It is easy to see when two texts are linked. It is much harder to determine which of the two came first. However, if one source is a metaphor and the other a literal miracle story, I think we can be confident that the metaphor came first. Recently, while working on my new book, I came across an example in which the Gospel of Thomas uses a metaphor which seems to have been converted into a literal miracle story in Matthew and Luke.
The example concerns Thomas 19:
Jesus said: “Blessed is he who was before he came into being. If you should be my disciples and listen to my words, these stones will minister to you. For you have five trees in Paradise which do not move summer and winter, and their leaves do not fall. He who knows them will not taste of death.”
The whole saying is enigmatic to say the least, but the key section for this post is highlighted in bold. It concerns the stones that will minister to the disciples. To minister in a literal sense is to supply with food and drink. But the saying clearly does not mean that Jesus is going to turn the stones into a magical vending machine. Instead, a metaphorical meaning must be intended. One who ministered in the Christian sense was a teacher who gave to his or her flock spiritual food and drink. It must be such spiritual sustenance that is going to come from “these stones”.
A further piece of evidence that supports a metaphorical interpretation is that Thomas 19 is linked to the incept of the Gospel. (I take the approach that Thomas 1 is part of the incept rather than a separate saying.) The incept starts with the “hidden words that the living Jesus spoke”, and ends with the promise: “Whoever finds the meaning of these words will not taste death.” Thomas 19 has “if you should … listen to my words” and ends with “He who knows them (the trees) will not taste of death”. This is a strong clue that we need to consider Thomas 19 in relation to the beginning of the Gospel, a clue which is reinforced by the previous saying, Thomas 18, which tells us to go back to the beginning.
This link suggests that the words that the disciples are intended to listen to in Thomas 19 are the same as the “hidden words” in the incept. But these “hidden words” are none other than the Gospel of Thomas itself! So Thomas 19 is promising that if Jesus’ followers listen to the Gospel of Thomas, “these stones will minister to you”.
Let us now look at the miracle that appears in Matthew and Luke. When Jesus is starving in the wilderness he is tempted by the devil:
And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, speak that these stones might become loaves of bread.” But answering he said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”(Matthew 4:3-4)
This is really quite close to Thomas 19. There are a number of similarities:
- The stones could be turned into loaves which Jesus could eat. So the stones would be “ministering” to Jesus.
- The miracle is to be effected by Jesus’ words, just as Jesus’ words cause the stones to minister in Thomas 19.
- The emphasis on words is confirmed in the statement that man will live “by every word that comes form the mouth of God.”
However, in Thomas we have a metaphor. The words that the disciples are to listen to in Thomas 19 are the Gospel of Thomas and not some magical formula that will physically turn stones into bread. So Thomas must come first with Matthew turning the metaphor into a literal miracle.
I don’t think that this Matthew story has used Thomas directly. But we can get from Thomas to Matthew with one intermediary step:
If you listen to the words of Jesus, then these stones will minister to you.
Jesus words can turn these stones into bread.
The devil tempts Jesus to speak words that will turn physical stones into physical bread.
So this is another example in which a Thomas saying is earlier than Matthew and Luke.