gofthomperrinI have just finished reading Nicholas Perrin’s article “Thomas: The Fifth Gospel” (JETS 49/1 [March 2006] 67-80) as well as the preface and Introduction chapter (one) in his book Thomas: The Other Gospel. Perrin is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He completed his PhD at Marquette University and his dissertation evolved into Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron (SBL, 2002).

Perrin gives a few reasons for writing this newest book which I will be reviewing, chapter-by-chapter, here. First, he felt that “there needs to be a scholarly yet accessible treatment of what researchers have been saying lately about The Gospel of Thomas. Second, “in North American discussions there is an unsettling homogeneity within Thomas scholarship. Third, he wants to avoid the basic question asked of Thomas–“When was this gospel written?”–in favor of fresh angles that will challenge the monopoly view of many scholars that Thomas is a first century document, maybe even earlier than the Synoptic gospels. 1

In his introduction Nicholas Perrin gives a brief history of the discovery of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 (also discovered was the Gospel of Judas).2 Then he proceeds to explain a bit about Thomas. It is a document that contains 114 sayings (logion) mostly attributed to Jesus. Since it is a “sayings” gospel there has been some comparisons to the hypothetical “Q” document. This has led to much speculation regarding the possibility that Thomas is earlier than the Synoptics and that the Synoptics developed tradition around those sayings that are found in a rawer form in Thomas.

Before the Coptic version of Thomas had been discovered there were a few Greek manuscripts that post-Nag Hammadi were recognized to correspond to Thomas. Those documents were found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. The fragments are named after this location and include P. Oxy 1, 654, and 655.

P. Oxy 1 corresponds to Thomas 26-33 and 77a. P. Oxy 654 corresponds to 1-7. P. Oxy 655 corresponds to 24, 36-39. According to Perrin, “The Oxyrhynchus fragments are particularly useful in that they provide a terminus ad quem for the dating of The Gospel of Thomas: the first copy could not have been written any later than the first few decades of the third century (200-20 CE). 3

Hippolytus of Rome, Origen of Alexandria, and Eusebius of Caesarea all reference or refer to Thomas. Hippolytus wrote in the second or third decade of the third century. Origen wrote these words sometime around this same time. Eusebius claimed that this was one of the heretical writings circulating which means it was likely well accepted by some groups. 4

Since the sayings are supposed to be quotations of Jesus of Nazareth the document cannot be any earlier than 30 CE. “This leaves us with a rather broad window: c. 30 – c. 210 CE.” 5 There are many differing opinions on where Thomas originates along this timeline.

There is much debate over whether Thomas can be said to be reliant upon the Synoptics, the Synoptics upon Thomas, or two parallel traditions that are not interdependent. Also, there are some questions related to whether or not the 114 sayings were written at once or whether the sayings just kept collecting over time. If at once, when, by whom, and so forth? If over time what are the earlier sayings? How does this shape our understanding of early Christianity?

Most Thomas scholars agree that the provenance of Thomas was Edessa (modern Urfa, Turkey). Many think the original text was written in Greek (Perrin argues for Syriac). 6

Is Thomas a “sayings” document? Perrin argues, “It is not entirely accurate to call the Gospel of Thomas a ‘sayings collection’. There are sayings, indeed, but alongside these are a number of miniature scenes and dialogues. 7

Also, there are many who suggest Thomas is Gnostic. Perrin disagrees. He writes,

While I agree that ‘Gnostic’ and ‘Gnosticism’ makes for a pretty unwieldy rug under which to sweep all those sects that are not ostensibly proto-orthodox, the term has its place, at least if defined accurately enough. All the same, I disagree with those who say that the Gospel of Thomas is Gnostic. To be sure, the sayings gospel shares many elements with purported Gnostic texts (elements of anti-Judaism, hatred of the body, secret knowledge, etc.), but there is no hint that Thomas’ Creator God is the same sadistic deity or pompous idiot that we meet in the Gnostic materials. Lacking these features, Thomas must be judged to be non-Gnostic. 8

So this is a bit of a sweeping summary of the groundwork laid down by Perrin. I will discuss the end of chapter one in my next post, but for now I will let this all too long post come to a much needed end!


[1] Thomas: The Other Gospels, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. vii.

[2] Ibid. 1-2.

[3] Ibid. 8.

[4] Ibid. 8-9.

[5] Ibid. 9.

[6] Ibid. 12.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. 13.