This is a paper I wrote in a class on the historical study of Jesus of Nazareth. It makes some assumptions of familiarity with the historical study of Jesus, but the rest of the information in the node should be more than adequate. It is a little dry but quite informative.
The Gospel of Thomas
and the Historical Jesus of Nazareth
"Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him, according to the Jesus Seminar." (1993 Funk: 5) This startling fact grew out of the distinction between the Christ of faith, and the Jesus of history. Only the liberation of theology from strictly religious circles has allowed the modern historian to view these personages as completely separate. The synoptic gospels and the Gospel of John speak about the Jesus of faith, but one can find the Jesus of history hiding between the lines. It is a comparison of the gospels that brings the pieces of the puzzle together. Such study has led to the precedence of the Gospel of Mark, as well as establishing proof for an even earlier source based upon the oral tradition, Q. In similar fashion, the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas proves to be highly valuable not only as a new source, but also as a new lens through which to study existing material. Its history, the history of its followers, and a direct comparison to the synoptic gospels unearth information about Jesus and his time that is less than a half-century old.
The discovery of the Nag Hammadi codex in Egypt is arguably the single greatest event in the pursuit of early Christian history this century. 1945 marked the year, but it was not until 1957 that the text was translated as is, and even later still until English audiences would read it. (1993 Patterson: 218) Even then, it was dismissed as a later Gnostic interpretation of the synoptic gospels, not a wholly different Christian kerygma. "The realization that Thomas, with its own kerygmatic claims, represents a tradition that is both independent of, and roughly contemporaneous with the canonical gospels would have meant the recognition that early Christian claims about Jesus were quite multiple and diverse.'