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Post Info TOPIC: The Acts of Thomas Introduction (by the translator, M. R. James)


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The Acts of Thomas Introduction (by the translator, M. R. James)

Introduction (by the translator, M. R. James)

This is the only one of the five primary romances which we possess in its entirety. It is of great length and considerable interest. The Stichometry (see p. 24) gives it only 1,600 lines: this is far too little: it may probably apply only to a portion of the Acts, single episodes of which, in addition to the Martyrdom, may have been current separately. We do, in fact, find some separate miracles in some of the oriental versions.

There is a consensus of opinion among Syriac scholars that our Greek text of these Acts is a version from Syriac. The Syriac original was edited and translated by Wright in his Apocryphal Acts, and older fragments have since been published by Mrs. Lewis (Horae Semiticae IV, 1904. Mythological Acts of the Apostles).

Certain hymns occur in the Syriac which were undoubtedly composed in that language: most notable is the Hymn of the Soul (edited separately by A. A. Bevan, and others) which is not relevant to the context. It has been ascribed to Bardaisan the famous Syrian heretic. Only one Greek MS. of the Acts (the Vallicellian, at Rome, Bonnet's MS. U, of the eleventh century) contains it; it is paraphrased by Nicetas of Thessalonica in his Greek rechauffe of the Acts.

There is, in fact, no room to doubt that the whole text of the Acts, as preserved complete in MS. U and partially in other manuscripts, is a translation from the Syriac. But in the Martyrdom four manuscripts (including a very important Paris copy-Gr. 1510, of eleventh century, and another of ninth century) present a quite different, and superior. text, indubitably superior in one striking point: that whereas Syr. places the great prayer of Thomas in the twelfth Act, some little time before the Martyrdom (ch. 144 sqq.), the four manuscripts place it immediately before, after ch. 167, and this is certainly the proper place for it.

It is, I believe, still arguable (though denied by the Syriacists) that here is a relic of the original Greek text: in other words, the Acts were composed in Greek, and early rendered into Syriac. Becoming scarce or being wholly lost in Greek they were retranslated out of Syriac into Greek. But meanwhile the original Greek of the Martyrdom had survived separately, and we have it here. This was M. Bonnet's view, and it is one which I should like to adopt.

At the very least, we have a better text of the Martyrdom preserved in these four manuscripts than in U and its congeners.

As to other versions. The Latin Passions-one probably by Gregory of Tours- have been much adulterated. We have also Ethiopic versions of some episodes, and there is also an Armenian one of which little use has been made. However, versions are of little account in this case, where we have such comparatively good authorities as the Greek and Syriac for the whole book.

My version is made from the Greek text, (Bonnet, 1903) with an eye on the Syriac as rendered by Wright and by Mrs. Lewis and Bevan.

Important Archive Note:

In the text below, M. R. James uses brackets [ ] and parentheses ( ) to contain notes on lacunae, questionable words, and  manuscript versions used in his translation. Bracketed words are often sometimes literal translations of the original text and are not always easily understood.

Essentially all digital copies of the Acts of Thomas found on the internet are copies of the single file that has resided in our Archive since 1994. Unfortunately we have recently found that this original document -- now widely reproduced by other sites -- had an internal HTML formatting error in reproducing the bracket symbols.  As a result, many of the words displayed within brackets are entirely lost in the pirated versions of this file, making them unintelligible in several places.  Thus we find ourselves sadly responsible for the type of textual corruption common in the ancient tradition of copying manuscripts....  In the current version we have attempted to correct this error, and request other sites archiving this file to reexamine and correct their copies.



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The Acts of Thomas in CNN’s Finding Jesus

Season 2 of CNN’s Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, and Forgery had far fewer references to Christian apocrypha than season 1, and so there has been little reason to mention the series here (click HEREfor reviews of last season). Episode six, however, is devoted to the apostle Thomas and features an extended discussion of the Acts of Thomas.

The episode traces the origins of the Thomas Christians who live in Kerala, on the southwest coast of India. They believe their church was established through evangelization by Thomas in the first century. Along with appealing to the Acts of Thomas as a (partly) historical document, the episode attempts to verify the Thomas Christians’ claim by examining a relic of Thomas now residing in Italy.

The episode opens with a re-enactment and discussion of the story of “doubting Thomas” from John 20:24-29. The re-enactments this season have been liberally embroidered, and this one is no exception. Here Peter asks Thomas where he was. “Away,” Thomas answers. Then Peter says, “Thomas. So little faith.” Thomas sullenly responds with, “It’s over.” The panel of scholars then speculate about Thomas’s doubt and absence from the group , with Candida Moss suggesting, “Perhaps he felt they should break up. Perhaps he decided to grieve privately.” Of course, the text is silent. John simply says he “was not with them when Jesus came.” He could have been fetching bread and wine. The scene continues with the apostles performing the Eucharist meal. Then Jesus appears in a blinding light but only Thomas sees him. In the Gospel, however, Jesus seems to appear to everybody in the room (it says only “Jesus came and stood among them”). My point here is not to fault the filmmakers—they simply want to make the scene come alive for the audience. What is interesting is that their re-enactment has become an apocryphal telling of the Thomas story, with expansions and interpretations just as we see in ancient apocrypha.

Ben Witherington and Mark Goodacre remark that, after the appearance of Jesus in the room, Thomas vanishes from the New Testament. Unless, of course, one counts the letter attributed to Jude, “the brother of James,” and presumably, the brother of Jesus mentioned in Mark 6:3 and Matt 12:55-56. But that identification is only possible through the tradition that Thomas’s true name is Judas, as recorded in the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas, the Book of Thomas, and the Syriac translation of John 14:22. Nevertheless, the scholars are correct that the New Testament does not report anything about Thomas’s evangelizing activities. But they are documented in great detail in the Acts of Thomas.

Nicola Denzey Lewis examines the British Library manuscript.

The episode cuts to Nicola Denzey Lewis in the British Library examining a Syriac manuscript of the text, presumably BM Add. 14645 copied in 936 CE. An earlier copy exists, a palimpsest at Sinai (Codex 30) from the fifth or sixth century, but this one is certainly less accessible than the British Library manuscript. Of this copy, Denzey Lewis says, “The text is written in Syriac and that’s significant because it’s very closely related to Aramaic and Aramaic is the language that Jesus spoke to his disciples.” The suggestion is that the text thus has a claim to authenticity, more than, presumably, a text in Greek or Latin. Indeed, likely the Acts of Thomas was written in Syriac—a rare case of early Syriac composition for an apocryphal text, or any Christian text for that matter. But the language of composition, particularly for a late second or early third century text, doesn’t have any impact on the authenticity of what the text reports.

The episode continues with a re-enactment of the Great Commission in which the apostles draw lots to determine where they will evangelize. This event is reported in Acts of Thomas 1, but it is a widespread tradition that appears in several other texts, including Origen’s Commentary on Genesis: “The holy apostles and disciples of our Savior were scattered over the whole world. Thomas, tradition tells us, was chosen for Parthia, Andrew for Scythia, John for Asia, where he remained till his death at Ephesus. Peter seems to have preached in Pontus, Galatia and Bithynia, Cappadocia and Asia, to the Jews of the Dispersion. Finally he came to Rome where he was crucified, head downwards at his own request. What need be said of Paul, who from Jerusalem as far as Illyricum preached in all its fullness the gospel of Christ, and later was martyred in Rome under Nero?” (quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.1). In the Acts of Thomas, Thomas draws India and initially refuses to go, fearing that the Indians would not understand him. The narrator says, “After a night of prayer, Thomas accepts his lot.” Then Thomas tells a radiant Jesus, “I’ll go wherever you wish.” The episode leaves out a key component of the story. After Thomas’s refusal, Jesus sells Thomas as a slave to a merchant from India named Chaban (Acts Thomas 2). Thomas does pray on the following night, but his statement to Jesus is more an acquiescence to his fate than an acceptance of the results of the lot.

When Thomas arrives in India he makes contact with the King Gundafar and we are told by the filmmakers that this element of the story has some historical verisimilitude. Denzey Lewis is once again depicted in London, this time at the British Museum examining a coin of Gundafar discovered in the 19th century. Mind you, Gundafar ruled over Parthia, the location of Thomas’s missionary activities according to Origen, not India.

The arm of Thomas in Bari, Italy.

In the final re-enactment, Thomas is killed by a group of soldiers. According to the Acts of Thomas, the apostle’s body is placed in a tomb “ where the kings of old used to be buried” (168), but is later taken “to the western regions” (169). Ephrem (d. 377) and Gregory of Tours (583-594) both place Thomas’s remains in Edessa. From there they were apparently taken in 1258 to Ortona in Italy, where they now reside in the Basilia di San Tommaso. At this point in Finding Jesus, the investigation turns to Georges Kazan and Tom Higham, a team from Oxford who travel the world to examine relics and determine their origins and movement over time. They take another Thomas relic, an arm bone of the apostle housed in Bari, Italy, and submit it to radio carbon tests. The goal, Kazan says, is to see what it can tell us about the legends of Thomas: “A first-century date will potentially open the door towards validating that Jesus went to India.” Of course, no amount of scientific testing can do that much; at best, it can prove that the bone is from a man, any man, who lived in the first century. As it turns out, it cannot even prove that. The relic dates from 130-330 which, Higham says, “is still incredibly old” and “seems to cover the period where we find the first historical references to his remains coming back from India.” Presumably, Higham is referring here to Ephrem and is suggesting that the remains of Thomas known to Ephrem were instead of someone close to his own time

Despite these speculations, embroideries, and infelicities, the episode draws the viewers’ attention to a text that is little known by the wider public. There are now many, many documentaries that feature explorations of apocryphal texts, but only one other focuses on the Acts of Thomas: National Geographic’s Deadly Journeys of the Apostles episode 4 (watch it HERE), which covers much of the same ground as the CNN documentary, but without the dodgy interest in relics. Finding Jesus is a welcome addition to the pedagogical resources available to those of us who teach about Christian apocrypha, Syriac Christianity, and late antiquity.

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