The Gospel of Thomas


The Language of the Gospel

In studying the ancient text of the Gospel of Thomas the books that have helped the most are those of the Association Metanoia, both titled L'évangile selon Thomas. That by Phillipe de Suarez (1975) greatly assists with the Coptic and Greek words and notes especially some special nuances in the way they are used. The second, by Emile Gillabert, Pierre Bourgeois and Yves Haas (1979) establishes the original text, correcting errors and lost words, and gives an invaluable inter-linear word-for-word translation.

As one works with this original text it becomes more and more apparent that these are the words of a Master. Such texts are rare. In consequence every word has to be carefully studied, and due weight given to it. Failure to do so leads to missing the point, dulling the impact and the cutting edge of what is there.

One consequence of this approach is that it becomes clear that Jesus was bilingual, speaking in Aramaic to his Jewish listeners and in Greek to the Hellenists, some of the people amongst whom he moved who followed a rustic style of Greek living and used a form of Greek thinking. In some of the mini-essays that can be found below consideration is given to three crucial words that have even come through to us in the original Greek Jesus used.

For words of such qualities to have come through to us implies that they were properly understood by the listener, correctly remembered until they were put into writing, and faithfully translated. When Jesus spoke in Aramaic, that translation must have first been into Greek—for scholars generally consider the Gospel of Thomas was first written in that language—then into Coptic and then into a modern language. When he spoke in Greek, only two translations were needed. The person who stands out as the first, and most crucial, one in that sequence is Thomas.

We now know he was by birth a Jew, named Judas, but it is clear he was given the spiritual names of Didymos and Thomas. The first is Greek, the second Aramaic, and each mean twin. So this was some recognition, probably by his fellow disciples, of a special close and understanding relationship with Jesus. For those who have eyes to see, this is confirmed in saying #13.

One of the features of the language of the Gospel is the use of synonyms for some of the most important concepts. This is because the concepts themselves cannot be pinned down by mere words. Therefore the words used have a symbolic quality which point to the concepts they represent. To understand them requires getting beyond any matter-of-fact materialism.

Grasping of this symbolic form of language has been taken even further by help from another source. Maurice Nicoll wrote in two books 'The New Man' (1950) and 'The Mark' (1954) of the 'language of parables' that Jesus used; it was understood by his listeners, but has been lost to us. Nicoll lived before the Gospel of Thomas was discovered, and was relating his insights to the parables of Jesus told in the Gospels of the New Testament. However it has recently been found that his approach can also be applied to Thomas, where it throws light on some of the more perplexing sayings. A specially valuable example is discussed in the mini-essay below dealing with the word 'stone'.

Experience has shown that, to grasp the hidden inner meanings of these sayings it is necessary to gain a recognition and appreciation of the distinctive language—whether it is expressed in Aramaic, Greek, Coptic or a modern language—that is used in the Gospel of Thomas.