Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 052 The twenty-four prophets of Israel
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 52
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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(52) His disciples said to him, “Twenty-four prophets spoke in Israel, and they all spoke by you.” He said to them, “You (plur.) have abandoned the one who is living in your presence, and you have spoken of those who are dead.”
57 . His disciples said to him: “Twenty-four prophets spoke in Israel, and they all spoke through you!” He said to them: “You have passed over Him who is living in front of your eyes, and have spoken of the dead!”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “Gartner has well identified the twenty-four as the authors of the canonical books of the Old Testament, contrasted with seventy secret books in the apocalypse of Ezra (2 Esdras [4 Ezra] 14:44-48). Perhaps, as I have elsewhere suggested, they consist of twenty-three prophets and John the Baptist. In any case, the Old Testament revelation is completely outmoded. What counts is the new revelation of the Gnostic Jesus.”
F. F. Bruce writes: “The number of prophets corresponds to the number of books in the Hebrew Bible. [Another, but less probable, view is that the twenty-four prophets are the twenty-three listed in the old Jewish Lives of the Prophets, edited by C. C. Torrey (Philadelphia, 1943), with the addition of John the Baptist (Grant and Freedman, The Secret Sayings of Jesus, p. 153).] Throughout the New Testament it is emphasized that Christ has fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures: ‘To him all the prophets bear witness’ (Acts 10:43).
[Some translators and commentators treat ‘in you’ as though it meant ‘concerning you’; it includes this, but goes beyond it. Christ, as the Logos, is the one in whom they prophesied – which is the reverse way of putting the New Testament statement that ‘the Spirit of Christ within them prophesied’ (1 Peter 1.11). Cf. A. A. T. Ehrhardt, ‘The Disciples of Emmaeus’, New Testament Studies 10 (1963-64), p. 192; he compares the apocryphal Epistle of the Apostles 19 (‘all the words which were spoken by the prophets were fulfilled in me, for I myself was in them’).] But this saying reflects a disparaging attitude to the Old Testament comment to several of the Gnostic schools. Augustine knew the saying, and dismissed it as an invention. [Against an Adversary of the Law and the Prophets 2.14.]”
R. McL. Wilson writes: “The saying is quoted by Augustine who, as Grant and Freedman say, has no hesitation about declaring it fictitious, but Jeremias shows very clearly how it could find a place within the context of the historic ministry. Here we have a case of a saying recorded only in an apocryphal document, as Augustine says, which may yet have some claim to consideration as possibly authentic.
Even if not authentic, it would appear to reflect a period of controversy with the Jews about the Messiah-ship of Jesus, such a situation as is envisaged, for example, in Ignatius’ letter to the Philadelphians (chap. 8), and this may justify its inclusion at this point.”
Funk and Hoover write: “in the question, the number twenty-four is significant: in later Jewish tradition, this was the number of sacred or scriptural books. The saying therefore masks a polemic against the Hebrew scriptures. One might expect to find such a polemic in the works of Marcion or his followers in the mid-second century C.E., but not among the sayings of Jesus. The saying appears to reflect a time when Christianity was no longer a Judean sect, but had become largely gentile.”
Marvin Meyer writes: “Augustine, Against the Adversary of the Law and the Prophets 2.4.14, provides a close parallel to this saying: ‘You have rejected the living one who is before you, and you speak idly of the dead.’ Also noteworthy is Acts of Thomas 170: ‘Since you do not believe in the living, how do you wish to believe in the dead? But do not fear. Jesus the Christ, through his great goodness, treats you humanely.’ Compare also John 5:37-40; 8:52-53.”