Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 009 A parable of a sower

Early Christian Writings Commentary

Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 9

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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FromEarly Christian Writings 

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Horst Balz. (T87)
Bentley Layton. (T68)
Harold W Attridge. (T34)
Jean Doresse. (T81)
Robert Funk. (T71)

Our Ref:
ECST: 014.10.000.T34
ECST: 014.10.000.T68
ECST: 014.10.000.T71
ECST: 014.10.000.T81
ECST: 014.10.000.T87

Nag Hammadi Coptic Text

Gospel of Thomas Coptic Text

BLATZ1)4CM Translator ID: T87

(9) Jesus said: Look, the sower went out, he filled his hand (and) cast (the seed). Some fell upon the road; the birds came, they gathered them. Others fell upon the rock, and struck no root in the ground, nor did they produce any ears. And others fell on the thorns; they choked the seed and the worm ate them. And others fell on the good earth, and it produced good fruit; it yielded sixty per measure and a hundred and twenty per measure.

LAYTON2)4CM Translator ID: T68

(9) Jesus said, “Listen, a sower came forth, took a handful, and cast. Now, some fell upon the path, and the birds came and picked them out. Others fell upon rock, and they did not take root in the soil, and did not send up ears. And others fell upon the thorns, and they choked the seed; and the grubs devoured them. And others fell upon good soil, and it sent up good crops and yielded sixty per measure and a hundred and twenty per measure.

DORESSE3)4CM Translator ID: T81

9 [9]. Jesus says: “See, the sower went out. He filled his hand and scattered <the seed.> Some fell on the path: birds came and gathered them. Others fell on rocky ground: they found no means of taking root in the soil and did not send up ears of corn. Others fell among thorns; <these> stifled the grain, and the worm ate the <seed.> Others fell on good soil, and this <portion> produced an excellent crop: it gave as much as sixty-fold, and <even> a hundred and twenty-fold!”

Funk’s Parallels4)4CM Translator ID: T71

Luke 8:4-8
Luke 8:11-15
Matt 13:3-9
Matt 13:18-23
Mark 4:2-9
Mark 4:13-20
InThom 12:1-2
ApJas 8:1-2
1 Clem 24:5

Scholarly Quotes

Marvin Meyer writes: “In each occurrence of the parable in the New Testament, the author has added an allegorical interpretation of the parable and placed it on the lips of Jesus (Matthew 13:18-23; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15). Stories similar to the parable are known from Jewish and Greek literature. Thus Sirach 6:19 says, ‘Come to her (that is, Wisdom) like one who plows and sows, and wait for her good crops. For in her work you will toil a little, and soon you will eat of her produce.’ In his Oratorical Instruction 5.11.24, Quintilian writes, ‘For instance, if you would say that the mind needs to be cultivated, you would use a comparison to the soil, which if neglected produces thorns and brambles but if cultivated produces a crop. . . .'”

The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, pp. 72-73

F. F. Bruce writes: “This is another version of the parable of the sower (or the parable of the four soils), recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 4.3-8; Matthew 13.3-8; Luke 8.5-8). The worm that attacked the seed sown among thorns is peculiar to this version. The ‘rock’ instead of ‘rocky ground’ is distinctively Lukan; the statement that the seed sown there ‘sent forth no ears up to heaven’ has been recognised as a Naassene thought. [Hippolytus (Refutation v.8.29) reproduces the Naassene interpretation of the parable.] The statement that the first lot of seed fell ‘on’ (not ‘by’) the road probably reflects the sense of the Aramaic preposition used by Jesus in telling the parable (the preposition may be rendered ‘on’ or ‘by’ according to the context).”

Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, p. 116

Joachim Jeremias writes: “Here, as additions to the synoptic form of the parable, we have the antithesis ‘(did not strike root in the earth and sent up no ears to heaven)’, the mention of the worm and the increase in number, 120.”

The Parables of Jesus, p. 28

Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “Thomas adds a few details. The sower ‘filled his hand’ before he cast the seed; this looks like no more than an attempt to indicate the fullness or completeness of the sowing (of souls or spirits). But when we read that the seed which fell on ‘the rock’ (so only Luke) not only had no root but also ‘put forth no ear up to heaven’ we are confronting a combination of this parable with the Naassene doctrine of the heavenward ascent of the good seed.

The seed which fell upon thorns was not only choked but also eaten by the worm – presumably the worm of Gehenna (cf., Mark 9:48), though Thomas does not say so, since, like other Gnostics, he doubtless holds that hell is on earth.

The good fruit, unlike the bad, is brought forth ‘up to heaven,’ sometimes sixty-fold, sometimes one-hundred-twenty-fold. Thomas feels free to give these figures since Matthew has one hundred, sixty, and thirty; Mark has thirty-sixty-one hundred; and Luke has simply one hundred. His figure is more logical; one hundred twenty is twice as much as sixty.”

The Secret Sayings of Jesus, pp. 127-128

R. McL. Wilson writes: “In particular he [Quispel] claims as evidence [for primitivity] the reading ‘on the road,’ for which he has found parallels in Justin Martyr and in the Clementine literature. Moreover, Clement of Rome quotes the opening words in this form rather than that of our Gospels. Bartsch, however, argues that the chance is a corection of the synoptic version, and regards the differences in Thomas as the result of condensation in the paraenetic tradition. Luke’s version indeed is an intermediate stage between those of Mark and of Thomas.

The correction is certainly very natural, and scholars have long recognized that the synoptic ‘by the wayside’ goes back to a misunderstanding of the Aramaic; but this does not necessarily preclude the possibility that two Greek versions were current. The question should probably be left open, since the evidence is scarcely decisive either way. Grant and Freedman see here only a few additions to the canonical parable, and quote the Naassene exegesis; the form in which the Naassenes cited the parable was apparently not exactly that of Thomas, but ‘based on a mixture of Matthew and Luke.’

In this connection it is interesting to see what the Gnostics, or others like them, could make of an apparently innocuous parable: Puech quotes in another connection, and Doresse adduces at this point in his commentary, an interpretation given by the Priscillianists, to the effect that this was not a good sower, or he would not have been so careless; in fact, he was the God of this world, sowing souls into bodies. The passage is quoted by Orosius (c. A.D. 414) from the Memoria Apostolorum, a work of uncertain date, and it is not clear how far back this interpretation can be traced. We cannot say that this was how Thomas understood the parable, but such an exegesis is certainly in the Gnostic tradition.” 

Studies in the Gospel of Thomas, pp. 98-99

Funk and Hoover write: “Thomas has preserved what the Fellows take to be the form of the parable that is closest to the original. The seed is first sown on three kinds of ground that fail to produce: the road, the rocky ground, and among the thorns. When sown on good soil, the seed produces yields at two different levels: sixty and one hundred twenty. Originally, the yields were probably thirty, sixty, one hundred, as Mark records them, although the doubling of sixty to one hundred twenty may have been original. The structure probably consisted of two sets of threes: three failures, three successes.”

The Five Gospels, p. 478

Gerd Ludemann writes: “The comparison between the versions of Mark and Thomas indicates that there is a far-reaching agreement, with two exceptions: first, the conclusion differs in that Mark speaks of fruit thirtyfold and sixtyfold and one hundredfold, while Thomas speaks of sixty and one hundred and twenty measures. Secondly, in mentioning the rocky ground on which the seed fell Mark additionally writes that the rising sun contributed to the withering (Mark 4.6), whereas Thomas is silent about this. On the whole we must regard the version of Thomas as older than that of Mark, because it is simpler.”

Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 28

References   [ + ]

1. 4CM Translator ID: T87
2. 4CM Translator ID: T68
3. 4CM Translator ID: T81
4. 4CM Translator ID: T71

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