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Citation for The Acts of Thomas

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Elliott, J. K. . "The Acts of Thomas." In The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Sep 20, 2020. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/acprof-9780198261827/acprof-9780198261827-chapter-26>.


Elliott, J. K. . "The Acts of Thomas." In The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/acprof-9780198261827/acprof-9780198261827-chapter-26 (accessed Sep 20, 2020).

The Acts of Thomas

J. K. Elliott

Ancient testimony to the existence of the Acts of Thomas is late and may be seen in Epiphanius, adv. Haer. 2. 47. 1 and 2. 61. 1. (Holl, GCS 31, pp. 216, 380–2); Augustine de Sermone Domini in monte i. 20, 65 (PL 34, cols. 1262–3); c. Adimant. 17. 2. 5. (Zycha, pp. 164–72, esp. 170); c. Faust. 22. 79 (Zycha, pp. 680–2); Turribius of Astorga, epist. ad Idacium et Ceponium 5 (PL 54, cols. 693–5).

These warn against the heterodoxy of the Acts. Epiphanius refers to their Encratite character, Augustine to their Manichaean nature. Turribius' testimony informs us that Priscillianists in Spain were using these Acts, presumably in a Latin version, in the fifth century. We do not know in what form these fathers knew the writing, since the text was subjected to continuous alteration. Later catholicized versions, expunged of unacceptable ideas, became very popular in orthodox circles. The proliferation of censored texts and the creation of Syriac, Arabic, Georgian, Latin, Armenian, and Ethiopic adaptations show the varying form of the Acts.

The Stichometry of Nicephorus allocates only 1600 (or 1700) lines, so this must refer to only a portion of the total as this is less than the length of the text of the one complete Greek manuscript. The Acts of Thomas is the only one of the five primary Acts to have survived in its entirety.

The Syriac of the complete Acts was first published from a British Museum manuscript by Wright in 1871. This manuscript dates from the seventh century. Fragments of a fifth–sixth century Syriac palimpsest found on Mount Sinai were published by Burkitt and later, more thoroughly, by Smith Lewis. These forms in Syriac represent a later development of the text found in Greek (e.g. the prayer in ch. 27 is more orthodox in Syriac than Greek).

Bonnet's Greek is based on twenty‐one manuscripts; Klijn's monograph (bibliography below, under Modern Translations) sets out clearly the extent of each of these manuscripts. 1 Correct Klijn, p. 4, as follows: D ends at ch. 61; F has 144–9, 163–end. Only one eleventh‐century manuscript (U) contains the Acts in its entirety, but another (P) of the tenth century is complete except for the Hymn of the Pearl (chs. 108–13 ). There are some eighty‐five Greek manuscripts extant, the oldest being of the ninth century. In some Greek manuscripts the Martyrdom includes the great prayer of Thomas after 167 whereas the Syriac places it in 144f. The later position seems preferable and is adopted in the translation below.

The original language is likely to have been Syriac, 2 Several of the Gospel passages cited in the Acts of Thomas seem to be either from a form of the Diatessaron or from the Old Syriac (rather than the Peshitta). although it is now generally agreed that (with the exception of the Hymn of the Pearl) the existing Syriac texts are later catholicized versions and that the existing Greek texts, albeit translations of the Syriac, have in general preserved the primitive form of the original Acts. There are many instances of the Greek translators' having misunderstood Syriac. The Hymn of the Pearl, which is discussed below (p. 441), has survived in Syriac and Greek, but most scholars accept that here the Syriac is more faithful than the Greek. Armenian and Latin translations of parts of the Acts survive, but for interpreting the original form of the Acts only the Greek and Syriac are relevant, other versions being secondary in importance. The Armenian is likely to have developed from the Syriac. The Martyrdom, as so often, circulated separately in the oriental versions and represents a different tradition. The Arabic (ninth‐century) is likely to be developed from Coptic. The Ethiopic (fourteenth‐century) is a translation of the Arabic. Few remains of the Coptic have survived.

Much literature on these Acts has concentrated on the supposed religious background. The religionsgeschichtliche school tended to see Manichaean influences (Bousset, Bornkamm, Widengren), others pre‐Christian thought (e.g. A. Adam), others distinctive Syrian teaching (Klijn, Quispel).

Some of the Acts are strongly Encratite, but such teaching may well have been characteristic of third‐century Christianity in Syria in so far as this is known from Ephraem, who betrays its richly syncretistic background, and in the Odes of Solomon, in Aphrahat's writing, and in some of the Pseudo‐Clementine literature. If seen as basically orthodox rather than as Gnostic, the whole may be read as a kind of early ‘Pilgrim's Progress’, being a fictional romance of conversion. Chapters 79, 80, 143 reflect orthodox views of incarnation, ch. 72 teaches redemption through Christ's suffering. Unworldliness and abstinence as Christian virtues and true marriage seen only as marriage to the heavenly bridegroom are pushed to the extreme, but the idea that the redeemed life begins in this world is orthodox. The stress on the sacraments, especially anointing, eucharist, and baptism, has been the subject of critical comment. The hymns and prayers are of special significance.

Another dominant theme in much of the literature written on these Acts is that of the historicity of the tradition that Thomas brought Christianity to India. Those who wish to accept the tradition have put much weight on the actual existence of one of the main characters in the Acts, the Parthian‐Indian king Gundaphorus, whose reign in the first century is attested from coins. The characters Gad and possibly Abban also are likely to have been historical figures. Because of these clues and because of allegedly authentic touches some, such as Medlycott and Dahlmann, accepted the historicity of the basic story in these Acts. Others, such as Farquhar, while recognizing their fictional character, were prepared to accept that the Acts were based on fact and reflected an actual evangelization of India by Thomas. The consensus of modern scholarly opinion is sceptical about the historicity of the Thomas story, and in any case the local references are perfunctory. As is usual in this type of literature the eponymous hero and the milieu of the separate episodes are colourless and stylized. It is not impossible that at the time of the original composition of the Acts Christianity had been established in India. The convention that apostolic activity was behind the establishment of a new Christian community encouraged the church in Edessa to magnify its own involvement in such a development by giving prominence to the pioneering work of Thomas.

Hymn of the Pearl

Much of the interest in the Acts lies in the prayers and sermons; above all it is the splendid oriental hymn now numbered chs. 108–13 that has been responsible for a vast secondary literature. This is the hymn conventionally referred to as the ‘Hymn of the Pearl’ or ‘The Hymn of the Soul’.

The text is found in only one of the existing manuscripts of the Syriac Acts 3 It is not in the Sachau MS edited by Bedjan. He reproduced Wright's text at this point. and in only one of the Greek (as well as in an eleventh‐century epitome by Nicetas of Thessalonica). The Syriac manuscript is of the tenth century, the Greek of the eleventh.

Scholars are divided about the origin of the hymn, but most accept that it was in existence prior to its incorporation in the Acts. The wording of the two editions suggests that there were two separate transmissions of the text. The original language seems to have been Syriac, but the Greek has been translated below (although with an eye to the Syriac). The Parthian origin of the hymn has been discussed by those who identify Iranian words in the Syriac text.

Like the Acts into which it has been incorporated, the hymn may be seen more as representative of popular piety and folkloristic story‐telling. The interpretations given to the allegory differ. The identity of the elements and characters in the poem is not clear. A consistent picture emerges if the child in the poem is the soul which, when on earth, forgets its heavenly origin until reawakened by a divine revelation that results in its being reunited with its heavenly robe. If it is a myth of the soul's human incarnation, its eventual disengagement with the body, and ultimate reunion with God, then there is a homiletic appeal for conversion (and this may be seen at the end of 110). Those who wish to see it as a Gnostic myth emphasize the detail of the prince's putting on of a garment as an allegory for the acquiring of self‐knowledge. Others interpret it as a redeemer myth: the allegory now requiring Christ to be the son in the poem. Ménard tries to unravel layers of redaction in the poem, seeing it finally as a Manichaean version based on a Gnostic reworking of an original more orthodox, Jewish‐Christian work. This complexity merely serves to underline the ambiguous nature of the material.

Author, Date, Provenance

Judas Thomas is said to be the author. He is the twin of Jesus, having a similar appearance to Jesus (ch. 11) and sharing Jesus' redeeming work (31, 39). He is the recipient of secret knowledge and in that sense is comparable to the Thomas figure in the Gospel of Thomas. There is, however, no obvious literary interdependence between the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thomas despite a shared theological background.

Edessa is likely to have been the place of origin of the Acts of Thomas. The date of the original Acts is third century. If this is correct then the Acts of Thomas is the oldest non‐Biblical monument of the Syrian Church's literature.

My translation is based on Lipsius–Bonnet's text with some adjustment in chs. 144–8 and in the martyrdom.



  • C. Thilo, Acta S. Thomae Apostoli (Leipzig, 1823) (based on four MSS).

  • C. Tischendorf, Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha (Leipzig, 1851), 190–230 (based on five MSS). Additions from two further MSS in id., Apocalypses Apocryphae, 156–61.

  • K. Lake, ‘A Fragment of the Acta Thomae’, in Texts from Mount Athos (Oxford, 1903), 164–9 (= Studia Biblica et Ecclesiastica 5) (edits 14th‐cent. paper MS, Iveron 476).

  • Lipsius–Bonnet, ii.2, 99–291.


  • Wright, Apoc. Acts, i. 171–333; ii (Eng. trans.), 146–298.

  • P. Bedjan, Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, iii (Paris and Leipzig, 1892; repr. Hildesheim, 1968), 1–175 (publishes Sachau MS and modifies Wright's edition).

  • F. C. Burkitt, ‘Fragments of the Acts of Judas Thomas from the Sinaitic Palimpsest’, in A. Smith Lewis (ed.), Select Narratives of Holy Women (London, 1900), Appendix VII, 23–44 (= Studia Sinaitica 9).

  • Smith Lewis, Acta Myth. 190 ff.; Myth. Acts, 223–4.

  • Portions from Wright and Lewis are to be found in T. Jansma, A Selection from the Acts of Judas Thomas (Brill, 1952) (= Semitic Study Series 1).

  • For details of text and studies see I. Ortiz de Urbana, Patrologia Syriaca (Rome, 21965), 37–41.


  • Fabricius, ii. 687–736 (cf. 819–28 (= Pseudo‐Abdias)).

  • M. Bonnet, Acta Thomae Graece partim cum novis codicis contulit . . . (Leipzig, 1883), 96–160.

  • For 6th‐cent. free reworkings of original Acts (De miraculis beati Thomae apostoli, an abridgement attributed to Gregory of Tours, and Passio sancti Thomae apostoli) see:

  • K. Zelzer, ‘Zu Datierung und Verfasserfrage der lateinischen Thomasakten’, in E. Livingstone (ed.), Studia Patristica 12 (Berlin, 1975) (= TU 115).

  • Die alten lateinischen Thomasakten (Berlin, 1977) (= TU 122).

  • —‘Zu den lateinischen Fassungen der Thomasakten’, Wiener Studien 84 (NS 5) (1971), 161–78; 85 (NS 6) (1972), 185–212.


  • Mechitarists' edition [Acta Apocrypha Armenica] (Venice, 1904), 369–427.

  • Leloir, CCA 4, 548–69, 577–91, 597–615, 622–31.

  • The oriental versions of the Acts differ from the tradition in the languages noted above 4 James, Apoc. Anec. ii, pp. xxxii–xliv, 27–45 gives the text of Greek MS Brit. Mus. 10073 f128–f153 with Eng. trans. This MS is close to the Coptic and Ethiopic tradition. Other divergent Greek traditions may be seen in Amphilohij, Paleograficeskoe opisanie greceskih rukopisej, ii (Moscow, 1880), 22–8, and D. Tamilia, ‘Acta Thomae Apocrypha’, in Atti della Reale Accademia dei Lincei. Rendiconti. Classe di scienze morali, storiche e filologiche 5, 12 (Rome, 1903), 385–408. and are to be found in Coptic, Ethiopic, Arabic, Slavonic, and Georgian. See Hennecke5, ii. 412–14 (A. de Santos Otero); Eng. trans. ii. 457–8.


  • P.‐H. Poirier, La version copte de la prédiction et du martyre du Thomas (Brussels, 1984) (= Subsidia Hagiographica 67).


  • Malan, 187–220 (repeated in James, Apoc. Anec. ii. 46–63).

  • Wallis Budge, Contendings, i. 265–95, 336–81; ii (Eng. trans.), 319–56, 404–65. [A revision of Malan based on more reliable manuscripts.]


  • Smith Lewis, Acta Myth. 67–78 (cf. 79–83); Myth. Acts, 80–93 (cf. 94–9).

  • M. van Esbroeck, ‘Les Actes apocryphes de Thomas en version arabe’, Parole de l'Orient 14 (1987), 11–77.


  • A. de Santos Otero, Altslav. Apok. i. 84–96.


  • G. Garitte, ‘Le Martyre géorgien de l'apôtre Thomas’, Le Muséon 83 (1970), 497–532.

Modern Translations


  • Pick, 222–362.

  • Walker, 389–422.

  • James, 364–438.

  • Hennecke3, ii. 425–531.

  • Hennecke5, ii. 322–411, 453–7.

  • A. F. J. Klijn, The Acts of Thomas: Introduction, Text, Commentary (Leiden, 1962) (= Supplements to Novum Testamentum 5) (includes Eng. trans. of Wright's Syriac). Cartlidge and Dungan, 36–54 (selection).


  • Amiot, 262–74 (selection).

  • A. J. Festugière, ‘Actes de Thomas’, in Les Actes apocryphes de Jean et de Thomas (Geneva, 1983) (= Cahiers d'orientalisme 6).

  • Éac, 1323–470.


  • Hennecke1, 473–544 (R. Raabe; introduction by E. Preuschen); cf. Handbuch, 562–602 (E. Preuschen).

  • Hennecke3, ii. 297–372 (G. Bornkamm).

  • Hennecke5, ii. 289–367 (H. J. W. Drijvers), 408–12 (A. de Santos Otero).

  • Michaelis, 402–38 (selections).


  • Moraldi, ii. 1225–1350, 1577–1603 (Pseudo‐Abdias).

  • Erbetta, ii. 307–74, 375–91 (Pseudo‐Abdias).


  • Lipsius, i. 225–347 (including German trans. of the Hymn of the Pearl (pp. 292–300) with copious explanatory remarks).

  • F. C. Burkitt, ‘The Original Language of the Acts of Judas Thomas’, JTS 1 (1900), 280–90 (cf. postscript in JTS 2 (1901), 429, and 3 (1902), 94–5).

  • C. H. Turner, ‘Priscillian and the Acts of Judas Thomas’, JTS 7 (1906), 603–5.

  • R. H. Connolly, ‘The Original Language of the Syriac Acts of Thomas’, JTS 8 (1907), 249–61.

  • W. Bousset, Hauptprobleme der Gnosis (Göttingen, 1907), esp. 276–319 (= Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments 10).

  • —‘Manichäisches in der Thomasakten’, ZNW 18 (1917–18), 1–39.

  • G. Bornkamm, Mythos und Legende in den apokryphen Thomas‐Akten: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Gnosis und zur Vorgeschichte des Manichäismus (Göttingen, 1933) (= Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments 49 (NS 31)).

  • D. S. Margoliouth, ‘Some Problems in the “Acta Judae Thomae” ’, in Essays in Honour of Gilbert Murray (London, 1936), 249–59.

  • G. Widengren, Mesopotamian Elements in Manichaeism (Uppsala, 1946) (= Uppsala Universitet Aarsskrift 3).

  • P. Devos, ‘Actes de Thomas et Actes de Paul’, Anal. Boll. 69 (1951), 119–30.

  • A. Hamman, ‘Le “Sitz im Leben” des Actes de Thomas’, in F. L. Cross (ed.), Studia Evangelica 3 (Berlin, 1964), part 2, 383–9 (= TU 88).

  • Vielhauer, 710–13

  • H. Conzelmann, ‘Zu Mythos, Mythologie und Formgeschichte, geprüft an der dritten Praxis der Thomasakten’, ZNW 67 (1976), 111–22.

  • Plümacher, cols. 34–43.

  • Y. Tissot, ‘Les Actes de Thomas, exemple de recueil composite’, in F. Bovon (ed.), Les Actes apocryphes des apôtres: Christianisme et monde païen (Geneva, 1981), 223–32 (= Publications de la Faculté de Théologie de l'Université de Genève 4).

  • —‘L'encratisme des Actes de Thomas’, ANRW 2.25.6, 4415–30.

  • M. Lipinski, Konkordanz zu den Thomasakten (Frankfurt, 1988) (= Bonner Biblische Beiträge 67) (Anhang gives text divided into chapters and verses).

  • R. J. Bauckham, ‘The Parable of the Vine: Rediscovering a Lost Parable of Jesus’, NTS 33 (1987), 84–101; and cf. M. Franzmann, ‘The Parable of the Vine in Odes of Solomon 38: 17–19? A Response to Richard Bauckham’, NTS 35 (1989), 604–8.

  • Aspects of the historicity of the Acts of Thomas or of apostolic activity in India are discussed in the following:

  • F. C. Burkitt, Early Christianity outside the Roman Empire (Cambridge, 1899), esp. 63–99.

  • A. E. Medlycott, India and the Apostle Thomas: An Inquiry, with a Critical Analysis of the Acta Thomae (London, 1905).

  • J. Dahlmann, Die Thomas‐Legende und die ältesten historischen Beziehungen des Christentums zum fernen Osten (Freiburg, 1912) (= Stimmen aus Maria Laach: Ergänzungsheft 107).

  • J. N. Farquhar, ‘The Apostle Thomas in North India’, BJRL 10 (1926), 80–111.

  • —‘The Apostle Thomas in South India’, BJRL 11 (1927), 20–50.

  • A. Mingana, ‘The Early Spread of Christianity in India’, BJRL 10 (1926), 435–514).

  • L. W. Brown, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas (Cambridge, 1956).

  • G. Huxley, ‘Geography in the Acts of Thomas’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 24 (1983), 71–80.

Works specifically on the Hymn of the Pearl:



  • A. A. Bevan, The Hymn of the Soul (Cambridge, 1897) (= Texts and Studies 5.3) (with Eng. trans. and notes).

  • G. Hoffmann, ‘Zwei Hymnen der Thomasakten’, ZNW 4 (1903), 273–309 (important reconstruction of Syriac, with German trans.).

  • E. Preuschen, Zwei Gnostische Hymnen (Giessen, 1904) (with German trans. and discussion of text).


  • M. Bonnet, ‘Actes de S. Thomas Apôtre. Le poème de l’âme. Version grecque remaniée par Nicétas de Thessalonique’, Anal. Boll. 20 (1901), 159–64 (adaptation of part of the Greek Acts including a summary of the ‘Hymn of the Pearl (Soul)’).

Modern Translations


  • F. C. Burkitt, Early Eastern Christianity (London, 1904), 218–23.

  • ‘The Hymn of the Pearl’, in B. Layton (ed.), The Gnostic Scriptures (London, 1987), 366–75.


  • J. É. Ménard, ‘Le Chant de la perle’, RSR 42 (1968), 289–325.

  • P.‐H. Poirier, ‘L'Hymne de la perle des Actes de Thomas’: Introduction, texte, traduction, commentaire (Louvain‐la‐Neuve, 1981) (= Homo Religiosus 8) (includes trans. of the Greek and Syriac, and Nicetas’ epitome).


  • F. C. Conybeare, ‘The Idea of Sleep in the “Hymn of the Soul” ’, JTS 6 (1905), 609–10.

  • V. Burch, ‘A Commentary on the Syriac Hymn of the Soul’, JTS 19 (1918), 145–61.

  • A. Adam, Die Psalmen des Thomas und das Perlenlied als Zeugnisse vorchristlicher Gnosis (Berlin, 1959) (= Beihefte zur ZNW 24) (includes German translation).

  • A. F. J. Klijn, ‘The so‐called Hymn of the Pearl’, VC 14 (1960), 154–64.

  • G. Quispel, Makarius, Das Thomasevangelium und das Lied von der Perle (Leiden, 1967), esp. ch. 6. 5 Review by J. E. Ménard, RSR 42 (1968), 358–61.

  • I. P. Culianu, ‘Erzählung und Mythos im “Lied von der Perle” ’, Kairos 21 (1979), 60–71.

  • H. Kruse, ‘The Return of the Prodigal’, Orientalia 47 (1978), 177–84 (Eng. trans. and commentary).

  • P. H. Poirier, ‘L'Hymne de la perle des Actes de Thomas: Étude de la tradition manuscrite’, Orientalia Christiana Analecta 205 (Rome, 1979), 17–29; id., ‘L'Hymne de la perle et le manichéisme à la lumière de Codex Manichéen de Cologne’, in L. Cirillo and A. Roselle (eds.), Codex Manichaeus Coloniensis (Cosenza, 1986), 235–48.


1 Correct Klijn, p. 4, as follows: D ends at ch. 61; F has 144–9, 163–end.

2 Several of the Gospel passages cited in the Acts of Thomas seem to be either from a form of the Diatessaron or from the Old Syriac (rather than the Peshitta).

3 It is not in the Sachau MS edited by Bedjan. He reproduced Wright's text at this point.

4 James, Apoc. Anec. ii, pp. xxxii–xliv, 27–45 gives the text of Greek MS Brit. Mus. 10073 f128–f153 with Eng. trans. This MS is close to the Coptic and Ethiopic tradition. Other divergent Greek traditions may be seen in Amphilohij, Paleograficeskoe opisanie greceskih rukopisej, ii (Moscow, 1880), 22–8, and D. Tamilia, ‘Acta Thomae Apocrypha’, in Atti della Reale Accademia dei Lincei. Rendiconti. Classe di scienze morali, storiche e filologiche 5, 12 (Rome, 1903), 385–408.

5 Review by J. E. Ménard, RSR 42 (1968), 358–61.

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