Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 086 The son of man has nowhere to lay his head
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 86
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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Marvin Meyer quotes Plutarch’s Life of Tiberius Gracchus 9.4-5 on the homeless soldiers of Italy: “The wild animals that range over Italy have a cave, and there is a lair for each of them to enter, but those who fight and die for Italy have a share in the air and the light and nothing else, but, having no house or abode, they wander about with wives and children.”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “Something has been lost at the beginning, but this saying is nothing but a repetition of the gospel statement about the Son of Man and his life of detachment from the world (Mathew 8:20; Luke 9:58). What is characteristic of the Son of Man must also be characteristic of his disciples, who are ‘sons of men’ (Saying 103). The place of ‘rest’ (Thomas adds ‘to rest’ to the saying; cf., Sayings 51, 52, and 90) is not on earth but within.”
J. S. Kloppenborg Verbin writes: “Koester notes that GThom 86 (=Q 9:58) uses ‘Son of Man’ in a nontitular way, and with Bultmann (1968:98; also Todt 1965:122) argued that this saying is a proverb in which Son of Man is no honorific title, but simply means ‘man,’ as contrasted with the animals. He wonders: ‘The decisive question is whether Thomas presupposes a stage of the Synoptic tradition in which a titular usage of the term Son of Man had not yet developed’ (1971:170-71 n 34).”
Funk and Hoover write: “As in Q, the version in Thomas employs the phrase ‘son of Adam.’ In addition to its well-known technical sense, it can also mean simply ‘human being.’ Since Thomas probably does not empty that phrase in its technical, apocalyptic sense, the translators of the Scholars Version have rendered it simply as ‘human beings’ (the plural form makes it refer unambiguously to persons rather than to the heavenly figure of Daniel 7, who will come on the clouds at the end of time to pass judgment on the world).
If Jesus is referring to himself in this saying, as some scholars think, it suggests that Jesus is homeless – a wanderer, without permanent address, without fixed domicile. Jesus thus ranks himself even below the animals, much less below settled, civilized human beings. In Q, Jesus makes this saying a warning to potential followers. In Thomas, the saying has been modified in a very subtle way to refer to the Gnostic notion of salvation, which was summed up in the term ‘rest.’ Compare saying 51, where the disciples ask Jesus when the dead will achieve ‘rest.’ The Greek fragment of Thomas 2 states that the ultimate goal of the Gnostic is to find ‘rest.'”
J. D. Crossan writes: “There is, first of all, the immediate formal difference in that, while Q was an aphoristic dialogue [Mt 8:19-20 // Lk 9:57-58], this is an aphoristic saying. And, since this eliminates any discrepancy between comment and response, that is between voluntary wandering and involuntary rejection, the meaning of Gos. Thom. 86 is not and was not necessarily that of Q.
Therefore what Bultmann said long before Thomaswas discovered must now be recalled: ‘it is plain that the dominical saying could have circulated without any framework. That must indeed have been the case if ho huios tou anthropou has been incorrectly substituted for ‘man.’
And ‘man’ must have been in fact the original meaning; man, homeless in the world, is contrasted with the wild beasts’ (28). Koester, citing Bultmann, notes that Thomas never ‘uses the title “Son of Man” for Jesus or any other figure,’ so that ‘the decisive question is whether Thomas presuppoes a stage of the synoptic tradition in which a titular usage of the term Son of man had not yet developed’ (Robinson and Koester: 170, 171 note 34). As with the saying in Gos. Thom. 42, ‘Become passers-by,’ so also does this saying bespeak a homelessness for humanity within this world.
And, although this has been denied (Strobel: 223), the addition of ‘and rest’ after ‘to lay his head’ points the aphorism towards a gnostic interpretation (Gartner: 60-61). This is true not so much of the text itself, even with that addition, but of its contextual association with the theme of Rest or Repose in Gos. Thom. 2 (Oxy P 654.2), 50, 51, 60, and 90 (Vielhauer, 1964:292-299).
Indeed, there are ‘two terms, the Place and the Rest (or Repose)’ brought together in Gos. Thom. 86, and even though ‘both are found in the New Testament, though usually in a general and non-technical sense,’ they are used in Thomas in a more specific and gnostic understanding (Turner and Montefiore: 110). In other words, Gos. Thom. 86 is much more contextually than textually gnostic (Robinson and Koester, 140-141).”
J. D. Crossan writes: “The first version [Thomas 86], however, retains the earlier format of a Jesus saying without any dialogue framework. It also retains, more significantly, a saying in which ‘son of man’ is neither titular nor circumlocutionary. It does not mean Jesus but the generic or indefinite ‘human being.’ We can be relatively sure on this point because, while the Gospel of Thomas is, as we saw earlier, emphatically anti-apocaylyptic, that apocalypticism did not contain the theme of Jesus as the Son of Man, else that Gospel would surely have avoided or glossed this present saying.
In other words, Gospel of Thomas 86 uses ‘son of man’ for ‘human being’ without any fear of apocalyptic misunderstanding, just as Gospel of Thomas106 uses the plural ‘sons of man’ for ‘human beings’ (Koester 1989a:43). The saying in Gospel of Thomas 86 asserts, and it is an assertion capable of diverse interpretations, that the human being, unlike the animal or the bird, has no fixed abode on earth.
I leave aside, by the way, that terminal ‘and rest,’ which is, in the light of other sayings on rest and repose such as Gospel of Thomas 2, 50, 51, 60, a major theological theme within the redaction of that Gospel (Vielhauer). Apart from that final gloss, the saying goes back to Jesus, although, as just mentioned, its meaning will demand much further context for final interpretation. But its existence means that the Sayings Gospel Q had at least one traditional unit in which Jesus spoke of ‘the son of man’ and that, in conjunction with the other traditional theme of Jesus as apocalyptic judge from Daniel 7:13, facilitated the creation of Jesus speaking of himself as the apocalyptic Son of Man.”