April DeCornick’s book, The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, is a tremendous resource. It is a mine of information about the sayings in Thomas. But I am less keen on some of her translations.

Recently, I have been working on Thomas 72 as part of a new book on the structure of Thomas. This saying is unusual because Jesus responds to a question with an ironic counter-question; usually he responds with a statement. Indeed, it has even been seen as a rare example of humour in early Christian writings. I am not so sure about the humour, but we can be confident about the irony.

The saying starts with a man approaching Jesus to ask him to tell his brothers to “divide” their father’s possessions with him. Ostensibly the saying is about someone who has died and whose sons are now arguing over their inheritance. Jesus’ reply is a clever refusal:

He said to him: “O man, who made me a divider?” He turned to his disciples. He said to them: “I am not a divider, am I ?”

The key here is a play on the word “divider”. The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas comes to unify, not divide. See, for example, Thomas 22, where to enter into the kingdom the upper must be made like like the lower, the outside like the inside, and the male and female into a single one. Jesus has come to make whole what has been divided, to restore the children of Adam to their original state in the first creation.

The Gospel of Thomas, however, loves contradiction. In Thomas 16, Jesus says that he has come to cast divisions on the earth  – so Jesus is a divider after all!  Jesus’ irony in Thomas 72 is double-edged.

All of which is lost in DeCornick’s translations. She notes the word “divider” could be used to mean the person who divided up an inheritance, what we would call an “executor” today. So she translates Jesus’ reply as “Mister, who has made me an executer?” and “I am not an executor, am I?

This destroys all the irony and sub-text of the saying. Jesus is certainly not an executor, is he?