Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 019 The preexistent is blessed, Five trees in paradise
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 19
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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(19) Jesus said: Blessed is he who was before he came into being. If you become disciples to me (and) listen to my words, these stones will minister to you. For you have five trees in Paradise which do not change, either in summer or in winter, and their leaves do not fall. He who knows them shall not taste of death.
(19) Jesus said, “Blessed is that which exsted before coming into being. If you exist as my disciples and listen to my sayings, these stones will minister unto you. Indeed, you have five trees in paradise, which do not move in summer or winter, and whose leaves do not fall. Whoever is acquainted with them will not taste death.”
20 . Jesus says: “Blessed is the man who existed before he came into being!” 21 . “If you become my disciples and if you hear my words, these stones will serve you.” 22 . “For you have there, in Paradise, five trees which change not winter nor summer, whose leaves do not fall: whoever knows them will not taste death!”
Jean Doresse writes: “Cf. the Gospel of Philip (Coptic text of Codex X of Chenoboskion) where this formula also appears; and St Irenaeus, who quotes it under the form: ‘Happy is He who was before becoming man.’ And in the New Testament, John VIII, 58: ‘Before Abraham was, I am.'”
F. F. Bruce writes: “The one who existed before he was born is Jesus himself, who ‘came from the Father and entered into the world’ (John 16.28). Saying 19a is quoted by other early Christian writers: Irenaeus and Lactantius quote it as a prophetic utterance of Jeremiah. [Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 43; Lactantius, Divine Institutions iv.8. The words may have occurred in an apocryphal work, no longer extant, ascribed to Jeremiah.]”
Marvin Meyer writes: “Perhaps compare John 8:58. Lactantius, Divine Institutes 4.8 writes, ‘For we especially testify that he (that is, Christ) was born twice, first in the spirit and afterwords in the flesh. Whence it is thus said in Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” And also in the same work, “Fortunate is one who existed before being born,” which happened to no one else except Christ.’
Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 43, offers the following: ‘And again he says, “Fortunate is one who existed before becoming human.”‘ Gospel of Thomas saying 19 may not be referring to Christ at all in this beatitude. Rather, the sense of the saying could be that anyone who existed before being born should be declared fortunate. Compare the saying of Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Philip 64,10-12: ‘Fortunate is the one who exists before coming into being. For one who exists has been and will be.'”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “The fourth-century apologist Lactantius treats the first sentence of this saying as a prophecy uttered by Jeremiah (Div. inst., 4, 8); in the Epideixis (43) of Irenaeus, however, it is ascribed to Jesus (cf., J. P. Smith, St. Irenaeus: Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, page 182, note 207). Like Jesus, who ‘was’ (John 1:1-2) before he ‘became’ incarnate (John 1:14), his disciples, who hear his words because they themselves are ‘of God’ (John 8:47), remain in him and have his words remaining in them; therefore whatever they ask will take place for them (John 15:8).
Stones can become bread (Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:3), or fire can come out of stones (Saying 13). Thomas probably has in mind the creation of food out of stones (cf. also Matthew 7:9: ‘What man of you, if his son asks him for bread – will he give him a stone?’), for he goes on to speak of the five never-failing trees in paradise.
These trees, mentioned in Pistis Sophia (chapters 1 and elsewhere) and among the Manichees, are probably trees which give spiritual sustenance to the five spiritual senses. They are the trees of life like the single one mentioned in Revelation 22:2 (cf., the Gospel of Eve[?] in Epiphanius, Pan., 26, 5). They must be spiritual, since Thomas says that ‘he who will understand them will not taste death.’ To understand them is thus equivalent to ‘keeping the word’ of Jesus (John 8:52).”
R. McL. Wilson writes: “Grant and Freedman interpret the somewhat cryptic logion 19 by referring to Johannine texts, but while this is certainly illuminating for our understanding of the saying it is doubtful whether we have here genuine allusions or only a similarity of thought. The comparative absence of Johannine elements may indeed be significant, particularly in a Gnostic document. The associations of this saying are, however, with the later Gnostic and Manichaean literature rather than with our Gospels, although part of it was known to Irenaeus.”
Helmut Koester writes: “For the Gnostic understanding it is crucial to know that one’s own origin lies before the beginning of earthly existence. John [8:58] consciously avoids this application of divine origin to all believers and restricts it to Jesus as the revealer.”
On p. 108 of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, MacDonald quotes this passage (Odyssey 7.114-21 [Fagles 132-40]):
“Here luxuriant trees are always in their prime, pomegranates and pears, and apples growing red, succulent figs and olives swelling sleek and dark. And the yield of these trees will never flag or die, neither in winter nor in summer, a harvest all year round for the West Wind always breathing through will bring some fruits to the bud and others warm to ripeness — pear mellowing ripe on pear, apple on apple, cluster of grapes on cluster, fig crowding fig.”
Marvin Meyer writes: “The five trees in paradise are mentioned frequently in gnostic texts, ordinarily without explanation or elaboration. In Manichaean Psalm Book 161,17-29, it is said that various features of life and faith are put together in groups of five. This section opens with the statement, ‘For [five] are the trees that are in paradise [. . .] in summer and winter.’ On the trees in paradise according to Genesis, see Genesis 2:9.”
F. F. Bruce writes: “The reference to the stones in Saying 19b is reminiscent of the turning of stones into bread in the temptation narrative (Matthew 4.3; Luke 4.3). The five trees have the property of the unfailing ‘tree of life’ in Revelation 22.2; they are five in number perhaps because they are envisaged as spiritual counterparts to the five natural senses. [The Gnostic treatise Pistis Sophia makes repeated mention of the ‘five trees’ in the ‘treasurey of the light’.]”