Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 004 The first will be last

Early Christian Writings Commentary

Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 4

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

BLATZ[1]4CM Translator ID: T87

(4) Jesus said: The man aged in days will not hesitate to ask a little child of seven days about the place of life, and he shall live; for there are many first who shall be last, and they will become a single one.

LAYTON[2]4CM Translator ID: T68

(4) Jesus said, “A person advanced in days will not hesitate to question a little child seven days old about the place of life. And that person will live. For many that are first will be last, and they will become one.”

DORESSE[3]4CM Translator ID: T81

4 [4]. Jesus says: “Let the old man heavy with days hesitate not to ask the little child of seven days about the Place of Life, and he will live! For it will be seen that many of the first will be last, and they will become a <single thing!”>

Funk’s Parallels[4]4CM Translator ID: T71

POxy654 4
• Luke 10:21-22 KJV
• Luke 13:30 KJV
• Matt 11:25-30 KJV
• Matt 19:27-30 KJV
• Matt 20:16 KJV
• Mark 10:27-31 KJV
InThom 7:1-4.

Oxyrhynchus Greek Fragment

Gospel of Thomas Greek Text

DORESSE – Oxyrhynchus[5]4CM Translator ID: T81

[Jesus says:] “The ma[n heavy with da]ys will not hesitate to ask the little [child of seven da]ys about the Place of [Life! For you will] see that many of the fi[rst] will be [last, and] the last first, and [that they will] be [a <single thing!”>]

ATTRIDGE – Oxyrhynchus[6]4CM Translator ID: T34

(4) [Jesus said], “The [man old in days] will not hesitate to ask [a small child seven days old] about the place [of life, and] he will [live]. For many who are [first] will become [last, and] the last will be first, and [they will become one and the same].”

Scholarly Quotes

Jack Finegan refers to a quote by Hippolytus from a Gospel according to Thomas used by the Naassenes: “He who seeks me will find me in children from seven years old; for there in the fourteenth age, having been hidden, I shall become manifest.”

Hidden Records of the Life of Jesus, p. 243

Jack Finegan writes: “The saying ascribed by Hippolytus (Text 85 §282) to the Gospel according to Thomas, as used by the Naassenes, bears at least some similarity ot the present text, and this makes it probable that the work to which Hippolytus referred was the same as that with which we are dealing, although the Naassenes may have had their own revision of it. Likewise the Manicheans may have made use of the Gospel according to Thomas, which would account for Cyril’s statements (§285) connecting it with them; but since the Gospel must now be dated well prior to Hippolytus (230) it could not have been written, as Cyril claimed, by a disciple of Mani, since the latter only began to preach in 242 (§115).”

Hidden Records of the Life of Jesus, p. 246

Marvin Meyer writes of the words “a little child seven days old” in the Gospel of Thomas: “This phrase probably indicates an uncircumcised child (a Jewish boy was to be circumcised on the eighth day), otherwise a child of the sabbath of the week of creation (compare Genesis 2:2-3).” 

The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, p. 70

Gerd Ludemann writes: “This verse contains the Gnostic theme of the child as a revealer (cf. 22.1-2). In Gnostic texts Jesus appears as a little child (Acts of John 88), or Gnostic teachers claim to have seen a little newborn child which is identical with the divine Word (Valentinus).”

Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 592

Jean Doresse writes: “Jesus, ‘he who was not born of woman’ (16), is also frequently called ‘Jesus the Living’. Could it also perhaps be Jesus who is referred to under the appearance of ‘the child of seven days’ (4)?”

The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, p. 344

Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “If knowledge about the ‘place of life’ can be given to an old man by an infant, it is evident that the knowledge is not ordinary human wisdom but something derived from revelation. This saying is probably the Gnostic explanation of the words of Jesus in Mark 10:14-15: ‘Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God; verily I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a child will not enter into it’ (cf., Matthew 19:14; cf. also Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21). A little farther on in both Mark and Matthew we find the words which Thomas has added to the statement about the old man and the infant. ‘Many who are first will be last’ (Mark 10:31; Matthew 19:30; 20:16; and Luke 13:30). The Coptic version has omitted the words, found in the synoptic gospels and in the Greek Thomas, ‘and the last, first.’ These words are necessary in order to lead to the conclusion, ‘And they will become a single one.’ Those who have been last will become first and will be united in the unity which means transcending differences of age and of sex (cf., Sayings 10, 16, 24, 49, 50, 75, 103, 112). It means returning to the original unity of creation (if one can speak of creation in a Gnostic system).” 

The Secret Sayings of Jesus, p. 122-123

F. F. Bruce writes: “The point of this saying is at least superficially similar to that of the canonical sayings about children, such as ‘whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’ (Mark 10.15). After the words ‘many that are first will be last’, the Greek text (P. Oxy. 654.4) adds ‘and the last, first’ (cf. Mark 10.31, etc.); this has probably been omitted by accident from our Coptic text. The ‘single one’ at the end of the saying is the personality that has finally transcended differentiation of age and sex – the latter is an ideal which finds recurring expression in the Gospel of Thomas (cf. Sayings 11, 16, 23, 49, 75, 106, 114). The underlying thought is that Adam, as first created, was androgynous, before being divided into male and female (Genesis 2.21-23); the pristine arrangement will be restored in the life to come. [This belief is ascribed to the Naassenes by Hippolytus, Refutation v. 6.5; 7.14 f.]” 

Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, p. 114

Joseph A. Fitzmyer writes: “Evelyn White (p. 16) has a remark that is worth quoting here. ‘The Saying – however we restore it – is a remarkable instance of that salient characteristic of the Oxyrhynchus collection as a whole – the mixture of elements at once parallel to and divergent from the Synoptics. For while the first part of the Saying has nothing exactly similar in the Synoptics, it nevertheless seems related to a clearly marked group of episodes in the Gospels. On the other hand the second part of the Saying corresponds exactly with the Synoptic version. . . . The Synoptics and the Saying are indeed so close that it is incredible that the two are independent, and the evidence . . . goes to show that it is the writer of the Sayings who is the borrower.'”

Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament, pp. 380-381

Joseph A. Fitzmyer writes: “The heavily Gnostic character of many of the sayings in the Coptic Gospel has already led to the conclusion that the latter is most likely the Manichean version of which Cyril speaks. The deliberate change of ending in the fourth saying, which is paralleled in the Manichean Kephalaia, is certainly evidence in this direction, as H.-Ch. Puech has already pointed out.”

Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament, p. 418

Funk and Hoover write: “Its affinity with other sayings in Thomas relate the status of a child to salvation. In Thom 22:2, Jesus says, ‘These nursing babies are like those who enter the <Father’s> domain.’ The image of the baby or child appealed to the gnostic sensibility as an appropriate image for salvation. The quest for life is also a Thomean theme: ‘Congratulations to the person who has toiled and has found life’ (Thomas 58). The similarity of theme and language suggests that Thomas has revised the saying to his own perspectives.”

The Five Gospels, p. 473

J. D. Crossan writes: “Marcovich (60; see Schrage, 1964a:258) concludes that the Coptic translator or copyist has omitted ‘and the last first’ by simple oversight. This means that the two-stich aphorism was originally in Thomas, and in the Markan sequence and opening rather than in the Q formulation. It also means that the original chiastic two-stich aphorism was expanded by the addition of a third stich: ‘and they will become one and the same’ (Lambdin: 118) or, possibly better, ‘and they shall become a single one’ (Guillaumont, 1959:5; Wilson, 1973:511).”

In Fragments, pp. 45-46

J. D. Crossan writes: “Klijn (271) has noted that ‘three different words are used to render the word “single one”‘ in Thomas: (1) wa (11, 22, 106); (2) wa wot (4, 22, 23); (3) monachos (16, 49, 75). The meaning is the same, and that last (Greek) expression ‘cannot have its usual meaning “monk” in this early text’ (Till: 452 note 2). The meaning of this very important Thomistic theme has been summarized by Klijn (272) as follows: ‘(a) The word “single one” is equivalent to the elect and saved ones. (b) Originally man was a “single one,” but he became “two.” In order to be saved he has to become a “single one” again. This means that he has to return to his original state. (c) The original “single one” has become “two” by becoming male and female. This means that originally man was not male and female. As a result we may say that the Gospel of Thomas speaks about salvation as a return to the original state and that it rejects the division of man into male and female.’ When Gos. Thom. 4 is compared with Gos. Thom. 22, one can conclude that ‘becoming as a child, and entering the kingdom, and achieving a stte of asexuality are very nearly interchangeable terms’ (Kee, 1963:313; see also Menard, 1975:83).”

In Fragments, p. 46

Stevan Davies writes: “A person who has actualized the primordial light has become (is reborn as) an infant (saying 22) precisely seven days of age (saying 4), for he dwells in the seventh day of Genesis.” 

Funk and Hoover write: “Becoming ‘a single one’ (v. 3) is a motif that appears elsewhere in Thomas. In Thom 22:5, male and female are turned into a single one; in Thomas 23, one and two become a single one; the two made into one become children of Adam in Thom 106:1. The last reference suggests the androgynous state before the creation of human beings, when male and female had not yet been differentiated. In gnostic theory, Adam and Eve were created by a lesser god, who bungled the job in making two sexes. These ideas are foreign to Jesus.”

The Five Gospels, p. 473

Marvin Meyer writes: “This theme (becoming one, the two becoming one) occurs in Gospel of Thomas sayings 4, 22, 23, 48, and 106, as well as elsewhere in ancient literature. It is often associated with the primordial union achieved in sexual intercourse (for the Hebrews, heterosexual intercourse; for the Greeks, homosexual or heterosexual intercourse) as the two joined together at the beginning become one again (compare Genesis 2:21-24; Plato, Symposium 192DE). By extension, this oneness can designate an integrated existence beyond all the divisive features of human life.” 

The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, p. 70


1 4CM Translator ID: T87
2 4CM Translator ID: T68
3, 5 4CM Translator ID: T81
4 4CM Translator ID: T71
6 4CM Translator ID: T34

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