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Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part III)

March 8, 2010

The first potential Paul-Thomas parallel we will examine is Gos. Thom. 3 and Rom 10:5-8.

Gos. Thom. 3

Rom 10:5-8

Jesus said, ‘If your leaders say to you, “Look, 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 within you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.’ 5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ 6 But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?”’ (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 ‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?”’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’

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On the surface there does not seem to be much to commend the view that these two passages share a common heritage. The context associated with each saying is quite different as Paul is focused on righteousness and its relationship to Torah while Thomas is interested in expounding the nature of the kingdom. There are a few verbal similarities, but how far can they be pressed? A potentially illuminating observation is that both Paul and Thomas seem to be adapting or borrowing from a tradition influenced by Deut 30:12-14.

As far back as 1969, Peter Nagel sought to draw a connection between Rom 10:5-8 and Gos. Thom. 3. In an article simply titled, ‘Considerations on the Gospel of Thomas’ (‘Erwägungen zum Thomas-Evangelium’) Nagel began his discussion of this potential parallel by commenting on Paul’s use of Lev 18:5 and Deut 30:12-14 in Rom 10:5-8. He then noted similar terminology and themes in Gos. Thom. 3. Nagel identified four changes that Paul made in incorporating these Pentateuchal texts into his argument: (1) Paul has replaced the Deuteronomic, ‘between heaven and beyond the sea’ with the dichotomy ‘in heaven’/‘in the abyss’ (eis ten abysson); (2) In Deut 30, attempting to obtain the command from heaven or beyond the sea is futile, while for Paul, these questions are refuted in light of the consequences that would result from them; (3) Paul adds the benefit that one is blessed through confession and belief, an element missing from Deut 30; and (4) Paul wants to connect ‘confess’ with the mouth and ‘believe’ with the heart. Following these observations Nagel examines the similar use of Deut 30 in Gos. Thom. 3 and notes that certain elements peculiar to Paul’s use of this OT tradition are also present in the Thomas logion. Specifically, Thomas also changes ‘beyond the sea’ to ‘in the sea’ (the Coptic reads hn thalassa and the Greek Oxyrhynchus fragment reads ten thala[ssen]). For Nagel, the presence of this change in both Thomas and Romans, and its absence in all other extant versions of the saying, means that Paul and Thomas are sharing a common tradition. He concludes that Gos. Thom. 3 is an older version of the saying, adding that the Thomasine text must have been in Paul’s consciousness when he wrote his letter to the Romans.

Similarly, Simon Gathercole recognizes the use of Deut 30 by Paul and Thomas and asks, ‘[D]oes GThom employ Deut in a reasonably direct way, or is Deut 30 mediated to GThom through a pre-existing interpretative tradition?’ Like Nagel, he observes that all of the pre-Pauline interpretations of Deut 30:13 (including the LXX, Baruch, and Philo) retain ‘a contrast between “up in heaven” and “across the sea”’, while Paul and Thomas both ‘contrast the heaven above with what is below’ (p. 80). Gathercole concludes, like Nagel before him, that this is likely an instance of shared tradition, though he argues that the direction of influence goes from Paul to Thomas and not the other way around as Nagel suggests.

The observations made by Nagel and Gathercole are compelling but are they enough to demonstrate that this is an instance where Paul and Thomas share a common tradition? We will attempt to answer this question further in our next post.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Frank McCoy permalink
    March 8, 2010 4:43 pm

    In Post (84), Philo states, “For it is not necessary, he (i.e., Moses) says, to fly up into heaven, nor to get beyond the sea in searching for what is good; for that it stands hard by and is near to each man.” Again, in Som ii (180), he states, “As Moses says (Deut. xxx. 12-14), the good is stationed just beside thee and shares thy nature.”
    So, in Philonic thought, Deut 30:12-14 regards the seeking of the good–and its meaning is that you don’t need to go into heaven or across the seas to find the good because it is near to you and shares your nature.
    Rather similarly, in Th 3.1-2, Deut 30:12-14 regards the seeking of the Kingdom–and its meaning is that you don’t need to go into heaven or into the sea to find the Kingdom, for it is close at hand outside of you and inside of you.
    So, while Thomas and Paul appear to have shared tradition as respects the text of Deut 30:12-14, I think that, in the interpretation of this passage, Thomas interprets it much more like Philo than like Paul.

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