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What is the Acts of Thomas?

Acts of Thomas audio

The Acts of Thomas is a pseudepigraphal work that supposedly explains the ministry of the apostle Thomas in India after Jesus’ ascension. The Acts of Thomas is one of several such writings, others of which focus on apostles such as Andrew, John, Paul, Barnabas, and Peter. These works are heavily influenced by Gnosticism and were not accepted by the early church. While occasional details within the books correspond to other traditions, most of their content is unsubstantiated. The Acts of Thomas is one of the few such writings to survive intact and in more than one copy.

The Acts of Thomas endorses doctrines common to Gnostic writings but contrary to the New Testament. According to the fictional story related in the Acts of Thomas, the apostle Thomas convinces several married couples to become entirely celibate—this is in accordance with Gnostic rejection of all things material, especially the body. Jesus literally “sells” Thomas to a merchant, since he was originally unwilling to go to India, and then appears as Thomas’s identical twin. This bizarre episode seems to be a symbolic reference to the Gnostic idea that the material world is entirely separate from the spiritual.

Similar Gnostic hallmarks in the Acts of Thomas are miraculous events that are noticeably more “theatrical” than those in the New Testament. These miracles also contradict teachings of the gospels and other passages of inspired Scripture. For example, in the Acts of Thomas, a murderer brings his victim back to life—from hell, no less—through his own prayers. The story includes donkeys that not only talk but perform exorcisms!

Some details found in the Acts of Thomas are vaguely supported by other traditions or historical evidence. Thomas’s travel to India and his death by spearing are referred to in other ancient texts. Historians note that there was an early, relatively large influence of Christianity in the Indian subcontinent after the resurrection of Christ. Also, cultural references in the Acts of Thomas are relatively accurate.

That said, this work is dated to the early third century or possibly the very end of the second century. As with works such as the Acts of Peter and the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Acts of Thomas was never accepted by the early church as inspired Scripture. At best, it informs our understanding of certain traditions—or legends—about Thomas.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022