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Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part IX)

April 19, 2010

Two questions with which I have been concerned in these posts are: (1) “What is the relationship between Paul and Thomas,” and (2) “In what way(s), if any, is Thomas a reaction to Paul and his legacy?”

In answer to the first question, I have argued that there are at least three instances where the Gospel of Thomas is dependent upon Paul for traditions that are subsequently modified. There also appear to be other, less clearly identifiable instances of Pauline influence on the Gospel of Thomas.

The second question is a little more difficult to answer. If the Gospel of Thomas made use of Pauline texts and/or traditions, it follows that substantive changes to the received materials support theological ideas different from those espoused by Paul. Some might be tempted to see a Paul-Thomas conflict or even an anti-Pauline polemic emerging from the Gospel of Thomas, and while such a conclusion would certainly be convenient given recent scholarly trends, I do not think the evidence can be pressed that far. However, Thomas’s altering of Pauline texts does raise questions that require further exploration.

In the case of Gos. Thom. 3 and its use of Rom 10.5-8, what are we to make of Thomas’s nearly complete reworking of both the shape and the context of the Pauline version? In Romans 10, Paul’s point is explicitly soteriological. The means of attaining salvation are understood quite differently in Paul and the Gospel of Thomas. For Paul, salvation is associated with a cluster of theological realities such as the sacrificial or representative death of Jesus, faith in or the faith of Jesus (depending on one’s view on the pistis christou issue), dying and rising with Christ, and the efficacy of the resurrection as a precursor to what will come for all believers. By contrast, the Gospel of Thomas states from the outset that eternal life can be attained by properly interpreting Jesus’ teachings. Absent from Thomas are discussions of Jesus’ sacrificial death, participation in Christ, limitations on law observance for Gentiles, and the sufficiency of faith as the response to the gospel. Instead, Thomasine soteriological sayings (e.g., 18b, 19c, 37, 111) focus on proper interpretation of the logia Iesou. Therefore, it makes sense that when Thomas makes use of a Pauline soteriological text like Rom 10.5-8, the material is altered in a way that will not contradict Thomas’s understanding of soteriology and will help support another Thomasine view—in this case, the internal presence of the ‘kingdom’.

In Gos. Thom. 17, the material from 1 Cor 2.9 has not been altered as radically as that in Rom 10.5-8. Nonetheless, Thomas modifies a Pauline instruction concerning wisdom that leads to maturity in Christ, into a rather abstract promise related to inheritance, and likely salvation. In its context, Paul’s statement is about the sanctification of the Corinthian believers and how God has already begun a process believers can appropriate. The version of this saying in Thomas deals with salvation rather than sanctification. Paul has a developed understanding of progressive growth ‘in Christ’ while such an emphasis is largely absent from Thomas. For Thomas, knowledge and wisdom appear to be the path to every spiritual blessing.

Finally, both Thomas and Paul reject circumcision as being a source of salvific merit or status, but Thomas’s rejection is more absolute than Paul’s. In Rom 2.25-29, Paul maintains that circumcision has some value since it springs from the religious traditions of the Jews. Gos. Thom. 53 however, rejects circumcision completely. The only circumcision that matters is ‘circumcision in the spirit’, which ultimately provides an absolute benefit. Thus, in typical Thomasine fashion, a great distance is put between Thomas’s theological agenda and anything that would have been of value to the Jews, whereas Paul continues to draw upon early Christianity’s critical link to Judaism.

All of these observations seem to indicate that the authors of Thomas decided to pick and choose elements from Paul (as well as other early Christian traditions) in order to develop and support their theological views. In the end we can simply say that where the authors of the Gospel of Thomas used Pauline material, they did so in a way that amounted to a rejection of Paul’s original point. Even if, in some ways, Thomas’s use of Paul is a begrudging nod to the validity of something in Pauline thought, the reworking nevertheless constitutes some degree of rejection. This rejection of Paul’s theological ideas appears to be a part of the warp and woof of Thomasine Christianity and its different developing theological perspectives.

Later this week I will conclude this series of posts on the Paul-Thomas relationship with a final statement of my conclusions.

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