(P) “These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and that Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.” (Coptic version)
(P) “These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and that Judas, who is also Thomas, wrote.” (Greek Oxyrhynchus version)
It was not uncommon in ancient times for a body of work, whether Greek or Roman, to have a prologue which briefly explained the material that followed. This particular prologue is brief, although it conveys a significant amount of information.
Above, we have two translations, the Coptic and the Greek. In the first line of both, we have a word that is generally translated as “secret,” despite the fact that it is commonly translated as “hidden” where it appears elsewhere in the Coptic version. Some commentators have made the point that “secret” is appropriate here because its use reinforces their position that this is a Gnostic gospel. Strictly speaking, however, it is not a Gnostic gospel. The Gospel of Thomas does not share the same interest in cosmology and ritual as do the so-called Gnostic texts. For example, in Thomas, there are no upper or lower aeons, secret hand-signs, evil archons, mystery rites, etc. In Greek, the word “gnosis” means “knowledge,” and indeed, it can be said that Thomas is gnostic with a small “g.” Thus, by knowing the truth of his oneness with God, man will understand his true nature. This is an idea repeatedly found in this gospel. But what is not found is any evidence that the Gospel of Thomas fits neatly into this wide-ranging and probably later development of the Jesus movement.
Why in this prologue is Jesus called the “living Jesus?” There is no clear evidence regarding this. It may refer either to Jesus before his death or, as some commentators have proposed, to Jesus after his resurrection. It may refer to Jesus as living because he lived in the minds of those who took his words to heart and embraced his wisdom. It seems more likely, however, that the writer of the prologue mistook the “Living One” in sayings 59 and 111 as referring to Jesus. The “Living One” in those sayings, however, almost certainly refers to the “Father” (God), not to Jesus. (See my commentary on saying 59.)
This brings us to another question: who wrote this prologue? It was evidently not authored by Jesus or even by Thomas, since it refers to both men in the third person. Its author is unknown. Whoever it was, he or she seems to have had some reason to think that Thomas was the compiler of this collection of Jesus sayings. Specifically, he identifies Thomas in the Coptic version as Didymos Judas Thomas. “Didymos” is the Greek word for “twin,” just as “Thomas” is the Aramaic word for “twin.” The man’s name was Judas, although his nickname was apparently “the twin.” Presumably, the word was repeated in Greek and Aramaic forms to clarify his identity among those familiar with one designation but not the other. Compared to other explanations for this duplication, this seems the most likely. The name of Thomas, of course, is recognizable from the New Testament gospels, particularly in John where there is mention of the Apostle “Thomas called Didymus” (John 11:16, 20:24, 21:2).
There is another voice in this gospel, that of the narrator. The narrator may, in fact, have been the same individual who wrote the prologue. It is impossible to say. His function is to make these sayings accessible to the reader. He is the one who introduces most of the sayings with “Jesus said.”
Lastly, some commentators have made the point that since half of these sayings were previously unknown, it is therefore reasonable to conclude that someone other than Jesus was the author of this gospel. This unidentified writer, they propose, borrowed half of the sayings from the synoptic gospels, slightly altered some of them, and came up with the rest somewhere else. He is the one, they argue, who should be considered the “author” of the Gospel of Thomas. That being the case, they further argue that the prologue should be considered the work of this unknown author (or authors). This last assumption is significant because it means that, if he wrote both the prologue and the sayings, the phrase “living Jesus” might indeed identify him as the “Living One” found later in sayings 59 and 111. As the author of both, he would certainly know to whom this phrase referred. However, this appears to be a rather complicated explanation. We should instead appeal to Occam’s razor, which maintains that “among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” The explanation with the least assumptions is that the Gospel of Thomas is precisely what the prologue says it is—a collection of Jesus sayings that begins where the prologue ends. Whether or not all of these sayings are authentic is another matter. The least complicated explanation for the prologue is that it was written to identify the author as Jesus and the compiler as Thomas. Nevertheless, this introduction to the sayings may have been composed in the early days of the Jesus movement or many years later. That question remains unanswered.