Origen and Thomas 1: Introduction
- This is the first installment of excerpts from a paper I'll
be giving at this SBL on Origen's use of Thomas. My goal is
to have the paper in as good as shape as possible for SBL and
possible publication, so I would welcome any discussion on its
contents. Of course, since this is an email list, discussions
will take a life of their own.
The first substantive excerpt will come on Monday. Today is
an introduction that positions the paper within the scholarly
discourse on Thomas and Origen. Owing to technical limitations
involving ASCII messages for email, I have stripped all the
footnotes and formatting and transliterated the ancient languages.
--- Begin Excerpt ---
Out of the four dozen Coptic texts discovered in the Egyptian
desert at Nag Hammadi in 1945, perhaps the most sensational
has been the Gospel of Thomas. This gospel contains some 114
sayings of Jesus, about half of which parallel what Jesus says
in the synoptic gospels. Excitement about the find increased
when Henri-Charles Puech realized that three Greek fragments,
totaling about a third of the Coptic text, had already been
discovered at Oxyrhynchus a half-century earlier. Much of the
attention paid to the Gospel of Thomas has been devoted to the
question of its sources, with scholars arguing that some of the
unparalleled sayings may even go back to the historical Jesus.
Yet less attention has been given to its reception in antiquity.
Of course, commentaries of the Gospel of Thomas typically include
patristic parallels to the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, but
studies of its reception have tended to focus on Hippolytus of
Rome (d. 235), who mentioned it in connection with a "gnostic"
sect known as the Naassenes.
Origen, a younger contemporary of Hippolytus, is especially
well-suited for a study on the reception of the Gospel of Thomas
in antiquity. He was perhaps the most well-read Christian
intellectual of the third century and he amassed a huge library,
which he employed to further his prolific output of exegetical
writings, many of which have survived. Moreover, Origen was
more open-minded about citing “apocryphal” works than many other
ancient Christian writers, so his vast body of work promises to
contain several examples of his use of the Gospel of Thomas. This
paper surveys a half-dozen cases where Origen used the Gospel of
Thomas, both by name and anonymously—including one previously
unrecognized instance—and, based upon these examples, assesses
his attitude toward this text. In short, this survey shows that,
despite Origen’s recognition that the Gospel of Thomas did not
rank with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and despite the presence
of some content he must have found objectionable, Origen nonetheless
thought that the Gospel of Thomas contained historically useful
and homiletically edifying material.
--- End Excerpt ---
Stephen C. Carlson
Ph.D. student, Religion, Duke University
Author of The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark (Baylor, 2005)