The last post was about Mark Goodacre’s dating of the Gospel of Thomas to the 140s. He bases his dating on a single saying, Thomas 68, which he believes to be about the Bar Kokhba revolt that led to the final exile of the Jews from Jerusalem. But we will show that Thomas 68 has a spiritual meaning and has nothing to do with Bar Kokhba!
Here is the saying again:
Jesus said: “Blessed are you when they hate you and persecute you, and they do not find a place in the place where they persecuted you.” (Thomas 68)
I have marked the two occurrences of “place” because they represent two different Coptic expressions in the Nag Hammadi Codex II. The first occurrence of “place” is actually a Greek loan word, topos. Using Michael Grondin’s excellent interlinear translation tool, we can identify four other sayings that use this word:
The man aged in days will not hesitate to ask a little child of seven days about the place of life, and he will live. (Thomas 4)
His disciples said: “Show us the place where you are, for it is necessary for us to seek after it.” (Thomas 24)
You also, seek for yourselves a place within rest, so that you do not become corpses and be eaten. (Thomas 60)
The buyers and the merchants [will] not [enter] the places of my Father. (Thomas 64)
The “place of life” in Thomas 4 is a reference to the kingdom of heaven. Another expression for the kingdom in Thomas is “rest”, so the “place within rest” in Thomas 60 also means the kingdom. In Thomas 24 the disciples are talking to Jesus and yet he is not physically present. He is in a spiritual place that the disciples want to find. This spiritual place is the same as the “place of rest” and the “place of life”; it is also the kingdom.
Finally, in Thomas 64 we have the “places of Father” from which the merchants will be excluded. It is possible that “places of my Father” could be interpreted as the temple in Jerusalem, but the context makes it clear that this is not the case. It comes at the end of the parable of the feast, where the worthy citizens invited to the feast are too busy to come, so instead the feast is thrown open to the beggars and street people. The feast is a metaphor for the kingdom. So “the places of my Father” from which “buyers and merchants” will be excluded is not the Jerusalem temple but the kingdom of God. Those involved in commerce in this world are too busy to find the kingdom. (We actually find something very similar to this in Revelation, where those who buy and sell will be marked with the sign of the beast.)
So every other use of the word topos in Thomas is a reference to the kingdom of God, which in Thomas is a spiritual place. Then why should we interpret topos as meaning a physical place in Thomas 68 alone?
The Coptic expression used for the second occurrence of “place” in Thomas 68 is found in twelve other Thomas sayings and can mean either a physical or spiritual place. I believe that the use of two different expression is a play on two different meanings of ‘place”; the spiritual contrasted to the physical.
The Gospel of Thomas loves paradox and contradiction. It likes to set up a conflict within a saying that we can only resolve by interpreting one part physically, according to the standards of the world, and the other spiritually. In Thomas, the disciples are present physically in the world, but their true existence lies in the spiritual kingdom of heaven. They have no “place” in the world but a “place” in the kingdom. Their state is contrasted with the worthy citizens who refuse the offer of the feast. They live in this world but will have no place in the kingdom.
We find this idea that the disciples have no place in the world in a number of sayings. In Thomas 42, Jesus tells them: “Become passers-by.” In Thomas 86, Jesus says that the foxes have holes and the birds have nests but “the son of man has no place to lay his head and to rest.” In Thomas 21 the disciples are like those who live in a field that is not theirs.
We can see Thomas 68 as following this pattern but applying it to those who persecute the follows of Jesus. The persecutors have driven out the vagabond Jesus preachers from their “place”, meaning their houses, villages and towns. They, in turn, will be excluded from the “place” where the disciples are, meaning the spiritual kingdom of God. So those who live in the “place where they persecuted you” will “not find a place”.
The interpretation of Thomas 68 as relating to Jerusalem after Bar Kokhba shows the pit that conventional commentators fall into when dealing with Thomas. They do not “get” the Gospel, so they try to squeeze it into a framework that is familiar to them. We should instead understand the Gospel of Thomas on its own terms.