Yesterday over at the Jesus Blog, the guys posted a response by S. Brian Pounds to Dale Martin’s recent article in JSNT suggesting that Jesus and his followers were armed and were participants in a failed armed revolt. I am waiting to read the response until I finish Martin’s article, but I also wanted to point out Simon Joseph’s response, which was posted on his blog yesterday afternoon. Looks like this article (and it’s coverage in a major public news source) will be fodder for some very interesting discussion in the weeks ahead. All of this is unfolding well ahead of the annual SBL meeting, where I expect this will be a topic of discussion, at the very least over coffee or drinks.
Our third potential Paul-Thomas parallel is Romans 2:25-29 and Gos. Thom. 53
Gos. Thom. 53
|His disciples said to him, ‘Is circumcision useful or not?’ He said to them, ‘If it were useful, their father would produce children already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become profitable in every respect.’||25 Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.|
With the present parallel, we are on the firmest footing yet in suggesting the presence of a shared tradition between Thomas and Paul. Anyone familiar with Paul’s letters and his major theological emphases will immediately recognize the Pauline shape of Gos. Thom. 53. Given Paul’s ongoing dispute with the Judaizing faction (cf. Acts 15, Gal 2, and Phil 3:2), it can reasonably be assumed that questions about the value of circumcision arose first in the ministry of Paul rather than the Sitz im Leben of the Thomasine community. Issues such as circumcision, dietary laws, and the relationship of the believer to the Law constitute significant considerations in Paul’s letters. By contrast, the Jewish practice of circumcision is not a prominent concern for the Jesus tradition represented by the Synoptics, the Fourth Gospel, or Thomas, and the ‘the peculiar argument rejecting physical circumcision in the second sentence is quite unique and has no parallel in the New Testament or related Early Christian Literature’ (Plisch, 136)—all of which suggests the secondary nature of Gos. Thom. 53.
Most commentators on the Gospel of Thomas draw a connection between Paul’s discussion in Rom 2 and the disciples’ question in logion 53, even if simply in a footnote. However, few state the obvious connection as clearly as Plisch when he comments that in ‘the New Testament, the question of the value of circumcision is mainly confronted and theologically mastered by Paul’, and that Thomas’s similarity to Paul is quite close, almost verbatim’ (Plisch, pp. 135-36). Likewise, Antti Marjanen (‘Thomas and Jewish Religious Practices’, in Risto Uro, ed. Thomas at the Crossroads: Essays on the Gospel of Thomas [Studies of the New Testament and Its Word; Edinbugh: T & T Clark, 1998] 179) comments that ‘Thomas proves to be part of that tradition in which the “circumcision of the heart” brought about by the Spirit is considered the prerequisite for hearing the word, awakening faith, faithful service of God, and putting off the body of flesh.’ He goes on to say that this tradition is represented chiefly by Paul in Rom 2:25-29 and Phil 3:3, (though he stops short of arguing that Thomas is relying directly upon Paul), and that it is unlikely that Thomas’s version represents the earliest stage of the ‘circumcision of heart’ tradition. These scholars affirm the general impression that Thomas’s version appeared later than Paul’s.
There are a number of striking similarities between these texts: (1) both passages are concerned with the nature and especially the benefit of ‘circumcision’; (2) each rejects physical circumcision in favor of a spiritual circumcision (Thomas speaks of ‘circumcision in spirit’ and Paul writes of ‘circumcision of the heart’); (3) the question-answer format exists in both texts as Paul addresses an imaginary opponent in Romans 2 and Jesus addresses the direct question of his disciples in Gos. Thom. 53; and (4) Gathercole argues that there may be a faint connection between the language in Paul’s comment about the benefits of circumcision in Rom 3:2, (‘much in every way’, polu kata panta) and Thomas’s affirmation that circumcision is ‘profitable in every respect (lit. ‘has found absolute benefit’). The connection between these two texts can hardly be questioned and the case for Pauline influence is almost unassailable.
As with the previous two parallels, it is difficult to imagine a plausible scenario in which the Thomas logion is earlier than Paul’s version, and given the multiple similarities between the two, the most logical deduction is that Gos. Thom. 53 made use of a Pauline text.
The first potential Paul-Thomas parallel we will examine is Gos. Thom. 3 and Rom 10:5-8.
Gos. Thom. 3
|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’|
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.