Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part VIII)

A last set of texts that may reflect Paul-Thomas parallels deal with the flesh/spirit,  body/soul,  external/internal dichotomy.  There are a handful of places in both Thomas and Paul where this polarity appears. In at least three instances a plausible argument can be made for Thomas’s appropriation of Pauline language and imagery in a way that advances the argument that the authors of Thomas knew and modified Pauline formulations.

In Gos. Thom. 29 there is a reflection on how the ‘great wealth’ of the spirit has come to dwell in the ‘poverty’ of the human body. This is similar to Paul’s concept of the spirit residing in fragile jars of clay (2 Cor 4.7), though the link is admittedly weaker than the three parallels examined thus far. The two passages do not share a common vocabulary and evidence of editorial activity is missing. Still, the strong conceptual link exists and it may be that Paul has again influenced Thomas. There is not enough evidence to demonstrate that Thomas has used Paul (or vice versa), but in light of the conclusions offered in the previous three posts, I want to raise the suggestion in much the same way historical Jesus scholars use the ‘criterion of coherence’. The criterion of coherence states that what coheres with other established historical material is also likely to be historical. In the same way, material that coheres with established Pauline influences on the Gospel of Thomas may constitute evidence of further Pauline influence. We have already seen that the authors of the Gospel of Thomas radically reshaped several Pauline texts and, in the case of Rom 10.5-8, the final form in Thomas looks very different from the original Pauline form. Therefore, it is not outside the realm of possibility that this common theme found its way into Thomas through Pauline influence.

A second possible body/spirit parallel drawn from material in 2 Corinthians 4 is Gos. Thom. 70: ‘Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, that which you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within will kill you’. The imagery here may be related to 2 Cor 4.16-18, where Paul utilizes the distinction between the external (ho exw hemon anthropos) and the internal (ho esw hemon) to make his point. There he speaks of wasting away outwardly while being renewed inwardly. The inward/outward distinction is similar here in both Paul and Thomas but the texts reach very different conclusions. Plisch also sees a potential connection between these texts. He writes:

Especially interesting in our context is 2 Cor 4:16-18, for, on the one hand the opposites there make clear what the inner self signifies, on the other, because it evidences how different the notion in Gos. Thom. 70 actually is. According to 2 Cor 4:16-18, the inner being—contrary to the exterior being—the part that shares in transcedence and eternity, is the core of the person (p. 169).

 This parallel may represent another instance of Thomas borrowing Pauline language and imagery and using the material in a way different from Paul’s original intent.

A third example appears in Rom 7.13-25. There Paul writes at length about the war with sin going on inside his body as he longs for spiritual victory. In v. 24 he concludes the section with the woeful statement, ‘Wretched (talaipwron) man that I am! Who will rescue me from the body (ek tou swmatos) of this death?’ In Gos. Thom. 87 we read, ‘Wretched (ou talaiporon) is the body (pswma) that depends on a body (nouswma’). And wretched (outalaipwros) is the soul that depends on these two’.  The shared vocabulary is undeniable and the contexts deal with similar reflections on the internal (soul/spirit) and the external (body). Again, there is not enough evidence here to constitute hard proof, but further investigation may show that Thomas was dependent upon Paul in ways we have not yet fully realized.

In the end, it does seem possible that several Thomasine texts that focus on the interior/exterior polarity drew from and changed Pauline texts. An awareness of the possible connection between these texts may offer future prospects for further investigation of the Paul-Thomas relationship.

Our next two posts will complete the series of reflections on the Pauline corpus and the Gospel of Thomas.


Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part VII)

Our third potential Paul-Thomas parallel is Romans 2:25-29 and Gos. Thom. 53

Gos. Thom. 53

Romans 2:25-29

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.

Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part V)

The second Paul-Thomas parallel I want to look at is Gos. Thom. 17 and 1 Cor 2:9:

Gos. Thom. 17

1 Cor 2:9

Jesus said, ‘I will give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.’ But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’


The similarities between 1 Cor 2:9 and Gos. Thom. 17 are evident right away though questions about the sharing of tradition prove difficult to answer. To begin with, the proverb appears to draw upon elements of Isa 52:15, 64:3-4, and/or 65:16, though no part of the saying represents a direct quotation of any OT passage. This was no doubt an important proverb in the early church as different versions appear in 1 Cor 2:9, Gos. Thom. 17, 1 Clem 34:8, 2 Clem 11:7, Dial Sav 57, Acts Thom 36, Acts Pet 39, Protrepticus 10.94.4 (an exhortation of Clement of Alexandria to the Greeks), and the Turfan Fragment M 789. Similarities are also present in 1 John 1:1, though the context and situation addressed by the Johannine epistles may suggest its independence from the tradition shared by these other texts. The widespread appeal of this proverb makes tracing its transmission history a complex endeavor.

If we exclude 1 John 1:1, it is clear that Thomas and Paul represent the two earliest extant versions of this proverb. Therefore the first question to explore is, which version preceded the other? Scholars are split on this question. April DeConick includes Gos. Thom. 17 in her list of earliest Thomas sayings, arguing that it reflects the eschatological views of the earliest Thomasine Christians (see Recovering, 97, 113, 118, 129). Stephen Patterson, who also regards logion 17 as pre-Pauline, offers the following unqualified assertion about Paul:

[I]n 1 Corinthians 2 he uses the wisdom style of these opponents to compose his own ‘wisdom speech’ (2:6-16), only to correct their views with a few well-placed Pauline twists. Interestingly, in the midst of this speech Paul quotes a saying from the Gospel of Thomas. . . .The version of the saying quoted here by Paul is not paralleled word-for-word in Thomas, but reflects the sort of differences one would expect to have resulted from oral transmission (from “Paul and the Jesus Tradition,” Harvard Theological Review 84 [1991] 36-37).

Thinking along the lines of those who argue that the communities of John and Thomas were embroiled in a theological conflict, Plisch suggests that Thomas may have altered the saying in response to 1 John 1:1, which would mean that Thomas’s version is later than Paul’s. Gathercole argues that Gos. Thom. 17 has a number of secondary features, indicating it emerged later than Paul’s version. There seem to be as many opinions on this parallel as there are scholars who take a position.

Several features of Gos. Thom. 17 suggest that it is later than 1 Cor 2:9. First, Thomas includes a reference to “what no hand has touched.” This does not appear in the Pauline version and would seem to be an ‘improvement’ as it provides greater parallelism in the saying. Second, Thomas’s attribution of this saying to Jesus is surely to be regarded as secondary. Most later versions of the proverb preserve it as a saying of the Lord where Paul does not. All of this would suggest Paul’s version is earlier.

It appears that the Thomas logion emerged later than Paul’s version of the proverb, but demonstrating that it is earlier than Paul is not the same as demonstrating its dependence upon Paul. In our next post we will ask the question, “Is there any compelling evidence that Gos. Thom. 17 used 1 Cor 2:9?

Tuckett on Plisch on the Gospel of Thomas

Over at the Review of Biblical Literature, Christopher Tuckett reviews Uwe-Karsten Plisch’s commentary on the Gospel of Thomas. With regard to Plisch’s views on dating the material in the Gospel of Thomas, Tuckett notes:

Plisch is generally cautious and uncontroversial in relation to Thomas scholarship. For example, he opines that the time of composition is probably unknown, but in any case the “author” (or perhaps editor or compiler) has used a number of different traditions; hence one cannot date each tradition on the basis of its presence in the present text of the Gospel of Thomas. The disparate nature of the present text is the result of individual sayings being put together with various principles in mind, but often in relation to “catchwords” linking various sayings on the basis of a common word used. Thus each saying, or tradition, must be considered on its own merits. The origin of the various sayings may be quite diverse: some may be very old, while others may be the result of later editing.


The book I am currently writing on Thomas (What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas?) includes a chapter where I examine different scholarly approaches to dating. Among the scholars I interact with are those who locate Thomas in the late 2nd century, those who locate Thomas in a period that is rougly contemporaneous with the Synoptic tradition, those who argue that Thomas was composed prior to 70 CE (cf. especially Stevan Davies who argues for a date in the 50’s), and then I include a fourth group that consists of Plisch and April DeConick (both of whom argue that there are different discernible traditions). To be sure, DeConick is more optimistic about discerning the different “stages” (though she objects to the use of that term) than is Plisch, but there are some similarities to their approaches, at least when they are compared to the other three.

Overall, I agree with Tuckett when he writes that Plisch’s commentary “is an important addition to the literature on the Gospel of Thomas and will be very valuable for all those doing any kind of detailed work on the text as well as for those with more general interests in the Gospel of Thomas.”