The Coptic version of Thomas (dating to the 300s) records that it was written down by “Didymus Judas Thomas”. This is an odd name. In fact, neither Didymus nor Thomas is a real name at all as they both mean “twin”. Thomas is “twin” in Aramaic and Didymus “twin” in Greek. So the author is described as “twin Judas the twin”.
The incipit to the Gospel is also found on the Greek papyrus fragment P.Oxy 654 dating from the 200s. Translations of this fragment invariably give the name as “Judas Thomas”. This would make more sense. Judas or Jude was a brother of Jesus. So “Judas Thomas” would mean that this brother was given the nickname of the “twin”. However, the name “Judas” does not actually appear on the papyrus because the sheet is missing a wide strip along the right-hand side. The only name on the surviving portion is “Thomas”. We know that the name is “ X called Thomas” but the X is entirely missing. It is simply assumed that X is “Judas” but could it not be “Didymus”?
There is a strong tradition about Judas Thomas in Syrian literature. Most significant is the Acts of Thomas (dating from the 200s) where Jesus sends a disciple called Judas Thomas to India. We should not be fooled into thinking this records a genuine tradition. In the Acts, India acts as a romanticised distant kingdom on which the author can project their fictions. In reality, the work comes from Syria. In the Acts, Thomas attends a royal wedding feast as the king is giving his daughter in marriage. Hearing about his abilities, the king calls upon him to bless the “bridal chamber”. Thomas does this and then leaves with everyone else. But when the eager bridegroom parts the curtains to enter the chamber, he is shocked to find his bride talking to a man who looks exactly like Judas Thomas whom he has just seen leave! The strange man explains that he is really the Lord Jesus: “I am not Judas who is also Thomas, I am his brother.” He converts the two to Christianity and persuades them not to consummate their wedding. Behind all this, we have mystical traditions about the “bridal chamber” and the divine marriage that is spiritual and not physical. But what interests us here is that the writer of the Acts knows of a tradition in which Judas Thomas is the twin of Jesus and an identical twin at that!
The Judas Thomas tradition develops in Syria and scholars have seized on this as evidence for a Syrian origin for the Gospel of Thomas. There are also similarities between Thomas and other writings from Syria, such as the Odes of Solomon. A few go as far as to allege that the Gospel of Thomas was originally written in Syriac. However, this is not generally accepted, and most scholars think that the language of Thomas was Greek. In fact, if we take Judas Thomas out of the equation, there is very little evidence supporting a Syrian connection. All the similarities can be explained assuming (i) the Gospel of Thomas is a remnant of the original Christianity and (ii) that this original Christianity was preserved for longer in Syria than in other places. The Gospel of Thomas may have been very influential in Syria, but that does not mean it originated there.
So was the Gospel attributed to Judas Thomas? There is, in fact, no evidence connecting Judas with Thomas from the first or second centuries. Early references talk about the “Gospel of Thomas” the same name that appears as a title at the end of our Coptic copy of Thomas. If the Gospel was attributed to Judas Thomas from the start, then why is it never called the Gospel of Judas? A Gospel coming from Judas, the brother of Jesus, would have more significance than one coming from just Thomas. This suggests that Judas was not associated with the Gospel in the beginning. The name by which a text is known is persistent. Once a name is well established, people will continue to call it by that name.
In the Rock and the Tower, I suggest that the name Judas became associated with Thomas in the second century, as Christians asked themselves who was the mysterious Thomas who was a twin of Jesus. From the evidence of the Gospels, there are only two men who were both disciples and brothers of Jesus; James and Judas. James was too well known for people to accept that he could have been the twin brother of Jesus. So the best candidate was the obscure Judas about whom virtually nothing was known. He was the perfect blank sheet to build new stories around. And once Christians accepted that Judas was the real identity of Thomas and the twin brother of Jesus, it became reasonable to add his name to the Gospel.
This leaves us with the mystery of Thomas. In both the Gospels of Mark and Matthew his name is listed among the twelve disciples. But neither Gospel tells us anything about him. The conventional view is that the Gospel is falsely attributed it to the disciple Thomas to give it authority, as was quite normal for early Christian writings. However, what has not been seriously considered is that in this case, the process worked in reverse, and the Gospel came before the disciple. At the time Mark was being composed, Christians were desperate for any fragment of material about Jesus. If they were aware of the Gospel of Thomas, they would have thought, quite reasonably, that this Thomas was a disciple. So they placed him on a list of the Twelve. But they knew no stories about him.
Things get interesting when we consider the other two Gospels. Unlike Mark and Matthew, the Gospel of Luke includes a “Judas of James” among the Twelve disciples, but he is not the same person as Thomas (Luke 6:16). The Gospel of John gives a larger role for Thomas than any of the other Gospels. It is here that we find the famous story of doubting Thomas. And John also has both a Judas (not the Iscariot) and Thomas as two separate disciples. So we have positive evidence that Judas and Thomas were not associated together in the first century.
Thomas in John
The most interesting evidence from John though, is that we find Didymus and Thomas associated together as “Thomas called Didymus” (John 11:16; 20:24;21:2). We should not attach importance to the fact that the order of the two names is reversed compared to the Gospel of Thomas. By the time John was written, Christians were familiar with Thomas the disciple from the other three gospels, none of which includes the name “Didymus”. So it would be natural for the author of John to give the familiar name first, and then add the extra information that he was also called Didymus.
This is important because of the evidence that the author of John knew the Gospel of Thomas and used it extensively in his Gospel. This idea has been around for some time. Elaine Pagel’s book, Beyond belief, popularised the notion that John was written in opposition to Thomas. She sees behind the story of doubting Thomas an attempt to discredit those Christians who follow the Gospel of Thomas, mocking them for not trusting in belief alone but requiring the spiritual experience of gnosis. However, I no longer think this was the case. The author of John respected the Gospel of Thomas and accepted it as genuine. But he stamped his own interpretations on the sayings, using them as inspiration for his narrative rather than repeating them verbatim. Indeed, I think it is the Gospel of Thomas that is the testimony of the beloved disciple that the Gospel of John claims as its special source of information.
The dependence of John on Thomas
My reason for believing these things comes from finding connections between Jesus’ farewell discourse in John and the Gospel of Thomas. This started with noticing numerous connections between Thomas 61 and the account of the last supper in John. These connections imply that the author of John had a version of Thomas 61 without the name “Salome”. I wrote this up in chapter 37 of The Rock and the Tower, and initially, that was that. However, as I was finalising the book, I began to notice other connections in this part of John with Thomas sayings. Every time I thought I was finished, I found some more! And there was something else. The order of the sayings in John was related to the order they appeared in Thomas. Eventually, I identified no less than 20 Thomas sayings that had been used in the account of the last supper and the farewell discourse.
This was an astonishing number of connections. But that was not all. Of the 20 Thomas sayings used by John, 16 came from just a small section of the Gospel between Thomas 23 to 45. Within this range, there was actually a set of 9 consecutive Thomas sayings all of which were used. If the connections I had been finding were random, a figment of the imagination, it would be very unlikely that they would be concentrated in just this small section of Thomas.
The advantage of having a large number of connections was that I was able to apply a rigorous statistical test. The observed correlation between the order in which sayings were first used in John and the order of Thomas, was 0.54. The probability of this being a random effect was only 1 in 2,000. However, it was clear that a small group of sayings had been scattered around within John. When I excluded these and Thomas 61, the correlation of the remaining 15 sayings was near perfect at 0.85.
The only way of explaining this data is that the author of John has used Thomas to construct his farewell discourse. He has started with both Thomas 61 and the synoptic account of the last supper and has combined the two to develop his unique take on the story. He has also used other Thomas sayings. As part of this, he has gone methodically through the Gospel in order, concentrating on the portion between Thomas 31 and Thomas 45 where he has used almost every saying. Because he does not understand the sayings, he has to interpret them, often quite wildly. This tells us that the order of copying was from Thomas to John. The author of John takes extreme liberties with Thomas. Sometimes he splits sayings into two and places the second part a little after the first part. We can be sure that the copying has gone from Thomas to John because no one could have constructed the Thomas sayings starting with John.
What was the original attribution of Thomas?
So what does this all mean for the attribution of Thomas? We have concluded a number of things:
- That the Gospel of Thomas was written in Greek.
- That the author of John used the Gospel of Thomas.
- That the Gospel of John has both Judas and Thomas as two separate disciples.
- The author of John believed that Thomas was also called Didymus.
All of these point to a conclusion:
- That John’s version of Thomas was attributed to Thomas Didymus and not to Judas Thomas.
Since John was written c100 AD, this is far earlier evidence than any of the surviving physical copies of Thomas. We cannot be sure, of course, that the original Gospel had the same attribution, but there is no evidence that it did not. Nor can we explain the addition of Didymus as a translation issue, since the author of John is using Thomas in the original Greek.
We are left with the puzzle of a Gospel attributed to “Didymus Thomas”. Neither word is a name, and they both mean “twin”. So why would anyone attribute a Gospel to an imaginary person whose name is the word “twin” in two different languages? It is a riddle. But as we shall see, Thomas is a Gospel of riddles!