The subject of the book is given by the subtitle, “Solving the mystery of the Gospel of Thomas”. The book suggests that there is indeed a mystery hiding at the heart of the Gospel and that this mystery is, surprisingly, a mathematical one. It proposes that Thomas is not the random and weird accumulation of sayings that most people, including myself, have previously believed. Instead, it is precisely organised according to a mathematical formula, which I call the Thomas Code.
I realise that this will seem an absurd statement to many scholars. In the accepted view, Thomas is an unstructured collection of sayings assembled in an ad hoc manner. Many scholars see it as a gospel that circulated in oral form and was only put into writing comparatively late. Others, such as April DeConick have gone as far as suggesting that different layers of the gospel were accreted at different times. There has also been controversy over the dating of the Gospel. Some argue that some at least of the sayings may be very early; others, such as Mark Goodacre and Simon Gathercole, place it well into the second century.
The picture of the Gospel that emerges from the Thomas Code could not be more different than the consensus academic view. Rather than a disorganised assembly of sayings, we have an exquisitely organised structure based on mathematical principles. Rather than sayings transmitted mouth to mouth like Chinese whispers, we have carefully crafted and sophisticated riddles. And instead of a verbally transmitted gospel that has grown in stages, we have a written Gospel that was created as a unified whole at one time.
The starting point of the theory behind the Thomas Code was reading an old paper by the radical Thomas scholar Stevan Davies. In this paper, he suggested that the Gospel was used for divination and actually had 108 sayings rather than the 114 in the conventional numbering system. He believed that this number had been chosen deliberately so that a saying could be selected by the role of three dice. This does not actually work perfectly because there are 216 combinations from three dice, so you would have to combine some numbers on the third dice to get to 108 permutations.
Although I did not like the divination theory, I noticed something very interesting about 108. The fundamental theorem of number theory, which was first discovered by the ancient Greeks, states that every whole number has a unique prime factorisation. This means that there is one, and only one, way in which the number can be expressed as a multiplication of prime numbers. There are an infinite number of primes, but they start simply enough:
2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19 …
What I noticed was that the prime factorisation of 108 was very special – it consists of the first two primes, 2 and 3, raised to their own powers. As such it is the second member of a series of numbers that rapidly gets very large:
22 = 4
22 · 33 = 108
22 · 33 · 55 = 337,500
Now a gospel of 4 sayings is too small and no one is going to have a gospel of 337,500 sayings. If you wanted a collection of sayings to reflect this principle then you could only use 108 sayings – so the number is mathematically determined.
Moreover, the pair of primes, 2 and 3, is unusual. It is the only time one prime follows directly after another. And if you add them together, you get the next prime, 5. You cannot add any other two successive prime numbers and get another prime. Try it with the above sequence of primes. No pair adds to a prime except 2 and 3. (Can you see why?)
The triplet of 2,3 and 5 is special. There are two twos and three threes in the factorisation of 108, so there are five factors in total. If we write this factorisation in a symmetrical pattern we get what I have called the Thomas Code:
3 · 2 · 3 · 2 · 3
We can use this sequence to organise the Gospel as a mathematical hierarchy. This is analogous to the way computers organise information, but as far as I know, it would be unique to the ancient world.
So far this has all been mathematical. But whoever composed the Gospel of Thomas did not think of mathematics like us. They were interested in the religious significance of mathematical relationships. In this mystical-mathematical system, the numbers in the Thomas Code had a divine meaning. The number 3 represented God the father and the number 2, Jesus the son. The Thomas Code binds the threes and twos together in an interlinked pattern.
We have not yet offered any proof for the Thomas Code apart from the proposed number of sayings. By itself, this is weak evidence because we cannot be sure exactly how many sayings the Gospel had originally. And even if it did have 108 sayings, the mathematical properties of this number could be just coincidence. The book, however, offers a large amount of evidence in support of the theory. It is divided into two parts representing the two major strands of evidence:
First, several of the sayings allude to the Thomas Code. In fact, one saying actually spells out the Thomas Code for us, factor by factor! But the significance of this saying has not been previously recognised.
Second, when we place the Gospel in the Thomas code hierarchy, numerous features and patterns that would otherwise be unsuspected become apparent. In one case I have been able to show that the probability of the pattern arising at random is just 1 in 120,000.
One of these structural features is something I have puzzled over for more than a decade; the Gospel appears to be coming to an end at Thomas 19, the five trees in paradise saying. The language is closely linked to the incipit at the beginning of the gospel in such a way that suggests that the five trees represent the Gospel of Thomas. And the previous saying, Thomas 18, gives a strong hint that the end is approaching and that we should look back to the beginning to understand the end. But why should the Gospel be called five trees? And why should it come to an end at Thomas 19 when it has hardly got going?
The answer to both questions can be found in the Thomas Code. Just to say here that the first major division predicted by the Thomas Code formula ends exactly at Thomas 19.
Another structural feature concerns the three sayings about searching and finding. These are Thomas 2 (actually the first saying, not the second), Thomas 38 and Thomas 92. It has long been recognised that these three sayings are linked, and it has long been suspected that they play some important role in the organisation of the Gospel. But the Thomas Code for the first time reveals what that role is. The three “keystone” sayings occupy positions at the head of major divisions of the Gospel. It should be emphasised that these positions are precise and exact – they are not one or two places out or anything vague like that. The positioning shows that the three sayings set the ruling principles for each section of the Gospel. And the Thomas Code explains why Thomas 38 has the present and then the future, whereas Thomas 92 has the past and then the present.
These features are just the beginning. The book goes through the Gospel section by section, showing the patterning of each. The Gospel makes extensive use of the principle of symmetry. We find chiastic structures both at the level of the individual sections and at the level of the Gospel as a whole. In particular the first and last sections are linked, which is one reason why the Gospel appears to be coming to an end at Thomas 19, which is the termination of the first section.
There is one other line of evidence in support of the Thomas Code, and it is perhaps the most extraordinary of all. As I was nearing completion of the first draft of the Thomas Code, there was one point that still bothered me. Was it really likely that anyone from the ancient world would have thought of organising a collection of sayings in this mathematically complex way? If I could find another example of an ancient text that was organised using this method it would provide the final piece of evidence. I did not find such a text. But I found something even better. I found a mathematical parallel in a Christian source.
The source organised a collection (a crowd of people) into a hierarchy just like the one I was proposing for the Gospel of Thomas. And just like the Thomas Code, this hierarchy was generated by a prime factorisation sequence. This could not be a coincidence because there were blatant clues in the source pointing to the prime factorisation. Once I had constructed the factorisation, I could see it was closely related mathematically to the Thomas Code. In fact, it was second in a family of sequences, the first of which was the Thomas Code. So what was this source? The feeding of the multitudes in the Gospel of Mark!