Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 008 A parable of an intelligent fisherman

Early Christian Writings Commentary

Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 8

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

(8) And he said: Man is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea; he drew it up from the sea full of small fish; among them he found a large good fish, the wise fisherman; he threw all the small fish into the sea, he chose the large fish without difficulty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

LAYTON[2]4CM Translator ID: T68

(8) And he said, “What human beings resemble is an intelligent fisherman who, having cast his net into the sea, pulled the net up out of the sea full of little fish. The intelligent fisherman, upon finding among them a fine large fish, threw all the little fish back into the sea, choosing without any effort the big fish. Whoever has ears to hear should listen!”

DORESSE[3]4CM Translator ID: T81

8 [8]. Then he says: “A man is like a skilled fisherman who cast his net into the sea. He brought it up out of the sea full of little fishes, and among them the skilled fisherman found one that was big and excellent. He threw all the little fishes back into the sea; without hesitating he chose the big fish. He who was ears to hear, let him hear!”

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

Scholarly Quotes

Funk cites Aesop as follows: “A fisherman drew in the net which he had cast a short time before and, as luck would have it, it was full of all kinds of delectable fish. But the little ones fled to the bottom of the net and slipped out through its many meshes, whereas the big ones were caught and lay stretched out in the boat. / It’s one way to be insured and out of trouble, to be small; but you will seldom see a man who enjoys great reputation and has the luck to evade all risks. (Perry, 1965: 9-10)”

New Gospel Parallels, v. 2, p. 110

Funk refers to Philoxenas as follows: “Then one will see the fisherman cast his net into the sea of the world and fill it with fish, small and great. . . . At that time he will draw his net and bring it up to the shore of the sea, as he set it, and he will choose the good fish and will put them in his vessels, . . . and he will throw away the wicked ones into utter darkness, where there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (IDB Supplement: 903a)”

New Gospel Parallels, v. 2, p. 110

Ron Cameron refers to Herodotus, History 1.141: “Once, he [Cyrus] said, there was a flute-player who saw fishes in the sea and played upon his flute, thinking that so they would come out on to the land. Being disappointed of his hope, he took a net and gathered in and drew out a great multitude of the fishes; and seeing them leaping, ‘You had best,’ said he, ‘cease from your dancing now; you would not come out and dance then, when I played to you.'” 

Parable and Interpretation in the Gospel of Thomas, Forum 2.2 (1986), p. 29

Ron Cameron quotes a parallel in Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies “the kingdom of heaven is like a person who cast a net into the sea and, from the multitude of fish that were caught, chose the better.”

Parable and Interpretation in the Gospel of Thomas, Forum 2.2 (1986), p. 28

John Dart writes: “One scholar, Claus-Hunno Hunzinger, says ‘the Man’ [in Guillaumont’s translation] can be understood as a gnosticizing substitute for ‘the kingdom of heaven.'”

The Laughing Savior, pp. 94-95

Gerd Ludemann writes: “‘Man’ is a keyword link to ‘man’ in 7.1, 2. Instead of ‘man’, originally ‘kingdom of the Father/God’ probably stood in v. 1.”

Jesus After 200 Years, p. 594

Ron Cameron writes: “The opening words of The Fishnet (‘the person [P.RWME] is like a wise fisherman’) are striking, for the making of a comparison to a person is generally assumed to be anomalous in the parables of the Jesus tradition. It is the overwhelming consensus of scholarship that the reference to ‘the person’ in Thomas has supplanted the original, more familiar reference to ‘the kingdom.’ This is particularly the judgment of those who consider this ‘person’ a gnosticizing substitution for that ‘kingdom.’ Accordingly, ‘the person’ (frequently translated ‘the man’) who is said to be compared to a ‘wise fisherman’ in GThom 8.1 has been variously identified as (1) the ‘Son of Man,’ (2) the Gnostic ‘Primal Man’ (ANQRWPOS), (3) the individual Gnostic, or (4) the Gnostic Redeemer.”

Parable and Interpretation in the Gospel of Thomas, Forum 2.2 (1986)

Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “Thomas contains a parable about a ‘wise fisherman’ who threw away all the little fish he caught and kept only a large and good one (Saying 8/7); this may be contrasted with the parable of the Dragnet in Matthew 13:47-50, where good and bad fish are kept together until the end of the age.”

Gnosticism & Early Christianity, pp. 188-189

F. F. Bruce writes: “This, the first of many parables in the Gospel of Thomas, bears a superficial resemblance to the parable of the dragnet in Matthew 13.47-50,, but its point is closer to that of the parables of the treasure concealed in a field (Saying 109) and the pearl of great price (Saying 76), to gain which a man sells all that he has (Matthew 13.44-46). In this context the big fish is either the true Gnostic, whom Christ chooses above all others, or the true knowledge for which the Gnostic abandons everything else.”

Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, p. 115-116

Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “We should expect to read that ‘the kingdom’ is like a fisherman (cf., Sayings 20, 76, 93-95, 104, 106); but for Thomas, true, inner man is equivalent to the kingdom. Moreover, Thomas sharply modifies the meaning of the parable in Matthew 13:47-48, on which he relies for some details. There the kingdom is like the net which brings in fish of all sorts, good and bad alike (a very un-Gnostic notion!).

Thomas tells of the ‘experienced’ fisherman who can select the best one of his catch (compare the ‘sheep’ of Saying 104). The parable ends with the admonition, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear’; Matthew uses a similar admonition twice in the chapter in which he tells the parable of the dragnet (13:9, 43). Like Matthew, Thomas wants to show that there is a hidden meaning in the parable (see Sayings 22, 25, 64, 66, 93). The meaning is that only Gnostics are selected by Jesus or the Father, or that Gnostics select Christ.”

The Secret Sayings of Jesus, pp. 126-127

R. McL. Wilson writes: “By printing the opening words in the form ‘The Man is like a wise fisherman,’ the official translation inevitably suggests an association with the Gnostic Anthropos, in which case the parable would refer to the election of the Gnostic. He is the large and good fish which is selected while all the rest are thrown back into the sea.

It is also possible, however, to interpret this story as a parable of the Gnostic, the fish in this case being gnosis and the parable constructed on the model of the synoptic parables of the pearl of great price and the hidden treasure, both of which also occur in Thomas, to teach that the Kingdom of God (or in Thomas gnosis) is of such supreme value as to be worth any sacrifice.”

Studies in the Gospel of Thomas, pp. 40-41

Helmut Koester writes: “One may wonder whether Thomas refers to the synoptic parable of Matt. 13:47-48 at all. There is an almost exact parallel to SAying 8 in the poetic version of the Aesopic fables by Babrius, who, in the first century A.D., dedicated his work to the son of King Alexander, whose tutor he was.” 

Trajectories through Early Christianity, p. 176

Joachim Jeremias writes: “The catch varies. When the fisherman throws his casting-net into the shallow water by the bank, weighted with lead round the edge, it falls into the water like a bell. The net often remains empty several times running. A modern observer counted twenty to twenty-five fish in one catch. In the parable, when the fisherman drew his net to shore he found a great number of small fish in it, but among them one fine large fish.

Although he might have hesitated about keeping a few of the small fish in his bag, yet in his joy over the CALLICQUS [Thus Clem. Alex., Strom., I, 16.3 with reference to our parable.] he cast aside all such hesitations and threw all the small fish back into the lake. Thus it is when a man is overwhelmed with joy over the glad Good News; all else becomes valueless compared with this surpassing value.” 

The Parables of Jesus, p. 201


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

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