Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 007 The lion and the human being
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 7
Subheading: This page explores modern interpretations of the Gospel according to Thomas, an ancient text preserved in a Coptic translation at Nag Hammadi and Greek fragments at Oxyrhynchus. With no particular slant, this commentary gathers together quotations from various scholars in order to elucidate the meaning of the sayings, many of which are rightly described as “obscure.”
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F. F. Bruce writes: “The point of this seems to be that a lion, if eaten by a man, is ennobled by rising in the scale of being, whereas a man, if eaten by a lion, is degraded to a lower status than was originally his and may even risk missing the goal of immortality.
It is not that we become what we eat but that what we eat becomes part of us (as in Walter de la Mare’s poem ‘Little Miss T-‘). Whether, in addition, there is any special symbolism in the lion, as in 1 Peter 5.8 (‘Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour’), is exceedingly difficult to determine.”
Funk and Hoover write: “This saying is obscure. In antiquity the lion was known to be powerful and ferocious. Hunting lions was the sport of kings. The lion was often the symbol of royalty. The winged lion figures in apocalyptic visions, sometimes as the consort of God, at other times as a symbol of evil.
In Rev 4:7, the four figures that surround the throne are the lion, the young bull, the human figure, and the eagle. These images were later adopted as symbols of the four canonical evangelists; the winged lion specifically became the symbol for the Gospel of Mark.”
Funk and Hoover continue: “The lion was also used to symbolize human passions. Consuming the lion or being eaten by the lion may therefore have had to do with the relation to one’s passions. Understood this way, the saying embodies an ascetic motif. At any rate, Jesus, who was reputed to be a glutton and a drunkard, probably did not coin this saying.”
Marvin Meyer writes: “This riddle-like saying remains somewhat obscure. In ancient literature the lion could symbolize what is passionate and bestial. Hence this saying could suggest that although a human being may consume what is bestial or be consumed by it, there is hope for the human being – and the lion. In gnostic literature the ruler of this world (Yaldabaoth in the Secret Book of John) is sometimes said to look like a lion.
This saying may ultimately be based upon statements in Plato, for instance his comparison (in Republic 588E-589B) of the soul to a being of three parts: a many-headed beast, a lion, and a human being. Plato recommends that the human part of the soul (that is, reason) tame and nourish the leonine part (that is, the passion of the heart).”
Gerd Ludemann writes: “Verse 1 is about the humanization of bestial forces in human beings, v. 2 about human beings lapsing into a bestial nature. Because of the parallelism, I have emended the text in v. 2b, ‘and the lion will become man’, to the text above [‘and the man will become lion’]. The logion fits well with the ascetic-Gnostic circles which are interested in taming or humanization of bestial passions. They are often concerned with taming bestial natures, of which that of the lion is the strongest.”
Jean Doresse writes: “No doubt the lion here represents human passions, or more precisely, the lying spirit of evil. This is suggested by a passage from a Coptic Manichaean Psalm (CCLVII): ‘This lion which is within me, which defiles me at every moment, I have strangled it and cast it out of my soul. . . .'”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “This saying, as Doresse notes (page 134), is extremely obscure. From other sayings in Thomas we may infer that the lion can be eaten only if it is killed and becomes a corpse (60), and that knowing the world is equivalent to finding a corpse (57) – the world is not worthy of those who find such a corpse.
The Gnostic who has eaten what is dead has made it living (Saying 10). Therefore, by eating the dead lion, which may be the hostile world (cf., 1 Peter 5:8: ‘Your adversary the devil, like a raging lion . . .’), you can overcome the world by assimilating it to yourself. If the true inner man is consumed by the lion, and the lion becomes the man, the world has overcome the Gnostic (cf., Clement, Excerpta ex Theodoto, 84).”