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“The Tree”: An Early Christian Technical Term

June 8, 2015

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.

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13 Comments
  1. While “the tree” is certainly a technical term, I wonder if σχίζω may also have had a more technical meaning in early Christianity, given that it is applied to the heavens (Mk 1:10), the veil of the Temple (Mk 15:38, Mt 27:51, Lk 23:45), rocks (Mt 27:51), clothing (Jn 19:24), a wineskin (Lk 5:36), and a fishing net (Jn 21:11). None of these appear to be mundane usages, but highly symbolic. They all apply to body of Jesus, and all uses are found in the Gospels alone (except 2 occurrences in Acts that do not appear to be symbolic).

    σχίζω is also used of the parting of the Red Sea (Ex 14:21). Ecclesiastes 10:9 seems to be directly related to the Thomas saying as well: ἐξαίρων λίθους διαπονηθήσεται ἐν αὐτοῖς, σχίζων ξύλα κινδυνεύσει ἐν αὐτοῖς. Certainly there are important differences between Ecclesiastes and Thomas, but the resemblance is striking, and early Christians would have seen the typology of stone and wood as applied to Jesus. One would have to explain why Eccl. warns of danger (κινδυνεύω), but if we look at Acts 19:27 or 1 Cor. 15:30 two different (but perhaps related) interpretations present themselves. The same applies to διαπονηθήσεται, used in Acts 4:2 and Acts 16:18 (again with two different interpretations presenting themselves). There is also Is. 48:21 σχισθήσεται πέτρα, καὶ ρυήσεται ὕδωρ, καὶ πίεται ὁ λαός μου.

  2. Prof. Hurtado, I’ve thought about this since I first heard of it from you a couple of SBL’s ago, but am left with the question of what it means to split (σχισον) the cross, particularly within the elitist, anti-ecclesial context of the Greek Saying 30. Raising a stone as a positive reference to Jesus’ resurrection is not difficult to imagine, but it’s more difficult to see how someone’s the splitting the cross is a commendable action.

    Perhaps the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and its story of Jesus’ healing the boy who cut his foot while splitting wood is of help here?

    • “Splitting wood” is a common description of preparing wood for some purpose (e.g., sacrifice, as in the Gen 22 story). But it’s splitting “THE wood” that intrigues me in the Greek Thomas saying 30. Gospel of Thomas is a deliberately esoteric text, designed to befuddle. So, it’s understandably difficult to perceive what the author thought he was saying at various points.

  3. Jas permalink

    Yes, “splitting the wood” does point to the cross. It alludes to preparing Isaac as the sacrifice LXX Gen 22:3, which foreshadows the crucifixion of Jesus. Then “raising the stone” alludes to the resurrection of Jesus -the keystone [Thom 66], which would be pictured in relation to his ‘living stone’ followers. See Matt 3:9, the prophecy of John the Baptist about raising ‘stones’ to become Abraham’s children (the church/ ‘chosen people’).
    In further support of this allusion, note that Thom 78 continues to draw on John the Baptist’s words. The overall picture, then, is of Jesus, the rejected then risen keystone, with the people built into an arch, a building, the temple which requires Jesus to be present and central and highest in order to hold them together. This picture parallels that of Jesus as the ‘light’, which introduces Thom 77 and similarly emphasises his essential impact on his followers.

    • I agree that Jesus is central in the GThomas. But I wonder if you’re pressing the references into a larger construct (about a temple, etc.) than the text really projects.

      • Jas permalink

        Yes: I am doing exactly that: The larger construct is what we can presume of the author if he was very familiar with the synoptic Gospel tradition – as I find him to be. And that would mean he was familiar with the symbolism of the Temple of Living Stones – a familiarity which Paul presumes of people in Corinith by 55CE [1Cor 3].

      • Familiar with the Synoptics? Quite likely. But did the author accept and work with the notion of the people of God as a new temple?

  4. Perhaps, “raise the stone” points to resurrection, while “split the tree” points to the cross. Thus, both death and resurrection are in view. Admitedly, the word order is a problem in this suggestion.

    • In the Coptic version (where the statement is part of saying 77), the order is reversed.

  5. Fernando permalink

    Could the stone be the cornerstone the builders rejected?

    • “The stone” and “the tree” together make me wonder if it’s some esoteric allusion to Jesus’ cross and tomb.

  6. Excellent observation. Just wanted to warn you of a typo:
    “Life the stone…” for εγει[ρ]ον τον λιθον should be “Lift the stone…”

    James

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