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  • Apocalypticism or Prophecy and the Problem of Polyvalence:Lessons from the Gospel of Thomas
  • Stephen J. Patterson

Since its discovery in 1945 and subsequent publication in 1956, the Gospel of Thomas has played an increasingly important and sometimes controversial role in the discussion of Christian beginnings.1 Among the most important developments [End Page 795] associated with the entry of this new Gospel into the discussion is the reconsideration of the once (and for the most part, still) regnant view that early Christianity was fundamentally an apocalyptic movement. In the Gospel of Thomas we find an interpretation of the Jesus tradition that, on the one hand, is more sapiential than apocalyptic and, on the other, relies on Jesus' sayings that are, from a form-critical point of view, often more primitive than their Synoptic counterparts. This peculiar combination of factors makes Thomas an outlier to the story of Christian beginnings that was accepted for the most part without question a generation ago and, for this reason, a flashpoint both for advocates of the new view and defenders of the old. Still, the discussion of the Gospel of Thomas itself has not yet produced a consensus about the role of apocalypticism in this Gospel. Some assume that Thomas is utterly devoid of apocalypticism, while others believe that it is fundamentally an apocalyptic document. In this study I wish to shine a light on this unresolved question in hopes of bringing a measure of clarity to an unresolved problem. In it I will show that, while Thomas is not entirely devoid of apocalyptic language and imagery, those who argue for a great deal of apocalypticism in Thomas do so on the basis of prophetic sayings, whose polyvalent quality permits one to read them in a variety of ways. In the Synoptic tradition, they often occur in contexts that harness them in the service of an apocalyptic worldview. But this apocalyptic use of prophetic sayings in the Synoptic tradition is for the most part not mimicked in the Gospel of Thomas. Rather, Thomas offers these sayings in contexts that cast them in an entirely different light.

I. Apocalypticism in the Gospel of Thomas?

Are there apocalyptic sayings in the Gospel of Thomas? Helmut Koester could be said once to have thought so. In his 1968 essay "One Jesus and Four Primitive Gospels," he observes that Thomas contains "a number of apocalyptic sayings," and he then goes on to illustrate the point by listing all the sayings in which the term "kingdom" occurs.2 However, careful attention to Koester's observations reveals an important nuance to his argument. In searching for a place to locate Thomas's peculiar eschatological perspective, he distinguishes three different concepts of eschatology in the Jesus tradition:

(1) a developed, and even elaborate, "revelation" about future events, as it occurs in the synoptic apocalypse of Mark 13; (2) the expectation of the Son of man and of "his day," as it is represented in Q, but which is also evident in isolated sayings of Mark (e.g. Mark 8:38) and in the synoptic apocalypse in its present form; (3) the proclamation of the coming of the kingdom, which is older than the two other apocalyptic theories, and ultimately has its roots in the preaching of Jesus.3 [End Page 796]

Thomas, he notes, shows no evidence of the first two eschatological concepts, but of the third there are many examples, "apocalyptic sayings" about the kingdom (Gos. Thom. 3, 22, 27, 46, 82, 107, 109, 113), the kingdom of heaven (20, 54, 114), or the kingdom of the Father (57, 76, 96-99, 113). "To be sure," he writes, "these sayings in the Gospel of Thomas almost always show a tendency to emphasize the presence of the kingdom for the believer, rather than its future coming." Koester confesses that he once would have agreed with Robert Grant that this must represent a later "spiritualization" of the earlier canonical tradition.4 But now he would revise that view. Thomas, he argues, represents not a revision of the more original canonical, apocalyptic tradition but a continuation of the distinctive eschatological message of Jesus himself:

Jesus radicalized the traditional apocalyptic expectation of the...


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