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A “Thomas Movement”?

June 9, 2015

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.”[1] 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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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?

[1] 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).

[2] 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.

[3] 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).

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  1. Gary Moore permalink

    Dear Professor Hurtado, what commentary would you recommend on I Corinthians that pays attention to the Greek text and the Corinthian culture? Thanks and keep up your good work. I look forward to each of your blogs. Gary CBC ’69

  2. I’ve seen John invoked to prove the existence (however small) of a Thomas movement; a friend of mine even wrote a university paper on the topic.

    John’s narrative doesn’t name most of the Twelve, but whenever he does mention Thomas, he’s a generally pessimistic character, and is the last of the group to accept Jesus’ resurrection. (In other words, Thomas’ knowledge of Jesus is consistently shortsighted.) In this regard, the claim goes, John intends to knock Thomas’ reputation down a notch in order to undermine a growing Thomas movement that he thinks is a legitimate threat to an “orthodox” Christian faith.

    It seems speculative, but John’s portrayal of Thomas is curious. What do you make of this?

    • I’ve dealt with this in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, esp. 452-83, esp. 474-79. The claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. GThomas is more likely reacting to GJohn.

    • Christopher Milligan permalink

      I wonder if the title of twin (Δίδυμος) could be attributed to double mindedness. Perhaps a case of scepticism taken too far?

      • No. The title reflects the notion that the spiritually enlightened are or become the “twin” of Jesus.

  3. Jack Dalby permalink

    Larry. Thanks for the thoughtful post concerning the creation of a “Thomas Movement” based on scant evidence. Don’t we, however, run into the same issue when discussing the very first followers of Jesus? Other than Paul’s vague comments about the beliefs of the pillars of the church ensconced in Jerusalem, we literally have nothing in the way of first hand testimony as to what Peter, James and company initially thought about the meaning of the resurrected Jesus. We assume their beliefs were similar to Paul’s, but were they? Acts purports to chronicle those early days, but does it? As Geza Vermes once noted, the theology of the Apostles, at least as its presented in Acts, is theologically simplistic when compared to Paul’s. Other than a belief that the risen Christ had ascended to heaven and was now worthy of worship in some sense, how much do you feel we can comfortably say about what the Apostles and James actually believed?

    • Jack: You raise a different matter from my point in my posting. But I’ll make a brief response: We do in fact have “first-hand testimony” to Peter, James and company” . . . Paul’s own references (e.g., 1 Cor 15:1-7; Gal 2). He reports directly from conversations with these figures, and registers nothing different in Christological beliefs, albeit differences in matters pursuant to Paul’s gentile mission. Heaven knows we wish we knew more. But we aren’t completely in the dark by any means.
      But, as I say, my posting was about reifying “movements” and “communities” behind texts too incautiously. A different matter.

      • Fred Weston permalink

        So the “Jesus movement” at least was real?

      • Uh, yeah. At least to judge by any competent historian who has looked at the data.

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