Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 097 A parable of a woman with a jar of meal
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 97
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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(97) Jesus said: The kingdom of the [Father] is like a woman carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking [on a] distant road, the handle of the jar broke (and) the meal poured out behind her on the road. She was unaware, she had not noticed the misfortune. When she came to her house, she put the jar down (and) found it empty.
(97) Jesus said, “[What] the kingdom of the [father] resembles [is] a woman who was conveying a [jar] full of meal. When she had travelled far [along] the road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled out after her [along] the road. She was not aware of the fact; she had not understood how to toil. When she reached home she put down the jar and found it empty.”
101 . Jesus says: “The Kingdom of the Father is like a woman who takes a vessel of flour and sets out on a long road. The handle of the vessel broke: the flour spilled out on the road behind her without her knowing it and stopping it. When she arrived at the house she put the vessel down and found it was empty.”
Marvin Meyer writes: “This parable is known only here in early Christian literature, although ‘Macarius’ of Syria tells a somewhat similar story of a bag full of sand that is leaking out through a tiny hole in the bag.”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “This parable also compares the kingdom with a woman; it is not found in the gospels. Perhaps its meaning is given in the parable of the secretly growing seed in Mark 4:26-29. Doresse (page 198) cannot decide whether it refers to the imperceptible loss of the kingdom or to the contrast between its coming and the woman’s failure to notice her loss; neither can we.”
F. F. Bruce writes: “Here is a parable of the kingdom which has no canonical parallel. The point seems to be a warning against self-confidence, against thinking that one possesses the saving knowledge when in fact it has trickled away.”
Gerd Ludemann writes: “The parable is preserved only here in the early Christian tradition. But its images do not match. Why should all the flour pour out of a jar if only a handle breaks? How is it that the woman did not observe this? So the parable must be interpreted in the light of these contradictions.
In that case Thomas wants to say that knowledge (v. 3) is important at any point in time. The reader should always be on guard. . . . The parable is inauthentic, as it is an admonition to the individual Gnostic.”
Jack Finegan writes: “This is a relatively simple, direct parable, introduced much as are parables in the Synoptic tradition, e.g., Mt 13:31, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like . . .’ The peril of inattention and unnoticed loss is stressed, a teaching well enough in harmony with the teaching of Jesus otherwise in the Synoptic Gospels about the value and the possible loss of the kingdom.”
Funk and Hoover write: “The structure of this parable, recorded only by Thomas, is similar to that of the parable of the leaven (Thom 96:1-2//Matt 13:33//Luke 13:20-21). It has a surprising and provocative ending: the woman comes home with an empty, rather than a full, jar. A full jar would be the expected metaphor for God’s imperial rule, so this ending is startling. The symbolism may fit with Jesus’ tendency to portray the kingdom as having to do with the unnoticed or unexpected or modest (this is true also of the parable of the mustard seed, Thom 20:2//Mark 4:31-32//Matt 13:31-32//Luke 13:19).”
Christan Amundsen writes: “Like people who are unaware that they are leaking the stuff of their being, they walk along a road mindless until they find themselves empty. . . . Our lives, Jesus is saying, are lived by accident. We become ‘broken jars,’ with nothing inside. Finding ourselves empty is a devastating affair. . . . This story, like any good parable, leads us up to a question.
What does the woman do when she finds her jar broken and empty? It is like seeing that one’s life is meaningless and without true substance. What now? This is where the true drama unfolds, and so we are left to fill in the blank. The meal that was contained in the jar is the important thing. Perhaps the spirit cannot escape its bondage until the jar is broken, until all our avenues of material reality are discovered to be simply a ‘broken jar.’ Many responses and interpretations are possible and necessary.”