A “Thomas Movement”?
In my previous posting (here) about Simon Gathercole’s new and valuable introduction + commentary on the Gospel of Thomas, I mentioned one or two reservations, in that posting his omission of any reference to the possible technical meaning of “the tree” in Logion 30 (of the Greek text). The other matter I now mention is Gathercole’s repeated references to a Thomas “movement.”
The term “movement” suggests to me a body of people committed to a joint cause, and even self-identifying as such a group. In the hope that I haven’t misunderstood Gathercole’s intended connotation, I want to query the notion that there was in second-century Christianity a Thomas “movement.” There were, to be sure, Christians who composed and read the Gospel of Thomas. But did they comprise a “movement” as I take the term? I don’t share Gathercole’s apparent confidence in this. The text certainly does reflect Christians who thought of themselves as superior in knowledge to ordinary believers, holding what I have described as an elitist stance (see my discussion of the Gospel of Thomas in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, 452-79). But I wonder if they comprised a fixed circle, or were instead something more like a loose network of like-minded individuals, among whom this text circulated.
I’m not alone in this hesitation. I can cite two distinguished scholars who expressed a similar caution about positing a “community” or movement behind such texts. In an important (and insufficiently noted) essay, Frederik Wisse warned that “we need clear internal or supportive external evidence to conclude that the position defended or attacked [in a given text] is shared by a larger group or community,” and he continued, “The historian who ignores this runs the danger of creating parties or religious communities which never existed or which did not yet exist when the book was written.” Further, “…the beliefs and practices advocated in these writings, insofar as they vary from those reflected in other Christian texts, cannot be attributed to a distinct community or sect. Rather, these writings were more likely idiosyncratic in terms of their environment. The ‘teaching’ they contain was not meant to replace other teaching but to supplement. They did not defend the beliefs of a community but rather tried to develop and explore Christian truth in different directions.”
In a somewhat similar vein, the Coptic Christianity specialist Stephen Emmel opined about the Nag Hammadi texts, “. . . I think we have to do with the products of a kind of Egypt-wide network (more or less informal) of educated, primarily Greek-speaking (that is, having Greek as their mother tongue), philosophically and esoteric-mystically like-minded people, for whom Egypt represented (even if only somewhat vaguely) a tradition of wisdom and knowledge to be revered and perpetuated.”
The Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas were, after all, found lying in the same rubbish heaps in which the many copies of biblical texts were also found. That suggests to me that the people who copied and read the Gospel of Thomas were not a separate and distinguishable “movement” or “community,” but instead perhaps self-regarding individuals who found the esoteric nature of the text intriguing for one reason or another, the text passed hand to hand among them. There is certainly no evidence that the Gospel of Thomas functioned as the “scripture” of some group (i.e., read out in corporate gatherings as part of their distinctive group-ethos). We should also note that among the various “heresies” noted by writers such as Irenaeus, there is no reference to a “Thomas community” or “movement.”
There were no doubt particular circles of Christians who held to certain distinguishable beliefs and/or practices. The Marcionites are perhaps our best example, with churches of their own. But, I would urge us not to assume too much, not to create “communities” and “movements” too simply on the basis of texts that reflect some distinctive point of view. Sure, there is a small corpus of texts in which Thomas features, but was this anything more than a kind of religio-literary trope for some people?
 Frederik Wisse, “The Use of Early Christian Literature As Evidence for Inner Diversity and Conflict,” in Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity, eds. Charles W. Hedrick and Robert Hodgson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1986), 179 (177-90).
 Ibid., 188. See also his similar cautionary statements in “Prolegomena to the Study of the New Testament and Gnosis,” in The New Testament and Gnosis: Essays in Honour of Robert McL. Wilson, eds. A. H. B. Logan and A. J. M. Wedderburn (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983), 138-45.
 Stephen Emmel, “The Coptic Gnostic Texts as Witnesses to the Production and Transmission of Gnostic (and Other) Traditions,” in Das Thomasevangelium: Entstehung – Rezeption – Theologie, eds. Jörg Frey, Enno Edzard Popkes and Jens Schröter (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 48 (33-49).