Monday, March 10, 2008

Apocryphote of the Day: 3-10-08

Jesus said, "I have cast fire upon the world. And look! I am guarding it until it blazes."

Gospel of Thomas 10 (trans. DeConick)


David Creech said...

Dr. DeConick,
I was a bit intrigued by yesterday's conversation but I hesitated to join in. My question is this: You interpret saying 97 as a parable that has a rather straightforward meaning (which I can see in a context where it is assumed that the saying must have a meaning). In the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, however, the book opens with the assertion that the sayings are cryptic and difficult to understand. Does the gospel's statement of "authorial intent" in any way affect how we read the individual sayings? Does it present a challenge to your straightforward interpretation? If you' ve already answered this in one of your books, feel free to just reference me. Thanks!

April DeConick said...


Hi! Not at all. The parable interpretation I suggest is what Jesus may have intended had he said these words at all. As we can see, the early Christians loved to play with multiple meanings and searched the scripture, and I think also Jesus' words, for a hidden esoteric meaning beyond the obvious one. They thought that their scriptures had multiple meanings and it was their job to figure them out. They really didn't care so much about the "literal" or "obvious" meaning. They looked for moral and even spiritual interpretations. So they were always allegorizing and moralizing their texts in terms of hermeneutics.

lightseeker said...

We're on a GT roll, here, I love it. Light my (spiritual) fire! :D

The "fire" sayings of Jesus here, and in the canonical Gospels (Jesus would "baptize with fire"), remind me of verses 3:1-9 from the Jewish apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon (2nd-1st c. BC), where God's righteous people, who "in the time of their visitation they shall shine, and run to and fro like sparks among the stubble." I believe these are the *collective* Son of Man which Jesus predicted would arrive at the eschaton (not necessarily referring to himself as the Son of Man in this sense!) and who "shall judge the nations, and have dominion over the people, and their Lord [YHVH] shall reign for ever." The righteous "sparks" would burn up the "stubble" (destroy or convert them?) - with stubble the equivalent of the "chaff" and "weeds" referred to in the NT canon.

Jesus himself probably believed he was the fire-starter, tending and spreading that "fire of righteousness" until the arrival of YHVH's rule at the end-time, when the whole world would be ablaze with God's Light and Wisdom. In studying early Christian writings, we must keep in mind what Jewish religious concepts and writings were likely familiar and inspirational to Jesus and the earliest Christians (who were Jews/Israelites) before they even had their own "Christian" scriptures!

José Solano said...

Gospel of Thomas saying 10 is rather similar to Lk. 12:49: “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.” But in Luke it has an immediate explanatory context in vss. 50-53 that refer to the household divisions that will occur over His teaching.

The “simple” interpretation is that Jesus’ teaching is inflammatory. In the GT this comes up in saying 16 with lots of unrelated statements in between. So, taken out of context a person’s active imagination could derive all sorts interpretations from GT 10.

A plausible esoteric interpretation I leave for after I understand what is being simply said. After being comfortable with the simple understanding I do at times join those early Christians that Dr. DeConick talks about who “loved to play with multiple meanings and searched the scripture . . . for hidden esoteric meaning beyond the obvious one.”

New Age mentality and much gnosticism tends to do the opposite. They jump into the esoteric without understanding the obvious and actually disdain the simple. Esotericism and humility have a very difficult relationship.

lightseeker said...

Yes, GT 10 can be related to GT 16 in the sense that Jesus' teachings were inflammatory (and they were to many, esp. strictly Torah-observant orthodox Jews, Temple priests and Sanhedrin/leadership), and just as religious (and political!) beliefs today can divide families, they surely did then. When one changes one's thinking (the literal meaning of repentance) and way of life, one can alienate old friends and family who are unwilling or unable to change as well, even if it's for the best. Jesus was asking people to change, to evolve and grow beyond the old covenant and accept his "new covenant." Change comes hard in any age, and people cannot often see each others' points of view to comprehend why a person has changed and is behaving differently.

But in Lk 12:50, immediately following the fire saying, Luke has Jesus go on to say, "But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!" This clearly seems to relate more immediately back to the Baptizer's announcement (in Mt and Lk) that Jesus would "baptize with fire." Baptism, as practiced by John the Baptizer, was a cleansing (for the repentance of the sinful life to be left behind); Jesus built upon that understanding and also made it an initiation into the Kingdom of God. Like water, which purifies and symbolizes Spirit, fire also purifies and represents God's Light/righteousness/Wisdom/Love burning brightly in the hearts of His children (the righteous, those who do God's will, Jesus' followers). Fire purges the old/unclean and purifies; fire is also light, and in Mt 5:14 Jesus says "You are the Light of the World." (In that age, they sure didn't have electricity - light was a lamp/flame.) I think when you take Luke 12:49-50 together, *this* may be the simplest, most obvious meaning or interpretation of the fire saying (in GT or Lk).

I think it's important to look at similar metaphors that Jews in Jesus' time were familiar with. References to Light, and children of the Light, and ritualistic "tongues of fire" (reminiscent of those at Pentecost in Acts) are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, which also apparently were a strong influence on Jesus and early Christianity, in addition to the Wisdom of Solomon that I cited above.

Isn't it possible that Luke - a Gentile - might have missed the Jewish symbolism of "fire" beyond the mere sense of inflammatory teaching that threatened to tear families and a people apart (which may have been a cause for persecution, a big issue in the early Church)? In Luke, if one isolates Jesus' statement, in and of itself it has no relation at all to divisiveness. I hear a sense of urgency (as in Jesus felt the end-time was "at hand"), not divisiveness. For all we know, Luke could have been quoting Jesus out of context by adding dialog immediately following regarding dividing families! (Luke was not there taking dictation...) Maybe GT has these two sayings separated for a reason - perhaps they weren't related originally? The early core of GT (likely authentic sayings of Jesus, of which this fire saying, or some core version of it, such as the first phrase, is surely one) was probably composed around 50 CE, 30 years before Luke's. Something to ponder.... Which came first...???

I'm not saying the author of Luke or the Church's authority on how to interpret Jesus' saying is wrong, I'm just saying there were and are other ways that Jesus' symbolic words could have been interpreted by people, depending on their backgrounds and what other teachings/ideologies and scriptures they were familiar with. Jesus was a Jew, after all; most NT writings come 20 years or more after Jesus' death, so we need to look at Jewish writings at or before Jesus' time to put his words in a more appropriate context. Even if he was speaking to something entirely new, he still had to put his words in a context (rural parables, Jewish canon and apocryphal texts) which those people of his time would understand! Not a context that would come 20 or 50 years later (or even 200 years later with more extreme versions of Gnosticism - but by then the Church had also become "extreme" in its development of higher Christology, too - extreme is extreme in either direction).

IMO, it's rather judgmental to presume that any interpretation other than what is found in the NT canon and taught by the Church is the only proper "simple" and "obvious" interpretation and that anything else which delves a bit deeper is esoteric (and presumably arrogant, as Jose seems to imply. Judge not...). I believe when April states "early Christians loved to play with multiple meanings and searched the scripture," one can't discount the proto-orthodox, either - they, too, loved hermeneutics and scoured the scriptures to find esoteric meanings to explain the horrible death of their Messiah - Mk, Mt and Lk all contain evidence of this in terms citing OT scripture to support the idea that prophecy had been fulfilled in Jesus. If one only looks at the NT and its interpretations, it's as if one is regarding only the new treasures while ignoring the old... Offering plausible, alternative interpretations doesn't have anything to do with lacking humility or judging other interpretations as wrong. It's merely that: offering plausible alternate interpretations based on similar metaphors from that same period and Jewish culture in which Jesus himself lived.

Jesus felt the end-times were very near, coming any day. He had a sense of urgency with his mission to gather the righteous and convert sinners to repent and change their ways, to turn back to God and righteousness. Yes, his teachings were inflammatory, but it was his urgent desire to set the world on fire, to baptize everyone willing to hear him with the fire of purification and righteousness, and initiate them into the Kingdom of God, just in the nick of time before judgment day. I believe that is how Jesus saw his mission on Earth.

But judgment day didn't arrive as Jesus expected (oops?!) so as the years went on, like a wishbone, early Christianity evolved (devolved?) into 2 main streams of thought (with many groups and shades of gray in-between), each based on their own revised interpretations of Jesus' teachings (with sayings of their own added in on both sides of the wishbone). The one that had "mass appeal" socially and politically (and great marketing thanks to Paul) came to dominate and pointed a heretical finger at the other groups. But both had changed from "ground zero" - what Jesus originally believed/taught/preached. I believe neither stream of thought was wrong, but, 2-3 centuries later, neither the Gnostics nor the Orthodox Church was exactly right anymore, either. Now that we have available to us both sides of the story, or wishbone so to speak, it's up to us, realizing it's ALL religious propaganda, but trusting that, as they both were born from the same Source (Jesus as holy "ground zero"), there are gems of Truth to be gleaned from the writings of both branches of the early Christian wishbone.

Peace, Love and Light/FIRE! :-)

Frank McCoy said...

Th 10 is closely related to Lk 12:49:
Th 10, Jesus said, "I have come to cast fire upon the world, and see, I am guarding it until it blazes.”
Lk 12:49, I came to throw fire on the earth and how I wish if it was already kindled

In turn, Lk 12:49 strongly links to Mt 10:34 in that, in the original Greek, they share, "elthon balein…epi ten gen".

Mt 10:34, in its turn, is closely related to both Lk 12 51 and Th 16:1-2:
Mt 10:34, Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth. I have come not to bring peace, but a sword
Lk 12:51, Do you think that I came to bring peace on the earth? No, I tell you—but, rather, division.

Th 16:1-2, Jesus said, "Men think, perhaps, that it is peace which I have come to cast upon the world. They do not know that it is dissension which I have come to cast upon the earth: fire, sword, and war."

I suggest the theory that Matthew used Mk and Th as sources and that Luke used Mk, Th and Mt as sources. In this case, this is the scenario:
1. Th 10 and Th 16:1-2 are written
2. Matthew writes Mt 10:34, using Th 16:1-2 as a source, shortening and modifying it (note: if IQP is correct in suggesting that Th 16::2, in a Greek version, had the phrase, "elthon balein…epi ten gen", then, in this case, it is the source for Matthew's identical phrase in Mt 10:34--see The Sayings Gospel Q in Greek and English, student's edition, p. 126)

3. Luke wrote Lk 12:49 and 12:51. He primarily based 12:49 on Th 10, although also utilizing the phrase, "elthon balein…epi ten gen", he found in Mt10:34//Th 16:2.

He primarily based 12:51 on Mt 10:34 rather than Th 16:1-2.

This suggestion overcomes the great difficulty facing the Two Source Theory--which is to find a plausible solution for the puzzling situation of Mt 10:34 and Lk 11:49 sharing the phrase, "elthon balein…epi ten gen" (The frequent suggestion that there must have been a Q 11:49 is, IMO, inherently implausible because there is no parallel to Lk 11:49 in Mt and because of Ockam's Razaor--why hypothesise a passage without a shred of evidence it ever existed when we have a real passage at hand, i.e., Th 10?).

lightseeker said...

Hi Frank,

It's all Greek to me! ;-D

Seriously, though, your line of reasoning here (that both Mt and Lk used Th, along with Mk and/or Q) makes sense. Good thinking!

Frank McCoy said...

Hi Lightseeker;

Thank you!

To clarify, the theory proposed is that Matthew used Mk and Th as sources and Luke used Mk, Th and Mt as sources.

There was no Q. There was no Q community. In the beginning was the Jerusalem Assembly and it was divided into the Hebrews and the Hellenists. The Thomas community was founded by the Hellenists, the Markan community by the Hebrews. There was an early version of Mk in existence and an early version of Th in existence before the two communities came into contact with each other and their respective gospels. The Markan community reacted negatively to the early version of Th and Mk 15:40-16:8 is an appendix to the original Mk designed to counter a number of Thomasine beliefs, especially those encountered in saying 114--which was the close to the early version of Th. The Thomasine community was more accomadative and added a number of sayings to Th based on sayings they found in the early Mk. Matthew, coming later, used the already existing Mk and Th as sources. Mk was essentially the same as we now have it, but Th continued to grow even after Matthew read it, so the copy we possess of it is larger than the copy Matthew possessed.

José Solano said...

"Th continued to grow even after Matthew read it, so the copy we possess of it is larger than the copy Matthew possessed."

And what source did "Th" have for its growth?

Although some would like to imagine the GT is itself a sort of Q sourcebook that the canonical Gospels have drawn from and then embellished with additional material to make it more intelligible, I don’t accept this. It appears to me that GT is compiling material from recollections of those who might have attended “sermons” or talked to others attempting to reconstruct what Jesus said. They may have heard the Gospels read at churches or heard people years later talk about what they heard in such congregations. Copies of the Gospels were not common and during the first 20 years or so after the Resurrection they may not have existed. The records must come from word of mouth and of course the mouth from which the word comes is very important. If the person was an eyewitness or in the inner circle of Jesus or His disciples the reliability is much greater. The harmony, the corroboration, in the written records is an important factor to consider and there is little consistency in Gnostic texts related to what Jesus said that is not found in the canonical Scriptures leading one to suspect that it’s the Canon itself that is the “sourcebook.” The amount of material in the GT from the Gospels and the NT overall is so great that there is no reason to imagine that the GT writers were not familiar with them in one form or another rather than vice-versa.

lightseeker said...

"And what source did "Th" have for its growth?"

"The living Jesus." To the Thomasine Christians, "living" could refer to Jesus while he was in the flesh, but it also connotes that which is eternal - Spirit (i.e., Jesus' metaphorical refs even in NT to being alive vs. dead). And the Holy Spirit is available to all who seek it within themselves. The author of Jn (14:26) calls this "the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." The Holy Spirit is the inspiration, and if one believes in the dogma of the Trinity, then the Holy Spirit *is* Jesus - both are aspects of the one God. If one believes that God spoke through the prophets of old (as well as through Jesus), and the earliest Christians believed they were prophesying via the Holy Spirit, then one can be also be inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit in what one writes and says. This may be how the GT was "added to" later on, and it is no different than how the NT gospels were "added to" later on as well by well-meaning Church fathers/editors/redactors who made "corrections" or additions to older versions of the NT gospels. They felt inspired based on their beliefs that this was right and correct.

To claim that the GT "is compiling material from recollections of those who might have attended “sermons” or talked to others attempting to reconstruct what Jesus said," is utter one-sided nonsense. From 30 CE to at least 50 CE, it seems very little if anything was written down - it was ALL word of mouth. If the the earliest core of GT was compiled circa 50 CE, as some scholars believe, it most certainly could have come straight from eye-witnesses, including Didymos Judas Thomas to whom it is attributed! "Judas, who is also called Thomas" (Eusebius, H.E. 13.12) - Thomas is not really a name, it comes from the Aramaic word T'oma for "twin" - may have been one of Jesus' own brothers, who were closely involved in the early Jerusalem ekklesia (first led by Jesus' brother James). All versions of gospels, whether proto-orthodox or proto-gnostic, were claiming apostolic authority, i.e., an apostle as a direct source. Because Mk, Mt and Lk were composed/compiled (likely from several sources as Frank pointed out, including various oral traditions that were circulating) from about 65-70 CE (Mk) or even later (80 CE for Mt and Lk), it's not likely they are 100% from eyewitness testimony either. And as Dr. DeConick pointed out earlier, each gospel author wrote his narrative with a specific evangelical theme (which is certainly bias!) in mind - the gospels are not biographies. Just because it was the orthodox Church which "won" and their preferred gospels and writings became the only accepted Canon, and the Church claims these 4 gospels have apostolic authority doesn't necessarily make it true - no more true than say for the GT! When these debates were going on early among various Christian groups, they were ALL making claims within their own gospels as to who had the "real" authority as an eye-witness or Church leader. We can see this in GT 12 and 13 where James and Judas Thomas are championed. In the Gospel of Mary (9:8-9), in a dispute with jealous Peter (and Andrew), it is Mary Magdalene whom Matthew-Levi defends, saying, "But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us." This group looked to Mary as their leader (she was *the first* to see the risen Jesus!), not Peter. And of course, Mk and Mt look to Peter for their apostolic authority. Mt even goes so far as to put the words in Jesus' mouth that "upon this rock I will build my church" - most scholars would probably agree this was an addition by the Church (years after Jesus' death!) to assert Peter's leadership/authority over any others, these were not words Jesus originally spoke (it was likely never Jesus' intention to start a new religion! He was saving and gathering Jews for the arrival of God's rule and judgment at the eschaton!). In Jn, it is the mysterious "beloved disciple" who is favored over Peter (the identity of the BD has been suggested as Lazarus, Jesus' brother James, or even Mary Magdalene, but most scholars would agree, the BD/author of Jn was NOT John son of Zebedee, the apostle, as the Church traditionally claims). Even the author of Jn, writing around 90-100 CE when these feuds over authority were in full swing, makes a poke at Thomasine Christians, telling the story of "doubting Thomas" who had to see Jesus' wounds with his own eyes rather than believing on faith without seeing - an apologetic fabrication to defend the concept of bodily resurrection (which the earliest Christians may not have believed! Why is it the GT or the Didache ("Teachings of the Apostles" 50-120 CE; accepted by the Catholic Church, "by some of the Fathers as next to Holy Scripture.") contain nothing about Jesus' resurrection from the dead, nor any reference to the atonement doctrine, nor the Eucharist being the body and blood of Christ? If one is truly open-minded and willing to learn, one asks these questions.), and ALL early groups of Christians were jockeying for "apostolic authority." To believe that the NT gospels are any different, any more authentic, coming from eye-witness accounts (original apostles) that were more reliable than other early Christian writings - such as GT or Didache with early 50 CE dates - just because the Church traditionally tells us so, is naive and very one-sided, close-minded. This is why I attempt to read all gospels/writings with an open mind, aware that they were *all* written with bias one way or another during the early formation of various Christian theological ideas and beliefs. There was no "orthodoxy" early on.

I don't mean to knock one's faith or beliefs, but that is very likely the historical reality. There were MANY eye-witnesses to Jesus' activities, not just Peter, and therefore there were many stories being circulated orally, even bits written down here and there early on (GT, Didache, Q, Signs Gospel, Paul's letters, the Passion Narrative, etc.). I'm sure all of Jesus' apostles/disciples, including James, Judas Thomas, Mary and others from Jesus' close, inner circle, were telling others of Jesus' words and ministry during those early years from 30-50 CE - why should they not be as reliable eye-witnesses as was Peter? They were all human beings, each telling the story from his or her own (varying!) perspective. Science and courts of law realize witnesses each see the same event in different ways, yet honest testimony is accepted. The main reason the NT gospels were probably more popular as time went on is that they were written in a more readily accessible narrative form, period. It doesn't make them any more "authentic" than other written materials. Most people have just been taught by the Church to believe that, and it's what feels familiar, and therefore possibly "right" to them. The apocryphal writings, in general, aren't familiar and therefore may seem more strange (from a different perspective or way of thinking), but it doesn't necessarily mean that a gospel such as GT did not have its roots also in eye-witness, apostolic accounts of teachings of Jesus.

José Solano said...

Thank you Lightseeker for sharing your detailed opinions and testimony.

Though everyone is certainly welcome to respond to my question it was actually directed to Frank McCoy who made the statement about “Th” growth. My question again is, “And what source did “Th” have for its growth?”

As you see, Lightseeker says the “living Jesus” was its source. What do you think about that?

Frank McCoy said...

Jose Salano:

As far as I can tell, the only known written source for Th is Mk. The apparently Markan-based material is later than some parts of Th, but earlier than some parts as well. So, Mk was apparently used as a source after an early version of Thomas was already in existence, but before the final version of it was written. I am unable to determine whether the Markan material is a discrete stratum or whether it was added through a process of gradual accretion

José Solano said...

Thank you Frank McCoy for your plausible view of Th using Mark as a source. What you appear to be saying then is that Mark used Th in its early form but then after Mark was written the Th authors borrowed from Mark. This seems feasible to me. It helps fill something I felt was missing from your earlier comment in which nothing in Th was borrowed from any gospel. It moves in the direction I posit that GT borrows from the Gospels at least to some extent.

Are there other researchers that address how or allege that the GT may have borrowed from the Gospels?

Frank McCoy said...

Jose Solano:

What I maintain is not that Mark used an early version of Th as a source. Rather, he or someone else wrote an appendix to an original Mk that had ended at 15:39. Further, the purpose of the appendix, consisting of 15:40-16:8, was to conter some Thomasine doctrines, especially those in 114--which, contrary to popular opinion is early and closed out an early version of Th known to the Markan community.

In this appendix, Peter is glorified (16:7), while James the Just, the hero of the Thomas group (12) is summarily dismissed as James the Lesser (15:41). This appendix ends with the women fleeing the tomb in fear and failing to communicate a divine message to the male disciples--thereby "proving" that Peter was right in claiming that women do not deserve life (contrast Jesus' rebuke of this Petrine position in 114), etc. etc. I hope this makes my position clearer to you.

paulf said...

Lightseeker, I mostly agree with your views, but can I make a suggestion?

Shorter paragraphs! :)

lightseeker said...

Point well taken, Paul! Thanks. :-)

paulf said...

No problem, lightseeker, BTW, I'm interested in what you have read to come to your views. If you wish, send me an email at