Did Jesus Have a Twin?

Bryan Litfin
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The name Thomas comes from the Aramaic word for “twin.” The gospel of John, which was written in Greek, likewise identifies Thomas as Didymus, or the Twin (11:16; 20:24; 21:2). Apparently, Thomas had a twin brother, yet the identity of this individual is nowhere stated in Scripture. Could it have been Jesus? Nothing in the New Testament suggests it, yet the possibility was irresistible to later generations.

By the late second or early third century, two separate texts, the Acts of Thomas and The Book of Thomas the Contender, had both put this claim into writing. The notion of Jesus’ twin brother caught the attention of certain mystics who were interested in alternative perspectives on the Son of God. Though orthodox Christians sometimes read the Acts of Thomas for its inspirational value, this document was even more cherished among the heretical sects. Likewise, Thomas the Contender is full of Gnostic motifs. The identification of Thomas as Jesus’ twin caused him to be viewed as a revealer of knowledge to a chosen few. The Gnostics quickly adopted Thomas as one of their favorite disciples. How come?

In today’s world of modern medicine and safe childbirth, parents typically rejoice when they learn they are having twins (once they get over the shock!). But in many underdeveloped nations, twins are associated with a higher degree of infant mortality and complications in delivery. The second-born child of the pair, if it survives, also tends to be smaller and weaker. This was true in the times of the Roman Empire as well. The emergence of a second child after the first one caught the parents by surprise and didn’t bode well for the family. According to the ancient mindset, the second child was a mysterious double, a shadowy person who wasn’t supposed to be there. The “real” child got the family name, while the unexpected interloper was given a generic name like Thomas. Twins were always suspicious, unlucky, a bad omen.

Yet in the case of the apostle Thomas, his secondary status as a twin was offset by his being the supposed brother of Christ. Thomas was therefore an enigmatic figure—at once close to Christ and yet unlike Him. To certain ancient sectarians, he seemed like an insider who might know Jesus’ private teachings, yet be willing to betray his brother’s secrets. Thomas was the man in the know, the man beckoning you from the inner circle, the man who might whisper secrets if you could only learn how to ask.

In other words, to some observers, Thomas looked like the perfect Gnostic.

The Gospel of Thomas

It was perhaps inevitable that Thomas the Twin would come to be considered the author of a gospel. Who better to tell the story of Jesus than His own brother? Yet any reader of the so-called Gospel of Thomas will see it is notably different from the four gospels of the New Testament. Though it contains some cryptic remarks that are reminiscent of verses in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, the Gospel of Thomas is nothing but a collection of wisdom sayings. An overarching narrative structure—including the story of Christ’s death and resurrection—is entirely lacking.

Instead, Jesus presents 114 distinct maxims that include tidbits such as, “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample them, then you will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid,” or, “The Father’s kingdom is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in. Then he killed the powerful one.” This work’s obvious lack of sound theology made it a marginal text in the ancient church. Though its origins and intended uses are obscure, what we do know is that it eventually came to be endorsed by the Gnostic sects, but it wasn’t cherished enough by the church fathers to be regarded as sacred Scripture.

Even so, that hasn’t stopped many modern scholars from trumpeting the Gospel of Thomas as one of the most important documents of the “early Christians.” The claim is often made that this gospel is equal in value to the four canonical gospels in the Bible, and even contains true sayings of Jesus that are not found in Scripture. This historical hypothesis rests on the assumption that scholars can discern layers within the existing document that come from an earlier time; in other words, some experts claim to discern segments of the text that were composed before the canonical gospels were written. These bits supposedly reveal Jesus as a mystical philosopher, not a Jewish prophet who was about to usher in the kingdom of God on earth. The Jesus depicted in this gospel saves people by calling them to find truth within themselves and to ascend as immaterial spirits to a kingdom of light, not by dying for their sins and rising from the dead to give new life.

Yet this interpretation of Jesus is questionable because it cuts against the grain of the existing historical evidence. The lone surviving manuscript of the complete Gospel of Thomas was discovered in 1945 among a cache of Egyptian documents called the Nag Hammadi Library. Although the papyrus containing Thomas was physically copied in the fourth century, most scholars agree the text itself was probably authored in the second. The question is: Do certain editorial layers of the text go back to an earlier time, revealing a Jesus of spiritual enlightenment instead of a coming King and risen Lord?

The Real Status of the Gospel of Thomas

Unfortunately for those who want this to be true, all of the earliest sources that speak about Jesus’ teaching—Mark, the sayings collection called Q, and the independent sources used by Matthew and Luke—portray Him as having taught an imminent kingdom within the context of Jewish hopes and expectations. Likewise, the earliest Christian proclamation about Jesus (recorded as creedal formulas and preaching within the New Testament) confessed that He was the Lord and Christ whose kingdom would soon arrive now that He had risen from the dead.

In contrast to this perspective, the Gnostic type of belief system found (at least partially) in Thomas, in which mankind needs to be awakened to secret truths, is only securely attested in the second century and beyond. That is why the trend among more reliable scholars today is to interpret Jesus as a prophet of first-century Palestinian Judaism, not as a teacher of inner enlightenment.

When good historical methods are applied to the Gospel of Thomas instead of subjective literary re-readings, the text settles into place as exactly what it appears to be: a cryptic composition from the second century that has excerpted and reworked pieces of the biblical gospels in a way that the Gnostics found appealing. By interspersing these borrowed Bible verses with a hefty dose of mystical imagination, then undergirding it all with the authority of Jesus’ supposed twin, an anonymous writer has produced a philosophical Savior who bears little resemblance to the actual carpenter from Galilee. According to this Jesus, humanity’s problem is lack of self-awareness, and the solution is wise interpretation of various precepts and parables. Fortunately, the four biblical gospels give us a more accurate picture of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Infancy Gospel of Thomas

Before we turn our attention away from fanciful speculations and back to the actual work of Thomas, we ought to debunk one more gospel that supposedly came from his pen. Some ancient writers who admired Jesus imagined His twin brother would be a great source of stories about what the Savior did as a little boy. Very little is said about Jesus’ youth in the Bible, so the urge to fill in the gaps was strong.

To meet this need, several unknown authors claimed Thomas’s name and constructed a set of narratives that are commonly called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This text regales us with such marvelous stories as the boy Jesus using His powers to slay His accursed playmates; to make clay sparrows fly; to resurrect a boy who died after falling from a roof; and to magically stretch wooden beams to repair Joseph’s carpentry errors (ANF, vol. 8, G.T.: First Greek Form). All of these fables downplay the historical figure of Jesus and present Him as a divine prodigy. This theological tendency is a hallmark of the heretics.

Just as we saw with the Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel has absolutely nothing to do with the actual disciple whose name was borrowed as the presumed author. Although the association with Thomas may have been enough to cause orthodox Christians to read these texts on occasion, for the most part they were used by sectarian groups.

For Further Reading:

After Acts

by Bryan Litfin

What really happened after Acts? If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the biblical characters after Acts—from the well-known Matthew...

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