Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 021 A parable of children living in a plot of land
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 21
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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(21) Mariham said to Jesus: Whom are your disciples like? He said: They are like little children who have settled in a field which does not belong to them. When the owners of the field come, they will say: Leave us our field. They are naked before them, in order to leave it to them and give them (back) their field. Therefore I say: If the master of the house knows that the thief is coming, he will keep watch before he comes, and will not let him dig through into his house of his kingdom to carry off his things. You, then, be watchful over against the world; gird your loins with great strength, that the robbers may find no way to come at you. For the advantage for which you look, they will find. May there be among you a man of understanding! When the fruit ripened, he came quickly, his sickle in hand, and reaped it. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
(21) Mary said to Jesus, “What do your disciples resemble?” He said, “What they resemble is children living in a plot of land that is not theirs. When the owners of the land come they will say, ‘Surrender our land to us.’ They, for their part, strip naked in their presence in order to give it back to them, and they give them their land. Thus I say that the owner of an estate, knowing that a bandit is coming, will keep watch before the bandit comes and not let the bandit break into the house of the estate and steal the possessions. You (plur.) , then, be on your guard against the world. Arm yourselves with great power lest the brigands find a way to get to you; for the trouble that you expect will come. Let an experienced person dwell in your midst! When the crop had matured, that person came in haste, sickle in hand, and harvested it. Whoever has ears to hear should listen!”
24 . Mary says to Jesus: “Who are your disciples like?” He says to her: “They are like little children who have made their way into a field that does not belong to them. When the owners of the field come, they will say: ‘Get out of our field!’ They <then> will give up the field to these <people> and let them have their field back again.” 25 . “That is why I tell you this: If the master of the house knows that the thief is coming, he will watch before he comes and will not allow him to force an entry into his royal house to carry off furniture. You, then, be on the watch against the world. Gird up your loins with great energy, so that the brigands do not find any way of reaching you; for they will find any place you fail to watch.” 26 . “Let there be among you <such> a prudent man: when the fruit arrived, quickly, sickle in hand, he went and harvested it. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
• Joel 3:12 KJV
• Luke 12:39-40 KJV
• Luke 11:21-22 KJV
• Matt 24:37-44 KJV
• Matt 12:29 KJV
• Mark 3:27 KJV
• Mark 4:26-29 KJV
• Rev 16:15 KJV
• 1 Thess 5:2 KJV
• 2 Pet 3:10 KJV
• Rev 3:3 KJV
Marvin quotes Hippolytus in Refutation of All Heresies 5.8.44 as a relevant passage: “For this, he says, is ‘the gate of heaven,’ and this is ‘<the> house of God,’ where the good God dwells alone, into which no one will enter, he says, who is unclean, physical, or carnal, but it is reserved for the spiritual alone, where it is necessary for them, when they have come there, to cast off their clothing and all become bridegrooms, having been made male through the virgin spirit.”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “Here Mariham (the Mariamme of the Naassenes – Hippolytus, Ref., 5, 7, 1 – also mentioned in Saying 112), asks a question and is told tha the disciples are ‘like little children’ (Matthew 18:3; cf., 1 Corinthians 14:20). The children live in an alien field, which must be the world, as in Matthew 13:38.
‘Leave our field to us!’ recalls the command of the farmer in Matthew 13:30: ‘Leave both to grow up together until the harvest.’ Moreover, in Matthew 24:40-42 there are mysterious references to ‘two in a field,’ to one’s being left, and to the coming of a master.
Whatever synoptic reminiscences there may be, these have been subordinated to the notion of being naked (see Saying 38). The true Gnostic wants to strip off the body (contrast 2 Corinthians 5:4: ‘not to be stripped but to be clad upon’) and leave the world.”
Jack Finegan writes: “Here the little children who live in the field are presumably the disciples who live in the world. When they give back the field to its owners they ‘take off their clothes before them’ which, in the present context, must mean that they strip themselves of their bodies in death, an end, to the Gnostic, eminently desirable (cf. §§236, 357).”
Gerd Ludemann writes: “These verses are unique among the Jesus traditions and are hard to understand. If we begin with the evident recognition that the children symbolize the Gnostics, it is manifestly being said that they are staying in a strange field, namely the evil world, and that they are asking the owners for their own field. To this end, the exchange of fields, they bare themselves, which probably refers to baptism.”
Funk and Hoover write: “The conclusion in v. 4 is a metaphor with several possible interpretations:
(1) It may be an allusion to Christian baptism, which would reflect the concerns of the emerging Christian community. (2) It may refer to Gnostic and other early Christian notions that upon death the soul sheds the body (clothing) and proceeds to the heavenly realm from whence it has come (compare Thomsa 29; 87; 112). (3) Or it may symbolize the return to a primordial state of sexual non-differentiation, to an androgynous state (compare Thomas 37). At all events, the parable in its present form reflects theological concerns that did not originate with Jesus.”
Robert Price writes: “This passage in Thomas is in turn derived from a vague memory quotation of two canonical gospel texts. The first is the parable of the wicked tenants in Mark 12:1-9 (‘A man planted a vineyard . . . and lent it out to tenants, and went away into another country. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard . . .’).
The second is the parable of the unfaithful steward toward the end of the Markan Apocalypse, 13:34-37, which ends with the exhortation, ‘Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house will come . . ., lest he comes suddenly and find you asleep.’ Thomas’ version makes the tenants into the disciples rather than the enemies of Jesus and bids them acknowledge the claim of the field’s/vineyard’s true owner (perhaps Satan or the Gnostic Demiurge).
Likewise, the owner of the house has become, not the one whose coming is awaited, but rather the one who awaits the coming of another – a thief. Again, the allegorical counterparts have shifted roles. One awaits not God but the devil (cf. Mark 4:15).”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “From the same context in Luke (as in Saying 100) comes the counsel, ‘Gird your loins!’ Thomas explans that this means to gird yourself with ‘a great power’ (the power of the kingdom) so that no robber may come to you (Luke 12:33). You will be given what you need (Luke 12:22-32). An ‘understanding man’ is mentioned in Luke 12:42. Because of such parallels, it is hard to believe that Thomas is doing anything but creating a mosaic of sayings chiefly derived from Luke.”
Joachim Jeremias writes: “But the application of the parable to the return of the Son of Man is strange; for if the subject of discourse is a nocturnal burglary, it refers to a disastrous and alarming event, whereas the Parousia, at least for the disciples of Jesus, is the great day of joy. In fact the christological application is missing from the Gospel of Thomas.
Here the parable of the night-burglar has been preserved in two versions. The one contained in logion 21b resembles the Matthaean version, while the one which appears as logion 103 seems to be a very free repetition in the form of beatitude and exhibits some affinity with Luke 12.35 ff. Both versions agree in the fact that neither of them compares the breaking in of the burglar to the return of the Son of Man.”
R. McL. Wilson writes: “On this Bartsch comments that not only is the text, and therefore the translation, at some points uncertain, the whole passage seems to resist a uniform interpretation. The Synoptic parallels are first Luke xii. 39, with a change of tense and the addition of ‘of his kingdom’; then Mark iii. 27 (the specific reference to vessels (SKEUH) here and in Matthew xii. 29 has no parallel in Luke); the call to watchfulness, of course, can be readily paralleled from our Gospels, but the warning to beware of the world is not Synoptic.
Bartsch thinks this, and the addition of ‘with great strength’ after Luke xii. 35 in the next line may be due to Gnostic influence; so also he explains the following words, which have no Synoptic parallel. Finally the reference to the sickle is an adaptation of Mark iv. 29; since this passage is peculiar to Mark this would seem to add the final proof that if Thomas used our Gospels he employed all three Synoptics, and not merely Matthew and Luke.
Luke xii. 40, it may be added, is an exhortation to readiness, but has been replaced by words from another context (e.g. Matt. xxiv. 42) before xxi. 35 is used. If this is a mosaic based on our Gospels, the author has ranged very widely. Bartsch, however, sees in this logion and in logion 8 (the parable of the Fisherman) a version of the Synoptic parables which over against the tradition hitherto known is thoroughly independent.”
Helmut Koester writes: “The Q version has shortened the parable, leaving out the purpose of the coming of the thief, i.e., to steal the goods of the owner of the house. That Q’s parable presupposed such a continuation of the parable and was not simply an expansion of the metaphor of the ‘day of the Lord coming like the thief in the night’ (1 Thess 5:2; Rev 3:3), is evident in the phrase ‘to be dug into.’ Thomas’s version suggests that the parable was cut short in Q in order to add the reference to the coming of the Son of man.”
J. D. Crossan writes: “The metaphor is clear enough and similar to that in Q/Matt. 24:43 = Luke 12:39. The awkward phrase, ‘his house of his domain’ (Lambdin: 120) or ‘his house of his kingdom’ (Guillaumont, 1959:14-15; Wilson, 1973:513) is probably a Coptic mistranslation for an original ‘the house of his domain/kingdom’ (Quecke; Menard, 1975:112).”
J. D. Crossan writes: “The application is more difficult since its translation is not too certain (Bartsch, 1959-1960:260). It is clear, however, that it warns about the world rather than the parousia. And therein lies the difficulty: The image actually works better for the unexpected and momentary irruption of the end than for the expected and permanent onslaught of the world.
Hence the concluding sentence’s translation could be: ‘for the difficulty which you expect will (surely) materialize’ (Lambdin: 120) or ‘because they will find the advantage which you expect’ (Guillaumont, 1959:16-17) or ‘since the advantage for which you look they will find’ (Menard, 1975:60).”
Funk and Hoover write: “This saying [Sickle & harvest] is an allusion to Joel 3:13. In Mark 4:29 it is attached to the parable of the seed and harvest. Its appearance in two different contexts suggests that it circulated independently at one time. Both Mark and Thomas have given it an arbitrary location. The image is usually associated with the last judgment, which is what prompted some of the Fellows to vote black.
However, it may also refer to the bountiful harvest that Jesus anticipates as a result of the providence of God who causes grain to grow (this is one way to read Mark’s parable of the seed and harvest, 4:26-29). This possibility induced other Fellows to vote pink or gray.”