Gospel of Thomas and Animals: Saying 7

Moving along in our analysis of animals in the Gospel of Thomas, the next saying that includes animals or animality is Saying 7. Like Saying 3, it also exists in Greek fragments from Oxyrynchus, but again I will focus on the Coptic text.

Saying 7 is much shorter than Saying 3, but it is somewhat enigmatic compared to, for example, synoptic uses of animals.

Coptic Text (Layton edition):

ⲡⲉϫⲉ ⲓ̅ⲥ̅ ⲟⲩⲙⲁⲕⲁⲣⲓⲟⲥ ⲡⲉ ⲡⲙⲟⲩⲉⲓ ⲡⲁⲉⲓ ⲉⲧⲉ ⲡⲣⲱⲙⲉ ⲛⲁⲟⲩⲟⲙϥ ⲁⲩⲱ ⲛ̅ⲧⲉ ⲡⲙⲟⲩⲉⲓ ϣⲱⲡⲉ ⲣ̅ⲣⲱⲙⲉ ⲁⲩⲱ ϥⲃⲏⲧ ⲛ̅ϭⲓ ⲡⲣⲱⲙⲉ ⲡⲁⲉⲓ ⲉⲧⲉ ⲡⲙⲟⲩⲉⲓ ⲛⲁⲟⲩⲟⲙϥ ⲁⲩⲱ ⲡⲙⲟⲩⲉⲓ ⲛⲁϣⲱⲡⲉ ⲣ̅ⲣⲱⲙⲉ

English Translation (Mine):

Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion which a man will eat it, and the lion becomes a man. And cursed is the man which the lion will eat and the lion shall become a man.”

Textual issue: some people think the last line has been corrupted and should read: “And the man becomes a lion” to retain the structure of the first part of the saying.

Issues: eating / consumption, but here not just humans eating animals but animals eating humans. Moreover, it is not a typical animal. People typically do not eat lions. It uses eating as a symbol for something else. But what is this something else? What do the components of eating, lion, and man (human) mean?

Most scholars look to the Greek philosophical tradition stemming from Plato here (see Republic 436A-441C; 588B-589B). The lion is a metaphorical being here, representing one’s animalistic passions that must be brought into control by the quintessentially human element – one’s mind. So the “man” represents reason/mind and the lion represents passions. To be fully human, the human / reason must maintain dominance over the animal (lion) / passions; otherwise, if the animal nature becomes dominant, one will simply become animalistic and beastly.

The metaphor for reason and passions relies upon a few of assumptions. Probably the most important assumption is that humans should be dominant in nature, but aren’t always. The choice of a wild, powerful animals, such as a lion, rather than a domesticated animal illustrates the difficulty of maintaining this “dominance.” Nonetheless, if we add a touch of historical context, one would see the “reassertion” of such “dominance” throughout the Roman Empire in the venationes (wild beast hunts) held in various amphitheaters throughout the Mediterranean world.

There may also be a major psychological issue occurring here as well: the human phobia of being eaten instead of eating. Again, if one may take a look at the context: part of the executions in the Roman amphitheaters could (but did not always) include prisoners being attacked and eaten by animals.

That is, in the Roman Empire in the context of the amphitheater, one could see someone dominating (though not eating) a lion and a lion eating a human.

Combine the Roman setting with the Greek philosophical tradition, and all of the anthropocentric assumptions – and potential fears and challenges to those assumptions represented by the lion – then one gets a powerful metaphor.


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