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Why Shouldn’t We Trust the Non-Canonical Gospels Attributed to Thomas?
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Why Shouldn’t We Trust the Non-Canonical Gospels Attributed to Thomas?

 
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Why Shouldn't We Trust the Non-Canonical Gospels Attributed to ThomasWe’ve been investigating the late non-canonical gospels to determine why they were rejected by the Christian community even though they often contain nuggets of truth related to Jesus. These elaborate stories, legends and fabrications were written by authors who were motivated to alter the history of Jesus to suit their own purposes. They built these alternative narratives on the foundational truths of the original Gospels, however, and much can be learned about the historic Jesus from these late lies. Today, we’re examining the non-canonical documents falsely attributed to the Apostle Thomas:

The Gospel of Thomas (130-180AD)
This late non-canonical text was first discovered in 1945 as part of a large collection of papyri excavated near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. It is a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, written in the Coptic language, and attributed to a conversation recorded by “Didymos Judas Thomas”.

Why Isn’t It Considered Reliable?
While the text claims to have been authored by the Apostle Thomas, scholars reject this attribution. The Gospel of Thomas appears far too late in history to have been written by Thomas or any other reliable eyewitness of the life of Jesus. The oldest manuscript fragments of the text (found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt) are dated from 130 to 250AD, and the vast majority of scholars agree that the Gospel of Thomas was written no earlier than the mid-2nd Century. These scholars cite several passages in the text appearing to harmonize verses from the canonical Gospels. This would require the canonical Gospels to be in place before the writing of this text. In addition, scholars believe the Gospel of Thomas borrows from the language of Luke rather than the language of Mark. If this is the case, then this text must have followed Luke, a gospel which is known to have borrowed from Mark (and was, therefore, later than Mark). Some scholars even believe the Gospel of Thomas is dependent on Tatian’s “Diatessaron” (an effort to combine and harmonize the four canonical Gospels, written after 172AD), based on the use of Syriac colloquialisms. Bart Ehrman argues the Gospel of Thomas is a 2nd Century Gnostic text based on the lack of any reference to the coming Kingdom of God and return of Jesus. The earliest leaders of the Church also recognized the Gospel of Thomas was a late, inauthentic, heretical work. Hipploytus identified it as a fake and a heresy in “Refutation of All Heresies” (222-235AD), Origen referred to it in a similar way in a homily (written around 233AD), Eusebius resoundingly rejected it as an absurd, impious and heretical “fiction” in the third book of his “Church History” (written prior to 326AD), Cyril advised his followers to avoid the text as heretical in his “Catechesis” (347-348AD), and Pope Gelasius included the Gospel of Thomas in his list of heretical books in the 5th century.

How Does It Corroborate the Life of Jesus? 
The Gospel of Thomas presents Jesus as a real person in history and affirms Him as a wise teacher. The teachings of Jesus are paramount in this text and nearly half of its sayings are repetitions and confirmations of teachings found in the canonical Gospels. The Gospel of Thomas affirms Jesus had many disciples and mentions Peter, Matthew, Thomas and James by name. Other Biblical characters (Mary and Salome) are also corroborated, and the text also confirms large crowds gathered to hear what Jesus had to say. Even though the text is simply a collection of sayings, the Gospel of Thomas confirms Jesus was, at the very least, a wildly popular travelling teacher in the areas of Samaria and Judea. The text also affirms Jesus had brothers and sisters and mentions John the Baptist by name.

Where (and Why) Does It Differ from the Reliable Accounts?
There are many good reasons to believe the Gospel of Thomas was written by Gnostic believers who allowed their saving trust in hidden, esoteric knowledge to taint their description of Jesus. The text was discovered among other Gnostic works and opens with the words, “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” Salvation is found not in the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross (nor in “good works”), but is instead found in the secret, hidden words of Jesus if they are properly and insightfully understood. For this reason, the Gospel of Thomas fails to describe any of Jesus’ historic life and focuses instead on His words alone. This connection between hidden knowledge and salvation (or spiritual enlightenment) is characteristic of Gnostic groups of this era.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (150-185AD)
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, like the Infancy Gospel of James, is an ancient text attempting to details missing from the canonical Gospels. In this case, the author describes details that are absent from the childhood narrative of Jesus (particularly as His childhood was described in the Gospel of Luke). It begins when Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt, and describes the activities of Jesus when He was a child in that country. There are few surviving complete manuscripts of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and most date to the 13th century (although there many fragments dating back to as early as the 5th century). Some scholars believe the document was written in Eastern Syria, but the precise origin is unknown. The text was very popular, and the early Church Fathers were certainly aware of its presence and influence.

Why Isn’t It Considered Reliable?
Portions of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas claim “Thomas the Israelite” is the author, but this material appears to be a late addition and it is uncertain if it is referring to the Apostle Thomas. In any case, the document simply cannot have been written by the Apostle, given its late authorship and unfamiliarity with Jewish life and customs of the 1st Century. The text presupposes the Gospel of Luke and must, therefore, have been written after Luke’s text was distributed and well known; the author is dependent upon Luke for his information related to the life of Jesus, the Sabbath and the Passover. In addition, the text describes Jesus as a brilliant child, performing a number of miracles in Nazareth, completely contradicting the portrayal of the Nazoraeans as described in Luke Chapter 4. Luke describes the natives of Nazareth responding in shock to Jesus’ initial messianic teaching, seemingly unfamiliar that Jesus was anything more than a poor carpenter’s son. Irenaeus appears to refer to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and include it in his list of unreliable non-canonical documents described in “Against Heresies” (180AD). Hippolytus and Origen also refer to a Gospel of Thomas in their respective lists of heretical books (although it is unknown if they are referring to this text or the “sayings” Gospel of Thomas mentioned earlier).

How Does It Corroborate the Life of Jesus?
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas attempts to provide details related to the first twelve years of the life of Jesus (details that are unavailable to us through the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2). While much of the text is highly insulting to the character of Jesus as a boy, many facts related to Jesus are acknowledged here. Mary and Joseph are identified as Jesus’ parents and the narrative begins as they are fleeing to Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod. Jesus is described as a miracle worker, even as a very young boy. The text also describes Jesus performing miracles on the Sabbath and drawing the wrath of those who observed this, just as He often did in the canonical Gospels. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas also describes a scene in which Jesus identifies Himself as “Lord”, claims that He existed “before all worlds” and predicts his death on the cross. Jesus is also described as wiser than the Rabbis, and the text also indicates he was worshipped as God by those who saw His power.

Where (and Why) Does It Differ from the Reliable Accounts?
There are a number of distorted and disturbing characterizations of Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Jesus is often described as quick tempered, spiteful and disrespectful, almost as if the author was shaping him to resemble other Greek mythological “trickster” gods and pagan “child-gods” from antiquity. Jesus appears to be far more similar to pagan mythological gods than He is to the Christ we know from the canonical Gospels. Some scholars (such as Ron Cameron) believe that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was designed as a piece of “Christian missionary propaganda”, intended to demonstrate the divine nature of Jesus in a manner familiar to the pagans proselytized by the early Christians. These non-believers had their own set of Greco-Roman or Egyptian gods; the Infancy Gospel of Thomas compared Jesus to these gods in a manner designed to impress Hellenistic, Egyptian and pagan sensibilities.

While some would like to include the Gospel of Thomas as one of five Gospels describing the life, ministry and statements of Jesus, there were (and still are) good reasons to exclude it from the reliable record.CLICK TO TWEET

While some skeptical scholars would like to include the Gospel of Thomas as one of five early Gospels describing the life, ministry and statements of Jesus, there were (and still are) good reasons to exclude it from the reliable record (along with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). These documents are late fictions, written by authors motivated to use the name of Jesus for their own purposes. The four canonical Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) are the earliest record of Jesus, written within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally.

For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case ChristianityGod’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.



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Jesus’ Twin Brother, Thomas

I have mentioned in passing that there were some early Christians who thought that one of Jesus’ brothers, Jude (or Judas: both are translations of the same Greek word), was actually a twin.  Not just of anyone, but of Jesus himself.  Some readers have expressed surprise in the most succinct way possible, by asking: “Huh??”

I talk about the matter in a couple of my previous publications, especially when speaking about early Christian apocryphal texts that deal with the missionary exploits of the apostles after Jesus’ death.  We have several of these, including an Acts of Thomas.  Like the other apocryphal Acts (such as the more famous Acts of Thecla – an account of the adventures of the apostle’s Paul most famous legendary convert, an upper-class woman named, obviously, Thecla) , this one celebrates the virtue of celibacy and sexual renunciation, and it actually uses the idea that Jesus’ had an *identical* twin to advance its views.  I’ll explain how it does that in the next post.  In this one I’ll deal directly with the background issue, of how Jesus could have an identical twin brother.

Most of this is taken from my book Lost Christianities

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The view of sexual renunciation found in the Acts of Thecla recurs in other Apocryphal Acts as well. One of the most intriguing is the Acts of Thomas, an account of the exploits of the apostle Thomas, probably written in Syria some time in the third century.   It is a famous account, in that it is the first to present the well-known legend that the apostle Thomas became a missionary to India.  One of the most striking features of the text is that it assumes that this apostle Thomas was Jesus’ brother.   The name Thomas, in fact, is an Aramaic equivalent of the Greek word Didymus, which means “twin.”  Thomas was allegedly Jesus’ identical twin, otherwise known as Jude (Mark 6:3), or Didymus Judas Thomas.

One might wonder how some early Christians could have thought that Jesus had a twin brother.   If, after all …

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Jesus’ Brother and the Mythicists (Part 2)

In my previous post I pointed out that mythicists have a real problem on their hands when it comes to insisting that Jesus didn’t exist (well, they actually have a *boatload* of problems; but this is one of them): Paul actually knew, personally, Jesus’ own brother, James. It’s hard to say that Jesus never lived if he in fact had a brother….

It doesn’t solve the problem to say that this was in fact Jesus’ cousin, since, well, he would still then be the cousin of (the real) Jesus (!) (plus the word Paul uses is “brother” not “cousin”) and it doesn’t work to say that he is Jesus’ brother meaning he is a member of the Christian church (since Paul differentiates him from himself and Peter by calling him the “brother” – and both Peter and Paul were also members of the church!).

Mythicists have tried other approaches, including the one I discussed yesterday, of trying to claim that there was a group of fervent missionaries in Jerusalem called “the brothers of the Lord,” and James was one of them. No need to repeat yesterday’s post: that claim is bogus.

The one mythicist with qualifications in NT studies is Robert Price, a smart, interesting, and good guy (unlike some of the others …). But he too doesn’t think Jesus existed and he too has to explain then how it is that Paul knows his “brother.” One of the other possibilities that Price sets forth is the one I discuss below, again in an extract from my fuller study, Did Jesus Exist.

************************************************************************

Price himself puts forward a different way to interpret Paul’s words so as not to concede that the James that Paul knew was actually related to Jesus. In this second view (which, I need to add, stands at odds with the first), James is said to be the brother of the Lord because he reflected on earth so well the views of Jesus in heaven that he was his virtual twin. As evidence Price appeals to several apocryphal books from outside the New Testament, including the famous Acts of Thomas. This is the second-century account of the missionary endeavors of the apostle Thomas after Jesus’ resurrection, most famous for its stories of how Thomas was the first to bring the gospel to India. In this account Thomas is called the “twin” of Jesus. And why is he Jesus’ twin? For Price it is because Thomas, better than any of the other disciples, has a true understanding of who Jesus is, as indicated in yet another apocryphal book, the Gospel of Thomas (saying 13). In addition, Price notes several apocryphal works that deal with James of Jerusalem, which also call him Jesus’ brother. Price argues that this is because of his particularly close ties to Jesus and his clear understanding of Jesus and his teaching.

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This last piece of evidence shows where Price’s argument unravels itself.  The reason James is called Jesus’ brother in these other apocryphal works is because it was widely believed in early Christianity that James was in fact his brother.  These texts say nothing, not a thing, to counteract that view.  They simply assume a sibling relationship.

So too with the Acts of Thomas.  The whole point of the narrative of this intriguing book is precisely that Thomas really is Jesus’ brother.  In fact he is his twin.   Not only that: he is his identical twin.  This is not because he uniquely agrees with Jesus or understands him particularly well.  Quite the contrary, the very first episode of the book shows that Thomas does not agree with Jesus and does not see eye-to-eye with him in the least.   After Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas is instructed by the other apostles to go to India to convert the pagans, and he refuses to go.  It is only when Jesus appears from heaven that he forces his twin brother to proceed against his wishes.   It is only in a different book, the Gospel of Thomas, that Thomas is said to understand Jesus better than any of the others.  But strikingly, the Gospel of Thomas decidedly does not say that for that reason Thomas was Jesus’ brother, let alone his twin.

The reality is that there was a tradition in some parts of the early Church that Thomas really was the twin of Jesus.  The Aramaic word Thomas, itself, means “twin.”  That Jesus and Thomas were identical twins plays a key role in the Acts of Thomas itself, in one of its most amusing episodes.   While Thomas is en route (reluctantly) to India, his ship stops in a major port city, where the king’s daughter is about to celebrate her wedding with a local aristocrat.  Thomas as an outside guest is invited to the wedding, and after the ceremony he speaks to the wedded couple, but in a highly unusual way.  As a good ascetic Christian, Thomas believes that sex is sinful, and that to be fully right with God, people – even married people – need to abstain.  And so he tries to convince the king’s daughter and her new husband not to consummate their marriage that night.

But he is frustratingly unsuccessful in his pleas.  He leaves the scene and the couple enter their bridal chamber.  But to their great surprise, there is Thomas again, sitting on their bed.  Or at least they think that it’s Thomas, since he does, after all, look exactly like the man they were just talking with.  But it is not Thomas.  It is his identical twin, Jesus, come down from heaven to finish the task that his brother had unsuccessfully begun.  Jesus, more powerfully persuasive, of course, than his twin, wins the hearts of the newlyweds, who spend the night in conversation instead of conjugal embrace.

This tale is predicated on the view that Thomas and Jesus really were twins, in a physical, not symbolic or spiritual sense.

One might wonder how the Christians who told such stories could have possibly imagined that Jesus had a twin brother.  Wasn’t his mother a virgin?  Then where did the twin come from?

None of our sources indicates an answer to that question, but I think a solution can come from the mythologies that were popular in the period.   We have several myths about divine men who were born of the union of a God and a mortal.  In some of those stories, the mortal woman is also impregnated by her husband, leading to the birth of twins (it is hard to know how they could be identical twins, but anatomy was not among most ancient story-tellers’ long suit).   This in fact is how the divine man Heracles is born.  His mother Alcmene is ravished by the king of the gods Zeus, but only after she has already become pregnant by her husband Amphitryon.   And so she bears twins, the immortal Zeus and the mortal Iphicles.

Is it possible that the Christians who told stories of Jesus and his twin brother Thomas had a similar idea?  That Jesus himself was conceived while Mary was a virgin, but then her husband also slept with her, so that two sons were born?  We will never know if they thought this, but it at least is a viable possibility.  What does not seem viable, given what the stories about Thomas and Jesus actually say, is that they were unrelated.  On the contrary, for these stories they were actual, twin brothers.

Price claims that his view that a mortal could be a special “brother” of Jesus because he so well reflected his views is supported by a range of the Apocryphal Acts.  But he does not cite any of the others, just texts that deal with Thomas and James, the two figures in the early church best known precisely for being Jesus’ actual brothers.   But as a clinching argument  Price appeals to the nineteenth century revolutionary leader in China named Taiping Messiah Hong Xiuquan, who called himself “the Little Brother of Jesus.”  Price finds this figure to provide compelling evidence of his view.  In his own words “I find the possible parallel to the case of Hong Xiuquan to be, almost by itself, proof that James’ being the Lord’s brother need not prove a recent historical Jesus.”  That is, since Hong Xiuquan was notreally Jesus’ brother, the same could be true of James.

Now we are really grasping at straws.   A nineteenth-century  man from China is evidence of what someone living in the 30s CE in Palestine thought about himself?  Hong Xiuquan is living 1800 years later, in a different part of the world, in a different social and cultural context.  Among other things, he is the heir of eighteen centuries worth of Christian tradition.  He has nothing to do with the historical Jesus or the historical James.  To use his case in order to cinch the argument  is an enormous stretch, even by Price’s standards.

************************************************************************

I’ll stop here.  Jesus had a brother.  And it’s because Jesus really lived.

Jesus’ Brother and the Mythicists (Part 2)

In my previous post I pointed out that mythicists have a real problem on their hands when it comes to insisting that Jesus didn’t exist (well, they actually have a *boatload* of problems; but this is one of them): Paul actually knew, personally, Jesus’ own brother, James. It’s hard to say that Jesus never lived if he in fact had a brother….

It doesn’t solve the problem to say that this was in fact Jesus’ cousin, since, well, he would still then be the cousin of (the real) Jesus (!) (plus the word Paul uses is “brother” not “cousin”) and it doesn’t work to say that he is Jesus’ brother meaning he is a member of the Christian church (since Paul differentiates him from himself and Peter by calling him the “brother” – and both Peter and Paul were also members of the church!).

Mythicists have tried other approaches, including the one I discussed yesterday, of trying to claim that there was a group of fervent missionaries in Jerusalem called “the brothers of the Lord,” and James was one of them. No need to repeat yesterday’s post: that claim is bogus.

The one mythicist with qualifications in NT studies is Robert Price, a smart, interesting, and good guy (unlike some of the others …). But he too doesn’t think Jesus existed and he too has to explain then how it is that Paul knows his “brother.” One of the other possibilities that Price sets forth is the one I discuss below, again in an extract from my fuller study, Did Jesus Exist.

************************************************************************

Price himself puts forward a different way to interpret Paul’s words so as not to concede that the James that Paul knew was actually related to Jesus. In this second view (which, I need to add, stands at odds with the first), James is said to be the brother of the Lord because he reflected on earth so well the views of Jesus in heaven that he was his virtual twin. As evidence Price appeals to several apocryphal books from outside the New Testament, including the famous Acts of Thomas. This is the second-century account of the missionary endeavors of the apostle Thomas after Jesus’ resurrection, most famous for its stories of how Thomas was the first to bring the gospel to India. In this account Thomas is called the “twin” of Jesus. And why is he Jesus’ twin? For Price it is because Thomas, better than any of the other disciples, has a true understanding of who Jesus is, as indicated in yet another apocryphal book, the Gospel of Thomas (saying 13). In addition, Price notes several apocryphal works that deal with James of Jerusalem, which also call him Jesus’ brother. Price argues that this is because of his particularly close ties to Jesus and his clear understanding of Jesus and his teaching.

FOR THE REST OF THIS POST, log in as a member. If you don’t belong yet, GET WITH THE PROGRAM!!!

This last piece of evidence shows where Price’s argument unravels itself.  The reason James is called Jesus’ brother in these other apocryphal works is because it was widely believed in early Christianity that James was in fact his brother.  These texts say nothing, not a thing, to counteract that view.  They simply assume a sibling relationship.

So too with the Acts of Thomas.  The whole point of the narrative of this intriguing book is precisely that Thomas really is Jesus’ brother.  In fact he is his twin.   Not only that: he is his identical twin.  This is not because he uniquely agrees with Jesus or understands him particularly well.  Quite the contrary, the very first episode of the book shows that Thomas does not agree with Jesus and does not see eye-to-eye with him in the least.   After Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas is instructed by the other apostles to go to India to convert the pagans, and he refuses to go.  It is only when Jesus appears from heaven that he forces his twin brother to proceed against his wishes.   It is only in a different book, the Gospel of Thomas, that Thomas is said to understand Jesus better than any of the others.  But strikingly, the Gospel of Thomas decidedly does not say that for that reason Thomas was Jesus’ brother, let alone his twin.

The reality is that there was a tradition in some parts of the early Church that Thomas really was the twin of Jesus.  The Aramaic word Thomas, itself, means “twin.”  That Jesus and Thomas were identical twins plays a key role in the Acts of Thomas itself, in one of its most amusing episodes.   While Thomas is en route (reluctantly) to India, his ship stops in a major port city, where the king’s daughter is about to celebrate her wedding with a local aristocrat.  Thomas as an outside guest is invited to the wedding, and after the ceremony he speaks to the wedded couple, but in a highly unusual way.  As a good ascetic Christian, Thomas believes that sex is sinful, and that to be fully right with God, people – even married people – need to abstain.  And so he tries to convince the king’s daughter and her new husband not to consummate their marriage that night.

But he is frustratingly unsuccessful in his pleas.  He leaves the scene and the couple enter their bridal chamber.  But to their great surprise, there is Thomas again, sitting on their bed.  Or at least they think that it’s Thomas, since he does, after all, look exactly like the man they were just talking with.  But it is not Thomas.  It is his identical twin, Jesus, come down from heaven to finish the task that his brother had unsuccessfully begun.  Jesus, more powerfully persuasive, of course, than his twin, wins the hearts of the newlyweds, who spend the night in conversation instead of conjugal embrace.

This tale is predicated on the view that Thomas and Jesus really were twins, in a physical, not symbolic or spiritual sense.

One might wonder how the Christians who told such stories could have possibly imagined that Jesus had a twin brother.  Wasn’t his mother a virgin?  Then where did the twin come from?

None of our sources indicates an answer to that question, but I think a solution can come from the mythologies that were popular in the period.   We have several myths about divine men who were born of the union of a God and a mortal.  In some of those stories, the mortal woman is also impregnated by her husband, leading to the birth of twins (it is hard to know how they could be identical twins, but anatomy was not among most ancient story-tellers’ long suit).   This in fact is how the divine man Heracles is born.  His mother Alcmene is ravished by the king of the gods Zeus, but only after she has already become pregnant by her husband Amphitryon.   And so she bears twins, the immortal Zeus and the mortal Iphicles.

Is it possible that the Christians who told stories of Jesus and his twin brother Thomas had a similar idea?  That Jesus himself was conceived while Mary was a virgin, but then her husband also slept with her, so that two sons were born?  We will never know if they thought this, but it at least is a viable possibility.  What does not seem viable, given what the stories about Thomas and Jesus actually say, is that they were unrelated.  On the contrary, for these stories they were actual, twin brothers.

Price claims that his view that a mortal could be a special “brother” of Jesus because he so well reflected his views is supported by a range of the Apocryphal Acts.  But he does not cite any of the others, just texts that deal with Thomas and James, the two figures in the early church best known precisely for being Jesus’ actual brothers.   But as a clinching argument  Price appeals to the nineteenth century revolutionary leader in China named Taiping Messiah Hong Xiuquan, who called himself “the Little Brother of Jesus.”  Price finds this figure to provide compelling evidence of his view.  In his own words “I find the possible parallel to the case of Hong Xiuquan to be, almost by itself, proof that James’ being the Lord’s brother need not prove a recent historical Jesus.”  That is, since Hong Xiuquan was notreally Jesus’ brother, the same could be true of James.

Now we are really grasping at straws.   A nineteenth-century  man from China is evidence of what someone living in the 30s CE in Palestine thought about himself?  Hong Xiuquan is living 1800 years later, in a different part of the world, in a different social and cultural context.  Among other things, he is the heir of eighteen centuries worth of Christian tradition.  He has nothing to do with the historical Jesus or the historical James.  To use his case in order to cinch the argument  is an enormous stretch, even by Price’s standards.

************************************************************************

I’ll stop here.  Jesus had a brother.  And it’s because Jesus really lived.

https://ehrmanblog.org/jesus-brother-mythicists-part-2-members/



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Thomas and His Identical Twin Jesus, in the Acts of Thomas

In my previous post I mentioned the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas, a text that assumes Judas Thomas was actually Jesus’ twin brother.   Here I can describe the book itself, where the idea that the two are *identical* twins appears to move along the plot in a rather humorous way..  Here is what I say about the matter in my book Lost Christianities.

 

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The Acts of Thomas narrates the adventures of Thomas, Jesus’ brother, in his missionary work on the way to and in India.  The plot is fairly basic.  The apostles draw lots to decide who will go to which region of earth to spread the gospel.  The lot for India falls to Thomas, who tells his companions that it is the last place on earth he wants to go: “Wherever you wish to send me, send me, but elsewhere.  For I am not going to the Indians!” (Acts of Thomas, 1).

The ascended Jesus, however, has other plans for his mortal twin.  An Indian merchant arrives …

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fishician  September 4, 2018

This emphasis on celibacy seems to be a break from Judaism, which taught people to be fruitful and multiply. Did it develop from the belief that time was short, the end of the age is at hand, so turn away from earthly concerns including sex and family? Or was it just that all earthly (physical) pleasures were bad, compared to spiritual pursuits?

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    Bart  September 6, 2018

    Yes, it was originally rooted in an apocalyptic view of the imminent crisis. But it also stressed the need to live for heaven as opposed to the pleasures of earth.

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    • talmoore  September 6, 2018

      Celibacy was and is one of many forms of asceticism. Asceticism is an import concept in many religions, not just the Abrahamic ones. Indian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc.) and even Chinese religions (Confucianism and Taoism) honor and praise ascetics.

      There are many complex theories as to the origin of ascetic practices across human cultures (Nieztsche’s entire philosophy is built around explaining and criticizing such human glorification of asceticism, and I have developed my own theory in my research on the revolution of morality), but there are at least two direct ancient ideas connected to it.

      For one, asceticism appears to have a connection to ritual sacrifice. When we think of ancient sacrifices, we rightly think about the slaughter and cooking of a victim — normally some animal, but seemingly as often another human being — but a sacrifice could be any form of ritual offering and abstention for the sake of supplication to a supernatural power. In this mode, fasting could be considered a form of sacrifice. Severe austerity — such as we see with monks (both western and eastern), or with the ancient Cynics, or with Indian gurus, etc. — could be seen as a form of sacrifice. And, yes, celibacy or, more accurately, abstaining from ALL sexual pleasure would be a form of sacrifice.

      The second reason for celibacy, as explained by the ancients themselves, was the belief that the material world — which includes the material body — was corrupted and even evil. That is, the material that makes up the heavens (which appeared incorruptible and immutable, because the stars and planets never seem to change) is “good” so, therefore, the material world down here (which is definitely corruptible and mutable, because we see change and decay everywhere) was necessarily “evil” in comparison. Therefore, the ancients thought that interacting with the material-ness of our bodies was somehow tainting our immortal souls (which came from the heavens). And since sex was one of the basest things we could do — for what could be more animalistic than satisfying sexual urges? — the ancients considered sexual desire something that needed to be overcome in order for us protect our souls from the corrupting influence of the material world.

      The Jewish and Christian celibates we see in history — from Jesus and Paul, to Pope Francis — are all following in this ancient traditional ascetic view.

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    JohnDaugherty  September 4, 2018

    Every now and then we hear claims that Jesus spent his teens and 20’s in India. Maybe it was his twin brother Thomas! Thomas spent his time in India, got in some trouble over there and never wanted to go back. Now Jesus forces him to go back and he gets in trouble again!

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    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2018

      Yes, the legends are probably connected somehow. BUT, the idea that Jesus went to India, is a modern legend, not an ancient one, invented by 19th century forgers of “new” Gospels.



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Telling  September 4, 2018

Can we really say the Gospel of Thomas is calling Thomas Jesus’ twin brother? If “Thomas” actually means “twin” in Aramaic then it would follow that Thomas is called the twin brother in the canonical gospels.

But I don’t see either of these sources indicating Thomas to be Jesus’ twin brother, but rather is a twin (one of twins). His common real name “Judas” would necessitate a secondary name. Seems to me “the twin” is such an identifier.

Knowing that James was said to be Jesus’ brother, why wouldn’t Thomas all the more so have been identified as such if it were true?

Am I missing something?

 



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Bart  September 6, 2018

In the Acts of Thomas he is definitely the twin specifically of Jesus. Historically there may have been a follower of Jesus called “the twin,” but that just meant he happened the twin brother of *someone* (anyone!)

 

Telling  September 7, 2018

My mistake, Bart, I had “Gospel of Thomas” in mind with I shot back the post. There are pundits who believe the Gospel of Thomas indicates or suggests Thomas as Jesus’ twin brother, which is surely not the case. “Acts of Thomas” as you cite, is entirely a different issue.

You would agree, wouldn’t you, that nothing in _Gospel_ of Thomas indicates anything more than he was called the Twin (as in the canonical gospels)?

Bart  September 9, 2018

Gospel of Thomas appears to come from Syria, where the name Judas Thomas is attested, so the idea that the author thought of him as Jesus’ twin is completely plausible I should think.

Telling  September 9, 2018

Bart, I don’t understand.

If name Thomas, as recorded in the canonical gospels, means “twin” in Aramaic and Hebrew, which it does according to a quick internet search, and that this purportedly doesn’t mean that Thomas was Jesus’ twin,

Then why would the name “Judas Thomas” as recorded in the Gospel of Thomas mean a twin of Jesus, as you and other historians suggest?

What does it matter where the gospel was purportedly from?

Bart  September 10, 2018

It doesn’t mean that in isolation, but only because we know that in Syria, whence this Gospel appears to have come, there were traditions that he was a twinc specifically of Jesus.

Telling  September 10, 2018

Okay, I see what you mean and that’s a valid point, but I wonder if some wanting to knock the “heretical” gospel are making the sensational claim to more discredit it. Because, as you agree, in isolation it says exactly what the canonical gospels say.

Bart  September 12, 2018

Interesting idea. I’m not sure. That’s certainly never been my own motivation! I think it’s a fascinating possibility that the one who knows these secret teachings is none other than Jesus’ twin brother.

jdh5879  September 4, 2018

Have you heard of the Rozabal Shrine in Srinagar Kashmir India. There is a tiny Muslim sect (and locals wanting to promote tourism) that claim Jesus is buried in the shrine. There is also a Buddhist monastery (now in ruins) that is supposedly a location where Jesus attended a famous Buddhist meeting in 80AD. Souvenirs are available for purchase.

The stories of Jesus in India are not just aimed at gullible tourists – they date back to the 19th Century. They were part of attempts to explain the striking similarities between Christianity and Buddhism.

Bart  September 6, 2018

I don’t recall ever hearing that! To my knowledge, the idea that Jesus went to India first started cropping up in the 19th century, in forged Gospels. But I’d be happy to learn otherwise!

forthfading  September 4, 2018

Dr. Ehrman,

Do scholars give any credibility to this third century writing? Is there anything that could possibly be historical based on the methods available to historians?

Thanks

Bart  September 6, 2018

No, nothing particularly historical about it. It’s an important document for reasons other than the insights it gives into what really happened after Jesus’ life. It reveales the religious investments of a Christian community of the second century — itself an interesting topic.

Lev  September 5, 2018

I remember reading Acts of Thomas for the first time last year and being taken aback at the anti-sex theme. It’s quite disturbing that there were early Christians that held these views, and also puzzling given that Paul specifically teaches against this in 1Cor7:3: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.”

Bart – have you ever written anything on the development of early Christian views on sexuality? I am curious how early Christians came to hold such anti-sex views.

 



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Bart  September 6, 2018

It’s a major field of scholarship, but I haven’t written extensively about it. I’m thinking about it though. In my mind I’m calling the book “Early Christian Sex.”

DavidNeale  September 5, 2018

Which books of (what later became) the NT did the author of the Acts of Thomas know, do you think? (Sorry if this is a silly question.)

Bart  September 6, 2018

Actually it’s a great question! He doesn’t quote any of the books, so did he know them? By the end of the second Christian century he surely knew a bunch of them. But he doesn’t tip his hand. Too bad — we wish we knew



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DavidNeale  September 8, 2018

I was reading the (archaic 1924) translation on Early Christian Writings. I was intrigued by the note to the effect that the cryptic comment at Acts of Thomas 27 “Come, elder of the five members, mind, thought, reflection, consideration, reason; communicate with these young men” was a reference to Manichaean cosmogony. Is that true, or does more recent scholarship say otherwise? http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/actsthomas.html

I also spotted at 53 what looks like a reference to Matthew 7 (“…but in thy works art manifested unto us: and in thy many acts we have known thee so far as we are able, and thyself hast given us thy gifts without measure, saying: Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you…”) Does that suggest that the author knew Matthew? Or could he have gotten it from another source?

Bart  September 9, 2018

Really don’t know about the Manichaen references; and yes, possibly he knew Matthew — or it was such a common saying that he heard it elsewhere.

 



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PeteSammataro  September 7, 2018

Prof Ehrman,

There is an astonishing detail in the story from the Acts of Thomas that you discussed. You wrote that Jesus told a merchant that he had a slave (his twin brother) who would be ideal for the job of building the merchant’s castle. You also wrote that Jesus completed a bill of sale to the merchant.

Of course, I do not believe this story is an historical fact. I find it astonishing, however, that early Christians seemingly would accept the notion of Jesus as a slave trader. Worse, the slave he reportedly trades is his own brother. That’s not a very endearing picture.

Would early Christians have been troubled by the image of Jesus as someone who sold his brother into slavery? If so, was the author trying to make some kind of point?

 



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Thomas, the Synoptic Gospels, and Q

A number of readers have asked about Thomas’s relation to the Synoptic Gospels and the famous Q source —  that is, the lost source that both Matthew and Luke used for many of their sayings of Jesus not found in Mark (called Q from the German word Quelle, which means “source”).  Here is what I say about those issues in my textbook on the New Testament

*****************************************************************

 Thomas and the Q Source.         The Gospel of Thomas, with its list of the sayings of Jesus (but no narratives) reminds many scholars of the Q source. Some have maintained that Q was also composed entirely of the sayings of Jesus and that the community for whom it was written was not concerned about Jesus’ activities and experiences, including his death on the cross. If they are right, then something like Thomas’s community was already in existence prior to the writing of the New Testament Gospels.

Many other scholars, on the other hand, have their doubts. For one thing, it is not true that Q contained no narratives. As we have seen, two of them survive: the temptation of Jesus and the healing of the centurion’s son. How many others did Q narrate? Unfortunately, despite the extravagant claims of some scholars, we simply cannot know. Even more unfortunately, we cannot know whether the Q source contained a Passion narrative, even though scholars commonly claim that it did not. The reality is that our only access to Q is through the agreements of Matthew and Luke in stories not found in Mark. True, Matthew and Luke do not agree in their Passion narratives when they differ from Mark. Does this mean that Q did not have a Passion narrative? Not necessarily. It could mean that when either Matthew or Luke differs from Mark in the Passion narrative, one account was taken from Q and the other was drawn from Mark. Or it could mean that Matthew or Luke, or both, occasionally utilized their other traditions (M and L, respectively) for their account of Jesus’ Passion, rather than Q.

There is at least one stark difference between Q and Thomas, which relates directly to the beliefs of the communities that preserved them. We have seen that Thomas denies the future coming of the Son of Man in judgment upon the earth; this futuristic hope, however, is an important theme in Q. Some scholars have argued that Q sayings like Luke 12:8–9 (Matt 10:32–33), which speaks of the day of judgment when the Son of Man arrives, were not in the original version of Q but were only added later. Their reason for thinking so, however, is that they believe that the original version of Q was not apocalyptic in its orientation: any apocalyptic ideas would therefore not have been original to it. As you might surmise, this leads to a kind of circular reasoning, no less curious for being so common: if Q was like Thomas, it cannot have had apocalyptic sayings; if we remove the apocalyptic sayings from Q, it is like Thomas; therefore, Q was originally like Thomas.

 

The Older Sayings of the Gospel of Thomas

If the Gospel of Thomas was written independently of the Synoptics, what does one make of the sayings of Jesus that they have in common but in slightly different forms? Is it possible that Thomas may preserve an older form of some of these sayings that is closer to the way in which Jesus delivered them? It is generally conceded that this is at least theoretically possible.

How do we know when a saying is older? We will consider this issue at greater length in Chapter 15. Here let me point out one controversial criterion that some researchers have used. If there are two different forms of a saying, these scholars claim, then the one that is simpler and more direct is more likely to be older. The logic behind this criterion is that sayings are generally embellished and expanded in the retelling.

Not everyone agrees with this criterion, but it at least deserves some consideration. What happens when it is applied to the sayings found in both Thomas and the Synoptics? Sometimes the form found in Thomas can lay claim to being older. Consider the following examples.

 

Thomas

The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us, what is the Kingdom of Heaven like?” He said to them, “It is like a mustard seed, smaller than all seeds. But when it falls on plowed ground, it puts forth a large shrub and becomes a shelter for the birds of heaven.” (Gosp. Thom. 20)

And he said, “The man is like a wise fisherman who threw his net into the sea. He drew it up from the sea; it was full of small fish. The fisherman found among them a large, good fish. He threw all the small fish back into the sea; with no trouble he chose the large fish. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Gosp. Thom. 8)

Jesus said, “If a blind man leads a blind man, the two of them fall into a pit.” (Gosp. Thom. 34)

The Synoptics

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30–32)

[Jesus said,] “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 13:47–50)

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?” (Luke 6:39; the version in Matt 15:14 is somewhat longer)

 

Conclusion: The Date of Thomas and Its Traditions.              Although we cannot know whether a source like Thomas existed during the first century, there are good reasons for thinking that Thomas itself did not. The most obvious is that the alternative understandings that lie behind so many of Thomas’s sayings cannot be documented as existing prior to the second century.

This is not to deny, however, that individual sayings found in Thomas may go back to Jesus himself. Indeed, as we will see later, all of the sayings in Thomas, and in every other source, canonical and noncanonical, must be judged as theoretically going back to Jesus. Moreover, there are grounds for thinking that some of the 114 sayings of this particular Gospel, especially some of the parables, are preserved in an older form than in the canonical Gospels, that is, they may be more like what Jesus actually said.

Thomas, the Synoptic Gospels, and Q

A number of readers have asked about Thomas’s relation to the Synoptic Gospels and the famous Q source —  that is, the lost source that both Matthew and Luke used for many of their sayings of Jesus not found in Mark (called Q from the German word Quelle, which means “source”).  Here is what I say about those issues in my textbook on the New Testament

*****************************************************************

 Thomas and the Q Source.         The Gospel of Thomas, with its list of the sayings of Jesus (but no narratives) reminds many scholars of the Q source. Some have maintained that Q was also composed entirely of the sayings of Jesus and that the community for whom it was written was not concerned about Jesus’ activities and experiences, including his death on the cross. If they are right, then something like Thomas’s community was already in existence prior to the writing of the New Testament Gospels.

Many other scholars, on the other hand, have their doubts. For one thing, it is not true that Q contained no narratives. As we have seen, two of them survive: the temptation of Jesus and the healing of the centurion’s son. How many others did Q narrate? Unfortunately, despite the extravagant claims of some scholars, we simply cannot know. Even more unfortunately, we cannot know whether the Q source contained a Passion narrative, even though scholars commonly claim that it did not. The reality is that our only access to Q is through the agreements of Matthew and Luke in stories not found in Mark. True, Matthew and Luke do not agree in their Passion narratives when they differ from Mark. Does this mean that Q did not have a Passion narrative? Not necessarily. It could mean that when either Matthew or Luke differs from Mark in the Passion narrative, one account was taken from Q and the other was drawn from Mark. Or it could mean that Matthew or Luke, or both, occasionally utilized their other traditions (M and L, respectively) for their account of Jesus’ Passion, rather than Q.

There is at least one stark difference between Q and Thomas, which relates directly to the beliefs of the communities that preserved them. We have seen that Thomas denies the future coming of the Son of Man in judgment upon the earth; this futuristic hope, however, is an important theme in Q. Some scholars have argued that Q sayings like Luke 12:8–9 (Matt 10:32–33), which speaks of the day of judgment when the Son of Man arrives, were not in the original version of Q but were only added later. Their reason for thinking so, however, is that they believe that the original version of Q was not apocalyptic in its orientation: any apocalyptic ideas would therefore not have been original to it. As you might surmise, this leads to a kind of circular reasoning, no less curious for being so common: if Q was like Thomas, it cannot have had apocalyptic sayings; if we remove the apocalyptic sayings from Q, it is like Thomas; therefore, Q was originally like Thomas.

 

The Older Sayings of the Gospel of Thomas

If the Gospel of Thomas was written independently of the Synoptics, what does one make of the sayings of Jesus that they have in common but in slightly different forms? Is it possible that Thomas may preserve an older form of some of these sayings that is closer to the way in which Jesus delivered them? It is generally conceded that this is at least theoretically possible.

How do we know when a saying is older? We will consider this issue at greater length in Chapter 15. Here let me point out one controversial criterion that some researchers have used. If there are two different forms of a saying, these scholars claim, then the one that is simpler and more direct is more likely to be older. The logic behind this criterion is that sayings are generally embellished and expanded in the retelling.

Not everyone agrees with this criterion, but it at least deserves some consideration. What happens when it is applied to the sayings found in both Thomas and the Synoptics? Sometimes the form found in Thomas can lay claim to being older. Consider the following examples.

 

Thomas

The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us, what is the Kingdom of Heaven like?” He said to them, “It is like a mustard seed, smaller than all seeds. But when it falls on plowed ground, it puts forth a large shrub and becomes a shelter for the birds of heaven.” (Gosp. Thom. 20)

And he said, “The man is like a wise fisherman who threw his net into the sea. He drew it up from the sea; it was full of small fish. The fisherman found among them a large, good fish. He threw all the small fish back into the sea; with no trouble he chose the large fish. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Gosp. Thom. 8)

Jesus said, “If a blind man leads a blind man, the two of them fall into a pit.” (Gosp. Thom. 34)

The Synoptics

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30–32)

[Jesus said,] “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 13:47–50)

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?” (Luke 6:39; the version in Matt 15:14 is somewhat longer)

 

Conclusion: The Date of Thomas and Its Traditions.              Although we cannot know whether a source like Thomas existed during the first century, there are good reasons for thinking that Thomas itself did not. The most obvious is that the alternative understandings that lie behind so many of Thomas’s sayings cannot be documented as existing prior to the second century.

This is not to deny, however, that individual sayings found in Thomas may go back to Jesus himself. Indeed, as we will see later, all of the sayings in Thomas, and in every other source, canonical and noncanonical, must be judged as theoretically going back to Jesus. Moreover, there are grounds for thinking that some of the 114 sayings of this particular Gospel, especially some of the parables, are preserved in an older form than in the canonical Gospels, that is, they may be more like what Jesus actually said.



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