Does the Gospel of Thomas dialogue with the Gospel of John?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: I have read where some people believe that the Gospel of Thomas preceded the Gospel of John in writing. Is this true or are people trying to make something out of nothing? Here's what the article said.

"Parallels between the two have been taken to suggest that Thomas' Gospel preceded John's work, and that John was making a point-by-point riposte to Thomas, either in real or mock conflict. This seeming dialectic has been pointed out by several New Testament scholars. With respect to the famous story of ‘Doubting Thomas’, it is suggested that John may have been denigrating or ridiculing a rival school of thought. In another apparent contrast, John's text presents a bodily resurrection, in contrast, Thomas' insights about the spirit-and-body are more nuanced."

Was John referencing Thomas' writings or vice versa? I saw this article in the article also.

"Craig Evans notes that the Gospel of Thomas quotes or alludes to more than half of the New Testament. This dependence shows that the Gospel of Thomas was probably written sometime in the second century, since its references include late first century works such as the John, 1 John, and Revelation."

Would this dating put the idea that John referenced the Gospel of Thomas to rest?

Answer: It will be a pleasure to answer your question today… although I don’t think you need me. You see, if you are looking to put these challenges “to rest” … then they are already at rest within you! You just need some confirmation, which I’ll be happy to provide. But this material will not put these issues to rest for people like conspiracy buffs who have an emotional need for the kinds of “secret knowledge” that must be hiding in any book that the religious establishment rejected. It also will not satisfy people who confound entertainment with scholarship — like those who think that watching a television documentary (and especially one that is purposed to foster doubt about the Bible) — is sufficient to make decisions that will affect their eternal destinies. These types of people will not likely be at rest with the canon… because only rarely is one “entertained” into a more profound knowledge of God and his word. That kind of thing takes work — such as the work you are doing on the issue!

People… and especially those who are not “people of the book” as the Quran calls us…  wrongly assume that some sort of council “chose” which books should be in the canon — and since human choice is fallible, they might have stuck some books in there which don’t belong. But more to your point, they might have left one out which should have been included… leaving a hole in God’s word! But no one chose which books should be in the canon; the books chose themselves, and their veracity was obvious to the early church fathers.

But if the canon coalesced so naturally, why do so many people assume that there an official moment where church leaders chose the books? I have no idea. But the usual assumption is that the canon was established at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The problem with this notion (and this is a testimony to the heartiness of conspiracy-thinkers) is that these were well-documented meetings. We know what they did… and what they didn’t do was choose which books should be in the Bible. But the most important thing to remember in this entire discussion is that the Gospel of Thomas failed on its own merits… or lack thereof. It is not a canonical book intrinsically. It failed to meet the most basic criteria.

The early church councils followed something similar to the following principles to determine whether a New Testament book was truly inspired by the Holy Spirit: 1) Was the author an apostle or have a close connection with an apostle? 2) Was the book being accepted by the Body of Christ at large? 3) Did the book contain consistency of doctrine and orthodox teaching? 4) Did the book bear evidence of high moral and spiritual values that would reflect a work of the Holy Spirit?

I realize that this does not address whether or not John was dialoguing with the Gospel of Thomas in the Gospel of John — and I am neither a scholar nor a specialist. But I am a regular guy who subscribes to the inerrancy of Scripture, and as that regular guy let me say two things.

First, Gnosticism was at least “in the air” in the Ancient Near East during the early Church era (although the bulk of its documentary evidence post-dates the canon), and the New Testament authors could have responded to that zeitgeist in any number of ways. After all, any author worthy of the name should address the issues confronting their primary audience. But would this be a problem for Scripture? Or is this what sometimes drives Scripture? I think the latter. (1 Corinthians 5:1)

Second, if it were found that John was indeed dialoguing with the Gospel of Thomas, would that argue for the Gospel of Thomas’s canonicity? No. Paul quoted from pagan poets on three occasions… and their very words became part of our Scripture! (Acts 17:28; 1 Corinthians 15:33; Titus 1:12) … yet no one considers those poems to be authoritative words from God.

Now… and I realize that I'm dodging the question a bit… but if the accusations were true that Thomas predated John and that they were dialoguing, would that really be a problem for scriptural inerrancy? I don’t think so. God used common language to communicate uncommon things — and if subtle interactions between writings were needed to do the job, then that’s how he would have done it. As such, you see how the date is not the issue. It’s just one item in a cumulative case either for or against scriptural inerrancy or the Gospel of Thomas’s veracity. So… and even if scholars universally agreed on the ancient dates themselves (which just won’t happen) … the process of fixing dates will not put anything “to rest.”

But let me give you a great gift in the person of Dr. Peter Williams. Williams is the Warden (CEO) of Tyndale House, and he is on the committee for the ESV Bible… so he has expertise in textual issues. But more importantly, he has a teaching that connects directly to your query. Now, the audio quality is not the best — it’s a live recording, he’s British… and can talk really fast… but he makes a nuanced case out of some brute data — like the number of times a name is used, it’s proportionality in the culture… stuff like that. These mundane elements testify to the veracity of the canonical Gospels while showing books like the Gospel of Thomas to be what they are… or more precisely… what they are not.

This YouTube video is about an hour-long, but I’d rather have you watch it for yourself than for me to tell you about it. (I’d lose too much in the translation.) And besides… I have nothing else original to say. But I commend Williams to you unreservedly… which is rare for me. He is a wonderful teacher, and I’m sure that you will enjoy your minutes with him.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20170213 Why isn't the Gospel of Thomas in the canon?).

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