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The Sayings Gospel of Thomas shares several of Jesus' proverbs and parables with the Synoptic tradition. Some websites place Thomas and the three Synoptics in four columns together, to be read in parallel. Now and then I see passing reference to Thomas as a 'fifth' Gospel, something to be held in equal regard alongside the four canonical ones.

However, I understand that even after many years the date of Thomas is still under debate, with some placing it as early as AD 50 (earlier than even the four canonicals!) and others arguing for a much later date in the second century. For those who date it early, I assume they imply it has some role in solving the Synoptic Problem because of the overlap in content with those three canonical Gospels.

Despite my vague awareness of this broad range, I am unfamiliar with the specifics that lead scholars to adopt their positions. What is the evidence scholars argue favors either an early or a late date? Is there a majority view? And, if possible, what arguments have there been for where Thomas may have been written?

  • An early Gospel, sharing much in common with the Synoptics, should logically be expected to not only be (well-)known to the incipient Christian community, but also to have achieved some canonical status, even if only locally and/or temporarily. In reality, the book seems to have been completely unknown to the ancients. – Lucian Oct 10 '17 at 19:33
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    @Lucian Most scholars agree that 'Q' existed and was very early, but was absorbed by the Synoptic narrative tradition before it gained widespread use as an independent source. Conversely, most scholars agree that 2 Peter was written quite late, so that it was unknown to 'incipient' Christianity, yet still achieved canonical status after its sudden emergence. Ostensibly, Thomas could have simply never gained popularity outside its original community, regardless of whether it was early or late. – user2910 Oct 10 '17 at 20:07
  • Thomas could have simply never gained popularity outside its original community - I guess the question then becomes why that was the case. – Lucian Oct 10 '17 at 20:18
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Date of writing of Gospel of Thomas

1. Argument in favour of earlier date of the Gospel of Thomas

Helmut Koester and scholars sharing similar position considers that Gospel of Thomas is an earlier writing as it contains no master plan except for a few catch word associations of two or more sayings. Following are the arguments of Koester to support his hypothesis:

a) The Gospel of Thomas lacks Jesus’ death and resurrection, which was the central focus of Paul’s Gospel. This, for Koester indicates that the Gospel of Thomas shares similarities with “synoptic saying source,” for instance Q used by Matthew and Luke also lacked passion narrative and resurrection. So the Gospel of Thomas could be of the age of Q or even prior to that.

b) The total absence of Christological titles like, Christ, Messiah, Lord and the Son of Man lets him conclude in this direction. He finds that except for Son of Man titles all are absent from Q too. he appeals to Dieter Lührmann and John S. Kloppenborg to suggest that Q was composed in two successive stages and in the earlier stage Q lacked the title Son of Man. The lack of Christological motif in the Gospel of Thomas and Q is also an evidence for him of its early composition, prior to Synoptic which are rich in Christological tiles.

c) He compares the Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels and finds that out of seventy nine sayings of Thomas with the Synoptic Gospel parallels, forty six have parallel in Q. But he discovers that the typical apocalyptic perspective of the Synoptic Gospels does not appear either in Q or in the Gospel of Thomas. The non-apocalyptic sayings of Gospels for him would predate the Synoptic Gospels.

  1. Argument in favour of later date for the Gospel of Thomas

Robert M. Grant, David Noel Freedman and scholars with this opinion considers that Thomas is a later writing. They notice that many of Thomas’ sayings have close parallels in Matthew, particularly with those materials found in the sermon on the mount (Mt. 5-7) and collection of parables (Mt. 13). Apart from this Thomas also has resemblance with the collection of sayings found in Luke (chs. 6,11,12). They discover that no special Markan materials are found in Gospel of Thomas. However, they observe that some of the saying which are found exclusively in Gospel of John (ch. 4,7,8,12-7), have also found place in the Gospel of Thomas. These similarities are the main arguments for Grant and Freedman to conclude that the Gospel of Thomas is dependent on the canonical Gospels and thus a later writing in the second century.

Harvey K. McArthur points that how come all the seven parables of the Kingdom found in Matthew 13 appears in the Gospel of Thomas (log. 8, 9, 20, 57, 76, 96, 109) if the Gospel of Thomas is not dependent on Canonical Gospel. Thus, the dependence of Gospel of Thomas on Canonical Gospel indicates later date of the Gospel.

Majority View

Most scholars now are of the opinion that the Gnostic teaching and the characteristics of the community of the Gospel of Thomas indicate that Gospel of Thomas is written in the mid second century. This goes well in line with the argument of McArtur as presented above.

Reference:

Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (London: SCM/ Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 87.

Harvey K. McArthur, “The Dependence of the Gospel of Thomas on the Synoptics.” in The Expository Times, 71 (1959-60): 286.

Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman, The Secret Sayings of Jesus (London: Fontana Books, 1960), 102.

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