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The Book of Thomas the Contender

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Estimated Range of Dating: 150-225 A.D.

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Information on the Book of Thomas the Contender

John D. Turner describes the view of Schenke on the composition of the Book of Thomas the Contender (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6, p. 530):

There are presently two competing theories concerning the composition of Thom. Cont. The more recent one, developed by H. Schenke (1983), holds that its underlying source lay in a probably non-Christian Hellenistic Jewish wisdom treatise containing the above-mentioned doctrine pseudonymously designated as a letter from the patriarch Jacob as "the contender [with God] writing to the perfect." Subsequently, in the Christian orbit, this ascetic treatise was Christianized by the substitution of Jesus for the figure of the divine wisdom as the revelatory figure of the work, the addition to the title of the phrase "the Book of Thomas," and the attendant recasting of the whole from the genre of expository treatise into the genre of revelation dialogue. That is, the text was dissected into smaller expository sections placed on the lips of the risen Jesus; these were recast as answers to fictitious questions put to him by the apostle Thomas which themselves were inserted into the text as pretexts for the ensuing answers of the Savior. The questions of Thomas thus presuppose and were composed on the basis of the answers of Jesus. For the existence of the ultimate source of the work in the form of an epistle of Jacob, Schenke appeals to the canonical Epistle of James, which, although it is not a dialogue, was considered by Arnold Meyer as an apocryphal Hellenistic Jewish epistle of Jacob with only superficial Christian interpolations. As an example of a similar conversion of an expository work into a dialogue found within the Nag Hammadi treatises, one may point to the Sophia of Jesus Christ, which is acknowledged to be a recasting of the non-Christian Letter of Eugnostos into a postresurrection dialogue between Jesus and certain trusted disciples.

Turner describes his own theory (op. cit., v. 6, p. 530):

The earlier theory, developed by the author of this article, began from the observation that the actual dialogue between Thomas and Jesus occupies only the first three fifths of the treatise (NHC II, 138:4-142:21), while the remaining two fifths (NHC II, 142:21-end) actually constitutes a long monologue of the Savior, in which Thomas no longer plays a role. This and the detection of a transitional editorial seam at 142:21 suggst that Thom. Cont. could have been compiled by a redactor from two separate works, the first three fifths from a dialogue between Thomas and Jesus, perhaps entiteld the "Book of Thomas the Contender Writing to the Perfect," and the second two fifths from a collection of sayings of the Savior gathered into a homiletical discourse perhaps entitled "The Hidden Words Which the Savior Spoke, Which I Recorded, Even I, Mathaias." A redactor later prefixed the dialogue to the sayings collection, prefacted the whole with the present opening lines augmented by the reference to Thomas as the recipient of the secret words and Mathaias as the scribe, but then appended a subscript title designating Thomas as the author of the whole. In its original form, the last two fifths would have existed at a late and decadent reflection of the literary genre of the sayings of Jesus, in which the original sayings have been so expanded with interpretation that the original saying has been all but obliterated, leaving only vestigial Jesuanic formulas such as "Amen I say to you," "blessed are you who...," "woe to you," "watch and pray," and one instance of a parable (144:21-36). On this hypothesis, Thom. Cont. fits into a natural interpretive development of the sayings of Jesus: original, relatively unadulterated collections of Jesus' sayings were gradually collected and expanded by means of interpretive material as in Q (the Gospel Source) or the Gospel of Thomas, and then later embedded in a larger interpretive frame story such as a postresurrection dialogue or a life-of-Jesus gospel concluding with a passion or resurrection narrative.

Turner comments on dating and provenance (op. cit., v. 6, p. 529):

The Book of Thomas the Contender is a literary expression of traditions native to Syrian Edessa about the apostle Jude, surnamed Thomas, the missionary to India. It was likely composed in the first half of the 3d century A.D. Two products of this tradition have been dated with fair certainty: the Gospel of Thomas, composed ca. A.D. 50-125, and the Acts of Thomas, composed ca. A.D. 225. Both seem to derive from the ascetic, pre-Manichean Christianity in the Osrhoene (Eastern Syria, between Edessa [modern Urfu] and Messene). Thom. Cont. seems to occupy a median position between the Gospel and the Acts in (1) date of composition, (2) relative dominance of the role played by Thomas in these works, and (3) in terms of the development from a sayings collection preserved by Thomas (Gospel of Thomas) to an actual dialogue between Jesus and Thomas (The Book of Thomas the Contender) to a full-blown romance centered on the missionary exploits of Thomas (Acts of Thomas).

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Kirby, Peter. "The Book of Thomas the Contender." Early Christian Writings. <>.