Week 3: New Testament Parables

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Background Reading (2): The Gospel of Thomas

Depending on the week's assignment, you may have several pages of Background Reading. This week, you have THREE PAGES of Background reading.

  1. Parables and the Synoptic Gospels
  2. The Gospel of Thomas
  3. Terms and Definitions

The Gospel of Thomas: Parables with No Frame

In addition to the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, I have provided a set of readings from the Gospel of Thomas, which is one of the most fascinating discoveries of the twentieth century. The Gospel of Thomas is a very early Christian text, probably roughly contemporary with the Gospel of John. Many of the same parables that are found in Matthew, Mark and Luke occur in Thomas, but with this very important difference: the Gospel of Thomas does not frame the sayings and acts in any way! That makes the Gospel of Thomas a very interesting text for this class: the Gospel of Thomas shows us what happens when the parables are presented by themselves, without any kind of frame at all. As you will see, that creates a very different kind of experience for the reader.

The Gospel of Thomas is one of the documents that was discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The Nag Hammadi "library" as it is sometimes called is a collection of 13 codices (books) which contains 50 different texts that belong to early Christian traditions which were later suppressed by the Church. They are "non-canonical" texts, meaning that they were not included in the Bible that was assembled and officially sanctioned by the Church. So, while there are four "canonical" gospels that were included in the New Testament (the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John), there are many other gospels that were shared by early Christian communities, but which were later excluded from the canon. The Gospel of Thomas is one of those non-canonical gospels.

If you are familiar with the canonical gospels but have not read the Gospel of Thomas before, you may find the experience rather odd. The Gospel of Thomas contains many of the parables that you know already, but it also contains many sayings of Jesus will will be totally unfamiliar. There is no clear organization to the way that the materials in the Gospel of Thomas are arranged, which makes it even more confusing and strange. For example, here is a typical passage from the Gospel of Thomas where a familiar parable appears side by side with some very unusual sayings of Jesus:

Jesus said, "Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human."

And he said, "The person is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among them the wise fisherman discovered a fine large fish. He threw all the little fish back into the sea, and easily chose the large fish. Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!"

Jesus said, "Look, the sower went out, took a handful (of seeds), and scattered (them). Some fell on the road, and the birds came and gathered them. Others fell on rock, and they didn't take root in the soil and didn't produce heads of grain. Others fell on thorns, and they choked the seeds and worms ate them. And others fell on good soil, and it produced a good crop: it yielded sixty per measure and one hundred twenty per measure."

This parable of the sower is one of the parables that is also found in the Matthew, Mark and Luke - so it is not surprising to find it here in Thomas. As you will see in the readings, when Jesus is shown telling this story in the canonical gospels, he is also shown providing an interpretation of the story - something that is missing here in Thomas.

The parable of the wise fisherman is not as well-known as the parable of the sower, but it fits the typical pattern of a parable, and it even contains a formulaic expression that is often associated with the parables of Jesus: "he who has ears, let him hear!" Yet what exactly is the meaning of this parable: who does the wise fisherman represent? who are the little fish? who is the large fish? Without a frametale to provide some context, it is difficult to say what this parable means. (Perhaps in your story retelling this week, you will invent a context for the parable of the wise fisherman so that you can give your own interpretation of the parable!)

And then there is the lion: "Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human." Humans eating lions? Lions eating humans? This is not the kind of stuff that is familiar from the other gospels, but it is typical of the themes and concerns that are found in Thomas. Thomas is a very mystical text. There is a sense that the meanings may be very deeply hidden, and that only people with special spiritual insight can hope to understand these cryptic meanings. You may have heard the term "gnostic," which is a term that is often applied to the Gospel of Thomas. The word gnostic is derived from the Greek word "gnosis," meaning knowledge. The Gospel of Thomas often seems to be speaking about a kind of hidden knowledge, which is partially revealed in the words of Jesus, but also partially concealed.

In a sense, all parables are gnostic, because they have a double meaning. Yet when a parable is put inside a frametale, and given a clear application or interpretation, then it is no longer mysterious. In the Gospel of Thomas, there is no frame, so the parables may appear more mysterious than they do in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In the readings for this week, the passages from the Gospel of Thomas come first. As you read through these stories without any kind of frame, try to pay careful attention to how you react to these stories. How do you interpret them? What kind of frame do you put around the story as you try to understand it? You can then compare that experience of reading to the experience of reading the stories "framed" in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The experience of reading the stories first in Thomas should give you a new sense of how the frametale device is used pervasively throughout the canonical gospels.

  1. Parables and the Synoptic Gospels
  2. The Gospel of Thomas
  3. Terms and Definitions

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM