Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 065 A parable of the murder of a vineyard owner’s son
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 65
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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(65) He said: A good man had a vineyard; he leased it to tenants, that they might work in it (and) he receive the fruits from them. He sent his servant, that the tenants might give him the fruits of the vineyard. They seized his servant, beat him, (and) all but killed him. The servant went away (and) told his master. His master said: Perhaps <they> did not know <him>. He sent another servant; the tenants beat the other also. Then the master sent his son. He said: Perhaps they will have respect for my son. Those tenants, since they knew that he was the heir of the vineyard, they seized him and killed him. He who has ears, let him hear.
(65) He said, “A kind man owned a vineyard, and put it in the hands of cultivators for them to cultivate, so that he might get its produce from them. He sent his slave so the cultivators might give the produce of the vineyard to the slave. They seized, beat, and all but killed his slave, and the slave went and spoke to its owner. Its owner said, ‘Perhaps they did not recognize it (the slave),’ and he sent another slave. The cultivators beat the other slave. Next the owner sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they will show respect for my son.’ Those cultivators, since they recognized that it was he who was heir to the vineyard, seized him and killed him. Whoever has ears should listen!”
69 . He said: “An [important] man had a vineyard which he gave to cultivators so that they should work it and he should receive the fruit from them. He sent his servant so that the cultivators should give him the fruit of the vineyard: <but> they seized his servant, beat him and almost killed him. The servant came back and told this to his master. His master said <to himself> ‘Perhaps he did not recognize them?’ He sent another servant: the cultivators beat this one also. Then the master sent his son: he said to himself: ‘No doubt they will respect my child?’ But when they realized that this was the heir to the vineyard, these cultivators seized him and killed him. He who has ears let him hear!”
• Luke 20:9-19 KJV
• Matt 21:33-46 KJV
• Mark 12:1-12 KJV
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “This parable, like the preceding two, is derived from the synoptic gospels (Matthew 21:33-41; Mark 12:1-9; Luke 20:9-16), with a few additions, as well as the significant deletion of an allusion to Isaiah 5:1-2 – ‘planted a vineyard, set a wall about it, dug a ditch, built a tower.’ This deletion seems to indicate the lateness of Thomas’s version, for Luke (who was certainly following Mark at this point) has already left out some of the phrases derived from Isaiah. Thomas continues the process.”
R. McL. Wilson writes: “As Dodd and Jeremias have observed, this parable has in its Synoptic form undergone some expansion, and has been converted into an allegory in which the servants represent the prophets. The striking thing about the version in the Gospel of Thomas only appears when we compare it with Dodd’s reconstruction of the original story, in which we should have ‘a climactic series of three’ – two slaves and then the son.
This is, in fact, precisely what we find in Thomas. For Grant and Freedman, once again, this parable is derived from the Synoptic Gospels, with the ‘significant’ deletion of the quotation from Isaiah, which in their view indicates the lateness of this version; Thomas is merely continuing a process already begun by Luke.
It would, however, be at least equally possible to argue that Thomas presents a more primitive version, and that the Old Testament allusion is a Marcan or pre-Marcan addition. Thomas may have a tendency to avoid reference to the Old Testament, or to excise Old Testament quotations, but he does preserve some, one indeed in the next saying.
If Thomas is dependent on our Gospels, logion 66 is of course easily explained since it followes immediately upon the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen; but it is quite possible that we have here a genuine case of material growing together in the tradition.
As Jeremias observes, the quotation introduces one of the primitive Church’s favourite proof-texts; if he is right in holding that the insertion of this text is pre-Marcan, this section in Thomas might be extremely old, but it has none the less been subjected to some redaction.”
John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser state: “When one compares this version of the Parable of the Tenants to those which occur in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, one notices immediately its distinguishing characteristic: this version is a true parabolic story, not an allegory. Form critics have long held that allegorization of the parables was a relatively late development in the history of their interpretation.
In fact, even without access to the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, the great parables scholar C. H. Dodd had offered a conjectural reconstruction of the Parable of the Tenants as it would have been read before the synoptic tradition had allegorized it. His reconstruction matched Saying 65 almost to the word.”
Gerd Theissen writes: “Even before the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, Jeremias had demonstrated that the allegorization of the parable, beginning before Mark and increasing in the Synoptics, is a sign of its secondary interpretation in terms of salvation history and christology (Parables of Jesus, 1954, 55ff.). The discovery of the Gospel of Thomas confirmed this interpretation (cf. the revised version, 66-89, and Patterson, Gospel, 48-51). A Lindemann, ‘Zur Gleichnis interpretation in Thomas-Evangelium’, ZNW71, 1980, differs; he wants to explain Gospel of Thomas 65 as a de-allegorized form of the Synoptic original used for the Gnostic interpretation.”
Joachim Jeremias writes: “With regard to the introduction to the parable it is to be observed that the description in Mark 12.1 and Matt. 21.33 of the careful construction of the vineyard is in close agreement with the Song of the Vineyard in Isa. 5.1-7.
The hedge, the wine-press, and the tower are derived from Isa. 5.1 f. It is at once apparent from these allusions to scripture in the first sentences that the reference is not to an earthly owner of a vineyard and to his vineyard, but to God and Israel, and that we are therefore confronted with an allegory.
This allusion to Isa. 5 is, however, omitted by Luke (20.9). More significant is the fact that it is absent from the Gospel of Thomas, where the beginning of the parable runs: ‘A good man had a vineyard.
He gave it to husbandmen so that they would work it and that he would receive its fruit from them.’ Most significant is the fact that the LXX has been used. The connection with Isa. 5 must therefore be due to secondary editorial activity.”
Joachim Jeremias writes: “This description [of the beating of the servants] does not transgress the limits of a straightforward story; there is no indication of a deeper allegorical meaning. It is specially noticeable that in the Gospel of Thomas only one servant at a time is sent. This feature also reappears in Mark – at least at first (12.2-5a) – although there the number of sendings is increased to three [and the third is killed].”
Joachim Jeremias notes that christological interpretations are absent from the Gospel of Thomas. Jeremias writes: “It is interesting to observe that the Gospel of Thomas merely furnishes a starting-point to the process of interpretation described above to the extent that it allows the saying about the Cornerstone to be attached as an independent logion (66) to the completed parable (65).”
Joachim Jeremias writes: “With regard to the final question which occurs in all three synoptists (Mark 12.9 par.), but is missing from the Gospel of Thomas, it refers back (see pp. 70 f.) to Isa. 5.5, again not to its Hebrew text (which is not in the form of a question), but following the LXX. If the final question is secondary (the Gospel of Thomas has instead the call to hear, see p. 72), then so is the answer to the question. Neither of them is part of the original parable.”
Helmut Koester writes: “In Mark 12 as well as in Gos. Thom. 65, the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen is connected with the saying about the rejection of the cornerstone (Mark 12:10-11 = Gos. Thom. 66). This is not a Markan addition to the parable; Mark’s own redactional connection, leading back into the prevoius context that was interrupted by the insertion of the parable, appears in 12:12-13 with an explicit reference to the parable (‘they understood that he said this parable about them’).
Thus the saying about the rejected cornerstone was already connected with the parable in Mark’s source. However, Thomas does not reflect Mark’s editorial connection of parable and saying but cites the saying as an independent unit. Mark’s source may have contained more than one parable. The introduction (Mark 12:1) says: ‘And he began to speak to them in parables’ but only one parable follows.
Whether or not this parable of Mark 12 derives from the same collection as the parables of Mark 4, it is evident that the sources of Mark and the Gospel of Thomas were closely related.”
Funk and Hoover write: “The following allegorical elements are not found in the simpler version of Thomas:
(1) The allusions to the song in Isa 5:1-7 (about someone who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a winepress, and built a tower). (2) The repeated sending of slaves and groups of slaves in the synoptic version is omitted; Thomas employs a simple, triadic structure that is a typical feature of oral storytelling. (3) No one is killed prior to the son; in Matthew some are killed in each group. (4) No mention is made of throwing the son outside the vineyard (a reference, presumably, to Jesus’ death outside the walls of Jerusalem). (5) There is no concluding question addressed to the audience and therefore no punishment of the tenants.
To be sure, some of these traits are missing from Mark and Luke as well. It is Matthew who carried the allegorization to its ultimate degree. Nevertheless, it is striking that Thomas has virtually no allegorical features.”
Gerd Ludemann writes: “The owner (‘man’) from 64.1 provides the link to this parable (v. 1). By comparison with Mark 12.1-9 parr. it does not contain any element which must be interpreted allegorically. However, one would hesitate to conclude from this that 65.1-7 is the basis of the Markan version. First, Logion 66, the content of which appears in Mark 12.10-11 directly attached to Mark 12.1-9, suggests dependence on the Synoptics. Secondly, v. 4, which is peculiar to Thomas, may contain a Gnostic interpretation.
If we follow the text which has been handed down, the servant did not know the labourers and went to the wrong people. By contrast, v. 7 says that the labourers knew the son and killed him immediately. If the reading handed down is correct, the author is here playing on the word ‘know’.”
Burton Mack writes: “The Tenants. Most scholars agree that the story in Mark bears literary allusions to the Septuagint of Isa 5:1-5. Since that, plus the citation of Ps 118:22-23 in Mark 12:10-11, betray the signs of literary activity, several scholars have made the attempt to reconstruct an earlier, less allegorical form of the story.
Crossan especially, In Parables, 86-96, argues strongly on the basis of the variant in GThom 93:1-18 that the story was originally not allegorical, either with respect to Israel’s destiny, or with respect to Jesus’ destiny, and that it was authentic, ‘a deliberately shocking story of successful murder’ (p. 96). Crossan does not go on to explain the ‘parabolic effect’ this might have created, except to say it may have been a commentary upon the times. To follow Crossan in this attempt to retrieve the parable for Jesus, one has to imagine a situation in which listeners would not have been tempted to pick up on allusive suggestions to other stories and histories at all.
The tightly constructed story, however, with its motifs of ‘sending,’ ‘servants,’ in series, to ‘tenants’ of a ‘vineyard’ for its ‘produce,’ to say nothing of the negative fates of the servants, that the tenants knew who the servants were, that the last one sent is different (the son), and that he was killed, is literally packed with invitations to think of Israel’s epic history from a Christian point of view.
Images and narrative schemes that come immediately to mind include the vineyard as a traditional metaphor for Israel (even if the literary allusion to Isaiah in Mark 12:1 is deleted), the sending of the prophets, the rejection and killing of the prophets, and perhaps wisdom’s envoys (Wis 7:27). The parable betrays a reflection on Israel and the negative fate of the prophets that is greatly advanced over Q.
Because the special status and destiny of the last emissary is both emphatic and climactic, the story is surely a product, not of the historical Jesus, but of a much later Christian claim. The story fits best just in Mark’s milieu where Jesus traditions, including Q, were combined with meditations upon Jesus’ death as a crucial event. Mark’s additions merely explicate the allegorical significance contained within the story itself.”
John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser state: “But what does this ancient Christian parable mean? Its interpretation is complicated by a troublesome lacuna, or hole in the papyrus, in its very first line. The missing word is an adjective which would have modified the word ‘person’ in some way.
The extant letters around the edges of the hole permit a reconstruction of the word ‘good,’ so that one could speak here of a ‘good person’ who rented the farm to ‘evil’ tenants, just as one finds in the synoptic versions of the story. But the extant letters also permit the reconstruction of the word for ‘creditor’ or ‘usurer,’ which would make this person one of the absentee landlords so much hated among the land-poor peasants of Galilee.
One wonders, in the rural areas of Palestine and Syria among the dispossessed and poor – the tenant class – how this parable would have been heard. Were these evil tenants, or were they brave tenants?”
John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser state: “we have seen how easily wisdom speculation of the sort found in Thomas could modulate into a more Gnostic understanding of the sayings tradition. This may in fact have been the reason, according to James.
M. Robinson, that no sayings collections seem to have survived in orthodox Christian circles, and that Q only survived as it was embedded in the narratives of Matthew and Luke. This gnosticizing tendency, built into the wisdom sayings tradition, may well have cast a pall of suspicion over all sayings collections within orthodox circles. Embedding the sayings of Jesus into a narrative context would have ‘protected’ them from this sort of free-wheeling Gnostic interpretation.”
John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser state: “In this instance one might well suppose that Thomas’ anti-apocalyptic stance is late, the result of the failure of early Christianity’s apocalyptic expectations to materialize. But this may not necessarily be the case.
John Kloppenborg’s recent study of Q has argued that this synoptic sayings collection may have undergone considerable editing at some point in its history. The first draft of Q would not have contained the apocalyptic and anger tones of judgment to be found in the final copy used by Matthew and Luke.
This first edition, rather, was a collection of wisdom speeches, a ‘wisdom gospel’ not unlike the Gospel of Thomas. The addition of apocalyptic material to Q would have occurred only after the initial Q community had begun to realize how small it really was, and how few had taken their proclamation of Jesus’ words seriously.”