Gospel of Thomas, error in translation

Elaine Pagels (“The Gnostic Gospels”) translates logion 70 thus:

Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” (p.XV & p.126)

It occurs twice in the book. The first time she refers to it as logion 32, the other time as logion 45. So she references the wrong logia. She gives J.M. Robinson, “The Nag Hammadi Library” as reference. However, her translation does not occur in this book, except in her own foreword, where she doesn’t give a reference. In fact, Robinson uses the Patterson/Meyer translation:

  1. Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you [will] kill you.”

This translation concurs more or less with other versions. Blatz translates it thus:

  1. Jesus said: “If you have gained this within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have this in [you], what you do not have in you [will] kill you.”

Gärtner’s Swedish translation uses the pronouns ‘him’ and ‘he’ instead of ‘it’, because the original text can also be read that way. Instead of ‘bring forth’ he uses ‘give birth’, but the meaning is the same.

We can safely conclude that Elaine Pagels’s translation of logion 70 is faulty. It is important to get this right. Since it concurs so finely with psychological theory, psychologists are likely to repeat the erroneous translation. Pagels says:

“Many gnostics share with psychotherapy a second major premise: both agree–against orthodox Christianity–that the psyche bears ‘within itself’ the potential for liberation or destruction. Few psychiatrists would disagree with the saying attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas:…[citing the modified logion]” (p.126)

It seems that she has (probably unwittingly) modified the logion to accommodate it to psychological theory. The saying probably refers to the ‘spirit’ or the ‘divine light’ within. If you carry this light, you will be saved. But if you allow it to go extinct, then your soul cannot survive, because you won’t gain entrance into the Pleroma, the Gnostic heaven. However, it is not clear that the notion of “bringing forth” coincides with Gnostic theology. Nor is the notion of a spirit turned deadly enemy easy to accommodate within any form of Christianity. The Gospel of Thomas is a curious document which is neither entirely Gnostic nor entirely Pauline.

Mats Winther


Blatz, B. (1991). ‘The Coptic Gospel of Thomas’ in Schneemelcher, W. (ed.) New Testament Apocrypha. Westminster/John Knox Press.

Gärtner, B.E. (1972). Apokryferna till Nya Testamentet. Proprius.

Pagels, E. (1989). The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books.

Patterson S.J. & Robinson, J.M. (transl.) (1988) ‘The Gospel of Thomas’ in Robinson, J.M. (ed.) (1988). The Nag Hammadi Library. Harper & Row.

It does not surprise me that Elaine Pagels or any of her Jesus Seminar cohorts would steer the translation of any text in a way that suits their agenda. An error in the translation of the Gospel of Thomas does not concern me as much as the error of thinking the gnostic texts should be given the same credence or even preference over the actual inspired texts of the Bible. I find the work of Philip Jenkins helpful where these gnostic texts are concerned.

Yes, Pagels champions the Gnostic standpoint. She also wrote a book “The Gnostic Paul”.

But the Gospel of Thomas is a special case, because of its lack of theology. It isn’t an out-and-out Gnostic work. In many ways, it coincides with Pauline Christianity. One shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Stephen J. Patterson calls it “the fifth gospel”.


There are people who call the Gospel of Judas the fifth or sixth or eighth gospel. It doesn’t matter what you call it, what matters is if it was included in the canon of scripture. The gospel of Thomas was’t and therefore should not be placed even remotely on par with the four canonical gospels. That doesn’t mean that it’s completely wrong, it just means that we shouldn’t look to it for sound theology.

Indeed, but it could be inspirational. After all, some of the sayings in Thomas are unique and could be real sayings by the Master. Should we just discard them? Another example is the Book of Enoch (not Gnostic), which speaks of the Son of Man:

  1. And there I saw One who had a head of days,
    And His head was white like wool,
    And with Him was another being whose countenance had the appearance of a man,
    And his face was full of graciousness, like one of the holy angels.

  2. And I asked the angel who went with me and showed me all the hidden things, concerning that Son of Man, who he was, and whence he was, (and) why he went with the Head of Days? And he answered and said unto me:

This is the son of Man who hath righteousness,
With whom dwelleth righteousness,
And who revealeth all the treasures of that which is hidden,

Because the Lord of Spirits hath chosen him,
And whose lot hath the pre-eminence before the Lord of Spirits in uprightness for ever… (Ch.XLVI.)

The Book of Enoch is pre-Christian. The older sections date from about 300 BC, whereas the latest part (Book of Parables) probably derives from the end of the first century BC. It was available during Jesus’s time and was widely used by the early Christians. Jude mentions Enoch. Some believe that Jesus took the concept Son of Man from the Book of Enoch.

Even if it contains a “strange theology”, the modern reader should be able to take the best plums from the text. After all, modern Christians aren’t that uncritical that they are easily led astray. There are other allures in the modern world that are much more detrimental than these ancient texts. I think the resistance against the Gospel of Thomas and the Book of Enoch is exaggerated. They haven’t been condemned by the Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church says that the Old Testament apocrypha should be regarded as Holy Scripture. Moreover, approximately 84% of the sayings in Thomas are contained within the canonical gospels, perhaps with a slightly changed wording. So it cannot be regarded as out-and-out heretical.

M. Winther

Elaine Pagels is one of the foremost Professors of Divinity in the USA-she was a Macarthur genius fellow for Pete’s sake -she is a Professor at Princeton-Her writings are as a historian -giving her interpretation-she is very straightforward in her conclusions -she is not part of some cabal-I suspect you think Bart Erman is the devil incarnate:eek:

Pagels is a fraud. One of the most accurate characterisation of her that I can think of, comes from this commentary by Paul Mankowski, S.J. He points out that in The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels ‘carpents’ her own quotations, when the real ones doesn’t say what she wants them to say. Read the entire thing, or just read this delicious excerpt:

Pagels has carpentered a non-existent quotation, putatively from an ancient source, by silent suppression of relevant context, silent omission of troublesome words, and a mid-sentence shift of 34 chapters backwards through the cited text, so as deliberately to pervert the meaning of the original. While her endnote calls the quote “conflated,” the word doesn’t fit even as a euphemism: what we have is not conflation but creation.

Put simply, Irenaeus did not write what Prof. Pagels wished he would have written, so she made good the defect by silently changing the text. Creativity, when applied to one’s sources, is not a compliment. She is a very naughty historian.

Or she would be, were she judged by the conventional canons of scholarship. At the post-graduate institute where I teach, and at any university with which I am familiar, for a professor or a grad student intentionally to falsify a source is a career-ending offense. Among professional scholars, witness tampering is no joke: once the charge is proven, the miscreant is dismissed from the guild and not re-admitted.

I am not calling for academic sanctions but, more simply, for clarification. Pagels should be billed accurately — not as an expert on Gnosticism or Coptic Christianity but as what she is: a lady novelist.


It is a false document to begin with. Thomas was long dead when the “Gospel of Thomas” was written. It is interesting historically, But, even correctly translated, it is a false document. That goes in the who cares bin.

How do you know that Thomas was dead? Scholars have proposed a date as early as 40 AD or as late as 140 AD. Most place it somewhere between 50 to 100 AD, although some of the material certainly derives from 30-60 AD. Since Jesus probably died around year 30, Thomas could have been alive when the gospel was written. Since the Gospel of Mark was probably written around 66–70 AD, the Gospel of Thomas could be our oldest gospel.

M. Winther

Those are speculations. The first actual evidence of the existence of the Gospel of Thomas are from c. 222–235. This fits well with the rise of the Gnostic. Until substantive evidence is produced for an earlier date, the early date speculation remains uncorroborated.

It is a false document to begin with so, even correctly translated, it is a false document.
The authorities who lived at the time give no mention of it until the third century.

Be a little more discerning, don’t be so gullible as to fall for the specious arguments of these New Age charlatans!

Have you heard about the Wikipedia term ‘weasel words’? ‘Scholars’ is a weasel word, just like ‘many,’ ‘some,’ ‘people,’ ‘persons,’ etc. Instead of just saying ‘scholars say this and that,’ you could provide a peer reviewed article that states as much.

Yes, and italian ice cream could have been invented in the 11th century by a Japanese-British farmer called ‘Johnny.’

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