The enigmatic gnostic texts are very open to a wide range of interpretations. After all you have to a gnostic to really now what they mean.1 It doesn't help that the translations of the different manuscripts are very difficult to judge for correctness or appropriateness in these lights.
What they exactly mean? We cannot know. We can only approach them, slowly.
But the more widespread interpretations for logion 97 are:
97.1 Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of the Fa[ther] is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal.
97.2 While she was away on a long journey, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her on the road.
97.3 She did not realise it. She did not feel tired.
97.4 When she reached her house, she put the jar down and found it empty.’
The most common interpretation sees the parable as focused upon the woman’s ignorance or emptiness, with the parable therefore being a warning of the danger of loss, or a more straightforward description of how ignorance leads to emptiness. One cannot help feeling, however, that if this were correct, the parable would have been better introduced, ‘The kingdom of the Father is not like ...’.
Scott sees a parallel with 1 Kings 17.12 and the incident with Elijah and the widow, in which she is provided with an everlastingly full jar of meal. In contrast to 1 Kings, however: ‘There is no prophet to come to the widow’s aid; nor will her jar be filled. The kingdom is not identified with divine intervention but divine emptiness. Like the Leaven, this parable attacks and subverts the myth of the appearance of God.’6 This seems, however, like a rather post-modern, “death of God” interpretation. The problem is that this view of the kingdom scarcely fits with the understanding of the kingdom elsewhere in Thomas. DeConick, in a similar manner, sees this parable as reflecting that the kingdom had not come as expected, and thus the parable is ‘the story of expectations dashed’. This is scarcely compatible with Thomas’s positive depiction of the kingdom elsewhere, however.
Doran takes the view that this parable must be interpreted in close asso- ciation with GTh 96 and 98.8 These adjacent parables emphasize the agency of individuals, whereas GTh 97 stands in tension with them, emphasizing our lack of control over our destinies:9 the woman is not negligent, but is simply ill-fated. This sounds odd as a parable of the kingdom, however.
Nagel sees as the point that suffering in itself is not a guarantee of getting to the goal (the kingdom); some suffering leads to emptiness, like the wretches in Gos. Phil. 63,11–21 whose ‘labour’ (ϩⲓⲥⲉ) is in vain.11 Nagel emends Thomas’s ⲡⲉⲥⲉⲓⲙⲉ ⲉϩⲓⲥⲉ to ⲡⲉⲥⲉⲓⲙⲉ ⲉ⟨ⲥ⟩ϩⲓⲥⲉ, resulting in the meaning, ‘she did not realise while she was struggling’.12 Again we have the problem of the discontinuity between kingdom and parable, with no point of continuity.
Plisch takes the view that the parable (in its original, pre-Thomas form) is a ‘metaphor for the imperceptible spread of God’s kingdom removed from human reach’, just as the kingdom is spread across the earth unnoticed in GTh 113.13 This at least makes sense of the introductory formula. However, it necessitates the excision of 97.3 as a later accretion, which Plisch considers (because of its focus on ignorance) as incompatible with 97.1.14
K. Blessing, relating this parable to other ‘lost and found’ parables (cf. Luke 15 and GTh 109), speculates that the woman may be ‘set up’ for salvation having experienced worldly loss, and that this parable may be about knowledge. It is, however, about knowledge only in the sense that it refers to ignorance.
Merkelbach’s interpretation focuses almost exclusively on the journey, and the fact that the meal has left a path to follow: the one on the way has effectively found the kingdom because of the trail. This view has some appeal, as it has a positive, kingdom related sense, but it probably neglects too many of the details of the parable to be correct.
Finally, Helderman interprets the parable from a radically different standpoint, namely that the emptying of the jug can be taken as a good thing in itself.17 Manichaeism supplies the context in which labour (ϩⲓⲥⲉ) can be seen as a bad thing, and conversely amerimnia a good. Relatedly, in the Manichaean
For the logion 98:
98.1 Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of the father is like a man who wanted to kill a nobleman.
98.2 He drew his sword at home and drove it into the wall, in order to find out whether his hand would be strong enough.
98.3 Then he killed the nobleman.’
The parable of the Assassin, which is the twelfth parable in Thomas, has no parallel in the Synoptics (or, indeed, anywhere else). Pokorný sees it as an ‘immoral parable’, comparing it with the Unjust Steward (Lk. 16.1–8), and the Hidden Treasure in GTh 109 where the protagonist lends money at interest. There is a majority scholarly view of GTh 98, as well as a ‘minority report’.
Probably the majority of scholars take the view that the assassin represents the disciple who must prepare himself rigorously for the battles involved in discipleship. The closest analogues in the Synoptics are usually seen to be Jesus’ figures of towerbuilding (Lk. 14.28–30) and going to war (14.31–32).5 The
analogy is not exact:6 the Lukan sayings concern counting the cost before embarking upon discipleship, whereas the Thomas saying is usually taken to be preparation in the course of discipleship. The goal of the preparation can be variously described as planning attack upon the world, or upon the internal enemy, desire.
The minority interpretation (advocated by Hunzinger and Nordsieck) makes God the assassin, and is intended as a reassurance to the disciples that God would not set a plan in train without first knowing that it could be completed.
Some scholars have offered other interpretations which have not been wide- ly followed. A Gnostic reading is now no longer regarded as plausible. For Plisch, an alternative to the majority view is the possibility that the theme is the unexpected arrival of the kingdom of God. This sees events from the perspective of the nobleman, however, whereas the point-of-view in the parable is closer to that of the assassin. According to King: ‘The interest of the parable seems twofold: one to emphasize that to belong to the community means to have access to power through knowledge, and secondly that that power will allow a person to overcome his or her enemies, even if they are powerful.’ Doran follows the interpretation that GTh 98 emphasises responsibility and action, like GTh 96, with GTh 97 stressing that this is not sufficient.
Hedrick’s view is that the parable advocates bold action without serious planning.
The majority view is probably correct. The idea that God, or the Father, in Thomas plans and is an agent does not quite fit with Thomas elsewhere. Even if the analogies from Luke 14 are not exact, GTh 98 makes good sense as drawing attention to two phases, that of preparation (98.2), and that of execution (98.3). Such a scenario is apparent in a number of places in Thomas where one sees imagery of violent attack: GTh 21.5–6 speaks of guarding one’s house against the thief, i.e. the world; GTh 21.7–8 go on to exhort preparation against attacking brigands; GTh 103 pronounces a blessing on the one who knows where marauders will enter. The principal difference between these passages and GTh 98 is of course that in the parable of the Assassin the protagonist (i.e. the disciple) is the assailant, rather than the assailed. There is, however, a closer analogy in GTh 35:
Jesus said, ‘It is impossible to enter the house of the strong man and subdue him, unless one binds his hands. Then he can take from his house.’
The logic of GTh 35 is very similar to the Assassin, with its two phases of (a) binding the strong man’s hands preparatory to (b) plundering his house.
Still unanswered are the questions of what exactly the preparation is, and what the final goal is in the parable. Definitive answers are not available, but it is reasonable to suppose that reference is to (a) the ascetical disciplines commended in Thomas, as conditions of (b) being able to master the world rather than being mastered by it.
Quoted from Simon Gathercole: "The Gospel of Thomas
Introduction and Commentary", Texts and Editions for New Testament Study Vol 11, Brill: Leiden, Boston, 2014. P 549–558.
1 Although these two parables seem to be seen by some as an exception. First of all 97 was voted by the Jesus Seminar as the only one the would be probably authentic, whereas the others were all judged unauthentic.
Clearly The Gospel of Thomas does contain sayings that cannot be derived from the canonical Gospels, since they are not there to be found. Yet, among these sayings that are some that are clearly not Gnostic, but have the same claim to being old, even authentic, as does the older layer of sayings in the canonical Gospels and Q. This can be illustrated by some of the kingdom parables in The Gospel of Thomas. [ Namely 97 and 98. ]
Such sayings are not Gnostic inventions, but simply part of the oral tradition of sayings ascribed to Jesus.
Stephen J. Patterson: "The Fifth Gospel. The Gospel of Thomas Comes of Age", T&T Clark: London, New York, 2011.