Is Gospel of Thomas a reaction to faith in Jesus’ miracles?

Recently I attended a workshop led by Emeritus Prof Bill Loader (as far as I know, he doesn’t actually blog, but here’s his website) on sexuality in the Bible. As part of the session on how we use the Bible, he said in passing that there is evidence in the New Testament that Jesus/the early church was uncomfortable with people who believed in Jesus simply because he performed miracles. This caused me to wonder whether the total absence of narrative in GThom might in fact be a reaction to this kind of faith, so I asked Bill for some more detail, which he kindly provided by email. He suggests that the relevant texts (all NRSV) are:

John 2:23 – 25: When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

and

John 3:1-3: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

which indicate a critique of faith based just on miracles, rather than being against miracles themselves. Also

John 4:48 (his comment to the royal official who asked Jesus to heal his sick son): Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

and

6:14-15 (the end of the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000): When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

and then

Matt 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

which suggests that there is more to faith than miracles and charismatic gifts.

Bill also suggests that Paul is doing the same kind of thing in 1 Cor 12 – 14, ie that he is putting the priority on love rather than the various ‘spiritual gifts’ and that ‘in a sense Mark puts things in perspective – not by denying miracles – but by portraying the way of the cross in contrast to the values of Peter who assumes winning and power matter’. In addition, Bill points to the warnings that believers need to be careful about testing spirits and teachers who claim authority on the basis of their ability to perform miracles. It occurs to me that Jesus’ instruction that people he has healed shouldn’t tell anyone about it (something they invariably ignore) could also be part of this.

Bill argues in his forthcoming book, Jesus in John’s Gospel, (Eerdmans, c. 2016) that John’s gospel contends that a miracle-focussed Christology is inadequate because it does not confess the one who came from above. [I hope it is clear that I am saying ‘Bill says’ to make it clear which bits of this post are his ideas and which are mine, rather than because I think that what he is saying is dubious.]

I wonder, then, whether Thomas’ gospel is also working against the idea that believing in Jesus as a miracle worker is adequate for salvation and does this by removing the distraction of accounts of the miraculous altogether.* John says that in order to see the kingdom, one needs to be born from above (Jn 3:3). Thomas says that finding the interpretation of Jesus’ sayings is necessary in order not to taste death (GThom 1).

Bill wondered whether the absence of miracles might just be a feature of the sayings gospel genre, because Q contains very few accounts of miracles but does contain references to Jesus’ miracles – such, I assume, as

Q 7:22 And [he] answered and said to them, Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk, lepers are made clean and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are given good news. (http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~kloppen/iqpqet.htm)

Of course, we don’t exactly have a huge number of examples of the genre to work on, but I don’t think it is a function of genre for two reasons. First, Q as generally reconstructed contains some accounts of miracles. Not as many as any of the Synoptics, but several. Second, although there is some mention of miracles in GThom, there is very little and it is all, I think, about miracles that Jesus’ followers will be able to do, rather than miracles that Jesus himself has performed, or about miraculous occurrences that will take place in the end times. For example, S4 talks about an old man talking to a 7 day old baby, but this is in the end times. There are also three Synoptic parallels/allusions: S14 says that if the disciples visit places where they are received they will heal the sick; S19 says that if people become his disciples, stones will minister to them; and S106 says that when you make the two one, you will become the sons of man and when you say ‘mountain, move away,‘ it will move away.

Thus it seems to me that GThom is not like Q in this respect, but perhaps having narrative is not an essential part of the genre. Regardless of the genre question, however, Thomas has no interest in miracles, nor, for that matter, in contextualising Jesus’ sayings in any way. And perhaps this is because he wants people to concentrate on Jesus’ teachings and not be distracted by the fact that he was a miracle worker. What do you think?

*A response to this in the Gospel of Thomas email forum has alerted me to the fact that this is poorly worded. I am not necessarily suggesting that the author of GThom removed accounts of miracles from a source text, simply that he felt that including accounts of Jesus’ miracles (and I am sure he was aware that Jesus was a miracle worker) would be a distraction from the ‘main game’ of gaining eternal life.

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One thought on “Is Gospel of Thomas a reaction to faith in Jesus’ miracles?

  1. Did not John’s Gospel emerge from a Signs Gospel source as its core? If so, then, the later additions of the redactor who cautions against miracle-inducing faith was trying to temper what was originally encouraged by the Signs Gospel, and is part of the inter-Johannine dialog. As for Thomas’ Gospel, I don’t know if he is anti-miracle as much as Thomas is verbally oriented and centered on mysteries more than the miraculous.

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