Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 031 Prophets and physicians are not accepted at home
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 31
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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(31) Jesus said, “No prophet is accepted in his own country; no physician heals those who know him.”
Funk and Hoover write: “The earliest form of the saying is probably the aphorism consisting of a single line found in Thom 31:1; Luke 4:24; and John 4:44 (the simpler form is usually the earlier). This adage is characteristic of the short, easily remembered, and, in this case, ironical remark that lent itself to oral transmission, and was typical of Jesus as a sage and prophet.”
F. F. Bruce writes: “The saying about the prophet is found in the Synoptic and Johannine traditions alike (Mark 6.4; John 4.44). The saying about the physician resembles ‘Physician, heal yourself’, a proverb quoted in Luke 4.23 immediately before the Lukan occurrence of the saying about the prophet; Luke 4.23 f. may therefore be the source of this composite formulation.”
Joseph A. Fitzmyer writes: “The first part of this saying should be considered as authentic as the canonical parallels. The second may be authentic, or may be merely a saying constructed as an answer to the retort, ‘Physician, heal thyself’.”
R. McL. Wilson writes: “Logion 31 has long been known from its appearance in the Oxyrhynchus fragments: A prophet is not accepted in his own village; a physician does not cure those who know him. This is regarded by Jeremias and others as simply an expansion of Luke iv. 24, and indeed a clue to the formation of the saying might be found in the preceding verse in Luke, which contains the ‘proverb’: Physician, heal thyself. On the other hand, Jesus odes elsewhere (Mark ii. 17 and par.) make use of the figure of the physician with reference to His own ministry, and it would certainly seem to produce an effective parallelism.
Leipoldt has justly expressed his doubts as to some of the ‘parallelisms’ which occur in Thomas, particularly those which merely reverse the first member, sometimes with almost unintelligible results; but this is in a different category. This saying would appear to have some claim to be considered as authentic.”
Funk and Hoover write: “The two [doctor and prophet sayings] are connected in Thomas 31 as a proverb consisting of two lines. It is interesting to note that Luke seems to connect the two ideas also: the crowd asks Jesus to do in his hometown what he had done in Capernaum: namely, to cure people, which follows from the secular proverb they quote him, ‘Doctor, cure yourself.’ It is possible that Luke was aware of the two-line proverb preserved in Thomas but decided to revamp it to suit the story he was developing.”
Helmut Koester writes: “This is a particularly instructive parallel. When the Greek text of Gos. Thom. 31 (Pap. Oxy. 1.6) was discovered, Emil Wendling demonstrated that Mark 6:4-5 was constructed on the basis of this saying. While Mark quoted the first part of the saying at the end of his apophthegma about Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth, he changed the second part into narrative. Rudolf Bultmann confirmed this observation through form-critical analysis. This saying, in the form in which it is preserved by Thomas, was the nucleus of the later development of the apophthegma that appears now in Mark’s text.”
Gerd Theissen writes: “Form criticism shows that this logion is more original than the apophthegmatic garb which Mark 6.1-6 gives to the first half in the framework of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth; it cannot in any way be a secondary derivation from Mark 6.1-6 par.”
J. D. Crossan writes: “In comparing the twin versions [Coptic and Greek] of Gos. Thom. 31 with one another, three points may be noted.
(a) ‘No prophet is’ and ‘a prophet is not’ in Greek may be translated by the same impersonal negative verb preceding the word ‘prophet’ in Coptic – that is, by (em)men, ‘there is no. . . .’ Both Mark 6:4 (‘a prophet is not’) and Luke 4:24 (‘no prophet is’) are so translated in the Coptic New Testament. (b) Similarly, there is probably no difference between ‘village’ and ‘homeland,’ since the Greek word patris (homeland) is translated time (village) in the Coptic versions of Mark 6:4, Matt. 13:54, 57, Luke 4:24, and John 4:44. In effect, at least originally, whatever term was used, it was ‘village’ that was intended. (c) Finally, there is the difference between ‘heals’ and ‘works cures.’ But, once again, the difference is inconsequential since the Coptic has the Greek loan-word therapeuein (‘to cure, heal’) in Coptic format as eptherapeue while the Greek version has poiei therapeias (‘work cures’). In other words the two versions are probably as identical as texts in totally different languages can be.”
J. D. Crossan writes: “When one compares the different versions of the prophet saying in John, Mark, Luke, and Thomas, it seems evident that we are dealing with performancial variations that do not allow or need any further decision concerning the oral original. Thus, for example, the use of ‘honor’ in Mark and Luke and of ‘acceptable’ in Luke and Thomas are free performancial variations that allow of no further direct choice between them.
I tend, however, to prefer the Luke-Thomas term because of a major indirect consideration. This has to do with the far more interesting question of whether we are dealing with a single-stitch aphorism about a prophet or a double-stitch aphorism concerning a prophet/physician parallelism. If one accepts the double-stitch saying as the more original, one tends also to prefer its wording as well.”
J. D. Crossan writes: “But, in everything seen so far, the main difference is the prophet/physician parallelism, which appears only in Thomas. Even before the 1945 discovery of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, Bultmann had followed Emil Wendling’s 1908 thesis that the aphorism in Oxy P 1 was more original than that in Mark 6:4 (Bultmann: 31; see also Robinson and Koester: 129-131).
His argument was that ‘it is hardly likely that the double proverb has grown out of Mk 6:1-6, the reverse is on the other hand probable: the second half of the twin proverb is transposed in the story, and the ginoskontes auton becomes the syggeneis of Mk 6:4″ (31). This is more probable than Jeremias’s suggestion that Gos. Thom. 31a ‘is expanded by the addition of the parallel saying’ in 31b (1964: 36; see also Menard: 127).
The reason for the greater probability was already noted by Bultmann, and it can be strengthened since the discovery of the Coptic version. Both Mark 6:5 (etherapeusen) and Luke 4:23 (therapeuson) mention ‘curing’ in either the succeeding or preceding verse to their prophet aphorism. And Luke cites another proverb in 4:23 that invites a counter-proverb such as that in Gos. Thom. 31b.
In other words both the Markan and Lukan tradition, and here independently of each other, (a) kept the prophet saying (b) removed the physician saying, but (c) let its earlier presence be seen residually in Mark 6:5 and Luke 4:23.
It could even be suggested, against Bultmann but following his basic intuition, that the ginoskontes auton of Thomas reappears in Mark’s ‘in his house’ (en te oikia autou).”