Broken Jars and Bloody Swords

1 Feb

“Jesus said: The kingdom of the [Father] is like a woman carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking [on a] distant road, the handle of the jar broke (and) the meal poured out behind her on the road. She was unaware, she had not noticed the misfortune. When she came to her house, she put the jar down (and) found it empty.”
– Gospel of Thomas, saying 97

“Jesus said: The kingdom of the Father is like a man who wanted to kill a powerful man. He drew the sword in his house and drove it into the wall, that he might know that his hand would be strong (enough). Then he slew the powerful man.”
– Gospel of Thomas, saying 98

Few early Christian texts have drawn so much attention and have provoked so much debate as the Gospel of Thomas. Its time of composition and relationship to the New Testament remain contested, and its contents are often more enigmatic than elucidating. Take a gander at saying 11, for example: “On the day when you were one, you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?” What could that possibly mean? (Another post, another day.)

Two of these sayings, however, unlike many others in the Gospel of Thomas, lack canonical parallels: sayings 97 and 98. And, while usually each saying is read in isolation, evocative contrasts arise when reading these two bizarre and lonely lines together. Let’s get to it!

The first (obvious) opposition: the former suggests “the kingdom of the Father is like a woman,” while the latter argues it’s “like a man.” The descriptions that follow these gendered beginnings are diametrically opposed as well. The woman in 97 is described as unknowing, twice: she is “unaware,” and “did not notice her misfortune.” This twofold description of her ignorance also emphasizes her passivity in the situation. Why the jar breaks is not clearly explained; she just finds it empty. The spilt meal seems simply a misfortune which befalls this woman, whose only activity in the saying, apart from her awareness at the parable’s end, lies in carrying this jar along a road. The main thrust of the story, however, focuses on this unintended, passive moment in her travels, an incident which she distinctly cannot—or at least, does not—control.

In contrast, the man described in 98 has total command of his actions. He has a goal in mind, “to kill a powerful man.” He systematically proceeds to discover whether he can accomplish this and tests his strength by “[driving] his sword into a wall.” The last line of the parable states straightforwardly that his ambition has been executed: “Then he slew the powerful man.” Each detail in this saying emphasizes the affinity between man’s willpower and his actions, distinctly unlike the woman who loses her meal through no intention of her own. While the woman in the previous parable is supremely, doubly unaware of the broken jar as she walks along the road, the man is thoroughly conscious of his actions, from the conception of his (eerily simple) homicide to its ultimate completion.

What does it mean that the kingdom (whatever it is in non-simile terms) is like a woman who is unaware of her misfortune until she arrives home, and the kingdom is like a man who tests and fulfills his (horrifying) intentions? Is it possible these parables in tandem function almost like a koan, a statement that confounds discursive thought?

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