Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 053 True circumcision
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 53
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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(53) His disciples said to him: Is circumcision useful or not? He said to them: If it were useful, their father would beget him from their mothers (already) circumcised. But the true circumcision in the Spirit has proved useful in every way.
(53) His disciples said to him, “Does circumcision help or does it not?” He said to them, “If it helped, people’s fathers would beget them from their mothers already circumcised. But true circumcision in spirit has become very profitable.”
58 . His disciples said to him: “Is circumcision useful or not?” He said to them: “If it was useful, their father would beget them from their mother <already> circumcised. But <only> the true circumcision in the spirit gives all profit!”
• Rom 2:25-29 KJV
• 1 Cor 7:17-19 KJV
• Gal 6:16 KJV
• Phil 3:3 KJV
• Col 2:11-14 KJV
Marvin Meyer writes: “According to a Jewish tradition, a governor of Judea once commented to Rabbi Akiba, ‘If he (that is, God) takes such pleasure in circumcision, why then does not a child come circumcised from his mother’s womb?'”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “Along with fasting, prayer, alms-giving, and dietary regulations, Thomas rejects circumcision, as most early Christians did. A singular argument perhaps from radical Hellenstic-Jewish sources, is advanced against it; it is unnatural (elsewhere Thomas does not appeal to the law of nature). What counts is true, spiritual circumcision (cf., Philippians 3:3).”
R. McL. Wilson writes: “Grant and Freedman plausibly suggest that the argument in the reply may be drawn from radical Hellenistic-Jewish sources. Perhaps more important is the point made by Bauer, that if no such an authoritative word as this had been known Paul would never have had to contend against the Judaisers. As Bauer observes, the saying was probably understood by the Gnostics on the basis of Colossians ii. 11, where the true circumcision is linked with the stripping off of the body of flesh.
A circumcision ‘in Spirit not in letter’ is mentioned in Romans ii. 29, and the question here assigned to the disciples is asked by Paul himself in Romans iii. 1 – but with a very different answer. Other passages to which reference may be made include Romans ii. 25, 1 Corinthians vii. 19, and Galatians vi. 15. This saying accordingly would appear to reflect the conditions of a period later than the time of Jesus, if indeed it is not a Gnostic invention.”
F. F. Bruce writes: “Literal circumcision is rejected, like literal fasting and other religious exercises (cf. Saying 6). What counts is the spiritual counterparts of these, the elements of true heart-religion. That spiritual circumcision was the important thing was emphasized even in Old Testament times (cf. Deuteronomy 10.16; Jeremiah 4.4); Paul speaks to the same effect in Romans 2.29; Philippians 3.3; Colossians 2.11.”
Gerd Ludemann writes: “Like Paul (Rom. 2.25-29; 1 Cor 7.7-19; Gal. 6.5; Phil. 3.3), this verse understands circumcision in the metaphorical sense and thus provides further argument against the benefits of circumcision. The negative attitude to circumcision in the Gospel of Thomas corresponds to that towards fasting, alsgiving and dietary regulations (cf. 6; 14; 104), and also to the Old Testament, as it was documented in the analysis of the preceding logion, Logion 52.”