Sunday, October 07, 2018

The Coptic Gospel of Thomas and the author's scope

The same technique we employed previously can be applied to any document. We continue with that same question, "What kind of thing is the author collecting?" in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. Some examples are:

  • And he said, "Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death."
  • Jesus said, "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All."
  • Jesus said, "If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty."
  • Jesus said, "The man old in days will not hesitate to ask a small child seven days old about the place of life, and he will live. For many who are first will become last, and they will become one and the same."
  • Jesus said, "Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you . For there is nothing hidden which will not become manifest."
  • His disciples questioned him and said to him, "Do you want us to fast? How shall we pray? Shall we give alms? What diet shall we observe?"
    Jesus said, "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate, for all things are plain in the sight of heaven. For nothing hidden will not become manifest, and nothing covered will remain without being uncovered."

Here I've put the quotes attributed to Jesus in colored text, the author's introduction that Jesus said these things in a highlighted text, and any other content in a lighter highlight.

In contrast to the previous document where we looked at only part of each item in the sample (specifically, how the author introduced each item), here I am showing the entirety of the sample items. The author transitions from each item to the next with generally no further introduction than "Jesus said". In most cases, each item contains nothing more than the words "Jesus said" followed by what he said, before continuing directly to the next item. There are cases in which the author mentions other people in the conversation, but that is less common. A quick scan of the items above will show that the text consists almost entirely of quotes attributed to Jesus. In the course of the document as a whole, most of the material consists of such quotations.

The Coptic Gospel of Thomas consists of a collection of sayings that are generally short, at times only a sentence or two long. When I say this is a collection of sayings, this is in contrast to the previous document which contains a collection of events with times and places and actions. In the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus does not walk along roads or get into a boat with fishermen; he does not go to the synagogue or travel to Jerusalem for the Jewish pilgrimage feasts; what he does is speak. We do not know when or where he is speaking. In most cases we do not know to whom he is speaking, or whether he is responding to a question or addressing a specific situation. Most sayings are presented without any context other than the introduction, "Jesus said". At times it's possible to discern that various sayings were likely spoken in Israel during the Roman occupation, but a narrative framework of time and place is not any significant part of the author's focus in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.

We can know that the author believed Jesus' sayings to be important, not only from the prologue ("These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke" etc) and from the first saying ("whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death"), but also from the fact that the author bothered to collect Jesus' sayings. There is a spiritual, religious, or philosophical context implied in various sayings. The basis of the collection, on the author's terms, is that these are "secret" sayings of Jesus, and that "whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings" will not experience death. There may be an implication that there are other, better-known sayings of Jesus, if these are the secret ones. The author also implies that these sayings are difficult to interpret, and that Jesus' knowledge, once unlocked, holds the secret of eternal life.

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