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The Gospel of Thomas and Gender Constructions

by Dr. Erin K. Vearncombe

A graphic showing a diversity of genders in a colorful montage.

How did Jesus speak about gender in his teachings? Did he uphold the norms of gender that structured life in the Roman Empire? Did Jesus challenge these norms? How can reflecting upon these questions help us with our own understanding of gender today?

Gender is an important construct in a wide range of writings from the early Jesus peoples and groups. One of the most interesting of these writings to consider when it comes to gender is the Gospel of Thomas. On the one hand, Thomas includes teachings of Jesus that seem to challenge the basic concept of gender itself, suggesting that true humanity is found outside this social construct. On the other hand, at the conclusion of the Gospel, Jesus states that women must become men if they are to enter the realm of heaven. What are we to make of the tensions within the Gospel of Thomas, and why do these tensions matter?

The Gospel of Thomas does not tell a story in the way that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the gospels deemed ‘canonical’ by the early church, tell stories of Jesus. Thomas is a collection of 114 different sayings or teachings, all attributed to Jesus. Some of these sayings have striking parallels to material from the canonical gospels, but other sayings are entirely different, and unique to Thomas.

These sayings are also not meant to be easily understood. At the beginning of the writing, Jesus tells his students that the interpretation of his teachings is their essential challenge as his students and as human beings. The sayings are meant to encourage a search for knowledge that requires constant work. This search requires fundamental disruption of one’s normal ways of being and thinking. Jesus declares:

Let the one who seeks continue seeking until he finds. And when that one finds he will be disturbed, and once that one is disturbed he will become awed, and will rule as a king over the all. (Saying 2)

The search for knowledge requires upheaval of the things we think we know.

Difficulty with the Gospel of Thomas treatment of gender

Much of this upheaval in Thomas involves gender. Saying 22 from the Gospel of Thomas, for example, presents readers with a really interesting perspective on gender in relation to the realm of God. Jesus, seeing some nursing infants, tells his students that these nursing infants are like those who enter the realm of God. When his students ask if they will enter God’s realm as children themselves, Jesus replies:

When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside, and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below. And when you make the male and the female into a solitary one, so that the male is not male nor the female female. And when you make eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and an image in place of an image, then you will enter the realm. (Saying 22)

This teaching implies that normal rules or constructions of gender do not apply in God’s realm.

God’s realm requires “making the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside,” a reversal that suggests that we place value not on outward bodies or appearances, but on inner realities. The realm of God, where true reality lies, or the truth of humanity and human experience, has nothing to do with social contexts.

Throughout human history, gender has been a tool for structuring our social lives. The tool of gender has typically been used to validate only certain bodies: bodies that are cis-gendered, or that appear to conform to standards or ideals of the binary gender construct. The Gospel of Thomas is arguing that social ideas like gender, ideas that have structured our lives for so long and often in such harmful ways, do not apply in God’s realm.

Everyone giving birth

Gospel of Thomas 70 offers another important challenge to conventions of gender:

Jesus said, “When you give birth to the one within you, that one will save you. If you do not have that one within you, that one will kill you.” (Saying 70)

Jesus is including all of his followers in this statement about giving birth. Giving birth is a possibility for all Jesus’s students. While it is unclear what Jesus means by giving birth “to the one within you,” the thought that all humans can give birth, that the designation of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is not applicable to this process of birthing “the one within you,” again challenges the gender norms that have governed our lives.

How are we changed when we think about every human as having the capacity to give birth? What does giving birth mean? It is, perhaps, a reminder of our creative capacities to bring good things into the world: new ideas, new connections, new relationships, new ways of recognizing and celebrating ourselves for who we truly are.

This saying calls us to ask some very difficult questions and to reflect on things we think we know. If we are to find our full humanity, we must challenge ourselves, push ourselves past our comfort zones, and liberate ourselves from the social structures that do not reflect or empower our understanding of our core selves.

Women do not deserve life?

Given these challenges to gender norms, what are we to make of the very last saying in the Gospel of Thomas, then? Saying 114 indicates that the preferred gender is male, and that making gender ‘one’ really means making female male:

Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary leave us, for women do not deserve life.” Jesus said, “Look! I will lead her so that I might make her male, which will make her into a living spirit resembling you males. For any woman that makes herself male will enter the realm of heaven.” (Saying 114)

This saying is strikingly different from so many of the sayings of the Gospel of Thomas that seem to disrupt ideas of gender and its significance. Women do not deserve life? A woman must make herself male? What is going on here? There are many ways of answering these questions.

Challenging sayings

First, these sayings are meant to be challenging. The search for knowledge is difficult. It requires fundamental disturbance, upheaval, destruction before any new construction can occur. Perhaps this saying does not seem to make sense for that reason. But there has to be a way to then push beyond that disturbance.

Peter’s problem with Mary

Second, this saying could reflect a common story from the early Jesus groups about Peter and Mary. In the Gospel of Mary, Peter has a problem with Mary and he questions her teaching and leadership. In that writing, Levi calls Peter out. Here, however, Peter’s position seems to be supported by Jesus himself. Jesus does not rebuke Peter, but reassures him that he, Jesus, will make Mary male. Mary herself has no voice – no presence – in this Saying at all.

Masculinity, the norm

Third, Gospel of Thomas 114 might require us to question our reading of earlier sayings when it comes to the idea of one gender, or of making two ‘one.’ In the ancient Greek and Roman world, the male body was considered the only true, perfect body. Gender existed on a vertical axis with male at the top and female, an essential non-entity or non-being, at the bottom of the axis. The one gender in this historical context was male. When we read these sayings about making two one, is it really just masculinity that is in mind? Is the one, male? As much as we might want this writing to disrupt gender norms, perhaps it does not. These writings do not always say what we might want them to!

Jesus above the gender constructs

Yet another possibility for interpretation exists as well. Jesus refers to the students as “you males”: Mary will become “a living spirit resembling you males.” Does that mean that Jesus does not include himself – or Jesus’s self – amongst “you males”? Is Jesus separate from, or above, the gender constructs that continue to limit his students?

The Gospel of Thomas does not give us easy or straightforward answers when it comes to Jesus and gender. This ancient writing does challenge us to question, however, the things we think we know about gender and the ways in which ideas of gender structure our lives. True knowledge, and true humanity, is attained through disruption, through the profound disturbance of the stuff that we consider to be our selves.