Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 109 A parable of a hidden treasure
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 109
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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(109) Jesus said: The kingdom is like a man who had in his field a [hidden] treasure, of which he knew nothing. And [after] he died he left it to his [son. The] son also did not know; he took the field and sold it. The man who bought it came (and) as he was ploughing [found] the treasure. He began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished.
(109) Jesus said, “What the kingdom resembles is a man who possessed a hidden treasure in his field without knowing it. And [upon] dying he left it to his [son]. The son [was] not aware of the fact. He assumed (ownership of) the field and sold it. And the person who bought it came plowing, [found] the treasure, and began to lend out money at interest to whomever he wished.”
113 . Jesus says: “The Kingdom is like a man who [has] a [hidden] treasure in his field and does not know it. He did not [find it before] he died, and he left his [property to his] son who did not know it <either>. He took the field, sold it, and the man who bought it went to till it: [he found] the treasure, and he began to lend at interest to those [whom he] wanted (?).
Marvin Meyer quotes Aesop’s Fable 42 as a parallel: “A farmer who was about to die and who wished to familiarize his sons with farming summoned them and said, ‘Sons, in one of my vineyards a treasure is hidden.’ After his death they took plows and mattocks and dug up all of their farmed land. They did not find the treasure, but the vineyard repaid them with a harvest many times greater. The story shows that what is gotten from toil is a treasure for people.”
Joachim Jeremias quotes a parallel in Midr. Cant. 4.12: “It (i.e. the quotation from Cant. 4.12) is like a man who inherited a place full of rubbish. The inheritor was lazy and sold it for a ridiculously smal sum. The purchaser dug therein industriously and found in it a treasure. He built therewith a great palace and passed through the bazaar with a train of slaves whom he had bought with the treasure. When the seller saw it he could have choked himself (with vexation).”
Joachim Jeremias writes: “Whereas in Matthew the parable of the Treasure in the Field describes the overwhelming joy of the finder . . . in the Gospel of Thomas, under the influence of the rabbinic story, the point is entirely lost: the parable now describes the rage of a man who has failed to seize a unique opportunity.”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “It might mean that the kingdom which the Jews, or people in general, could have known was given to others [cf. Mt 8:11-12, Lk 13:29] . . . The ‘lending at interest’ at the end of the story would then be spiritual, for taking interest is rejected in Saying 92. On the other hand, it might mean that unless you look for the treasure within your own field it will pass to others who will profit from it. The second interpretation seems more probable.”
R. McL. Wilson writes: “As Cerfaux noted, this version departs radically from that of Matthew and finds a closer parallel in a Rabbinic story of the second century. Grant and Freedman find it difficult to see what the story meant to Thomas, but a Gnostic interpretation is not hard to discover. If the kingdom be identified with gnosis, the knowledge that is latent in every man, but which only the Gnostic can truly be said to possess, we have a treasure hidden from the original owner and his son (the psychic or the hylic?), awaiting the coming of the Gnostic who was able to receive it.
An alternative is offered by Bauer, who iwth Doresse refers to the Naassene use of the parable. Like the mustard seed and also the leaven( logion 96), the treasure is the kingdom, understood in a Gnostic sense.
The purchaser is Christ, who bought the field in His Incarnation, laboured in it in His Passion, and by casting off the body of flesh in His return to heaven has found the treasure. The taking of interest is forbidden in logion 95 (cf. Matt. v. 42, Luke vi. 34), but is plausibly explained by Bauer as the imparting of gnosis by Christ to his followers. Of this parable Bartsch observes that it has undergone a transformation and shows no relation either in form or in content to the synoptic version.”
F. F. Bruce writes: “This version of the parable of the hidden treasure (cf. Matthew 13.44) has a novel ending. The treasure, like the pearl in Saying 76, is the true knowledge; if those who have this within their grasp do not avail themselves of it, it will pass to others who will profit by it.”
Funk and Hoover write: “In Matthew, by covering up the treasure and buying the field, the man deceives the original owner. But he sells all his possessions in order to acquire the field with the hidden treasure. In Thomas’ version, the ultimate purchaser of the field launches a despicable occupation: moneylender. Thomas 92 specifically prohibits moneylending as an acceptable practice.
In both versions of the parable, the treasure comes into the possession of someone with dubious moral credentials. This is comparable to the behavior of the shrewd manager in another of Jesus’ parables (Luke 16:1-8a), who swindles his master in order to provide for his own future. Surprising moves such as this, in which Jesus employs a dubious moral example, appear to be characteristic of Jesus’ parable technique.”
Charles W. Hedrick writes: “The Treasure in the Gospel of Thomas is easily understandable in the cultural context of first-century Judaism (or early Jewish Christianity) and has parallels to be found in other parables of Jesus that emphasize transversion, or reversal, of values. Thomas’s parable stresses the sudden finding of the treasure and seems to commend the resourceful response of the individual who found the treasure, i.e., the loaning at usury, by making it the climax of the parable.
The loaning of money for interest would certainly conflict with Torah where one is not permitted to loan at interest to a fellow Israelite. In that sense the motif becomes a shocking element in the parable, assuming that it was addressed to Jewish audiences, and such language is attributed to Jesus elsewhere. The point of Thomas’s version of The Treasure in a Jewish context would seem to have been the impact of suddenly, unexpectedly finding a fabulous treasure (=the kingdom of God).
I suppose it would correspond to winning a lottery with a large purse. Such an event completely reverses values. It turns the world upside down. It challenges and changes the old customs and former values, religious and otherwise. Farmers (peasants) become bankers, heirs are abruptly disenfranchized and cherished religious beliefs are discarded. Other parables of Jesus that reflect a similar twist are The Good Samaritan, Pharisee and Publican, The Vineyard Laborers, The Palm Shoot, and Grain of Wheat.”
Joachim Jeremias writes: “Both parables [109 and 76] make use of a favourite theme in oriental story-telling. The audience expected that the story of the treasure in the field would be about a splendid palace which the finder built, or a train of slaves with whom he promenades through the bazaar (see p. 32), or about the decision of a wise judge that the son of the finder should marry the daughter of the owner of the field.
In the story of the pearl it would expect to hear that its discovery was the reward of special piety, or that the pearl would save the life of a merchant who had fallen into the hands of robbers. Jesus, as always, surprises his audience by treating the well-known stories (pp. 178 ff., 183, 188) in such a way as to emphasize an aspect quite unexpected by his hearers. The question is, what aspect?”
Joachim Jeremias writes: “The decisive thing in the twin parable is not what the two men give up, but the reason for their doing so; the overwhelming experience of the splendour of their discovery. Thus it is with the Kingdom of God. The effect of the joyful news is overpowering; it fills the heart with gladness; it makes life’s whole aim the consummation of the divine community and produces the most whole-hearted self-sacrifice.”
Helmut Koester writes: “The original parable of the Hidden Treasure, however, is not actually quoted by Thomas. If one considers Gos. Thom.109 as a quotation of that parable, one arrives at a judgment like Jeremias’s, who called it ‘utterly confused.’ But Jeremise already recognized that Gos. Thom. 109 is actually a reproduction of a rabbinic parable where the story describes how angry one can get if one misses such an opportunity.
The story, otherwise widespread in folklore and in the complex legal Talmudic discussion about ownership of treasures found, has been deliberately changed by the Gospel of Thomas. It says nothing about the angry reaction of the first owner of the field (who is actually dead when the treasure is discovered!), but emphasizes that the two original owners of the field ‘did not know about the treasure.’
The contrast in the parable is, therefore, between not knowing and finding, that is, ‘knowing.’ Since ‘treasure’ has at this point in the story clearly become a metaphor, the following ‘lending money at interest to whomever he wished’ must be understood metaphorically as the communication of knowledge.”
Charles W. Hedrick writes: “Matthew and Thomas have in common all the parables in Matthew 13, and when one compares the structures of the parables in Matthew 13 to their parallels in Thomas one discovers that it is only The Treasure whose structure in Thomas differs radically from that version of the parable to be found in Matthew’s tradition. In the light of the identity between The Pearl in Matthew and Thomas and the striking, even verbatim, agreement between Matthew’s versions of The Treasure and The Pearl, it would appear that Matthew has assimilated The Treasure to The Pearl, and it is Thomas that preserves the traditional parable. . . .
If Thomas has modified an original parable of Jesus along the lines of the rabbinic tradition so as to create the structural order of ‘receiving, selling, buying and finding,’ why did he not make a comparable adjustment in The Pearl and The Fishnet, which seem according to Crossan, to reflect a different sequence of motifs (i.e., finding, selling, buying)? On the other hand, no such questions arise if one assumes that it is Matthew who has adapted a parable with rabbinic features to fit his versions of The Pearl and The Fishnet.”