Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 014 True fasting, prayer, and charity

Early Christian Writings Commentary

Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 14

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

(14) Jesus said to them: If you fast, you will put a sin to your charge; and if you pray, you will be condemned; and if you give alms, you will do harm to your inner spirits. And if you go into any land and walk about in the regions, if they receive you, eat what is set before you; heal the sick among them. For what goes into your mouth will not defile you; but what comes out of your mouth, that is what will defile you.

LAYTON[2]4CM Translator ID: T68

(14) Jesus said to them, “If you (plur.) fast, you will acquire a sin, and if you pray you will be condemned, and if you give alms, it is evil that you will do unto your spirits. And when you go into any land and travel in the country places, when they receive you eat whatever they serve to you. Heal those among them who are sick. For, nothing that enters your mouth will defile you (plur.). Rather, it is precisely what comes out of your mouth that will defile you.”

DORESSE[3]4CM Translator ID: T81

15 [14]. Jesus says to them: “When you fast, you will beget sin for yourselves; when you pray, you will be condemned; when you give alms, you will do evil to your souls! <But> when you enter any land and travel over the country, when you are welcomed eat what is put before you; those who are ill in those places, heal them. For what enters into your mouth will not defile you, but what comes out of your mouth, it is that which will defile you!”

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

• Luke 11:1-4 KJV
• Luke 9:1-6 KJV
• Luke 10:1-12 KJV
• Matt 6:2-4 KJV
• Matt 6:5-15 KJV

• Matt 6:16-18 KJV
• Matt 10:5-15 KJV
• Matt 15:10-20 KJV
• Mark 6:7-13 KJV
• Mark 7:14-23 KJV

Did 8:1-3
POxy 1224 2
• 1 Cor 10:27 KJV
• Acts 10:9-16 KJV
• Acts 11:1-10 KJV

Scholarly Quotes

Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “Positive proof that he did so [copy from the canonical gospels] seems to be provided in Saying 14. . . . The statement about healing the sick has nothing to do with the context in Thomas; it is relevant only in Luke’s collection of sayings. Therefore, Thomas copied it from Luke.” 

Gnosticism & Early Christianity, pp. 185-186

Gerd Ludemann writes: “This develops the notion of v. 4 about eating all that is set before one, and gives a reason for it. The dependence on Luke 10.7-8 in v. 4 also decides positively the dependence of v. 5 on Mark 7.15. For the invitation to heal the sick does not fit in v. 4 at all, and is best explained by the use of Luke 10.9.” 

Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 597

F. F. Bruce writes: “Fasting, prayer and alms-giving (cf. Saying 6) are three forms of piety mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6.1-18), but the instructions given here are quite different from those given there. Such pious activities, it appears, are superfluous and indeed harmful for the true Gnostic. (Similar sentiments about prayer and fasting are expressed in saying 104.)

The second and third sentences in the saying are respectively parallel to Luke 10.8 f. and Matthew 15.11 (cf. Mark 7.15). The addition of the injunction ‘eat what is set before you’ of the words denying that food conveys defilement underlines the relevance of the injunction to the Gentile mission (cf. Acts 10.15; 1 Corinthians 10.27).” 

Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, p. 119

Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “This saying deals with subjects already brought up in Saying 5: fasting, prayer, alms-giving, and dietary observances. Here the statements ascribed to Jesus are more explicit than they were before. Fasting produces sin; prayer results in condemnation; alms-giving harms the spirit. Some ground for Thomas’s notion is given in Mark 2:18-20 (Matthew 9:14-15; Luke 5:33-35), where Jesus says that the sons of the bride chamber cannot fast while he is with them. Since Thomas regards the kingdom as present rather than future, fasting (a fortiori, prayer, alms-giving, and dietary laws) is pointless and, indeed, sinful.” 

The Secret Sayings of Jesus, pp. 134-135

R. McL. Wilson writes: “As Grant has pointed out, the condemnation at the beginning of this saying takes up three phrases from the Sermon on the Mount [Matt. vi. 16 (fasting), 5 (prayer), and 2 (alms)] in the reverse order; and such reversal of the order is characteristic of Naassene usage. In the passage quoted the opening words are a general summary of the charge to the Seventy in Luke x. 1, followed by Luke x. 8-9 (‘if they receive you . . .’).

The final sentence has its parallel in Matthew xv. 11, but it may be added that Luke x. 2 is logion 73. In this case Grant and Freedman would appear to be correct in suggesting that the saying ‘seems to prove that Thomas used our gospels.’ The significant feature is the inclusion of Luke x. 9, the injunction to heal the sick, which is quite out of place in a saying concerned with dietary restrictions, but is easily explained from the Lucan context.

There is, however, one point which they have overlooked: in the Gospels the specific injunction ‘eat what they set before you’ is peculiar to Luke, but Creed notes that there is ‘striking resemblance in language’ in the Lucan passage to 1 Corinthians x. 27, and that ‘it is not unlikely that St. Paul’s language is an echo of this injunction,’ although the application is quite different. If Paul is quoting and adapting a saying of Jesus, this would point us back to the tradition underlying Luke.” 

Studies in the Gospel of Thomas, pp. 71-72

Kurt Rudolph writes: “Even more trenchantly the Jewish laws mentioned in logion 14 are made out to be of no consequence, indeed as detrimental to salvation: Fasting gives rise to sin, praying to condemnation, the giving of alms to harming one’s spirit; one should eat everything that is set before one. It is important to heal the sick, by which probably the ignorant are referred to.

The saying concludes with a quotation from Mark’s Gospel; later still Luke’s as well as Matthew’s Gospel are brought in on this question. Of sole importance is the ‘fast as regards the world’ because only that leads to the ‘kingdom’. The ‘great fast’ is taken in this sense also by the Mandaeans: It is no external abstention from eating and drinking but a cessation from inquisitiveness, lies, hatred, jealousy, discord, murder, theft, adultery, the worship of images and idols.”

Gnosis, p. 263

Helmut Koester writes: “The basic difference between Thomas and Mark is that Mark states the second half in general terms (‘what comes out of a human being’), while Thomas specifies ‘what comes out of your mouth.’ In this respect Thomas agrees with the form of this saying in Matt 15:11 (‘but what comes out of the mouth defiles a human being’).

This might argue for a dependence of Thomas upon Matthew. However, the Matthew/Thomas form of this saying is most likely original: the first half of the saying requires that the second half speaks about words which the mouth utters, not excrement’s (see Mark 7:19).

Moreover, what the Gospel of Thomas quotes here is the one single saying from the entire pericope that can be considered as a traditional piece and that formed the basis of the original apophthegma – consisting of vss. 1-2, 5, and 15 – out of which the present complex text of Mark 7:1-23 has been developed.” 

Ancient Christian Gospels, pp. 111-112

J. D. Crossan writes: “The Thomastic version is obviously closer to the Matthean-Lukan [Mt 23:25-26, Lk 11:39-40] than to the Markan [Mk 7:15] since it has the going into the mouth/coming out of the mouth dichotomy rather than the outside/inside distinction.

It has been argued that this proves that ‘the Gospel of Thomas here follows Matthew’ and is dependent on him (McArthur 1960:286; see Schrage: 55; Menard, 1975:101). But this does not explain why the Synoptic texts are in the third person while the Thomistic version is in the second person (Sieber: 193).” 

In Fragments, pp. 253-254

J. D. Crossan writes: “The accusation concerning washing is made against Jesus in Q ( = Luke 11:38) and he replies, naturally, in the second person in Q/Luke 11:39-40 = Matt. 23:25-26, but this has become an accusation against Jesus’ disciples in Mark 7:1-2, 5 to which the aphorism in 7:15 speaks in the third person. The general tendency of the tradition is to change an attack on Jesus into an attack on his disciples (Bultmann: 48).

This development appears concerning washing as Q ( = Luke 11:38) reappears in Mark 7:1-2, 5, and also concerning eating as Gos. Thom. 4c reappears in Matt. 15:11 (17, 18). ‘It seems more likely, therefore, that the second person, a defence of Jesus himself, is the original’ (Sieber: 193).” 

In Fragments, p. 254


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

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