This compilation explores modern interpretations of the Gospel according to Thomas, an ancient text preserved in a Coptic translation at Nag Hammadi and Greek fragments at Oxyrhynchus. With no particular slant, this commentary gathers together quotations from various scholars in order to elucidate the meaning of the sayings, many of which are right...
Nag Hammadi Coptic Text
(9) Jesus said: Look, the sower went out, he filled his hand (and) cast (the seed). Some fell upon the road; the birds came, they gathered them. Others fell upon the rock, and struck no root in the ground, nor did they produce any ears. And others fell on the thorns; they choked the seed and the worm ate them. And others fell on the good earth, and it produced good fruit; it yielded sixty per measure and a hundred and twenty per measure.
(9) Jesus said, "Listen, a sower came forth, took a handful, and cast. Now, some fell upon the path, and the birds came and picked them out. Others fell upon rock, and they did not take root in the soil, and did not send up ears. And others fell upon the thorns, and they choked the seed; and the grubs devoured them. And others fell upon good soil, and it sent up good crops and yielded sixty per measure and a hundred and twenty per measure.
9 . Jesus says: "See, the sower went out. He filled his hand and scattered <the seed.> Some fell on the path: birds came and gathered them. Others fell on rocky ground: they found no means of taking root in the soil and did not send up ears of corn. Others fell among thorns; <these> stifled the grain, and the worm ate the <seed.> Others fell on good soil, and this <portion> produced an excellent crop: it gave as much as sixty-fold, and <even> a hundred and twenty-fold!"
And when much people were gathered together, and were come to him out of every city, he spake by a parable: A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.
And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side. But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended. He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in his doctrine, Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables? The sower soweth the word. And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts. And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness; And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the words sake, immediately they are offended. And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word, And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful. And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.
Again, in the time of sowing the child went out with his father to sow wheat in their land. And as his father sowed, the child Jesus also sowed one corn of wheat. And when he had reaped it and threshed it, he brought in a hundred measures, and he called all the poor of the village to the threshing-floor and gave them the wheat, and Joseph took the residue of the wheat. He was eight years old when he worked this miracle.
James said, "Rabbi, behold them, I have received their number. There are seventy-two measures!" The Lord said, "These are the seventy-two heavens, which are their subordinates."
1 Clem 24:5
The sower goeth forth and casteth into the earth each of the seeds; and these falling into the earth dry and bare decay: then out of their decay the mightiness of the Masters providence raiseth them up, and from being one they increase manifold and bear fruit.
Marvin Meyer writes:
"In each occurrence of the parable in the New Testament, the author has added an allegorical interpretation of the parable and placed it on the lips of Jesus (Matthew 13:18-23; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15). Stories similar to the parable are known from Jewish and Greek literature. Thus Sirach 6:19 says, 'Come to her (that is, Wisdom) like one who plows and sows, and wait for her good crops. For in her work you will toil a little, and soon you will eat of her produce.' In his Oratorical Instruction 5.11.24, Quintilian writes, 'For instance, if you would say that the mind needs to be cultivated, you would use a comparison to the soil, which if neglected produces thorns and brambles but if cultivated produces a crop. . . .'"
(The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, pp. 72-73)
F. F. Bruce writes:
"This is another version of the parable of the sower (or the parable of the four soils), recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 4.3-8; Matthew 13.3-8; Luke 8.5-8). The worm that attacked the seed sown among thorns is peculiar to this version. The 'rock' instead of 'rocky ground' is distinctively Lukan; the statement that the seed sown there 'sent forth no ears up to heaven' has been recognised as a Naassene thought. [Hippolytus (Refutation v.8.29) reproduces the Naassene interpretation of the parable.] The statement that the first lot of seed fell 'on' (not 'by') the road probably reflects the sense of the Aramaic preposition used by Jesus in telling the parable (the preposition may be rendered 'on' or 'by' according to the context)."
(Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, p. 116)
Joachim Jeremias writes:
"Here, as additions to the synoptic form of the parable, we have the antithesis '(did not strike root in the earth and sent up no ears to heaven)', the mention of the worm and the increase in number, 120."
(The Parables of Jesus, p. 28)
Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman write:
"Thomas adds a few details. The sower 'filled his hand' before he cast the seed; this looks like no more than an attempt to indicate the fullness or completeness of the sowing (of souls or spirits). But when we read that the seed which fell on 'the rock' (so only Luke) not only had no root but also 'put forth no ear up to heaven' we are confronting a combination of this parable with the Naassene doctrine of the heavenward ascent of the good seed. The seed which fell upon thorns was not only choked but also eaten by the worm - presumably the worm of Gehenna (cf., Mark 9:48), though Thomas does not say so, since, like other Gnostics, he doubtless holds that hell is on earth. The good fruit, unlike the bad, is brought forth 'up to heaven,' sometimes sixty-fold, sometimes one-hundred-twenty-fold. Thomas feels free to give these figures since Matthew has one hundred, sixty, and thirty; Mark has thirty-sixty-one hundred; and Luke has simply one hundred. His figure is more logical; one hundred twenty is twice as much as sixty."
(The Secret Sayings of Jesus, pp. 127-128)
R. McL. Wilson writes:
"In particular he [Quispel] claims as evidence [for primitivity] the reading 'on the road,' for which he has found parallels in Justin Martyr and in the Clementine literature. Moreover, Clement of Rome quotes the opening words in this form rather than that of our Gospels. Bartsch, however, argues that the chance is a corection of the synoptic version, and regards the differences in Thomas as the result of condensation in the paraenetic tradition. Luke's version indeed is an intermediate stage between those of Mark and of Thomas. The correction is certainly very natural, and scholars have long recognized that the synoptic 'by the wayside' goes back to a misunderstanding of the Aramaic; but this does not necessarily preclude the possibility that two Greek versions were current. The question should probably be left open, since the evidence is scarcely decisive either way. Grant and Freedman see here only a few additions to the canonical parable, and quote the Naassene exegesis; the form in which the Naassenes cited the parable was apparently not exactly that of Thomas, but 'based on a mixture of Matthew and Luke.' In this connection it is interesting to see what the Gnostics, or others like them, could make of an apparently innocuous parable: Puech quotes in another connection, and Doresse adduces at this point in his commentary, an interpretation given by the Priscillianists, to the effect that this was not a good sower, or he would not have been so careless; in fact, he was the God of this world, sowing souls into bodies. The passage is quoted by Orosius (c. A.D. 414) from the Memoria Apostolorum, a work of uncertain date, and it is not clear how far back this interpretation can be traced. We cannot say that this was how Thomas understood the parable, but such an exegesis is certainly in the Gnostic tradition."
(Studies in the Gospel of Thomas, pp. 98-99)
Funk and Hoover write:
"Thomas has preserved what the Fellows take to be the form of the parable that is closest to the original. The seed is first sown on three kinds of ground that fail to produce: the road, the rocky ground, and among the thorns. When sown on good soil, the seed produces yields at two different levels: sixty and one hundred twenty. Originally, the yields were probably thirty, sixty, one hundred, as Mark records them, although the doubling of sixty to one hundred twenty may have been original. The structure probably consisted of two sets of threes: three failures, three successes."
(The Five Gospels, p. 478)
Gerd Ludemann writes:
"The comparison between the versions of Mark and Thomas indicates that there is a far-reaching agreement, with two exceptions: first, the conclusion differs in that Mark speaks of fruit thirtyfold and sixtyfold and one hundredfold, while Thomas speaks of sixty and one hundred and twenty measures. Secondly, in mentioning the rocky ground on which the seed fell Mark additionally writes that the rising sun contributed to the withering (Mark 4.6), whereas Thomas is silent about this. On the whole we must regard the version of Thomas as older than that of Mark, because it is simpler."
(Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 28)
Compare with Qur'an, 57:20-21.
It is unclear in the scholarly quotes how this is being taken. It appears perhaps that it is being taken that the sown seed are souls who prosper or not dependent on where they are sown. I believe the sown seed refers to the words of wisdom spoken by Jesus (or others) which can either be heeded and understood producing good fruit, ignored on stony soil, lost among the weeds of competing thoughts or perverted into something else entirely.
If this is to be interpreted at all and not just basic agriculture, I'd say: keep an open mind, concentrate on what you're doing, do not dismiss new things and you will see, you will learn and find, thus becoming aware of being the living father´s child.
- thinking aloud
It seems to me that the use of 60-fold and 120-fold in Thomas is good evidence that at least some of Thomas is not derived from the synoptic Gospels, but is a separate tradition branching off at least prior to Mark. The original parable was probably spoken in Aramaic, which I believe used the Babylonian base-60 number system. In this system, the progression 30, 60, 120 would have been natural whereas 30, 60, 100 would not. The use of 100 in the synoptic gospels was probably a mistranslation from the time of Mark.
I think the most likely interpretation of this is a caution to the missionaries that not everyone will be converted, and not to get dispirited by the failures as not everyone is "good earth." [This is the interpretation of Mark 4:13-20. - PK]
Corn is a Meso-American grain. The Doresse "ears of corn" translation is inappropriate.
Not everybody recognises a true teacher. This either/or situation is poetically expressed by gradations for the audience. Nevertheless, it is still 100% either/or.
The birds will gather, the rock will stand, the thorns will choke, and the worm will eat. If the seed is God's word, it will fall unto unwanton ears, some will hear what others will use, many will understand if they nurture and cultivate the word.
The soil is the composite mind/heart/heaven, which is like a garden. The sower is the myriad of influences, especially the ego. The seed is the seed of virtue, or the means by which virtue is inculcated. These teachings are among those seeds, and due to their oblique nature cannot all take root in all minds. In some minds too many conflicting desires and ideas reside, thus many seeds are choked out and consumed by the worm of desire which lives at the root of our preferences. The well-worn road corresponds to the conditioned element of the mind which has hardened such that nothing can take root. Considering the individual as a myriad of selves and a composite of influences is essential to this interpretation.
Cast forth the "seed" (teaching and understanding of the Lord). Some will be taken by the birds and beasts (consumed by the worries of the world), some will fall on rock and produce not (minds of rock, "Stupid mind like concrete, all mixed up and permanently set"), some will fall among thorns and were choked off and the worms ate them (the mind was fertile, but too fertile, and there were too many things pulling at the potential, and the "worms," false teachers, consumed them). Some seeds fell on good earth, were watered and cared for, and grew to produce more seed (believers to spread the faith).
The seeds are of mankind. In the absence of self-knowledge, there is no everlasting life. The road, the rock, and the thorn, each in its own way, prevent spiritual realization. The represent Spiritual Ignorance, intolerance and hate. The canon collectively seems to miss the point in leaving out the original fates: Consumption by birds, starvation from lack of root and corruption by the worm.
- Dennis H. Sheehan
The author Thomas is creating a comparison between a handful of seeds and mankind. The sower in the parable seems to represent God, the one who creates life, and like a gardener or farmer he places seeds on to the earth. The earth in this parable is represented by four distinct elements, the road, rock, thorns and soil. These four elements together represent the different conditions of the world, as well as different conditions that mankind faces. To elaborate an example can be provided, the thorns, which are prickly and choke can represent a harsh, poor existence and so on. It seems that in this metaphor Thomas has an elitist view when it comes to idea of mankind and those who are true believers. The seeds, which represent mankind, cannot really become fruitful and live unless they are placed in the right conditions. This is obviously not in their power. And so, it is a small group of people who can truly recognize the true message of Jesus, and it is these few people like the seeds who can truly, grow, develop and mature. It is these few who have been lucky enough to be in the right conditions. Thomas is portraying a view that those who are truly illuminated or understand the message are so because of fate, and so they cannot really help being that way. This view creates a barrier between those chosen persons, i.e. the seeds that fell on the good soil, and all the other seeds, which represent the rest of mankind, which will not make it. This elitist view is evident in other sayings in the Gospel of Thomas.