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Response to SarahM32 (Reply #9)

Thu Sep 27, 2012, 11:45 AM

15. Sorry to Miller Your Thread, Sarah,

I don't know what I was thinking in discussing the fragment.

I agree with you about how the virgin birth and similar stories developed. However, because so much of the material on Jesus' life comes from groups who simply made things up, it is usually difficult to know what traditions to give weight to. In particular, gnostic references to Mary Magdalene may be simply attempts to incorporate a wisdom figure into Christianity:


The most interesting references are from the Gospel of Thomas. As you know, there is no consensus on whether Thomas is early and independent or 2nd-century and dependent on canonical material. If it's early and independent, that would give a lot of weight to the depiction of Mary Magdalene. If it's a late gnostic document, probably not so much.

Those strange variations of traditional gospel sayings and parables could be the original forms of those sayings. However, texual analysis suggests that when comparing two versions of a text, the stranger or more embarrasing one is usually preferred. This is based on the idea that it's more likely for a text to be made palatable to a mass audience ("So the last will be first, and the first will be last" rather than for a straightforward text to be made baffling ("For many of the first will be last, and will become a single one". However, that principle may not hold if the provenance of Thomas was a gnostic group immersed in secrecy and symbolism -- they might have liked making things confusing to create a sense of mystery and give their own interpretation to intitiates.

Personally, I have gone both ways on this issue. While it's certainly intriguing to have a early document with a strikingly different depiction of Jesus, Thomas may turn out to not to as early as it might look. Furthermore, the existing text of Thomas might have been changed like the rest of the Bible, with some parts early and some parts late. It may not even have a consistent viewpoint.

The reference to James is especially intriguing, since James did become the leader of the movement after Jesus died:

Thomas 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."

On the other hand, James was a legal purist and the leader of what Paul called the circumcision party. If Thomas was written by a a follower of James, it's very odd that it also contains anti-circumcision sayings:

Thomas 53. His disciples said to him, "Is circumcision useful or not?"
He said to them, "If it were useful, their father would produce children already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become profitable in every respect."

So I think unfortunately that it's likely that Thomas is at least a heavily modified version of Jesus' sayings and may not represent a more original view of Jesus' words. That at least calls into question the material on Mary Magdalene.

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