Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 046 Little ones are more exalted than John the Baptist
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 46
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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(46) Jesus said: From Adam to John the Baptist there is among the children of women none higher than John the Baptist, for his eyes were not destroyed (?). But I have said: Whoever among you becomes small will know the kingdom and will be higher than John.
(46) Jesus said, “From Adam unto John the Baptist there has been none among the offspring of women who has been more exalted than John the Baptist, so that such a person’s eyes might be broken. But I have said that whoever among you (plur.) becomes a little one will become acquainted with the kingdom, and will become more exalted than John.”
51 . Jesus says: “From Adam to John the Baptist, among those who have been born of women, there is none greater than John the Baptist! But for fear that the eyes <of such a one> should be lost I have said: He who among you shall be the small<est> shall know the Kingdom and be higher than John!”
• GThom 22:2
• Luke 7:24-30 KJV
• Luke 18:17 KJV
• Matt 11:7-15 KJV
• Matt 18:3 KJV
• Mark 10:15 KJV
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “This saying is adapted from Matthew 11:11-12 (Luke 7:28), where we hread that ‘No one has arisen, among those born of women, greater than John the Baptist; but the least [smallest] in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’; the next saying begins with the words ‘From the days of John the Baptist’ – Thomas seems to have used these words as the model for his expression, ‘From Adam to John the Baptist.’ Thomas also changes ‘in the kingdom of heaven’ to ‘will understand the kingdom.’ The words, ‘so that his eyes will not’ (Doresse supplies ‘lose themselves’) are incomprehensible.”
R. McL. Wilson writes: “The Synoptic parallels here are Matthew xi. 11 and Luke vii. 28, but the words here rendered ‘so that his eyes will not be broken’ have so far baffled the commentators. Grant and Freedman plausibly suggest that the opening words are modelled on the following verse in Matthew (xi. 12), in which case Thomas has re-written the saying.
One possible line of interpretation may be to link this saying with logion 22 and with the Synoptic sayings about children and the Kingdom. The enigmatic words about eyes may, perhaps, have some connection with Matthew vi. 22 f., the passage about the ‘single eye’; eyes that are broken (or divided?) are no longer ‘single.’
If this be so, the saying would be a mosaic of Synoptic elements, but here we have clear signs of redaction, possibly of textual corruption, and almost certainly of confusion on the part of the translator. It must be remembered that our present Coptic text is probably a translation of a translation, and that in both versions it has been subjected to the vagaries of the scribe; moreover, the sayings have passed through a process of oral tradition, whether or not they are derived from our Gospels, and were originally uttered neither in Greek nor in Coptic, but in Aramaic. When we add the probability of redaction at the hands of one or more editors, who had ends of their own in view, the difficulties in the path of the investigator are manifest.”
Funk and Hoover write: “This saying is another version of a Q saying that appears in Matt 11:11//Luke 7:28. Fellows designated this saying gray, as they did the Q version. The first part of this saying, praising John, could well come from Jesus (his followers, who became rivals of the followers of John, would probably not have invented it), but the second half suggests a time when John the Baptist was being devalued by the Christian movement.”
J. D. Crossan writes: “This is another version of the saying found in Q/Matt. 11:11 = Luke 7:28, where the ‘least’ in the Kingdom is ‘greater’ than John. Baker has drawn attention to other versions of this aphorism in ‘the homilies that pass under the name of Macarius’ and which ‘continue to perplex scholars as to their true author, place of origin and sources’ although ‘recent work has brought strong arguments for Asia Minor and perhaps Syria as the place and the last quarter of the fourth century as the time of composition’ (215).
Pseudo-Macarius’ versions speak first of the ‘least one’ (mikroteros) as being greater than John, then equate such with the ‘apostles,’ and conclude that such a ‘little one’ (mikros) is greater than John (Migne: 713CD). That final text is the same as the one found in Gos. Thom. 46b, since the Coptic word kwi can be translated either as ‘a child’ or ‘a little one.’Gos. Thom. 46b therefore translates either ‘whichever one of you comes to be a child’ (Lambdin; see also Guillaumont et al.) or ‘he who shall be among you as a little one’ (Wilson, 1973:515).
This change from ‘least one’ to ‘little one’ is significant, ‘for the New Testament wishes to say that all in the Kingdom are greater than John, therefore, even the least – mikroteros. Whereas the Gospel of Thomas and Macarius mean that only those who are small – mikros – are greater than John’ (Baker: 218) Quispel (1964) has explained the relationship between Thomas and Macarius by proposing ‘that Macarius most probably knew the Gospel of Thomas and alluded to it in his writings’ (227), and he concludes by asserting that he is ‘not in the least astonished that Macarius used the Gospel of Thomas, because so many Syrian writers before him had done the same’ (234).”
J. D. Crossan concludes: “I consider, therefore, that there has been an infiltration from Gos. Thom. 22 into 46b, which (a) mitigates the denigration of John and (b) substitutes ‘shall know (be acquainted with) the Kingdom’ for ‘shall enter the Kingdom.'”