Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 114 The female element must make itself male
Early Christian Writings Commentary
Title: Gospel of Thomas Commentary: Saying 114
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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(114) Simon Peter said to them: Let Mariham go out from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Look, I will lead her that I may make her male, in order that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven.
(114) Simon Peter said to them, “Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “See, I am going to attract her to make her male so that she too might become a living spirit that resembles you males. For every female (element) that makes itself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
118 . Simon Peter says to them: “Let Mary go out from our midst, for women are not worthy of life!” Jesus says: “See, I will draw her so as to make her male so that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who has become male will enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
• GThom 22
• GEgyp 6
(Gospel of the Egyptians)
• Gal 3:28-29 KJV
Marvin Meyer quotes Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 5.8.44 for comparison: “For this, he says, is ‘the gate of heaven,’ . . . where it is necessary for them, when they have come there, to cast off their clothing and all become bridegrooms, having been made male through the virgin spirit.”
Marvin Meyer quotes Clement of Alexandria, Excerpts from Theodotus 79 for comparison: “As long, then, as the seed is still unformed, they say, it is a child of the female, but when it was formed, it was changed into a man and becomes a son of the bridegroom. No longer is it weak and subject to the cosmic (forces), visible and invisible, but, having become male, it becomes a male fruit.”
Marvin Meyer quotes First Apocalypse of James 41:15-19 for comparison: “The perishable has gone [up] to the imperishable, and [the] element of femaleness has attained to the element of this maleness.”
Marvin Meyer quotes Zostrianos 131:2-10 for comparison: “Do not baptize yourselves with death, nor give yourselves into the hands of those who are inferior to you instead of those who are better. Flee from the madness and the bondage of femaleness, and choose for yourselves the salvation of maleness. You have not come [to] suffer, but rather you have come to escape your bondage.”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “As in the Gospel of Mary (pages 17-18 of the papyrus) and in Pistis Sophia (chapter 146), Simon Peter is not enthusiastic about the presence of Mariham (mentioned in Saying 21), just as in John 4:27 the disciples of Jesus are amazed because he is speaking with a woman. Male and female must become one (Saying 23 and Commentary).
Jesus will ‘draw’ her (John 12:32) so that she will become ‘one spirit’ with him (1 Corinthians 6:17). She will become a man; just so, Ignatius of Antioch says that when he receives the pure light he will ‘become a man’ (Romans, 6, 2; for another parallel to Ignatius see Commentary on Saying 82). In order to enter into the kingdom of heaven, women must become men.
We might be tempted to take this notion symbolically were it not for the existence of Gnostic parallels, for example in the Gospel of Mary (page 9), in Clement of Alexandria (Excerpta ex Theodoto 21, 3), and among the Naassenes. The ‘house of God’ is reserved ‘for the spiritual ones alone; when they come there they cast off their garments [see Saying 38] and all become bridegrooms [Saying 75], having been made male by the virginal Spirit’ (Hippolytus, Ref., 5, 8, 44). The high point of Thomas’s eschatology is thus reached, at the end of his gospel, with the obliteration of sex.”
Gerd Ludemann writes: “The logion contrasts with 22.5. For that speaks of the dissolution of sexuality, whereas this logion speaks of a transformation of the female into the male, of a kind that occurs in numerous Gnostic ascetic texts. Perhaps Logion 114 was added to the Gospel of Thomas only at a relatively late stage. In the framework of the version of the Gospel of Thomas which has been preserved, Logion 114 is principally to be read as a polemic against procreation and the world (cf. 79.3; 27.1, etc.).”
Helmut Koester writes: “But the ideal of the itinerant man, who is independent of all social and family bonds, also seems to imply that women engaged in the pursuit of common values and social conventions likewise are not fit for this role unless they accept the ideal of the ascetic man: .”
Funk and Hoover write: “In v. 3 Jesus is not suggesting a sex-change operation, but is using ‘male’ and ‘female’ metaphorically to refer ot the higher and lower aspects of human nature. Mary is thus to undergo a spiritual transformation from her earthly, material, passionate nature (which the evangelist equates with the female) to a heavenly, spiritual, intellectual nature (which the evangelist equates with the male). This transformation may possibly have involved ritual acts or ascetic practices.”
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write: “Indeed, Jesus says of Mary (presumably Mary Magdalene, as in most Gnostic revelations) that he will make her a male so that she may become a ‘living spirit’ like the male apostles: ‘for every woman who makes herself a man will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven’ (114/112). According to the Naassenes, spiritual beings will come to ‘the house of God’; there they will cast off their garments and all of them will become bridegrooms, having been made male by the virginal Spirit. [Hippolytus Ref. V. 8. 44.] This teaching is close to that of Thomas.”
R. McL. Wilson writes: “To quote the same authors [Grant and Freedman] yet again, ‘the high point of Thomas’ eschatology is thus reached, at the end of his gospel, with the obliteration of sex.’ It should, however, be added that this is a point of difference among the Gnostic sects. In Valentinianism, for example, the souls of the elect enter into the Pleroma not as bridegrooms but as the brides of the angels. The basic conception is, however, the same.”
Bentley Layton writes: “it was a philosophical cliche that the material constituent of an entity was ‘female,’ while its form (or ideal form) was ‘male.'”
John Dart writes: “But actually, as James Brashler explains it, ‘to become a male’ is standard (albeit ‘chauvinistic’) language of the Hellenistic world for becoming pure, spiritual. The phrase was used also, he said, to describe what a teacher does for a student. In that context, woman is given an equal chance for salvation.”
F. F. Bruce writes: “This is not the only place in Gnostic literature where Peter expresses impatience at the presence of Mary Magdalene in their entourage. [In Pistis Sophia, when Mary has expounded the ‘mystery of repentance’ in a Gnostic sense and been congratulated by Jesus for her insight, Peter protests: ‘My Lord, we are not able to bear with this woman, speaking instead of us; she has not let any of us speak but often speaks herself’ (54b).
In the John Rylands University Library of Manchester there is an early third-century Greek papyrus fragment (P. Ryl. 463) of a Gospel according to Mary (Magdalene), in which the disciples discuss revelations which the Saviour is said to have given exclusively to Mary. Peter is unwilling to believe that the Saviour would have committed privately to a woman truths which he did not impart to his male disciples, but Levi rebukes him and defends Mary. (Part of the same work survives in a Coptic version in the Berlin papyrus 8502.) For Mary cf. Saying 21 (p. 122).]
The general rabbinic idea that women were incapable of appreciating religious doctrine – compare the disciples’ astonishment at Jacob’s well when they found Jesus ‘talking with a woman’ (John 4.27) – was reinforced in Gnostic anthropology, where woman was a secondary and defective being. Yet none could deny Mary’s fidelity: to an objective observer, it surpassed that of the male disciples. Jesus’s promise that she will become a man, so as to gain admittance to the kingdom of heaven, envisages the reintegration of the original order, when Adam was created male and female (Genesis 1.27).
Adam was ‘the man’ as much before the removal of Eve from his side as after (Genesis 2.18-25). Therefore, when the primal unity is restored and death is abolished, man will still be man (albeit more perfectly so), but woman will no longer be woman; she will be reabsorbed into man. [This is the point of the mystery of the bridal chamber (cf. Saying 75, p. 141); it was a form of initiation calculated to reverse the process by which death entered. ‘When Eve was in Adam, there was no death; but when she was separated from him, death came into being’ (Gospel of Philip 71).”
John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser state: “Now, as is obvious, this saying does not really free itself from the mistaken notions of its day about the relative worth of men and women. Nonetheless, what it says, in its own ‘back-handed’ way, is very important for the history of early Christianity. First, it probably indicates that not all were in agreement on whether women should be allowed to participate fully in the Jesus movement.
The opposition to women voiced by Peter in this saying is not isolated, but reminds one of later evidence of a similar dispute in the Gospel of Mary (BG 8502 17,7 – 18,15) and Pistis Sophia (I, 36; II, 72). This dispute was likely one which would be carried on within early Christianity for many years to come. The Gospel of Thomas, of course, comes down here in favor of women’s participation, provided they engage in the same sort of regimen required of the men in the group. What is more, Mary (it is not clear which Mary is intended here) is taken as the predecessor of all women who would become disciples.
This stands in contrast to the more traditional feminine roles assigned to Mary in the synoptic and Johannine traditions (whether one speaks of Mary the mother of Jesus or of Mary Magdalene). In Thomas, Mary is presented as the first female disciple of Jesus. Thus, Paul may well have had good precedent, even from out of the sayings tradition, for including both women and men in the organization of the Christian communities he founded.”
Marvin Meyer writes: “The transformation of the female into the male is discussed extensively in ancient literature (the transformation of the male into the female is also discussed, in the context of the acts of self-castration within the mysteries of the Great Mother and Attis). A few ancient accounts, in authors like Ovid and Phlegon of Tralles, communicate fantastic stories of women sprouting male genitals and thus becoming male, but most of the accounts use the gender categories in a metaphorical sense.
Often the transformation of the female into the male involves the transformation of all that is earthly, perishable, passive, and sense-perceptible into what is heavenly, imperishable, active, and rational. In short, what is connected with the earth Mother is to be transformed into what is connected with the sky Father. If this is a correct interpretation of Gospel of Thomas saying 114, then the saying is intended to be a statement of liberation, although the specific use of gender categories may be shocking to modern sensitivities.”