomas, given that the two Gospels are obviously linked in some way?
Although Thomas and John share the idea of spiritual light, there are other Gnostic elements in Thomas that are not found in John. For example, the speculations on the creation of Adam, and the theme of making the two one and uniting the male and the female. This means that Thomas cannot simply have copied all its Gnostic ideas from John.
So did Thomas also emerge from the sect of Simon? Given the differences in approach between the two Gospels, it is difficult to see them as two productions of the same group. So we are left with the idea that Thomas somehow emerged independently of John.
An embarrassing abundance of Gnostics
DeConick’s theory already suffers from the embarrassment of Paul who has a strong Gnostic side. She believes that Paul’s Gnosticism came about more or less spontaneously with his dramatic spiritual conversion. So she already has two independent points of entry for gnosticism into Christianity, one through Paul and the other through Simon Magus. Two is one too many.
Things get even worse when we consider Paul’s rival Apollos who features in 1 Corinthians. Surprisingly, DeConick swallows the account in Acts that Apollos is teaching the baptism of John. Yet it is clear from a sensitive reading of 1 Corinthians that Apollos is teaching a more spiritual and gnostic gospel than Paul. Why else is Paul so defensive about Apollos that he brags about the mysteries he could have taught the Corinthians had they been ready? And why does be berate the Corinthians for proto-Gnostic beliefs which they could only have absorbed through Apollos?
So we now have four distinct points of entry of Gnosticism into Christianity:
- The Gospel of John (presumed by DeConick to come from Simon Magus)
- The Gospel of Thomas
Clearly, things are getting absurd! A better explanation is that all the strands of gnosticism go back ultimately to the same source at the very beginnings of Christianity. Indeed, there is some overlap between the Gospel of Thomas and Paul, and the times that Paul comes closest to Thomas are precisely when he is responding to the teachings of Apollos. So Is Apollos teaching from the Gospel of Thomas? If so then Thomas was in existence very early, perhaps as early as the 50s AD. We should remember that although Paul has become the great authority for the Protestant church, he was regarded in his own lifetime as something of a loose cannon. Some even doubted that he was an apostle at all. Apollos had probably been sent to the Corinthians to correct Paul’s erroneous teachings. In response, a defensive Paul shows that he too has access to the mysteries, the secret knowledge from the Gospel of Thomas.
John’s dependence on Thomas
In reality, the Gospel of John has copied Thomas and copied it extensively. There is no need to hypothesise a connection between the Gospel of John and Simon Magus. John has got its Gnosticism direct from Thomas. The authors of John are trying to put the Gospel of Thomas into the framework of the new fangled literalistic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. The connections that Pagels and others have found are valid but are far more extensive than they have realised.
In The Rock and the Tower, I included a chapter on the beloved disciple, who at the end of John, is claimed as the source of the Gospel. I had noticed similarities between the additions that John makes to the story of the last supper as found in the Synoptics and Thomas 61. It seems that the author of John had a version of 61 without the name “Salome” (I suspect that almost all of the named disciples in Thomas have been added by a redactor in the second century). If we identify the beloved disciple with the disciple who is called “Salome” in our Coptic version of 61, the correspondence is very close. The setting of Jesus sharing a couch with the beloved disciple comes from Thomas 61, and there are other similarities between the story and the saying, including vocabulary. The strange comment in John 21:22-23 about the brothers having a saying in which the beloved disciple would not die is explained by the first part of Thomas 61: “Two shall rest upon a couch; one shall die, the other live”.
It was while finalising this chapter that I noticed that Thomas 61 was not alone in being connected to John’s last supper. I found another Thomas saying that was connected with the episode of washing the feet. Then I found another saying that was connected and another. It became clear that John was using the Thomas sayings more or less consecutively and in order. Eventually, I found no less than twenty sayings in Thomas which were connected with the Gospel of John’s last supper account. These were taken overwhelmingly from just a small section of Thomas. Indeed, there was a lengthy sequence in which every Thomas saying was used. And a statistical test confirmed that the order between the sayings in Thomas and the use of the sayings in John was indeed highly correlated.
So what about Doubting Thomas? If the author of John has used Thomas as extensively as it seems, then he cannot have had a negative opinion of its supposed author. In The Rock and the Tower, I argue that Thomas was originally known as The Gospel of the Twin, and was associated with John Mark. So the testimony of the beloved disciple on which John is based is actually what we now call the Gospel of Thomas!