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Making Sense of Logion 114 in the Gospel of Thomas

11 May 2021 | Blog

Making sense of logion 114 in the Gospel of Thomas

 

Preliminary Comments

 

My suspicion about this final saying in the Gospel of Thomas is that something is missing. Something is not quite right about this dialog between Simon Peter and Jesus. It appears to be suggesting that the Jesus we came to understand and accept in the earlier sayings of this gospel has now changed his mind about his basic values. It inexplicably has this profoundly unconventional iconoclast now seemingly agreeing with Simon Peter that “women are not worthy of life.” He seems to be saying something else, too. This Jesus, who in Saying 22, proposes what looks like a non-dualistic approach for achieving the Kingdom, is, in this saying, supporting a common, prejudiced, and dualistic conception of human gender. How can that be?

Indeed, in its present form, saying 114 appears to present a Jesus who curiously abandons everything we previously knew about him. I speak specifically here of the Jesus of this gospel. In this saying, he appears to agree with Simon Peter when he asks him to exclude Mary from the company of the disciples. He says that she is “unworthy of life.” The impression is left that Jesus agrees with this extremely prejudiced and primitive first-century attitude. Thus, it is perfectly understandable if modern readers, both men and women, are shocked and appalled by this very strange saying.

My analysis of 114, however, builds on two observations. One is the fact, already alluded to, that this saying, as received in its present form, seems to recollect, at least in part, the same argument about gender identity that saying 22 advanced earlier. This is the contention that gender is a dualistic concept that must be abandoned in the mind before the Kingdom can be entered.  

Saying 22 says that “when you make the male and the female a single one, so that the male not be male nor the female female,” that particular block to the awareness of the “Kingdom of Heaven” in 114, is removed. Jesus calls this making “the two one.” In 114, the wording is a little different. In this saying, he asserts that “every woman who makes herself male” may become a “living spirit. As far as it goes, this suggests that to enter the Kingdom, every female must abandon her female identity. However, to be consistent with saying 22, after becoming male, she (or he) must abandon that identity, as well. Nevertheless, in this saying (114), the term “living spirit” is proposed as a more fitting identity for both men and women. The one identity replaces the two. So again, it is making the “two one.” Once more, we encounter this recurring theme in Thomas, this theme of non-duality, which I maintain, is the frame of reference or “cornerstone” of this gospel.

 

The philosophy of non-duality generally holds that separation of any kind is illusory and unworthy of God’s creation. For this reason, the word “extension” is perhaps a more accurate term for what is usually called “creation.” Additionally, for those non-dualists who also presume the existence of a deity, what is divine is neither male nor female, and neither are we. So, who are we? In non-dualism, we are the extension of everything that He is. That is to say, we are one with Him in every way. We are not a negation of what He is. We are not something separate from His love and exiled to a world of separation and death. Another way a non-dualist might explain this is that God’s love knows no limit. His loving embrace is neither conditional nor obstructed in any way–except by our unwillingness to accept it. This appears to be the spiritual assumption of this gospel.

So, in this saying (114), when Jesus proposes to Simon Peter that he will make Mary “male,” he surely would not have forgotten what he said in saying 22 on the same subject. In that saying, the point was made that the apparent dichotomies of male and female, inside and outside, and above and below should not be seen as encapsulating separate states. In that recognition, the seeming separation within each of these dichotomies ceases to exist, and only oneness remains. If “male not be male nor the female female,” then neither can exist. They are spirit–not two separate spirits but one “living spirit” in oneness with God. In 114, this is what Jesus appears to be getting at when he says, “I myself will lead her in order to make her male. . . .” However, he is only stating the first part of his thesis regarding females. The remaining detail about males, as asserted in saying 22, is curiously missing.

This brings me to my second observation. It is that a final clause seems to be missing from this saying (114). The crucial point of saying 22 is broached here but not fully presented. Therefore, we would expect that a final clause would do just that. It would convey the idea that not only must every woman make herself male, but every male (like Simon Peter) must make himself female. Of course, if each gender is mutually relinquished in this way, no gender would remain. The very idea of gender is seen as meaningless. It should be said that Jesus did not live in a time when surgery or hormone therapy could address gender problems. But would it have mattered? Male and female, to him, were simply empty concepts designed to separate man from man and man from God. As suggested in saying 22, the duality of male and female is the same duality experienced as inside and outside and above and below. In his vision, all such dualities are features of a world he calls a “corpse” in saying 56 and, therefore, are empty, without life, and meaningless.

Following these preliminary comments is a commentary on this saying from my book, The Hidden Gospel of Thomas: Commentaries on the Non-Dual Sayings of Jesus. In my restored version of this saying, I suggest an additional final clause that, although somewhat speculative, is less speculative than what other commentators have proposed. Such critics include those who say that this saying should be seen as reflecting a later development in the early Church when women’s participation in leadership positions was no longer welcomed. Therefore, they say, this saying is late, inauthentic, and should be dismissed. I support the less radical idea that if we focus our attention on this gospel alone, we find clear evidence that this Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas was not a narrow-minded person at all. He was an extraordinarily brave iconoclast and independent visionary. He believed passionately that dualities such as male and female were not only meaningless but obstructive to the awareness of man’s oneness with God.

So, after reading my commentary, what should one’s attitude be regarding this saying? The hate and misogyny displayed here should certainly disturb anyone with even the slightest sensitivity and respect for women. However, if my restoration of the final clause is accepted as reasonable, one might come away with quite a different feeling. The initial shock and anger would dissolve in relief and even amusement. Both the reader and Peter had been set up. In responding to Peter’s outrageous request, Jesus reveals only a portion of his stance on gender identity, expounded in saying 22. He tells him how he would lead Mary in order to make her male so that she might be a living spirit like males. He then says that “every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Notice that while seeming to agree with Peter, nothing he says contradicts his original thesis in 22. Yet, if he had stopped at this point, a crucial consideration would have been lost. Though missing from our Nag Hammadi version, that essential clause provides the mechanism by which Peter is mocked and his bias rejected. While we cannot be certain of its precise wording, that line should be something like this: “and every male who makes himself female will see the Father.” Imagine the look on Peter’s face when he learns from his rabbi that to enter the Kingdom, he must make himself female.

This is how this saying should logically end. In other words, both genders are negated, making room for man’s real identity as a “living spirit.” In this restored version, Peter and the reader, as well, are drawn into a trap. The bait is set, and whop! The steel claws of truth come smashing down on Peter’s and the reader’s expectations. This is a pattern we see throughout this gospel. Male and female are meaningless terms for a meaningless concept–that erroneous concept being that separation is God’s will. As I see it, it is inconceivable that the teacher who revealed this understanding in 22 and perhaps less directly in the other sayings should mindlessly string along with Peter when he denies his oneness. In truth, he denies not only his oneness with women but with all of life. In this dialog, Simon Peter needs to abandon not only his male identity but his identity as a body, a body separate from other bodies and from God (56 and 80). The message of this gospel is that we are all God’s “living spirit,” and such concepts as male and female are unworthy of who we are.

The following excerpt is reproduced from my book, The Hidden Gospel of Thomas: Commentaries on the Non-Dual Sayings of Jesus, published in August of 2020 by SilverWood Books Ltd, Bristol, UK. Copyright © William G. Duffy 2020. All rights reserved.

 

 

SAYING 114

 

(114) Simon Peter said to him, “Let Mary go forth from us, for women are not worthy of life.”
Jesus said, “Look, I myself will lead her in order to make her male, so that she too might become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

 

(114) Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary go forth from us, for women are not worthy of life.”
Jesus said, “Look, I myself will lead her in order to make her male, so that she too might become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and every male who makes himself female will see the Father.” (My restored version)

 

Some readers will no doubt object to my restoration of this saying, as seen above. Admittedly, there appears to be no evidence, external to this gospel, to justify this suggestion of an original, but lost, final clause. That clause reads, “And every male who makes himself female will see the Father.” Yet, as we now have it, the dialogue in this saying is so extreme in multiple ways that it seems to beg for a concluding statement that would bring it back within the wisdom parameters of Thomas. Without it, this saying depicts an attack on women by Simon Peter that is wholly inconsistent with this gospel. Not only is his comment about Mary hateful and discriminatory, but Jesus himself seems to share his general assumptions. His reply suggests that women are inherently unequal to men, as they alone require guidance to become “living spirits” resembling males. The saying, as we have it, does two things. It inadequately responds to the brutal dismissal of Mary and women in general. Secondly, it proposes the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven is a male enclave, requiring for admittance certain unidentified male characteristics.

Clearly, the culture of that time was patriarchal. The perception that males and females had vastly different attributes was widely accepted. In his book The Gospel of Thomas, The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, Marvin Meyer makes this point about female-to-male transformations in ancient literature:

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.[1]

Clearly there was a cultural penchant for such beliefs that saw women as less rational and therefore less capable of spiritual insights. The comment by Simon Peter, whether characteristic of the man himself or placed in his mouth for thematic purposes, fiercely reflects that bias. As for Jesus, it should be kept in mind that the central figure in this gospel is an extraordinarily independent thinker. Over and over we encounter him as an iconoclast and revolutionary visionary. In saying 14a he insists, “If you fast, you will give rise to sin for yourselves; and if you pray, you will be condemned; and if you give alms, you will do harm to your spirits.” And in 14b Jesus says, “What goes into your mouth will not defile you,” an audacious disavowal of the Jewish dietary laws. Such extraordinary dismissals or reinterpretations of what must have been sacred truths to his listeners reveal enormous insight and courage. Consequently, we cannot assume that he would freely align himself with the cruel, male-dominated attitudes of his day.

Moreover, as it stands, this saying contradicts Jesus’s earlier denial of male/female duality in saying 22. In that key logion, one cannot enter the Kingdom unless “you make the male and the female one and the same,” so that each loses its particular identity completely. That is not the same as saying that only females should shed their separate identities. It works both ways, equally for males and females. The message of 22 is not about exalting one gender over the other but of seeing such distinctions as meaningless. It is to abandon completely the belief that male and female are in any way separate in the eyes of God and, therefore, in the reality of the Kingdom.

Often overlooked in this saying is the phrase “living spirit,” used by Jesus to describe the essential, non-physical identity of the males, while hinting that females might be made living spirits as well. This choice of words would seem misplaced in this connection if indeed he took the notion of separate and distinct bodies seriously. In fact, “living spirit” would seem to be the identity he claims for those who are, in essence, one and undivided. What is going on here? It is characteristic of Jesus in these sayings to invite the disciples to think he is leading them in one direction while slamming the door on their expectations in a final provocative line (16, 23, 37, and 101). But even within this ploy, he shrewdly plants the idea of an all-encompassing “living spirit” as a clue as to where he is leading them.

With my suggestion of a restored final clause, not only is Simon Peter’s misogyny rejected, but the non-dualistic philosophy of Jesus is affirmed. The point of saying 22 is brought forward and dramatically applied. Some commentators have suggested that by making the female male, Jesus is suggesting some form of symbolic gender androgyny, but this is inconsistent with this gospel. Moreover, the phrase “living spirit” does not refer to someone having both male and female characteristics any more than does 22 refer to the blending of “outside” and “inside.” All such dualities, as understood by the Jesus of this gospel, are equally meaningless.

In the “Kingdom” there is no inside and outside, nor is there male and female. Therefore, the suggestion by Jesus that he will make Mary a male is, in fact, a scheme intended to set up his disciples for a decisive puncture of their egocentric thinking. The statement that “every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven” is cleverly counterbalanced and given new meaning by the proposed clause that “every man who will make himself female will see the Father.” The phrase “see the Father” was borrowed from saying 27, where finding the Kingdom is equated with seeing the Father. The stunning clash of these two statements is designed to remind the disciples of saying 22 and bring to mind again the central point of his message. That point is that only by making the “two one,” by completely embracing the oneness of creation, beyond any idea of separate gender identities, will his disciples enter the Kingdom of the Father.

If, as I propose, such a cut was made from the original saying, then, one should ask why this happened. The handiwork of this ancient scribe (or scribes) has been seen before. A few examples are 6, 74, 90, and 106. When his superficial reading of a saying found a word or phrase to be contrary to what he considered Jesus-like or appropriate, he would change or discard it. It was subsequently replaced by what he thought was a more fitting word or phrase. Here, the final clause of this saying, that “every man who will make himself female will see the Father,” was cut entirely. Unable to understand the implications of this line in relation to saying 22, he presumed it advocated homosexuality or, perhaps, castration. Consequently, this alarmed scribe erased the line completely, leaving us, indeed, with a very curious saying.

Because of the seemingly uncharacteristic and biased nature of this logion in Thomas, and because of the appearance of such bias in later Christian and Gnostic texts, many commentators have submitted that the entire saying was attached to this gospel at a later date and, therefore, not authentic. My response is less radical. I suggest that we save this saying with the recognition of my proposed conclusion. This is quite likely what this author had in mind. Not only does it restore wisdom to the saying in a typically Jesus-like fashion, but it also brings Thomas to a close in a way that is both humorously ingenious and consistent with this gospel as a whole.

 

 

[1] Marvin Meyer, The Gospel of Thomas, The Hidden Sayings of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992), 109.

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