"These are the hidden sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down. He said: Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings shall not experience death."
This quote belongs to one of the most important and fascinating texts ever unearthed: The Gospel of Thomas (Gos. Thom.). This enigmatic piece, discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, contains 114 logia (or sayings) of Jesus written in the Coptic language. It was discovered among a larger collection of texts that scholars refer to as the Nag Hammadi Library. The Gos. Thom. is to be dated in the middle of the 4th Century C.E. Three other extant Greek fragments of this text were found at the beginning of the 20th century and are dated between 200-250 C.E. These scraps of Greek papyri contain only 20 of the 114 sayings of the Coptic version. With these earlier fragments, scholars speculate that the original Greek text of the Gos. Thom. must have been completed by the middle of the 2nd C.E.
In reading the Gos. Thom., one immediately notices similarities with the New Testament writings. But even with such congruency, some scholars believe that Thomas is independent from the canonical Christian texts. Thomas is simply understood to be an autonomous tradition. This assumption is partially based on the fact that collections of sayings were more primitive in form than narrative material. Proponents of this point of view date the Gos. Thom. in the middle of the first century C.E. Others argue that Thomas is not an autonomous tradition, but shows evidence of a literary dependency on the New Testament. To prove their case, scholars attempt to identify the redactional traits or particularities of the parallels between Thomas and the traditional gospels. As a result, a later date is given to the final redaction of the Gos. Thom., somewhere between 150-180 C.E. There is also a middle-ground position where it is believed that each logion (or saying) in Thomas must be examined on its own. Some sayings may show evidence of literary dependency, while others can be independent from the New Testament. One can also argue that Thomas is a collection of logia which stands between orality and textuality, where it is nearly impossible to identify its sources. Whatever opinion one has concerning the composition history of the Gos. Thom., one must not confuse its "sources" - that is, the texts used by the writer as the basis for his work - with the "final redaction" of the collection. Scholars need to determine when Thomas was completed rather than dating the sources used during its composition. It is safe to say that the Gos. Thom. was most probably a collection of sayings which developed and grew throughout a period of time (similar to a snowball effect). It was likely completed somewhere in the middle of the 2nd century C.E.
Following its discovery in 1945, the Gos. Thom. was immediately ascribed to the category of "Gnosticism". Scholars in the 60s defined Gnosticism as the various "heretical" groups which were opposed by Christian heresy-hunters in the 2nd century C.E. They also understood the term "gnosis" as knowledge of the divine mysteries reserved for an elite group of individuals. More recent scholarship considers Gnosticism to be a modern construct. We must also remember there was no clear "orthodoxy" in the 2nd and 3rd centuries; beliefs and practices were still a matter of debate. Christianity was still in the making. What people called "heresy" was, for the most part, just another expression of Christianity. At that time, there was no official established "canon" of Christian scriptures and many religious texts circulated throughout the Greco-Roman World. The Gos. Thom. was not a "heretical" writing; it was simply discarded as such by those who did not agree with its teachings. But even then, no standard teaching on many "Christian" issues is to be found. For example, there were several ways of understanding the notion of "salvation" (that is, humanity's ultimate destiny) in the 2nd century. The ideas expressed by Thomas on this question are also present in other early Christian writings!
So what exactly does the Gos. Thom. have to say about human destiny? Issues regarding the means of salvation were hotly debated among Christians in the first centuries of the Common Era. While some emphasized faith, others like Thomas, stressed the importance of knowledge. The opening lines of Gos. Thom. deal specifically with this question: "These are the hidden sayings which the living Jesus spoke... whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death." The text is characterized as a collection of hidden words. One quickly realizes that it is not the content of the words which is hidden, but rather their meaning. The reader is then invited to embark on a quest to decipher ("find the interpretation") these sayings in order to not experience death (Gos. Thom. 1). The text provides insight into how humankind must be awakened to its true origin in order to reach the divine realm and experience salvation (Gos. Thom. 18-19; 28; 49-50; 77; 84). In a sense, readers are to embrace the Greek adage: Know yourself! (see, Gos. Thom. 3; 5). This spiritual illumination would result in a state of transcendent "oneness" or "unity" (Gos. Thom . 4; 11; 23; 106), where the ultimate goal was to become like Didymus Judas Thomas, a "twin" of Jesus (Gos. Thom. incipit; 13; 108). In symbolic language, this refers to the return of the "elect" to the Kingdom (Gos. Thom. 22; 49). With such an otherworldly perspective, it is no surprise that Thomas undervalues the material world (Gos. Thom. 27; 29; 56; 80; 87; 110-111), as well as various religious beliefs and rituals (Gos. Thom. 6; 14; 27; 52-53).
The idea that salvation is experienced through the words of Jesus is not unique to Thomas. The same can be said about the Gospel of John, where those who keep the words of Jesus are promised everlasting life (John 8:51-52). The importance of knowledge in relation to salvation and to Christian life in general is also attested in the writings of Clement of Alexandria (150-215 C.E.). For Clement, the perfect Christian is a true "Gnostic", that is, a true "knower". The idea of salvation in Thomas is not so much different than what one reads in some of the New Testament writings or in other later Christian texts. With this in mind, it is clear that the Gos. Thom. is simply expressing different early Christian perspectives. It is not a "heretical" writing and should not be placed under the modern category of Gnosticism. Like the traditional New Testament writings, Thomas is also concerned with the reception and transmission of the words and teachings of Jesus. For scholars, this text speaks volumes about the history of early Christian literature and the various ideological debates of the 2nd century. The Gos. Thom. must be reinstated to its rightful place. It is part of the rich Christian literary heritage of Late Antiquity and a witness to the complex historical diversity of early Christianity.