Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 017 Jesus will bestow what has not been perceived
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 17
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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Funk quotes Turfan Fragment M 789 as follows: “‘I will give you what you have not seen with your eyes, nor heard with your ears, nor grasped with your hand.’ (Hennecke 1:300)”
Marvin Meyer writes: “This saying is also cited in 1 Corinthians 2:9, perhaps as a wisdom saying in use among the enthusiasts of Corinthians. Compare Isaiah 64:4. The saying occurs frequently in Jewish and Christian literature, and sometimes it is said to come from the Apocalypse of Elijah or the Secrets (or, apocrypha) of Elijah.
At other times it is said to be a saying of Jesus. A variant of the saying is also found in Plutarch, How the Young Person Should Study Poetry 17E: ‘And let these (words) of Empedocles be at hand: “Thus these things are not to be seen by men, nor heard, nor comprehended with the mind.” . . .’ The parallels have been collected by Michael E. Stone and John Strugnell, The Books of Elijah: Parts 1-2, pp. 41-73.”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “The apostle Paul quotes something very close to this saying, perhaps from a lost document, in 1 Corinthians 2:9: ‘As it is written, What eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and what has not entered into the heart of man, such things God has prepared for those who love him.’
By the end of the second century these words were ascribed to Jesus, as in the Martyrdom of Peter (chapter 10) and the Acts of Peter with Simon (chapter 39). Thomas adds a unique reference to the sense of touch. The joys of the kingdom are completely unrelated to sense perception. (We should add that, like other Gnostics, he undoubtedly rejected the accounts in the gospels which speak of Jesus’s risen body as tangible – Luke 24:39; John 20:27).
His phrasing of this saying is the exact reverse of 1 John 1:1, which speaks of ‘What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled.”
R. McL. Wilson writes: “As Jeremias observes, a considerable number of the Agrapha arise from the erroneous attribution to Jesus of sayings which actually belong to others. An example, indeed, occurs in the New Testament itself, since the words ascribed to John the Baptist in the Gospels (Matt. iii. 11 and par.) are in Acts (i. 5, xi. 16) attributed to Jesus.
For logion 17 the New Testament parallel is 1 Corinthians ii. 9, where Paul introduces these words by the formula ‘as it is written.’ This has long presented a problem, since the saying is not an exact quotation of any Old Testament text (the nearest is Isa. lxiv. 3-4, but not in LXX). It is not, of course, impossible that Paul is quoting a saying of Jesus, but in that case we should have expected him to indicate the fact, as in other passages (e.g. 1 Cor. vii. 10, ix. 14, 1 Thess. iv. 15 ff.); moreover, the introductory formula suggests a written source, and would be quite unusual in a reference to tradition.
On the whole, therefore, we should probably see in logion 17 a Pauline saying growing into a word of Jesus. As Puech and others have noted, the saying is attributed to Jesus also in the Acts of Peter (39). P. Prigent has drawn attention to a series of quotations of this text, some of them apparently independent of Paul, in various early Christian sources, and suggests that it may go back ultimately to the liturgy of the synagogue.”
F. F. Bruce writes: “This saying has no parallel in the canonical Gospels, but it is very similar to the quotation in 1 Corinthians 2.9 which Paul introduces by ‘as itis written’ – a clause which normally indicates an Old Testament source. Here, however, we have no Old Testament quotation (the resemblance to Isaiah 64.4 is superficial); according to Origen and others it is a quotation from the Secrets (or Apocalypse) of Elijah. [Origen, Commentary on Matthew 27.9; Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah 64.4; Ambrosiaster, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 2.9.]
Like the Gospel of Thomas, the second-century work called the Acts of Peter ascribes the saying to Jesus. [Acts of Peter 39.] In its present context it perhaps belongs to a Naassene formula of initiation. Whereas Paul quotes the words with reference to the hidden wisdom which his Corinthian converts are unable to grasp because of their spiritual immaturity and lack of brotherly love, here they are probably intended to recommend that kind of ‘knowledge’ on which the Corinthians, in Paul’s judgment, concentrated too much.
It has also been suggested that they were used by Gnostics as a counterblast to the anti-Gnostic claim in 1 John 1.1 to bear witness only to that ‘which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands’. (The clause ‘what hand never touched’, unparalleled in 1 Corinthians 2.9, may echo 1 John 1.1.)”
John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser state: “In view of the fact that Paul in this letter is struggling against the kind of esotericism promoted by this saying, it is not likely that he has quoted it here simply because he liked it. Rather, he must have drawn it from the repertoire of his opponents, only to fill it with new content amenable to his version of the gospel.
According to Paul, that which has been revealed is not the knowledge (GNWSIS) that has ‘puffed up’ the ‘wise’ in Corinth, but the crucifixion, the ‘word of the cross’ as Paul himself puts it (1:18). Paul in a sense co-opts the methods of his opponents in order to correct their message.”
Stevan Davies writes: “That which previously was unseen, unheard, untouched, unthought is now available, according to sayings 18 and 19, for it is the end that is the beginning. A person who takes his place in the beginning will know the end and not experience death; thus the beginning is a state of being that can be comprehended in the present.
Heretofore hidden, the beginning now is revealed (sayings 5, 6, 108). Thomas’s saying 17 refers to the kingdom of God in the physical world, a visible, audible, tangible, experienced reality (sayings 3, 51, 113). When Paul quotes a scripture paralleled in saying 17 (1 Cor 2:7-9), he too understands that what is now revealed has existed from the beginning: ‘a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification.’
Similarly, when 1 John 1:2 alludes to what evidently is saying 17, or Paul’s scripture, what has happened in the present is associated with the beginning: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life….'”