The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice by Stevan Davies & Andrew Harvey (2002)

, 7 Jan 2017


The Gospel of Thomas is one of the main non-Canonical texts, a collection of about 150 sayings probably originated amid the Syrian Early Christian Church.This Gospel is contemporary to Mark's but a precedes it, and it was written about the year 62 AD; therefore, some of the sayings, about half of them, can be found in Mark's, Luke's and Matthew's, but they came to be gathered not from the Canonical Gospels but from other sources, and they are in a more primitive or less elaborate state in Thomas'.  You will immediately recognise some of them. Yet, read within the context of this Gospel, they are charged with new meanings, and they are not in the same sequence as they appear in the Canon The main difference with the Canonical Gospels are in the absence of references to the crucifixion and resurrection, they don't present Jesus as the Messiah, the theme of sin-salvation is absent here, and the Kingdom of God is not about the clouds but in the here and now. 

Although usually called a Gnostic Gospel, the nature, format and themes of this Gospel aren't Gnostic at all. However, the fact that was discovered in 1945 with a bunch of properly Gnostic texts made the association easily.

This is one of those texts necessary to understand early Christianity and get a view of Jesus and of his message that is similar to the Canonical texts but essentially divergent from those. These sayings are intended to be cryptic on purpose so as to facilitate believers 's reflection, introspection and initiation into what is supposed to be the real message of Jesus.
 In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus reveals his mysteries obliquely, indirectly, through parables and proverbs and obscure statements. Those worthy of the mysteries, therefore, are those who have proved themselves able to fathom them, seek their meaning, and find their interpretation. Jesus does not reveal his mysteries to you; he reveals the opportunity for you to find the meaning of those mysteries on your own." (p. 82).


The Gospel of Thomas is very fresh and intimate. The canonical contextualisation we find in the other Gospels is absent from these sayings, so we have a rawer material and a rawer Jesus in a way. One feels as those disciples might have felt when hearing a remarkable man speaking in mysterious but profound ways.

The beauty of this Gospel also relies on the fact that it requires the reader's complete involvement. The aim of this Gospel is not to that of lecturing you on what to do, what not to do, good and evil, the aim is to make readers find our own way to enlightenment.

If one sets aside that these sayings are Jesus', the text still has great spiritual and intellectual juice. One of the most remarkable things about this Gospel, to me, is its modernity, and how can connect with modern spiritual seekers but also with old traditional forms of spirituality, as the wisdom of embedded in this Gospel has a Universal nature.  Agnostics, liberal Christians, mainstream Christians, Buddhists, Sufis and Native Indian Americans, among others, will certainly have no problems with the main messages conveyed by this collection of sayings. Conservative and fundamentalist Christians will have problem digesting these texts, so beware.

As a lover of Zen and of Jungian literature, I thought that some of these sayings are very Jungian; or said differently,  having a general knowledge of Jungian Psychology sheds light on some of the most obscure sayings At the same time, the sayings share some similarity with the puzzling shocking nature of  koans, as are they designed to appear nonsensical, shock and make you question what you are reading or hearing, question reality itself.



The introductory part has different parts. Preface, Foreword, About the Gospel of Thomas, Introduction and Cast of Characters.

I personally find the foreword by Andrew Harvey especially inspired, as he's able to connect this Gospel with different spiritual movements. The proper introduction is aimed to the general public, therefore, it covers all the basic one needs to know but without providing details or scholarly stuff to back up some of the things said. Nothing overly complicated is mentioned, but all the basics you know to know about this Gospel are there, and those would be more than enough for most people. I thought that the Introduction was acceptable and helpful.


 I found  all the structure of the introductory part a bit chaotic. To me, it would have make more sense to start with the introduction, continue with the foreword and preface. However, that is impossible because there are at least two people writing the introductory bits, separately and without much communication among them, as some things are repeated. I would have eliminated the 'cast of characters' part (which is superficial and unnecessary unless you are totally unfamiliar with Christianity) and incorporated the part called the 'Gospel of Thomas' into the introduction. I would have also incorporated into the Introduction all the considerations that Davis makes in the notes devoted to the characteristics of the Gospel and not to the saying being commented upon; I would also do the same with the quotes by scholars that relate to the Gospel not to the saying commented, which happen to be included also in the notes.
⤐  It's not clear who has written what. The foreword is by Andrew Harvey while the translation and notes are by Davis, so who wrote the rest? Ron Miller? The Cover of the hard-copy seems to indicate that, but the book I have in my Kindle doesn't mention Ron Miller at all. I found all of this a bit confusing a a total turn off.
Although the authors mention that they don't want to interpret the sayings for us, as this goes against the original nature of this Gospel, Harvey does the contrary in part of the foreword and Davis does the same, many times, in his commentary.


The translation presented in this edition was done using the original Coptic and Greek manuscripts, so it is not a translation of a translation, as many others are. That is great. I found the translation acceptable and readable. I am not a translator of Greek or Coptic, of our Early Christian texts, but I'm familiar with translation and I know how difficult and frustrating is interpreting texts with anacolutha and/or destroyed parts of the text when no further context is available. Some of the notes point out the difficulties found by the translator (Davis in this case) to properly translate and interpret the sayings.


Generally speaking, I found Davis' annotations helpful for the lay reader and for the general public. I especially like those notes that provide cross-references between themes, messages and episodes in the Gospel that relate to others mentioned in the canonical Gospels. I also liked that Davis was able to read the text as a whole, and give some interpretations taking into account the semantic integrity of the text as a whole.


 I found some of Davis' annotations preposterous, speculative, contradictory between themselves, and off point. Some of the notes extend unnecessarily explaining things that seem to be quite straightforward, while others that are not so as presented as such. Other times the sayings are taken literally and therefore the author finds himself with contradictions where there is none. In other occasions, the explanations aren't satisfactory, perhaps because they seem to be lacking something or perhaps because Davis has in mind something he is familiar with but is not explaining to the reader.

I will provide some samples of comments that I found, just to give you a taste of what you might find:
⇻⇻⇻⇻ Example of contradictory examples
 When commenting saying 4a, which has a reference to  a seven-day-old baby, Davis says: "The specific symbolism of a “seven-day-old” infant suggests a time before circumcision, which was performed on the eighth day (and according to Thomas, circumcision is a senseless custom [saying 53]). The infant of seven days may also refer to the Image of God, who existed on the seventh day before the second round of creation brought Adam into being. "
 Then he comments on saying 22, which also mentions a seven-day-old baby, Davis mentions the connection, but here he says that the meaning of this seven-day-old status probably relates to the seventh day of the original creation described in Genesis. 
I am not saying that what he says is not correct, as a reader I see Davis using the same element seven-day-old baby, and giving it two completely different meanings so which one is valid? 
⇻⇻⇻⇻ Example of taking things literally
 Davis finds contradiction between saying 22 and saying 114 and comments: "Jesus rejects the males-only view put into the mouth of Peter, with an anti-woman perspective, for women are to make themselves men. Probably that strange notion has to do with the idea that “woman” represents passions and “man” represents reason, in accordance with some of the symbolic language of ancient philosophy. In any event, saying 114 is contradicted by saying 22, which requires the union of the sexes rather than preference for one over the other."
 ⚯ Both saying present the same thing in two different ways, but Jesus is saying basically the same. Every woman has a male part and every man and female part (think about the Jungian concepts of Anima and Animus), both have to be integrated, in the psyche, in the spirit, in life.  The image of the symbol of the Yin-Yang, is formed by two parts, one female and one male forming a hole. Yet, each individual part has a bit of the other gender inside, a tiny circle inside. When Thomas says that women have to make themselves men is probably not literal, because what is not said is that men have to make themselves women. That is said in saying 22, in which the male and the male have to fuse and become one. I don't see a contradiction at all. I might be missing something, but the way things are presented seem quite fitting to me, perhaps Davis has something else in mind, I don't know.

⇻⇻⇻⇻ Example of preposterous comment
 "22b His disciples asked him: If we are infants will we enter the Kingdom? Jesus responded: When you make the two into one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the upper like the lower, and thus make the male and the female the same, so that the male isn’t male and the female isn’t female. When you make an eye to replace an eye, and a hand to replace a hand, and a foot to replace a foot, and an image to replace an image, then you will enter the Kingdom."
⚯ David's commentary in the note seems quite reasonable, until he says this: "Since the main thrust of saying 22 has to do with male and female losing their distinctive characteristics, so that the male is not male nor the female female, it doesn’t seem inappropriate to speculate that “make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside” may refer to sexual organs, and that “the upper like the lower and the lower like the upper” may refer to positions of sexual intercourse. The image of God is essentially one, male and female".  
⚯ Unless he comes up with an explanation about the intercourse reference, this seems utterly ridiculous and out of tune with what the text is saying and about what he has previous said. 

⇻⇻⇻⇻Example of square thinking
⚯ "71 Jesus said: I will destroy this house, and no one will be able to build it again."
⚯ Davis says "Should we understand the “house” to be a symbol for the Jerusalem temple? There is certainly no saying within the Gospel of Thomas that supports that symbolic meaning. In fact, the Gospel of Thomas never mentions the temple at all, positively or negatively."
Although in some cases I can only agree, we cannot stretch this approach too far because, after all, this Gospel relates to the other Gospels and shares a similar Christian traditions and beliefs. The fact that some of Thomas' sayings appear also in the Canonical Gospels remind us that the connection with other themes might have been also similar, implied or intended. In this case, we cannot discard that the reference to the House is not the Temple of Jerusalem. Could home be used with the meaning of Society? House of David? The home (metaphorically speaking) we live in?

⇻⇻⇻⇻Example of simplistic approach
⚯ "63 Jesus said: Once there was a rich man who had lots of money, and he said, “I will invest my money so that I can sow, reap, plant, and fill up my silos with crops so that I won’t lack anything.” So he thought, but that night he died. He who has ears, let him hear."
⚯ Davis says that the interpretation is straightforward, and that the point is that the accumulation of wealth is only temporarily satisfying, and that one cannot take it with us. 
⚯ I think the text is less than straightforward. Have you heard of the folk tale of the Milk-maid's dream (or the Milk's maid and her pail) and the embedded moral from Aesop of "Do not count your chickens before they are hatched". If we move a step deeper, we have a reflection on how peremptory, random, and unpredictable life is, and how our perception of time, the future and life takes it taken for granted when we should not. The here and now, the present is the only thing that matters. Even when we plan carefully, there is no guarantee of success, no guarantee that there will be a tomorrow. 

⇻⇻⇻⇻ Example of me getting something very different of what Davis says
⚯ "6: His disciples questioned him: Should we fast? In what way should we pray? Should we give to charity? From which foods should we abstain? Jesus responded: Do not lie. If there is something that you hate, do not do it, for everything is revealed beneath heaven. Nothing hidden will fail to be displayed. Nothing covered will remain undisclosed."David's notes: "[...] The indirect answers to questions about religious practices indicate that finding what is hidden takes precedence over concerns about prayer and fasting and charitable donations. “Do not do what you hate” is a version of the golden rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” because if it is spelled out it will be “Do not do to others what you hate to have done to yourself.”
I don't get what he says at all! What I get is something more Jungian, a more revolutionary thing. The disciples are asking for laws to live by, but Jesus is saying that all those religious regulations don't work unless you really believe in them, if you don't, you will broke them sooner or later. Don't lie to yourself, common sense and universal goodness is already inside you, outside you, do something you know is good, don't do anything that doesn't come from your heart. Be true to yourself, don't lie to yourself and pretend to do something you don't believe in your heart. If the rules you live by aren't truly in your heart, you will end disobeying them in the hiding or, even word, will repress things that are part of you and deny them, create a shadow that will eventually hunt you.  Jesus is saying, what I am preaching is not what you are asking me, because what you are asking is part of the old system, the system I want to put on fire with my words, the world that I try to turn over with my preachings. 


A d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r for Kindle on Android, way better on Kindle Paperwhite or Kindle for PC.
⤐   Kindle for Android. The endnotes  are not linked forward, just backwards, from the note to the text and not vice versa. To check any note you have to go to the general index, press annotations and manually find the note of you interest. As there are 100+ notes, you can imagine how bothersome this can be. Besides, the call numbers in the body of the text appear partially hidden by the text when they are located at the end of a paragraph. In Kindle Paperwhite and Kindle for PC the notes are properly linked, but I cannot highlight or introduce my own notes in the note area! The call numbers appear where they should.
KA: The whole pagination system is messed up. The introductory chapters have no pagination. The pages with the sayings are all no. 1. The pages with the annotations are numbered, but not according to correlative or natural numeration, as the sequence in pagination is not correct. Location numbers would have been more helpful, but they are nowhere to be found. Terrible! KP: no numeration, just locations, which is fine with me. &PC: locations + pagination, but the pagination suffers from the same problem as the KA.
All formats: The Lateral menu has a typo, as well, charactrs instead of characters.

I paid 13+ bucks, but this is still ripping off customers who pay for an e-book and get lazy editors doing nothing to convert a normal book into electronic format.


Read the sayings per se, on their own, without any commentary, before reading the introduction and the annotations (endnotes). Do your own digging, spiritual or intellectual that might be on your own, as this is the primal intention of the Gospel. Then, read the book as a whole.
As this book is directed to the general public, it needs to be simple. You might want to get this Gospel properly contextualised in history and see how it fits in the history of Early Christianity.  If that is your case, I highly recommend one of the Great CoursesGnosticism: From Nag Hammadi to the Gospel of Judas, which is not only rigorous but very entertaining. On the other hand, as the Gospel itself is a translation, and biblical texts are far from being straightforward or easy to translate, I would recommend reading a work from a biblical translator, who highlights the difficulties and distortions that biblical translations can create; it is not devoted to this Gospel, but worth a read if you are the curious type: The Bible doesn't say that.


This edition and translation of the Gospel of Thomas is good overall for the general public. If you want something approachable and easy to understand, this edition will serve you fine.  I have a preference for properly scholar books and editions, especially when talking about anything related to religious texts; if this is also your case, avoid this book. The book would have benefited from peer-reviewing before publishing, because it seems the editorial house published the book after basic editorial work. Sadly, some of the criticism is well-grounded. If you are just interested in the sayings per se, without further reading or noting, this will be a good book to start with, as I found the translation acceptable.

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