Don’t Worry, Be Happy

A Comparative Analysis of the Gospel of Thomas

Todd Brewer / 9.7.21

The following appeared in the recent Money Issue of The Mockingbird magazine. 

At the same time that the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John spread across the Roman Empire, so too did the Gospel of Thomas. We have more 2nd-century copies of Thomas’ Gospel than we do of Mark’s. Its rapid distribution suggests that the readers and interpreters of the Gospel of Thomas believed that this version of Jesus’ words better suited the preferences and demands of the day. But the passage of time separated the wheat from the chaff, and the four canonical Gospels were ultimately deemed superior.

As time went on, the Gospel of Thomas fell into obscurity. For centuries we knew it only by name, since it was mentioned by numerous early Church fathers (mostly unfavorably) across a wide geographic terrain,[1] but its contents were a mystery. In the late 19th century, archeologists discovered three Greek parchments of Jesus’ teachings buried in a landfill. They referred to them by number and the location of the find: Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1, 654, and 655 (abbreviated to P. Oxy. 1, 654, and 655). These separate fragments were merely lists of things “Jesus said,” so the title they originally gave them was “The Sayings of Jesus.” Fifty years later, the shifting sands of the desert near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, exposed ancient jars filled with books—a treasure trove of long-forgotten Christian literature. And within these books lay a complete edition of the Gospel of Thomas, written not in Greek, but in Coptic.

In the century or so between Oxyrhynchus and Nag Hammadi,[2]  more than the language of Thomas changed. The good news proclaimed by this Gospel shifted as well. Unlike its rival canonical Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas was freely modified with each successive copy. Beginning with the original composition, through the Greek texts of the late 2nd century and the Coptic codex of the 4th, scribes (or better, authors) freely added new teachings of Jesus to the list, deleted unfashionable ones, and rewrote existing ones. As the Christianity that read the Gospel of Thomas changed, so too did Thomas itself. It was a scriptural text in perpetual motion, a malleable Gospel for a changing world.

Thomas, then, provides a window into what form the words of Jesus might have taken over time if untethered from the fixity of the New Testament canon. By comparing different versions of Thomas (which vary greatly), it’s possible to glimpse in real time how Christian thought changed. And on the question of worry and financial stability such a study is particularly illuminating.

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The Greek papyrus of immense interest here is P. Oxy. 655. This text was found as eight damaged and deteriorated fragments, four of which were supposedly illegible and have since been lost. One contained only a snippet of text; the remaining three were poorly preserved amid the trash heap, though still able to be reconstructed. They read:

Jesus said, “Do not worry from morning until late, or from evening until morning, or for your food, what you should eat, or for your clothes, what you should wear. Much greater are you than the lilies, which do not card or spin. Not having even one article of clothing, how are you to be clothed? Who can add to your length (of life)? He will give to you your clothing.”[3]

This Greek fragment, from the Gospel of Thomas, bears only a passing resemblance to the earlier versions found in Matthew and Luke. Thomas shows next to no verbatim agreement with them, the order of the teaching is slightly different, and it is far shorter. It is unclear whether the author (who I will call Thomas for convenience) was even familiar with his predecessors. And yet its essential point remains largely the same, with a few unique flourishes.

The Greek Thomas is concerned with the Christian’s inner attitude toward the external needs of food and clothing. Worry about these things is prohibited, as in Matthew and Luke.

Of course, telling people not to worry about something rarely, if ever, effects the desired outcome. The grip of anxiety is seldom loosed by simply trying to be less anxious. Financial insecurity and anxiety go hand-in-hand. Famine and panic, plenty and peace. Pandemic and chaos. There’s a causal relationship between the loss of a job, or a mere threat to future employment, and damage to one’s mental health. When every expenditure becomes a calculation of loss, and larger necessities are purchased through the slow accumulation of smaller sacrifices, life is anything but carefree. Money may not buy you happiness (or love), but it might just promise a degree of stability.

So when the Greek Thomas approaches the topic of anxiety and financial distress, it offers more than a bare command to change one’s emotional response to circumstance (as if that were possible). It proscribes worry for a number of assorted yet intertwined reasons. The saying first compares the stability of human life with lilies: the naked lilies do not card or spin, nevertheless they are divinely clothed. Humans likewise can be assured that their inherent nakedness will be clothed by God. That humans are obviously of greater value than lilies only underscores the point.

Through the pair of rhetorical questions, the saying suggests that if humans were to strive to attain provisions for their outward life, they would fundamentally be unable to achieve what they seek to secure: freedom in the face of physical death. No matter how hard one might try, one cannot clothe oneself, in the same way that one cannot lengthen one’s lifespan.[4] The provision of clothing or the length of life are ultimately matters that only God can decide.

In the Greek form of the saying, God is the sustainer of the world and the reliable provider of good things to His people, whom He considers more valuable than the lilies. Readers are not to worry because God Himself can be trusted to give what is needed. Moreover, worrying has no benefit whatsoever, since the length of our life is ultimately out of our hands (“Who can add to your length (of life)?”). Here the indicative (“He will give you your clothing”) establishes the imperative (“Do not worry”).[5]

The Jesus of P. Oxy. 655 entreats his readers not to worry about their future economic prospects, but instead to somehow live outside of the causal relationship between anxiety about the future and financial insecurity. Jesus aims to ground their desires, expectations, and hopes in something other than whichever day it happens to be in the month, or the ups and downs of, say, the stock market. Similar to his canonical counterparts Matthew and Luke, the Greek Thomas contrasts the ineptitude of humanity with the generosity of God. It espouses a low anthropology and a high theology: one must live in absolute dependence upon God, the provider of our worldly needs.

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The Coptic text of Thomas preserved at Nag Hammadi shortens the Greek version of this teaching. It limits the scope of the saying to clothing only and contains the bare negative injunction not to worry. The Coptic reads:

Jesus said, “Do not worry from morning to evening and from evening to morning about what you will put on yourselves.”

The portrait of God as provider and the accompanying negative verdict on human agency are omitted entirely. Consequently, the exhortation not to worry is given no further justification. Why sever such an intricately woven argument? What emotional plausibility does the Coptic text offer to warrant such a punishing command?

The Coptic does not offer a rationale for why the teaching was modified, nor does it explain how one might go about not worrying over financial distress. But the difference between the Greek form of Jesus’ teaching and the theological view of the Coptic text more broadly could not be clearer. Somewhere between the Greek and the Coptic, there arose a discomfort with the depiction of God as provider and sustainer of the world, so the saying was rewritten. The Coptic Thomas equates all economic pursuits with investments in a fallen world that must be forsaken.

Elsewhere, in Saying 110, Thomas suggests, “Whoever has found the world [and] become rich, let him renounce the world.”[6] Material wealth (great or small) and the sinful world are inextricably intertwined. One cannot have possessions and still claim to be free of the world.[7] In light of the Coptic Thomas’ other sayings, this makes sense. Worldly wealth undermines one’s ability to

discern the truth (Saying 78), in much the same way that the affairs of the world prohibit one from finding the kingdom (Saying 27). Those who invest in economic success become entangled with the world, and those who wish to find the life that Jesus offers must divest themselves of both the world and the assurances of riches.

The Coptic Thomas resoundingly rejects material possessions as a medium of divine action and commands a total renunciation of the world in order to find life and peace. Consequently, the necessities of food and clothing are unworthy of one’s concern. They are, at best, a distraction. For the Coptic text, life is never found through material goods, and worrying about such matters is a path that leads only to death.[8] One shouldn’t worry about finances because the world itself is godforsaken. Akin to what we might today call nihilism, the key to living a carefree life is a rejection of everything, because God Himself has no active interest in our daily lives.

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Both the Greek and the Coptic offer plausible avenues for tranquility amid financial distress—absolute dependence upon God to provide (the Greek) or a total rejection of the world (the Coptic). Yet these two versions of Jesus’ teaching on worry couldn’t be further apart. The low anthropology of the Greek text has been superseded by a view that humanity can (and must) extirpate itself from the fallen world. The latter text’s unbounded antipathy to the world would have been unimaginable to the writer of P.Oxy. 655, who sees everyday life as the arena of divine activity.

Amid the serious divergences apparent between the Greek and the Coptic, it is difficult to determine where and how they occurred. Was it a stepwise evolution or a radical transformation? How did one Gospel morph into another? It is impossible to say with any certainty, yet it can be inferred that the Coptic’s hostility toward the world is only possible once a belief about God’s active presence in the world wanes.

Likewise, the Coptic Thomas demands we muster the personal determination to absolutely abandon the world, but this presumes a level of self-sufficiency that the Greek text eschews.[9] The eyes of faith see the world in all of its destitution and nevertheless cling to God as a provider. Or, put another way, faith in an active and benevolent God forms a bulwark against the appeal of nihilism. All is never lost; nothing is beyond God’s redemptive reach. The stock market may rise and fall, jobs can come and go, but the God who clothes the lilies of the field remains the same—dependable through it all.

Featured image via Will Santino