Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 013 The disciples tell Jesus what he resembles
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 13
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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(13) Jesus said to his disciples: Compare me, tell me whom I am like. Simon Peter said to him: You are like a righteous angel. Matthew said to him: You are like a wise philosopher. Thomas said to him: Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like. Jesus said: I am not your master, for you have drunk, and have become drunk from the bubbling spring which I have caused to gush forth (?). And he took him, withdrew, (and) spoke to him three words. Now when Thomas came (back) to his companions, they asked him: What did Jesus say to you? Thomas said to them: If I tell you one of the words which he said to me, you will take up stones (and) throw them at me; and a fire will come out of the stones (and) burn you up.
(13) Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to something and tell me what I resemble.” Simon Peter said to him, “A just angel is what you resemble.” Matthew said to him, “An intelligent philosopher is what you resemble.” Thomas said to him, “Teacher, my mouth utterly will not let me say what you resemble.” Jesus said, “I am not your (sing.) teacher, for you have drunk and become intoxicated from the bubbling wellspring that I have personally measured out. And he took him, withdrew, and said three sayings to him. Now, when Thomas came to his companions they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?” Thomas said to them, “If I say to you (plur.) one of the sayings that he said to me, you will take stones and stone me, and fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.”
14 . Jesus says to his disciples: “Compare me, and tell me whom I am like.” Simon Peter says to him: “Thou art like a just angel!” Matthew says to him: “Thou art like a wise man and a philosopher!” Thomas says to him: “Master, my tongue cannot find words to say whom thou art like.” Jesus says: “I am no longer thy master; for thou hast drunk, thou art inebriated from the bubbling spring which is mine and which I sent forth.” Then he took him aside; he said three words to him. And when Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him: “What did Jesus say to thee?” And Thomas answered them: “If I tell you <a single> one of the words he said to me, you will take up stones and throw them at me, and fire will come out of the stones and consume you!”
• GThom 28
• Luke 9:18-22 KJV
• Luke 21:34-36 KJV
• Matt 16:13-20 KJV
• John 4:13-15 KJV
• John 7:38 KJV
• Mark 8:27-30 KJV
Marvin Meyer writes: “These three sayings or words are unknown, but presumably they are powerful and provocative sayings, since stoning (mentioned by Thomas) was the Jewish punishment for blasphemy.
Worth noting are the following examples of three words or sayings: Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 5.8.4, cites the three words Kaulakau, Saulasau, Zeesar, derived from the Hebrew of Isaiah 28:10, 13; Pistis Sophia 136 mentions Yao Yao Yao, the Greek version (with three letters, given three times) of the ineffable name of God; the Gospel of Bartholomew and the Secret Book of John provide statements of identification with the father, the mother (or the holy spirit), and the son. Acts of Thomas 47 and Manichaean Kephalaia I 5,26-34 also refer to the three sayings or words but do not disclose precisely what they were.”
Robert Price writes: “In Thomas’ version (saying 13), the false estimates of Jesus are even more interesting. Jesus spurns the opinion of those self-styled believers who consider him ‘a wise philosopher.’ Bingo! A wandering Cynic. (Thomas also has Jesus reject the idea, widely held by many early Christians, that he was an angel in human form.)”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “the Old Testament and its eschatology have been eliminated; Jesus is no Messiah but ‘like a righteous angel,’ ‘like a wise philosopher,’ or simply incomparable.”
R. McL. Wilson writes: “As Grant and Freedman note, the idea is similar to that of John xv. 15, while the reference to ‘bubbling spring’ also recalls Johannine texts. It may be, however, that we have also some connection here with the Philonic idea of a ‘sober intoxication.’ Thereafter Jesus takes Thomas aside and speaks to him three words.
When the other disciples ask what Jesus said, Thomas replies, ‘If I tell you one of the words which He said to me, you will take up stones and throw them at me; and a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.’ It may be significant that while there are several references in the New Testament to stoning or casting stones it is only John who speaks of taking up stones to throw (viii. 59, x. 31).
About the three words we can only speculate, but they were evidently blasphemous to Jewish ears. Puech suggests that they were the names ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,’ Grant and Freedman the three secret words of the Naassenes (Hippol., Ref. 5.8.5). The whole passage is at any rate a substitute for the canonical narrative of Peter’s confession, designed to give to Thomas the pre-eminence.”
F. F. Bruce writes: “This conversation begins like that at Caesarea Philippi, recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels, where Jesus asks his disciples ‘Who do men say that I am?’ and then: ‘But who do you say that I am?’ (Mark 8.27-29). But the answers given here are quite different from what we find in the canonical tradition, which is consistent with the historical circumstances of Jesus’s ministry.
Here the answers are attempts to depict Jesus as the Gnostic Revealer. Those who have imbibed the gnosis which he imparts (the ‘bubbling spring’ which he has spread abroad) are not his servants but his friends, [Cf. John 15.14] and therefore ‘Master’ is an unsuitable title for them to give him. As for the three words spoken secretly to Thomas, conveying Jesus’s hidden identity, they are probably the three secret words on which, according to the Naassenes, the existence of the world depended: Kaulakau, Saulasau, Zeesar.
[Hippolytus, Refutation v.8.4. Kaulakau, they said, was Adamas, primal man, ‘the being who is on high’ . . . Saulasau, mortal man here below; Zeesar, the Jordan which flows upward.] (In fact, these three words are corruptions of the Hebrew phrases in Isaiah 28.10, 13, translated ‘Line upon line, precept upon precept, there a little’ – but their origin was probably forgotten.) The followers of the Gnostic Basilides are said to have taught that Jesus descended ‘in the name of Kaulakau‘. [Irenaeus, Heresies i.24.6.]
The fire that would come out of the stones is perhaps the fire of Saying 10. There is in any case ample attestation of the belief that the untimely divulging of a holy mystery can be as destructive as fire.”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “In the synoptics, various erroneous interpretations precede the correct one. Jesus is John the Baptist, or Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other prophet risen again. So in Thomas, Simon Peter wrongly compares Jesus with an angel (a belief widespread in early Jewish Christianity) and Matthew wrongly compares him with a wise philosopher.
Thomas rightly says that to compare Jesus with anything is impossible; but as he does so, he addresses him as ‘Master.’ Thomas, like the man in Mark 10:17 (cf., Luke 18:18) who calls Jesus ‘Good Master,’ is rebuked because of the title he uses. Because he is a disciple of Jesus, he is not a slave but a friend, for Jesus has made known everything which he heard from his Father (John 15:15).
The idea expressed in Thomas is quite similar to that found in John. Jesus is not Thomas’s master because Thomas has drunk from the bubbling spring which Jesus has distributed. This thought too is Johannine in origin. ‘The water which I will give him will become in him a spring of water bubbling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14; cf., 7:37-38).”
J. P. Meier writes: “An intriguing point here is that in the one work of ‘the school of St. Thomas’ that clearly dates from the 2d century, namely, the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, Thomas is actually a peripheral figure who hardly belongs to the traditional material in the book. He is introduced as the author of the work in the clearly redactional opening sentence, but figures prominently in only one other logion, the lengthy saying 13, where Simon Peter and Matthew are also mentioned but Thomas is exalted as the possessor of the secret knowledge of Jesus’ nature.
This logion stands in tension with the rival logion just before it, saying 12, where James the Just (the brother of Jesus) is exalted as the leader of the disciples after Jesus departs. On this tension, see Gilles Quispel, ‘”The Gospel of Thomas” and the “Gospel of the Hebrews,”‘ NTS 12 (1965-66) 371-82, esp. 380. Hence the Gospel of Thomas, the earliest apocryphal and gnosticizing work that was put under the name of Thomas, does not present a tradition really rooted in that person and does not clearly inculcate the idea that Thomas is Jesus’ twin brother.”