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Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part VI)

March 26, 2010

Briefly recapping the last post, I argued that Gos. Thom. 17 has a number of secondary features. Among the elements that suggest the Thomas logion emerged later than 1 Cor 2:9 are Thomas’s inclusion of ‘hand’, alongside eye, ear, and heart, and the attribution of this saying to Jesus. First, Paul’s version of the proverb refers to the eye not seeing, the ear not hearing, and the heart not conceiving. Thomas’s version appears to add a reference to what the hand has not touched. This change would provide a fourfold structure and contribute to a greater sense of literary parallelism. Conversely, it would be difficult to explain why Paul would have omitted the phrase.

Second, as with the vast majority of its 114 sayings, the Gospel of Thomas attributes this saying to Jesus. It is also difficult to imagine Paul, who at times expends great energy in differentiating between his own words and those of the Lord (cf. e.g., 1 Cor 7) altering a received tradition where Jesus was thought to be responsible for the saying. On the other hand, since nearly all of Thomas’s sayings begin with ‘Jesus said’, it is not a stretch to imagine that Thomas transformed a received tradition into a saying of Jesus to fit the content and structure of other Thomas sayings. In addition, most of the later versions of the proverb preserve it as a saying of the Lord, while Paul does not. This is to say nothing of the fact that attributing the saying to Jesus would invest it with greater authority than it would otherwise wield in the diverse world of early Christianity.

In the case of Gos. Thom. 3 we argued for Pauline priority, in part, on the basis of Paul’s use of Deuteronomic themes and language. We can mount a similar argument here by appealing to Paul’s extensive use of the Isaian tradition. Paul cites from Isaiah 28 times, more than any other OT book, and his reasons for choosing Isaiah are clear. Hays comments that

Isaiah offers the clearest expression in the Old Testament of a universalistic, eschatological vision in which the restoration of Israel in Zion is accompanied by an ingathering of Gentiles to worship the Lord; that is why this book is statistically and substantively the most important scriptural source for Paul (p.162).

In Isaiah, Paul finds support for his major theological concepts, not the least of which is his understanding of the eschatological inclusion of Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of universal redemption. While several logia in the Gospel of Thomas show some familiarity with traditions influenced by Isaiah, (cf. logia 13, 111) little if anything can be said for Thomas’s direct or independent knowledge of Isaiah.

As was the case with our consideration of Rom 10:5-8 and Gos. Thom. 3, we must consider which scenario is more likely and more problematic. Given the similar uses of the proverb by Paul and Thomas, it is much easier to account for the changes in Gos. Thom. 17 if we assert Pauline priority than vice versa. Though the saying consists of original material from Isaiah, it is also possible that this particular form of the proverb originated with Paul, who consistently shows himself to be a sophisticated and creative interpreter of OT traditions (Gathercole argues that it came to Paul from a pre-existing tradition, p. 88-89). Even if that judgment turns out to be incorrect and the proverb does come to Paul from some pre-existing tradition, he was no doubt drawn to this proverb because of his affinity for the theology of Isaiah. In addition to this, it is clear that both Thomas and Paul use the proverb in ways that are similar to one another but different from other existing versions. There is more than enough evidence to conclude that those responsible for the composition of Thomas knew and used 1 Cor 2:9. It is not necessary to suggest that the logion in question was altered through oral tradition because both versions share such strong similarities, but we will remain open to the suggestion that the logion came to Thomas orally. Thus, Gos. Thom. 17 also shows evidence of having directly used a Pauline text.

In our next post we will look at the most obvious Paul-Thomas parallel, Rom 2:25-29 and Gos. Thom. 53.

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