The Claim: Miracles in the Gospel of Thomas cast doubt on miracles in the canonical gospels.
Nobody thinks the fantastic miracles in the infancy gospel of Thomas really happened. Jesus didn’t turn mud into sparrows, didn’t kill the boy who bumped into him or blind the boy’s parents, or lengthen the piece of wood in the carpenter’s shop. Why, then, do people believe the equally far-fetched miracles described in the official, canonical gospels: turning water into wine, walking on water, rising from the dead? Would they have believed the sparrow miracle, or the plank-lengthening miracle, if the infancy gospel had made it into the canon? If not, why not?
Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (p. 38). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Dawkins asks a very simple question at the end of this quote: Why do people believe in miracles recorded in the canonical gospels, but not miracles from the Gospel of Thomas? This problem breaks down into a straightforward contrast. There are books in which there are claims that Jesus performed miracles that people consider to be accurate accounts. There are other books in which there are claims that Jesus performed miracles that people do not consider to be accurate accounts.
Is it a Question of Miracles?
Dawkins’s question could be read as saying, “Hey, here is a book that says it is about Jesus. If you do not believe the miracles in this book, why would you believe the miracles in this other book?” If this how Professor Dawkins is positioning the question, it would appear he is posing a non-sequitur; his conclusion does follow the logical path of his argument. It is not a given that if one believes in miracles, we must believe in all miracles recorded in all books.
We can understand his argument in two ways.
For the first, let’s consider an illustration. Dawkins’s argument can be likened to my writing a biography of a historical figure with inaccurate information and then accusing people of being inconsistent because they believe an account written by that person’s friends rather than me. I could say, “If you do not believe my account, why believe theirs?!” As you could see, this would be a ridiculous thing to argue. Just because there are two accounts of someone’s life does not mean they must both be accepted.
Another way to read the argument would be to ask, “There are two accounts of Jesus’s life. Both have miracles, so why accept these miracles and reject the other miracles?” This position, of course, has a problematic underlying assumption. This position assumes that the account is rejected or accepted based on the type of miracles performed therein. However, the Gospel of Thomas is not rejected over the Gospel of Mark because of the miracles it includes. The process is much more nuanced than that. There is a better way to frame the question.
It is a Question of Historicity
I believe the best way to ask this question is to ask, “Why is the Gospel of Thomas rejected while the other Gospels are accepted?” You see, this way of approaching the question is more appropriate because it deals with the accounts on the same basis as historians and theologians. They look at the book holistically and seek to determine a book’s historicity. If a book is considered to be historical, then the claims it is making are accepted, as in the case of the Gospel of Mark. If the book is deemed to be non-historical, as in the case of Thomas, it is rejected regardless of the types of miracles it contains.
One, for the sake of argument, could argue that yes, theologians would have accepted the miracles accounts of Thomas if that book had made it into the canon. However, it would only have made it into the canon if it was found to meet the proper criteria of:
- being written by an eyewitness
- being accepted as authoritative early in the church
- corroborating with other eyewitness accounts (orthodoxy)
The Gospel of Thomas does not meet these criteria. It was written of 100 years after the time of Christ, was not written by eyewitnesses, contradicts other historical accounts, and provides no authenticating information which could be used to confirm its historicity.
These are the reasons why that book is rejected. To answer Dawkins’s question, Christians do not believe the miracles found only in the Gospel of Thomas happened because the Gospel itself is not a historically reliable account.