“The Tree”: An Early Christian Technical Term
Along with my praise of Gathercole’s recent introduction + commentary on the Gospel of Thomas in a previous posting here, there were a (very) few places that raised a question. One of these is in his treatment of the statement in (the admittedly esoteric) saying 30 of the Greek fragment (P.Oxy. 1).
Gathercole’s translation reads: “Lift the stone and you will find me. Split the wood and I am there.” The Greek (restored letters in brackets) = εγει[ρ]ον τον λιθον κακει [ε]υρησεις με. σχισον το ξυλον καγω εκει ειμι. In his comments on the statement, Gathercole mentions several prior suggestions: perhaps a “pantheistic worldview,” or an emphasis on “Jesus’ omnipresence,” or “a commendation of quotidian labour,” or “a metaphorical reference to (Christian) sacrifice” (the stone as the metaphoricial altar and the wood representing the sacrificial fire).
I was surprised that he doesn’t note that the Greek word το ξυλον (especially with the definite article) early became used to refer to Jesus’ cross/crucifixion, as in Galatians 3:13; Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; 1 Peter 2:24; et al. This use of the term likely arose through a distinctive Christological reading of Deuteronomy 21:23 (first alluded to in Galatians 3:13): “cursed by God [or a god] is anyone hanging upon a tree.” Indeed, I’d think that almost any Greek-speaking Christian of the earliest centuries would have taken “the tree/wood” to be a reference to Jesus’ cross.
It’s perhaps noteworthy that in the Greek saying 30 of Gospel of Thomas, the definite article appears both with “stone” and with “tree/wood.” That makes me wonder if something more specific than any old stone or any piece of wood was in view. I repeat that it is a (deliberately) esoteric saying (along with much/most of Gospel of Thomas), and so any meaning is cloaked. I can’t readily say, thus, what “raise the stone” or “split the tree/wood” may have signified for the compiler of the Greek Gospel of Thomas, but I just wonder if there is some obscure reference to Jesus’ crucifixion, perhaps with some revisionist stance taken toward it.
In any case, it does seem to me to have been an oversight not even to mention that the term το ξυλον (“the tree/wood”) had been a technical term among Christians for Jesus’ cross for perhaps ca. 70-100 years prior to Gathercole’s proposed date of composition of the Gospel of Thomas. But I repeat that his commentary is an excellent work, and this posting is simply intended to footnote a small curiosity in it, and an interesting point about the term in question.