Women in the Gospel of Thomas (a response to Rob Bowman)

Rob Bowman has posted another response to my Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium article, this time focusing on the apparent “misogyny” of Gos. Thom. 114. Just to recap the discussion, I stated previously that assessments of the logion as “misogynist” were anachronistic and showed a lack of awareness of scholarship on the text. In response, Bowman excerpted a number of non-conservative scholars (including Pagels, Patterson, and Meyer) who agree that the saying is indeed misogynist. These may not be the best scholars to appeal to in this debate, however, as they write often for popular audiences and their comments on the texts may suffer from the same lack of depth as the apologists I criticize. Mind you, I’m no expert on this text, so I hesitate to say too much about it. But I will limit myself to a few points in my defense.

1. I don’t think Rob can argue that the apologists say little about the logion besides labeling it misogynist. Rob simply supports their conclusion with the views of other scholars. My concern was with the neglect of other scholarship which would more rightly put the saying in its context. Put simply, it looks misogynist to us, but to the author and audience, it may not. That’s what I mean by anachronistic. Far too often these texts are evaluated through modern eyes. The same care that we see being employed with Paul’s “misogyny” in 1 Cor. (i.e., evaluating his comments in the context of life in Corinth, or being careful to consider them in the context of his letter or letters as a whole, or considering the possibility of interpolations, etc.) should be applied also to CA texts.

2. The logion should not be taken too literally. Making a female male can have a range of possible interpretations, including encratism (celibacy and a refusal to bear children). Therefore, Jesus’ statement that he will “make her male” is not hatred of women. Also, keep in mind that the text is arguing against the statement of Peter here that “women do not deserve life,” not supporting it. If we are to see the various apostles in Christian literature as representing different forms of Christianity, then Thomas is portraying Peter as a spokesperson (likely) for orthodoxy. So, who is “misogynist” now?

3. Again, it is important to read a given section of a text in the context of the whole. When discussing log. 114 in my classes I direct the students also to log. 22 in which it states: “And when you make the male and the female into a single being, with the result that the male is not male nor the female female.” This appears to reflect the text’s theology of returning to a state of the primordial, androgynous, undivided human. Perhaps this is the key to understanding log. 114.

4. Also to be considered is the possibility that Gos. Thom. is a document that has gone through multiple stages of composition (much like some of our canonical materials). Log. 114, which to some extent stands out in contrast with other sayings in the text (such as 22), may be a late addition to the gospel and therefore not a good reflection of the author/community’s theology. I realize that we must avoid eliminating sections of texts we find unattractive with such theories, but it should be considered given that we have evidence of the text (and other CA texts) changing considerably over time.

I am not trying to rescue the text for the view that Gos. Thom. reflects an early Christian feminism. I have nothing invested in such an idea. All I am suggesting is that an offhanded comment taking one saying out of 114  and using it to label a text “misogynist” is not being fair to the text. It is also a disservice to the reader to ignore scholarship that looks at the text in more depth and/or presents a different interpretation.

One response on “Women in the Gospel of Thomas (a response to Rob Bowman)

  1. Tony – I’ve left a note on Rob’s blog entry that you mentioned here, but I also want to say to you that I agree with you that the loaded-term ‘misogyny’ isn’t properly applied to Th114, whether by Witherington or Meyer. But my objection to the use of the term isn’t the same as yours – to my mind, it’s simply a misuse of language. Bowman ignores the distinction between non-egalitarianism and flat-out misogyny, and to some extent you do as well. I think this is a mistake, since the former does not imply the latter. The only “hatred” mentioned in GTh is for one’s natural parents – both male and female alike. There is no hatred or even dislike implied in Th114.

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