Re: [GTh] GTh and Hermeneutics
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From: "jd576" <lowens@...>
Sent: Monday, June 24, 2002 4:18 AM
Subject: [GTh] GTh and Hermeneutics
The Gospel of Thomas and the Hermeneutics of Vision
"These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which
Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down. And he said, 'Whoever finds the
interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.'"
The Gospel of Thomas offers in the first words of its existent
redaction a stunning hermeneutic challenge: "whoever finds the
interpretation of these sayings and will not experience death."
Modern intellect comes to this incipit devoid of a hermeneutic
tradition - a technique of interpretive reading - that grants entry
into the mystery vouchsafed to the hermeneus who "understood". In
response to the challenge of the text current academic studies fall
back upon "modern" tools of sociological analysis, conceptual
dissection of philosophical parallelisms, and intellectual
suppositions of obscuring stratifications. Some readers, discontent
with finding any consistent hermeneutic method, simply deny the
organic function of this incipit relative to the remaining logion:
in sum, they have no coherent meaning.
The question I pose is this: was there a tradition of
interpretation - a hermeneutic technique - implicit in early
transmissions of the Thomas tradition, and if so, is that hermeneutic
method accessible? Can we meet the challenge of the Thomas incipit?
I think it most likely that, for the author of GTh and the members of the
GTh community, the sayings attributed to Jesus in GTh had a coherent
meaning. So, if they appear incoherent in meaning to us, then this is most
likely because we are not interpreting them in the same fashion that they
I also think it most likely that they had what you call a tradition of
What I find most significant in this regard is that there is no indication,
in GTh, that Jesus ever imparted to his disciples the information they
needed to interpret his sayings.
Even Thomas doesn't seem to have been given this information. He informs us
that those who do understand these sayings will not taste death. He is
uniquely given the knowledge of three mysteries. But he is *not* given the
information needed to properly understand the sayings of Jesus to be found
According to the members of the GTh community, then, who was/were the
person/ people to whom was/were revealed the information needed to properly
understand the sayings of Jesus to be found in GTh?
.I. The Mysterious James
12. The disciples said to Jesus, "We know that you are going to leave
us. Who will be our leader?" Jesus said to them, "No matter where
you are you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and
earth came into being."
Logion 12 offers an entry point to my thesis. This reference to
James among the Gospel of Thomas sayings stands out as strange or
incongruous. If the text underwent the many strata of redaction so
often suggested, and if those redactions had intent of conforming the
text to theological and sociological views of a period following the
first century, then why is this reference to James retained? One
correspondent recently suggested it be taken as "ironic". Though
this seems unlikely, the comment well reflects the logical
disjunctions we must meet in understanding logion 12.
*Why* are they to go to James the Just after Jesus ceases his earthly
My suggestion is that they are to go to James the Just because it is he to
whom will be revealed the knowledge needed to properly interpret the sayings
That is to say, I suggest, the GTh community understood, James the Just was
the originator of the tradition of interpretation they used in interpreting
the sayings attributed to Jesus in GTh.
Compare the Second Apocalypse of James (55), where Jesus tells James:
For you are an illuminator and a redeemer
of those who are mine,
and now of those who (are) yours.
You shall reveal (to them),
you shall bring good among them all.
You [they shall] admire
because of every powerful (deed).
You are he whom the heavens blessed.
As can be seen, according to the author of this Nag Hammadi text, James was
a revealer for the first followers of Jesus: with what he revealed to them
enabling them to be redeemed, i.e., enabling them to have immortality.
Further, this gave him a unique status as "he whom the heavens blessed."
(Compare GTh 12, where a similarly unique status is accorded to James).
What, though, did he reveal that enabled the first followers of Jesus to
Here, I think the introduction to GTh gives the vital clue--for, it states,
he who understands the sayings of Jesus will not taste death, i.e., will
have immortality.. So, I think, the understanding of the author of the 2nd
Apoc. was that James revealed to the first followers of Jesus the
information they needed to properly understand the sayings of Jesus and, so,
to not taste death.
II. Jewish Apocalyptics
Regardless of where one puts Jesus of Nazareth in an historical
context, he became the nidus around whom a new religion
crystallized. Jesus came at a moment ripe for renewal: he appeared
at the kairos, the auspicious moment - he was anointed Christos by
this kairos of his apparition. The first century was a "super-
saturated" solution - a cauldron replete of spiritual longings,
dissolutions, and illusions - awaiting the nidus that would initiate
new formation. It was an apocalyptic age - a time of new visions and
myths - into which Jesus walked. Mythopoetic vision was, I must
emphasize, not the idiosyncratic provenance solely of a
later "Gnosticism". The development over the prior centuries of
the Enoch tradition provides one evidence among many of this
visionary, mythopoetic trend in Jewish culture. The corpus of
writings found at Qumran collectively reveals the burgeoning
religious creativity of the age.
As every reader of this forum should understand, the spiritual and
social landscape of early first century Palestine is far too complex
to be characterized by simplistic categorical "pigeon-holes" of
ideology. Nonetheless, it appears very likely that Jesus' proclaimed
initiator - John the Baptist - and several of his first disciples had
links to a broad milieu of Jewish apocalyptic traditions represented
by groups such as the Essenes. (Eisenman even suggests in a very
argument that the early Jesus movement was essentially contiguous
with the Essene tradition.) Individuals in this milieu of spiritual
formation were not just fomenting political renovation of the Jewish
state. They were awaiting a vision of the divine hand touching
earth, and of the human rising up to touch the throne of God. This
event was to be mediated through a Teacher of Righteousness, a
Zaddik. As the Thanksgiving Hymn (from the Dead Sea Scroll
collection) reads, "But Thou, O my God, hast put into my mouth as
showers of early rain for all who thirst and a spring of living
waters.. Suddenly they shall gush forth from the secret hiding
places." (Logion 108 vaguely echoes this same image, "Whoever
drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that
person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him.") Through the
touch of God upon man, living waters would come to those in thirst.
In this broad cultural setting there was a spiritual longing that
sought after the living water of a human-divine communication. It
sought after - and claimed reception of - revelation, vision, and
prophecy. From experience of the visions vouchsafed these seekers
there came new myths.
Documents found at Qumran evidence the production in Judaism of a
diverse a new corpus of sacred text, much of which was clearly
apocalyptic in nature. Theodor Gaster implies in his The Dead Sea
Scriptures in English Translation that experiences spoken of in the
Scroll of Hymns are genuine mystical experiences. To call these
traditions "mystical", however, is perhaps too ambiguous. I suggest
the word "visionary" as more appropriate: These were apocalyptic
In "Oral and Written Sources in Mark 4:1-34" (New Test. Stud., vol. 36,
1990), Philip Sellew refers (p. 255) to what he calls "the apocalyptic
tradition of dream and vision interpretation."
Lance, you might find the schema of development he proposes for this
tradtion useful in pursuing studies along the lines of thought you give
He sees this tradition first arising in ancient Jewish literature. He
states (p. 255), "H.-J. Klauck has argued....that Mark 4. 14-20 fits within
an established convention of ancient Jewish literature, which, following the
work of A. L. Oppenheim, he terms 'the prophetic-apocalyptic schema of dream
(or vision) interpretation'. This ancient Near Eastern pattern is found n
Israelite texts as early as the stories of Joseph as a wise interpreter of
Pahraoh's dreams (Genesis 37). It appears more frequently in prophetic
works like Jeremiah, Amos, or Ezekiel to interpret the prophet's visions,
and especially in apocalyptic literature such as I Enoc and the Book of
He sees a second stage of development in which the explanation of the dream
or prophetic vision is normally given by a heavenly revealer. So, he (p.
256) states, "From the period of Ezekiel 40-48 the explanation is
customarily fiven by an *angelus interpres*, and by the time the 'heavenly
tour' of the seer becomes an established convention in apocalyptic, the
pattern of didactic dialogue is formulaic: the visionary sees (or hears)
something, asks about its meaning, and has it interpreted by the revelatory
He sees (p. 257) a third stage of development at Qumran in which the mystery
item is frequently a scriptural passage (or, even, a single word in a
scriptural passage) and in which the explanations are given by people like
the Teacher of Righteousness.
In this stage of development, those who give the interpretations learn of
through revelation. So, in 1QpHab (VII), it is said, "And God told Habakkuk
to write down that which would happen to the final generation, but He did
not make known to him when time would come to an end. And as for that which
He said, 'That he who reads may read it speedily': interpreted this concerns
the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the mysteries of
the words of His sevants the Prophets."
What I propose is that, in the GTh community, we have a fourth stage in the
development of the apocalyptic tradition of dream and vision
In this fourth stage, one modificaion is made to the third stage. That is,
the mystery item is changed from a scriptural passage to a saying of Jesus.
As a result, for the GTh community, the sayings of Jesus became mysteries.
Further, just as the Teacher of Righteousness was, in the eyes of the
members of the Qumran community, the primary revealer of the knowledge
needed to understand the scriptures, so James the Just/Righteous became, in
the eyes of the members of the GTh community, the primary revealer of the
knowledge needed to understand the sayings of Jesus.
Too, note that in the passage above from a Dead Sea scroll, God tells
Habbakuk what to write down, but doesn't reveal to Habakkuk the meaning of
what he is to write down: this revelation, rather, being given later to the
Teacher of Righteousness. Similarly, I suggest, the understanding of the
GTh community is that Jesus directed Thomas to write down his sayings, but
did not reveal their meaning to Thomas: this revelation, rather, being given
later to James the Just/Righteous.
III. The Sophianic Tradition
I have been most appreciative of Frank McCoy's wonderful expositions
of Philo and the Wisdom tradition in relation to Thomas. (My file
of "posts to keep" is dominated by Frank's comments.)
Thomas properly into the context of the Sophianic (Wisdom) tradition
requires, however, a consideration of the mythic domain of Sophia as
she was developing in the age of Jesus: She was - for the first
century - emphatically not just a philosophical concept, but a
divine hypostasis of implied feminine gender with whom the seeker
This is true, but I think it important to note that, in first century CE
Judaism, she is also sometimes a body of knowledge and also sometimes a
spiritual realm. In GTh, I think that the Spirit is Wisdom as a divine
hypostasis and that the Kingdom is Wisdom as a spiritual realm.
Lance, my response to your very important post is already getting very long,
so I'm not going to respond to the rest ot.it.
In closing, I think you are absolutely "right on" in emphasising the
importance of us trying to uncover the tradition of interpretation used by
the GTh community.
I think it is much more difficult to "excavate" GTh to uncover early layers
of tradition if we fail to, first of all, understand it as it was understood
by the GTh community.
Also, I think, in understanding the evolution of early Christian thought,
especially in the branch(es) of Christianity that led to Gnosticism, an
understanding of GTh as it was understood by the GTh community would be of
great benefit to us.
1809 N. English Apt. 17
Maplewood, MN USA 55109
- (Frank McCoy)
*Why* are they to go to James the Just after Jesus ceases his earthly
I have never heard the consideration brought forth that this could be not just James as the go to, but James at the Apostle's villiage. Pardon me if I'm stuck on this fascination of the 8 year window of opportunity that early Christians had for development here, but it seems so logical. After the meeting on the Mt. Olive(s) referred to in Acts 38-47, the Apostle's, had from the start of the Villiage to 41 CE(?) to form their first followings. Some had left the original villiage and started followings in places like Damascas.
The meeting in 41 was to decide on the Pauline rifts we have talked about. It was decided that Gentiles did not need to conform to Jewish laws.
Probability math suggests that the first thousand people recruited into the villiage system multiplied by whatever literacy rate you can come up with points to written works being produced within these groups. Gospels are the primary tool of evangelism which makes it seem likely that they started here.
Would it be out of line to claim the roots of Thomas started at the Apostle's villiage, circa 41 CE? After all James was leading the Villiage after Peter left. I am seeing it as ground zero for Christian traditions but I could be romanticizing its importance. If not this place and time seems a very likely place to claim the beginning of Gospels.
Platter Flats, OK
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