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In the gospel of Thomas Jesus refers to a fire that he is guarding, below is the passage:

Jesus said, "I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I'm guarding it until it blazes."

What does he mean by this?

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    I don't see how the 'Gospel' of Thomas belongs on Biblical Hermeneutics? May 27, 2021 at 23:33
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    @SolaGratia—It does. Look at the “Related” sidebar to the right on the page. May 28, 2021 at 2:07
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    See Luke 12:49.
    – Lucian
    May 28, 2021 at 8:11

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This saying goes as follows:

"Jesus said, "I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I'm guarding it until it blazes.""

Where did it come from?

Many scholars view this saying as originating from or created as a parallel to Luke 12:49:

"I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!"

Traditional Christian viewpoints would see the Thomas saying as a modification on the original recorded in Luke, whereas secular authors are more inclined to see the two coming from a common source, of which they would dispute which came earlier.

As one example, Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman begin with the Luke 12 parallel, but then draw on Saying 82 to exegete this passage:

"Jesus said: He who is near to me is near the fire, and he who is far from me is far from the kingdom." (Saying 82)

"A similar saying in Luke 12:49 is clearly eschatological. 'I came to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish that it were already kindled.' Thomas changes future to past and present. The fire has been ignited, and Jesus keeps the world until it burns up; to be near the fire is to be near Jesus and the kingdom (Saying 82)." (The Secret Sayings of Jesus, p. 128)

Regardless of your view of the text, it seems sensible to draw on other sayings to build a sense of what fire means to the author.

Textual context

Effectively, the gospel's author appears to frame fire as something Jesus is actively kindling to achieve his purposes. Fire is only mentioned in saying 10, 13, 16 and 82, and so this section gradually builds on the concept:

  • Saying 13 records Jesus giving Thomas three pieces of hidden knowledge, for which he would be persecuted by his companions if he shared them, but then the persecution would turn to fire and burn up the companions.

  • Saying 16 records fire as part of a triad: "fire, sword and war", three types of dissention Jesus came to cast upon the earth.

Exegeting the text

Gnosticism arose from the mingling of certain Greek schools of philosophy. One of these sources is understood to be Heraclitus, who taught about a divine logos, and who perceived fire as an expression of the necessary flux of the world that is necessary to bring change, that the world order is like “…an everlasting fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.”

It seems plausible that following Heraclitus and others, the author of Thomas understood fire to be a tool of change, which Jesus is utilising in the further sayings to effect change in the world. So Saying 10 in particular is introducing the initial concept of fire that would be drawn on in the three further sayings as something that belongs to Jesus, who will use it to bring change in the world and in those who seek him.

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