Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 071 Destruction of “this building”
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 71
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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• Matt 26:59-68 KJV
• Matt 27:39-40 KJV
• John 2:13-22 KJV
• Mark 14:55-65 KJV
• Mark 15:29-30 KJV
• Mark 13:1-4 KJV
• Acts 6:12-14 KJV
R. McL. Wilson writes: “If this is independent, it must confirm the synoptic version (‘I will destroy’) against John (imperative). If, however, it is dependent we may ask if it is intended as deliberate opposition to John ii. 21: ‘He spake of the temple of His body.’ It is at any rate notable that no reference is made to the resurrection; on the contrary, the possibility of restoration is emphatically denied. This must indicate either a rejection of the doctrine of the resurrection or perhaps a period after the final destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when no hope remained of its rebuilding.”
Gerd Ludemann writes: “The saying is reminiscent of John 2.19, where a similar saying is spoken by Jesus, and Mark 14.58, according to which a saying of Jesus to this effect has been wrongly put on the lips of Jesus. However, in the New Testament parallels there is always a reference to a rebuilding, whereas there is none in Thomas. Hence Logion 71 might be about the destruction of the world or matter in a metaphorical sense. There is no eschatological perspective at work here. Thomas presupposes the New Testament texts and on that basis formulates an ascetic-dualistic saying of Jesus about the temple.”
Funk and Hoover write: “The Fellows conceded that Jesus could have predicted the destruction of the temple and its replacement by another ‘not made with hands.’ And they agreed that some such saying must have circulated as an independent remark during the oral period, since it appears in three independent sources. Yet they were hesitant to identify its original form. The saying in Thomas, unfortunately, is fragmentary.”
Gerd Theissen writes: “Gospel of Thomas 71 knows the prophecy in the first person: ‘Jesus said: I shall destroy this house, and no one will be able to build it (again).’ Here the positive part of the prophecy is directly denied. It had not been fulfilled and had become a problem.”
Stephen Patterson writes: “it structural similarity [to other sayings about the Temple] permits the assumption that it is indeed a version of the so-called ‘temple word’. . . . Whether the lack of any reference to the temple in 71 is a secondary feature, or a primitive touch is difficult to decide.
I would suspect, however, that Thomas’ ending: ‘and no one will be able to rebuild it’ is secondary over against references to rebuilding the Temple in the various other versions. The fact that the Temple was never rebuilt would eventually prove awkward for such predictions. One way to ease off the problem would be to allegorize it, as does John, in terms of the resurrection (2:21); another way would be to ease off the prediction itself (so Thomas)”
J. D. Crossan writes: “I agree with the first two points of that analysis [by Patterson] but not with its third one. Despite its ambiguities, ‘house’ is best seen as referring originally to the Temple at Jerusalem, even if the Gospel of Thomas may now understand it in some other way. Next, the structural balance of destroying/rebuilding is common to all three sources in the complex and must be taken very seriously.
But I reverse the sequence presumed by Patterson’s analysis. I take Gospel of Thomas 71 as the most original version we have, and it simply states emphatically: I will destroy this house so utterly that rebuilding will be impossible. The rebuilding does not, initially, reflect any spiritual substitution but is merely an emphatic way of stating utterly, completely, totally, and forever.
It is not this version that has eased off the rebuilding, taken negatively, but the other versions that have developed the rebuilding, taken positively. It is most significant, therefore, that the Gospel of Thomas, which has no interest in the passion of Jesus, still retains this saying. But that cuts both ways. It may mean that it is very good historical Jesus tradition but also that the connection with the passion was not at all on the same level.”