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Thomas 79 - Luke, Isaiah and the Virgin birth

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  • Stephen
    This posting considers Thomas saying (79). It attempts to reconstruct the original form of this saying and to show how Luke has used this original saying. We
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 29, 2004
      This posting considers Thomas saying (79). It attempts to reconstruct the
      original form of this saying and to show how Luke has used this original
      saying. We can then see how the reconstructed saying may have related to a
      passage at the beginning of Isaiah 54 that was vital to the early Christian
      movement. The virgin birth story could have derived from the Thomas saying.

      The saying is -

      "(79) A woman in the crowd said to him: Blessed is the womb which bore you,
      and the breasts which nourished you. He said to [her]: Blessed are those who
      have heard the word of the Father (and) have kept it in truth. For there
      will be days when you will say: Blessed is the womb which has not conceived,
      and the breasts which have not given suck."

      There is clearly something wrong with this saying as it stands. The first
      thing that jars is the apocalyptic message of the second half of the saying,
      "For there will be days.." so untypical of Thomas.

      A careful reading shows a problem with the structure of the saying itself.
      The saying starts with the traditional formula "Blessed is the womb which
      bore you, and the breasts which nourished you". The mother of a prophet or
      hero is herself blessed and it is an utterance that could very believably
      come from a woman who is a mother herself. As always Jesus then corrects
      the misapprehension of those who question him - "He said to [her]: Blessed
      are those who have heard the word of the Father (and) have kept it in
      truth". At this point the saying should be over! This last statement
      requires no explanation and answers the first point. But instead the saying
      continues "For there will be days when you will say: Blessed is the womb
      which has not conceived, and the breasts which have not given suck". Why
      has this extra statement been added and what does it mean? It appears to
      add additional comment to the second statement "Blessed are those ..". So
      it seems to be saying that a person should keep the word of the father
      because the apocalypse is coming.

      This is all very un-Thomas! The reason for this is that, as has long been
      realised, the saying is a combination of two sayings from Luke:

      "And it came to pass, as he spoke these things, a certain woman of the
      company lifted up her voice, and said to him, Blessed is the womb that bore
      you, and the breasts which you have sucked. But he said, Yea rather,
      blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it." {Luke 11 27:29}

      The second is in response to the lamentations of women as Jesus is lead to
      the cross:

      "But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me,
      but weep for yourselves, and for your children. For, behold, the days are
      coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs
      that never bare, and the breasts which never gave suck." {Luke 23 28:29}

      So has Thomas merely copied two sayings from Luke? The argument against
      this is that the two parts of the Thomas saying fit so well together.
      "Blessed is the womb which bore you, and the breasts which nourished you"
      and "Blessed is the womb which has not conceived, and the breasts which have
      not given suck" are clearly a pair that belong together as thesis and
      antithesis. The two sayings are also linked in Luke because the first
      saying is immediately followed by apocalyptic warnings and the second is the
      start of an Apocalyptic passage.

      It would appear that an original saying in Thomas has been split into two
      sayings by the author of Luke. At a later stage the original Thomas saying
      has been corrupted by the addition of material from Luke. We can
      reconstruct the original Thomas saying by taking away these additions:

      ****************
      Reconstructed 79 -

      A woman [in the crowd] said to him: Blessed is the womb which bore you, and
      the breasts which nourished you. He said to [her]: Blessed is the womb which
      has not conceived, and the breasts which have not given suck.
      ***************

      When the author of Luke split this into its components the first half
      required a new ending. The author of Luke did not have to look far for it.
      There is another saying in Thomas:

      "(99) The disciples said to him: Thy brethren and thy mother are standing
      outside. He said to them: Those here who do the will of my Father, these are
      my brethren and my mother; these are they who shall enter into the kingdom
      of my Father."

      The author of Luke had interpreted this saying already:

      "Then came to him his mother and his brethren, and could not come at him for
      the press. And it was told him by certain which said, Thy mother and thy
      brethren stand without, desiring to see thee. And he answered and said unto
      them, My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God, and do
      it." {Luke 8 19-21}

      So the author of Luke takes almost exactly the same ending and applies it to
      another saying which also concerns the mother of Jesus. The second part of
      the Thomas saying, the one that is spoken by Jesus, he moves to the speech
      that Jesus gives on the way to the crucifixion when he prophesises the
      coming destruction of the temple.

      At a later time when the Gospel of Luke had become more popular than Thomas
      the original saying was adjusted by adding Luke's changes. Perhaps these
      additions were originally a marginal note to elucidate a saying that by then
      had become incompressible.

      But what does the reconstructed original mean? A clue may come from Isaiah.
      Isaiah 53 ends with this passage on the 'man of sorrows' -

      "He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his
      knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their
      iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he
      shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul
      unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin
      of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."

      The very next passage at the start of Isaiah 54 is this -

      "Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry
      aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of
      the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord."

      We see a direct connection with the reconstructed Thomas - 'blessed is the
      womb that has not conceived ..' links to the barren one who does not travail
      with child!

      The Isaiah passage seems to have originally referred to Zion. But what is
      relevant here is the analogy read into it by the early Christians. That it
      was important for the early Christians is shown by its use by Paul who
      quotes it in Galatians 4:27. He compares the barren one with the Jerusalem
      above that is free -

      "But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
      For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and
      cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than
      she which hath an husband."

      Paul's Jerusalem above which is the mother of us all could be a reference to
      Wisdom. So one explanation of the reconstructed Thomas saying is that Jesus
      rejects his earthly mother in favour of his true mother Wisdom. This
      explanation does seem to tie in with another Thomas saying (101).

      Yet the reconstructed Thomas saying also suggests a much more radical
      interpretation. That Jesus is not just rejecting his physical mother but
      the whole concept of his physical birth. The 'womb that has not conceived'
      would in this case refer to a real woman who was the 'mother' of Jesus.
      This ties in with Paul telling us at the beginning of 4 Galatians that "God
      sent forth his son, come of woman, come under the law ..". Paul does not
      use the word 'gennao' we would expect him to use for a physical birth.
      Instead he uses 'ginomai' meaning 'to come into existence', 'come to pass',
      'to arise'. Like Thomas Paul is telling us that Jesus has come
      non-physically through a woman.

      We can see a link here with docetism and in particular the reports from
      Hyppolitus, Tertullian and others of Gnostic beliefs that Jesus has been
      born non-physically through Mary.

      Whatever explanation we accept it is easy to see how the Thomas saying could
      have given rise to the virgin birth story. The saying is rejecting a normal
      physical birth in favour of 'a womb that has not conceived'! It could be
      that this is simply intended to be a rejection of his earthly mother in
      favour of his spiritual mother Wisdom, or it may be that Jesus has come
      spiritually through a woman. In either case the virgin birth story could
      have been a misunderstanding of (79).

      It is also interesting that in the Isaiah passage we can see other elements
      that could have given rise to the Virgin Mary story. A few lines down it
      continues -

      "Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for
      thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget the shame of thy
      youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more. For
      thy Maker is thine husband; the LORD of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer
      the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called. For
      the LORD hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a
      wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God."

      We see that God is the true husband of the barren woman - a possible link
      to Mary conceiving through the Holy Spirit. Also the 'shame of thy youth'
      and the 'wife of youth' who was forsaken temporarily could have given rise
      to the idea that Joseph rejected Mary when she was pregnant.


      Stephen Peter
      -----------------------------------------------
      Was Christianity founded by a woman?
      www.bridalchamber.com
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