The ancient battle over ‘fake news’: the heroes Judas and Thomas become villains

In this post I present some very brief reflections on the Gospel of Thomas.

Thomas the Twin. Thomas was the quintessential messenger of truth in early Christian gnosticism. The name appears twice in the Gospel of Thomas, once in the title at the end of the work, and once in Saying 13, where Thomas outshines both Peter and Matthew:

Jesus says to his disciples: “Compare me, and tell me whom I am like.” Simon Peter says to him, “You are like a just angel!” Matthew says to him, “You are like a wise man and a philosopher!” Thomas says to him, “Master, my tongue cannot find words to say whom you are like.” Jesus says, “I am no longer your master; for you have drunk, you are inebriated from the bubbling spring that is mine and that I sent forth.’ Then he [Jesus] took him [Thomas] aside; he said three words to him. And when Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?” And Thomas answered them, “If I tell you [a single] one of the words he said to me, you will take up stones and throw them at me, and fire will come out of the stones and consume you!”

The reader should appreciate the force of the final sentence: neither Peter nor Matthew can tolerate the truth that Thomas hears from Jesus. Indeed, not only will Peter and Matthew (and, by extension, all the apostles) revile the Truth upon hearing it, but the Truth will burn them up.

What we have here is a scene in which the characters represent competing religious traditions. Such a scene could not have been created before those competing traditions existed. The Thomas figure claims to have secret, privy access to the Truth that came from Jesus. Furthermore, that Jesus-Thomas Truth is hated by outsiders represented by ‘Peter’ and ‘Matthew.’

The association of Thomas with secret truth is reflected even in his name. ‘Thomas’ in Aramaic means ‘twin’ (Didymos in Greek), and the implication is that Thomas is equal to the Truth–even equal to Jesus. Indeed, in the gnostic view, ‘Thomas,’ ‘Truth,’ and ‘Jesus’ all merge, even as the enlightened being merges with the Godhead: “He who finds the meaning of these sayings will not taste death,” he “will reign over the universe” (GTh 1, 18) etc.

James the Just. A related tradition concerns James the Just. He, too, had an exalted position in gnostic mythology:

The disciples say to Jesus, “We know that you will leave us. Who will [then] be great over us?” Jesus says to them, “Wherever you go, you will turn to James the Just for whose sake heaven as well as earth were produced.” (GTh 12)

“For whose sake heaven as well as earth were produced”? This cannot refer to a mere mortal. In a gnostic sense, it can only refer to Gnosis itself. Thus, James the Just = Truth = Thomas = Jesus = anyone who possesses Gnosis.

It is no coincidence that James the Just is known to tradition as the ‘brother of the Lord’ even as Thomas was the Lord’s ‘twin.’ These characterizations show that we are dealing not with historical personages but with artificial figures representing doctrinal positions. The gnostic theology associated with James the Just and Thomas patently belongs to a pre-orthodox stratum of early Christian history (as argued in many posts on this website). That theology identified those figures with Truth, and the gnostics metaphorically placed those figures in the closest possible relation to Jesus: ‘brother’ and ‘twin.’ But the relationship was metaphorical, not actual, putting into high relief the absurdity of Christian scholars who see James the Just as a blood brother of Jesus (!), who try to divine how many and who were Jesus’ real brothers and sisters (!), and so on. Since Jesus of Nazareth was an invention of the Church, as Mythicists have quite rightly perceived, the common Christian belief regarding his siblings, mother, father, etc. is fatally misguided.

While the early gnostic tradition of James the Just was marginalized by the tradition and eventually ignored, the journey of ‘Thomas’ from hero (mouthpiece of Truth) to villain (non-believer in the bodily reality of Jesus and in the bodily Resurrection, GJn 20 etc) parallels the early development of Christianity from gnosticism to orthodoxy.

The Pharisees. While the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees is a major theme in the canonical gospels, it is less appreciated that such tension was already part and parcel of the preceding gnostic stratum. In my opinion, this furnishes evidence that conflict existed at the very incipience of Christianity between the Jewish hierarchy (‘Pharisees and scribes’ from Jerusalem) and whoever was the first ‘prophet’ to announce/preach the gnostic-Christian message, the message that would eventually grow to become ‘Christianity.’ That such a prophet must have existed is clear from multiple lines of evidence–especially (1) Talmudic reports, and (2) a core digest of pithy logia and parables, internally consistent and attested across Christian traditions, that defies the facile accusation of ‘invention.’ I have proposed (NazarethGate, chp. 14) that founding prophet to have been a figure from history known as Yeshu ha-Notsri, himself a turncoat Pharisee who taught individual salvation through gnosis and who was condemned and executed by the Sanhedrin about 75 BCE. To return to the Gospel of Thomas, we note that it also witnesses to a very early, pre-orthodox animus specifically against the Pharisees:

Jesus says, “The Pharisees and the scribes have taken the keys of knowledge and hidden them. They have not entered, and neither have they permitted [entry] to those who wished to enter.” (L. 39)

Jesus says, “Cursed are they, the Pharisees, because they are like a dog that has lain in the cattle manger but will neither eat [the food there] nor allow the oxen to eat it.” (L. 102)

Judas. In the Gospel of Thomas, the transmitter of Jesus’ secret gnosis is called ‘Didymos Judas Thomas.’ The complex name demonstrates that the author of GTh was writing at the interface of the Aramaic and Greek worlds, for Didymos means ‘twin’ in Greek and Thomas means ‘Twin’ in Aramaic, yielding the improbable name ‘Twin Judas the Twin.’ The only actual name in those three words is Judas, and his original moniker was ‘Judas the Twin’ (namely, of Yeshu/Jesus).

Thus, it is eminently probable that Judas was the bringer of gnosis in early (gnostic) Christian literature. He was known as Judas the Twin, or Judas Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas is really just one version of the Gospel of Judas.

It now becomes clear that, at the hands of subsequent Christian tradition, the figure ‘Judas’ experienced a downward trajectory even as startling as that of Thomas. The gnostic hero Judas metamorphosed into the canonical villain Judas, betrayer of Jesus. This, of course, is because gnosis itself declined from ‘that which saves’ to ‘that which is anathema.’

Let us not forget, however, that the gnostics were on the scene first, as is clear from many lines of reasoning examined on this website. The gnostics had the authentic Christian message. All that followed, including Jesus of Nazareth and his mythical siblings, is ‘fake news.’

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website


The ancient battle over ‘fake news’: the heroes Judas and Thomas become villains — 5 Comments

  1. Besides the canonical gospels, there are also Acts of Thomas and the Book of Thomas the Contender.

    The Contender reminds some readers of Buddhist sermons of fire.

    The Acts of T contain a few important embedded forms, such as the ode of the Pearl and the baptismal prayer.

  2. Yes. The Acts of Thomas knows both the apostle “Judas Thomas” (mentioned in the incipit) and another Judas who betrays Jesus of Nazareth (§32 & 84). This shows that ActTh knows and postdates the canonical tradition, while it also continues the gnostic tradition of Judas Thomas ‘the twin.’ The work is generally dated to the beginning of III CE (NTA 1989. II:323) and I view it as a late fusion of gnostic and canonical Christian streams. Nevertheless, the embedded “Hymn of the Pearl” (§108-13) is certainly earlier, having “circulated separately under the name of Judas Thomas” (ibid p331). Significantly, in that Hymn the son comes from the East and goes to the West in search of the pearl. This–as well as other hints–suggests Indian influences to me. The passage reads: His parents “wrote him a letter ‘from your father, the king of kings [= Gnosis?], and your mother [=Sophia?], the mistress of the East, and your brother, our other son [i.e. Buddhism?], to you, our son in Egypt [= incipient Christianity/Therapeutae?], greeting…'” (ll.40-42).
        I also agree with your view of Buddhist resonances in the Book of Thomas the Contender ((NHL II:7). That work contains striking Buddhistic elements, including: (a) emphasis on understanding as road to salvation (“he who has known himself… has knowledge about the Depth of the All”, 138:16); (b) the root of ignorance (avidya), “All bodies of men and beasts are begotten irrational” (138:40); knowledge of change (anicca) as universal characteristic of existence, “Now that which changes will decay and perish and has no hope of life from then on…” (135:5). We note that the three “characteristics of existence” (tri-lakkhana) in Buddhism are change (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and non-soul (anatta). These are all present in the Book of Thomas the Contender. Other Buddhistic elements in that work are encratism and the view that materiality is a decoy/fetter. In all, I would say that the Bk of Thomas the Contender is about as close to Buddhism as it is possible to get while still garbed in Western clothing.

  3. In Genesis 1:2, there is a deep sea, which in Hebrew sounds similar to Thomas. Could there be an intentional pun?
    In Greek, the same thing could be rendered as Bythos, name of one of the leading aeons in Valentinian cosmology.

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