Women and Gospel of Thomas 114: Reply to Tony Burke (V)

   Posted by: Rob Bowman   in apocrypha

This is the fifth installment of my response to Tony Burke’s article on the SBL Forum, Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium.” In that article Burke had mentioned Ben Witherington’s description of saying 114 in the Gospel of Thomas as “misogynist” as an example of a conservative scholar misrepresenting the “Christian Apocrypha” (CA) by focusing on the supposed odd, absurd, or bizarre elements of those works taken out of context. In a follow-up post, Burke elaborates on his criticism of Witherington:

It is unfair, I think, to label Gos. Thom. 114 “misogynistic.” For one thing, such an assessment is anachronistic; for another, it is far too simplistic a way to interpret the saying. I won’t attempt to do so here as there are far too many other experts on the text who could do so, and have done so. Unfortunately, the apologists (like Witherington) do not consult these works; they simply draw attention to these sections of the texts that will alarm their readers.

In my previous response to Burke, I expressed surprise at his claim that the description of Thomas 114 as misogynistic was “anachronistic.” I really think this claim is indefensible, and I wonder on what basis Burke makes it.

Burke’s complaint that describing the saying as misogynistic is “far too simplistic” seems to expect more of a one-word description than is reasonable. Granted that more could be said about the saying, this doesn’t mean the description is inaccurate or misleading. In any case, what Burke has done here is to seize on one isolated word used by a particular conservative scholar with regard to this saying in support of his generalization that conservative scholars critical of the CA misrepresent them. In order to assess the accuracy and fairness of Burke’s generalization, we should take a look at what these scholars—including Witherington—actually say about the matter. Before we do so, though, let’s quote the controversial saying in full:

Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Thomas 114)[1]

Now let’s look at what some conservative scholars say about this text. According to Witherington, “The Gospel of Thomas lends no credence to the notion that the Gnostics were feminists before their time.” He cites Thomas 114 to back up his assertion.[2] Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace comment, “If this saying is part of the original Thomas, it offers no comfort to modern sensibilities about gender roles and certainly makes no advance over the New Testament’s view of women.”[3] Elsewhere Bock comments, “This saying is hardly politically correct. It shows that women were not elevated in these texts as some claim.”[4] The authors of Reinventing Jesus comment, “Here we see plainly the asceticism that found a home in Gnostic circles and an attitude toward women that is hardly compatible with the biblical portrait.”[5] All of these statements make the same point in the same context. Their comments are directed against those contemporary writers who make overenthusiastic claims for the Gnostic or other apocryphal writings as more egalitarian in their view of women than traditional Christianity or its canon. Such a claim, these scholars argue, is belied by such texts as Thomas 114.

Whether or not one agrees with Burke’s criticism of Witherington’s description “misogynistic” as “far too simplistic,” this criticism will much harder to sustain against the consistent point that Witherington and other conservative scholars make about Thomas 114. According to Burke, these “apologists” have not consulted the works of the “experts” who have commented on the meaning of this saying, and hence have failed to engage the best scholarship on the matter. Burke’s criticism here can have merit only if these “experts” fail to sustain the point that Bock, Witherington, and other scholars have made about Thomas 114 being far from egalitarian in its view of women. Well, then, let us see what the leading non-conservative scholars working on the Gospel of Thomas have said about saying 114.

Probably no scholar is more closely associated with the Gospel of Thomas than Elaine Pagels. In her book The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels comments on Thomas 114, “Strange as it sounds, this simply states what religious rhetoric assumes: that the men form the legitimate body of the community, while women are allowed to participate only when they assimilate themselves to men.”[6] Later in the same chapter, Pagels elaborates:

Other gnostic sources reflect the assumption that the status of a man is superior to that of a woman…. Some gnostics, reasoning that as man surpasses woman in ordinary existence, so the divine surpasses the human, transform the terms into metaphor. The puzzling saying attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas…may be taken symbolically: what is merely human (therefore female) must be transformed into what is divine (the “living spirit” the male).[7]

This symbolic interpretation of the saying does not negate the assumed disparity between males and females, but only pushes it into the background of cultural values that the saying uncritically assumed. And Pagels’s comments are among the mildest among the leading Thomas scholars. Virtually all of the scholars who comment on the saying make a similar point but in stronger language.

Stephen Patterson, describing the saying as “notorious,” comments:

To be sure, the saying itself makes its point [about the acceptance of women in the group] in a way that assumes the androcentric bias of its day. Women may be part of this group only if they negate what is female and “unworthy” and “make themselves male.”[8]

Antti Marjanen makes the same point in an even stronger way:

…it must be emphasized that in logion 114 the goal is not achieved by the removal of gender differentiation but by the transformation of female into male. Thus, in logion 114 salvation is defined by employing the patriarchal language patterns of the contemporary culture. It is important to realize that it is not only Peter’s statement which displays this attitude but also Jesus’ response. Although advocating Mary’s and all women’s right to attain salvation in terms equal to their male colleagues within the circle of disciples and the kingdom, Jesus does so by using language which devalues women.[9]

Perhaps no one has written more extensively on Thomas 114 than Marvin Meyer, who observes:

Some scholars have recognized a similar sort of misogyny in other ancient and late antique sources, such as the Gospel of Mary and Pistis Sophia, while others have been more optimistic in sensing that the saying in Thomas advocates androgyny or even the elevation of Mary.[10]

Meyer goes on to put this saying in its religious and cultural context:

Further, within gnostic texts this theme of gender transformation, with the female becoming male, occurs quite frequently…. In these texts the female is typically depreciated—a better word may be demonized—and comes to symbolize perishability, corporeality, and all that characterizes this mortal world, while the male typically is glorified and comes to symbolize imperishability, incorporeality, and all that characterizes God and God’s world.[11]

Like Pagels, Meyer prefers a symbolic interpretation, but he also admits that the saying nevertheless assumes the inferiority of female to male:

Mary becomes male, the female becomes male, we all become male symbolically when what is physical and earthly is transformed into what is spiritual and heavenly. This use of gender categories may be offensive to our modern sensibilities, but what is intended in the Gospel of Thomas, in my interpretation, is a message of liberation.[12]

Thus, Meyer himself—one of the leading scholars writing on the Gospel of Thomas and on this specific saying—can describe it as misogynist:

This statement of transformation, put in strikingly misogynist terms, most likely uses common sexist symbolism from antiquity to depict what is heavenly and imperishable as male and what is earthly and perishable as female.[13]

According to Meyer, then, Thomas 114 reflects a cultural perspective that can be described as depreciating, even demonizing women, and acknowledges that the saying expresses its message in “strikingly misogynist terms.”

It would seem that it is Burke who needs to consult these “experts,” as a number of them validate—sometimes in the same supposedly objectionable words—the comments of Bock, Witherington, and other conservative scholars as to the dim view of women assumed in Thomas 114.



[1] “The Gospel of Thomas,” trans. Thomas O. Lambdin, in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. James M. Robinson, 3d rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990), 138. A slightly different version of this translation is available online.

[2] Ben Witherington III, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims about Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 104.

[3] Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 125.

[4] Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 133; see also Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everyone’s Asking (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 75-76.

[5] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 163.

[6] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), 49.

[7] Ibid., 67.

[8] Stephen J. Patterson, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus, Foundations and Facets (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1993), 153, 154.

[9] Antti Marjanen, “Women Disciples in the Gospel of Thomas,” in Thomas at the Crossroads: Essays on the Gospel of Thomas, ed. Risto Uro, Studies of the New Testament and Its World (New York: Continuum International, 1998), 102 (89-106). This statement is repeated almost verbatim from The Woman Jesus Loved: Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library and Related Documents, Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 40 (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 50-51.

[10] Marvin Meyer, “Gospel of Thomas Saying 114 Revisited,” in Secret Gospels: Essays on Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 97.

[11] Ibid., 101.

[12] Ibid., 103-4.

[13] Marvin Meyer, “Albert Schweitzer and the Image of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas,” in Jesus Then and Now: Images of Jesus in History and Christology, ed. Marvin Meyers and Charles Hughes (New York: Continuum International, 2001), 82 (72-90).

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This entry was posted on Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 9:33 am and is filed under apocrypha. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One comment


Sorry for the late response, but hopefully it will still be of some relevance. Throughout this blog entry, the distinction between non-egalitarianism and misogyny is ignored. Of the scholars quoted, only Meyer uses the term ‘misogyny’, and I think he was as wrong to do so as was Witherington. Since ‘misogyny’ is a loaded term, it isn’t nit-picking to point out that non-egalitarianism doesn’t imply it. Nor is misogyny per se evident in L114, even in Peter’s statement, which is the only place it could conceivably be found, but which is denied in any case by J’s response.

November 17th, 2010 at 2:59 pm

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