Good Man or Usurer? Battle Over a Lacuna

(above image courtesy Sytze Van der Laan)

For over thirty years, culminating in Layton (1989), Coptic scholars were quite sure that their reconstruction of the first lacuna in Thomas saying 65 (the parable of the tenants) was correct. It was clearly a Greek adjective whose beginning and end were visible, and whose length was probably seven letters. The only word that seemed to fit the bill was XRHSTOS, a word meaning 'kind' or 'good' which also occurred in saying 90, as well as seven times in the Greek NT. Indeed, Layton (1989) was a critical study wherein numerous alternative readings of Thomas sayings suggested by other scholars were cited, but there was no mention of an alternative to the phrase 'good man' in Lambdin's 1988 translation (which Layton used) of the first sentence of saying 65 ("There was a good man who owned a vineyard.") This reading had first occurred in English translation in Guillamont, et al (1959) and seemed to be firmly entrenched. Under the surface, however, something was happening that would eventually lead to a new paradigm for reconstructing the lacuna in question.

In 1974, an article by Boudewijn Dehandschutter on the parable of the tenants appeared in a French collection of essays on the Gospel of Mark edited by Maurits Sabbe. In that article, Dehandschutter suggested that the word in the lacuna was XRHSTHS - i.e., 'creditor' or 'usurer', a word which was consistent with an interpretation of the parable stripped of its canonical allegorical trappings. Dehandschutter's proposal didn't gain sufficient immediate support to upset the consensus, but in 1988-89 two publishing events occurred that reflected a change of thinking in some influential quarters that would do the trick. The first (1988) was the republication of the Sabbe book, now with the aid of Kurt Aland. The second (1989) was another French article, this one by Jean-Marie Sevrin, appearing in a book on the parables edited by Jean Delorme. Ironically, this was the same year that Layton's critical study was published, thus marking that year as both the end of the old paradigm and the beginning of the new. What Sevrin added to Dehandschutter was that, while Dehandschutter focused on the parable of the tenants in Th65, Sevrin broadened his scope to the group of sayings Th63-65, thus providing a rationale for XRHSTHS from a form-critical point of view, namely that that word could be supposed to be part of a sustained attack on the rich contained in sayings Th63-65. This argument eventually won the day. But not yet. There was a brief middle period in which 'good man' yielded to an ellipsis.

What are here called the 'middle' and 'latter-day' periods are largely evident in the Thomas translations of Marvin Meyer, an enormous force for the inclusion of Coptic in Thomas translations. By 1990 (at latest), Dehandschutter's article had become known to him (among others), with the result that in Meyer's translation in Kloppenborg (1990) an ellipsis was used: ("A [...] person owned a vineyard."). 'Good person' was relegated to a footnote. Meyer (1992) followed the same pattern, with a footnote indicating that "The Coptic text may be restored to read either 'A [good] person' [xrhstos] ... or "A creditor" [xrhsths] ..." (citing Dehandschutter). If the bibliography is any indication, Meyer was not at that point acquainted with the Sevrin article, however. Again in Funk, et al (1993), the Meyer/Patterson translation contained an ellipsis. Blatz (1991) was a notable exception during this middle period, following Lambdin much more closely than what was to become the Berlin translation. But the middle period, and the middle ground, wouldn't last long. Developments in Thomas scholarship on the continent that can be traced back at least to the late 80's would soon grow to fruition.

In 1996, a scant seven years after Layton's critical edition gave no indication of an alternative, the tide was finally turned in favor of Dehandschutter's statistically unlikely alternative. The 15th edition of Kurt Aland's Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum contained a new translation of the Gospel of Thomas, under the auspices of the Berlin Association for Coptic Gnostic Literature, including principally Hans-Gebhard Bethge, but also notable (for our purposes) Uwe-Karsten Plisch. To add insult to injury, the Berlin group not only chose XRHSTHS over XRHSTOS, but chose (via English translation) 'usurer' rather than 'creditor' (both are possible, but 'usurer' is the more pejorative). The Berlin translation gained traction quickly, first appearing slightly altered in Patterson, et al (1998) and later used verbatim in Plisch (2008). As for Meyer, he had apparently succumbed, given that the Pagels/Meyer translation in Pagels (2003) used '[usurer]' in the same way as in Aland (1996). Confirmation of Meyer's change of mind was to be found in his own translation of Thomas in Meyer (2010). Even April DeConick fell victim in DeConick (2007); she did take a step forward by using 'creditor' rather than 'usurer', but she also took a step back by not bracketing it. One of the few hold-outs during this latter-day period was Nicholas Perrin, who, in Perrin (2001), stoutly opted for 'good man'. Perhaps he hadn't gotten the memo.

What's been going on here? You might think that Coptic scholars had gradually come to accept that the Coptic-Greek word XRHSTHS was linguistically more probable than XRHSTOS. You'd be wrong. In fact, XRHSTHS is quite unlikely. It doesn't appear in any Coptic writing of which we are aware, nor does it even appear in the Greek NT. So why the switch in translation? The reasons appear to have been more interpretive than linguistic: scholars had shifted to a new interpretation of the parable of the tenants, and 'usurer/creditor' was seen as supporting that interpretation, 'good/kind' as undermining it. Given the new interpretation, Th 63-65 could now be seen as Sevrin's essay title suggests: "A grouping of three parables against the rich" and XRHSTHS was an important part of that.

At the very real risk of over-simplifying to the point of caricature, I'll try to make plain the major points of contention. It should be noted at the outset that none of the canonical versions of the parable characterize the vineyard-owner. Nevertheless, the commentary which follows the parable in the synoptics (but not in Thomas) indicated that the parable was an allegory, in which the vineyard-owner represents God, and the son whom he eventually sends, and whom the tenants kill, represents Jesus. It follows, of course, that the tenants aren't good folk, but the messengers sent by the vineyard-owner are. But if Jesus spoke this parable (and most scholars apparently think he did), is it conceivable to suppose that he was speaking about himself? If not, what's the alternative? Could the "son" be someone else? Or could the parable, as originally uttered, not have been an allegory at all? Perhaps the interpretive elements appended to it in the canonical gospels (but not in Thomas) weren't part of the original parable at all. If so, then perhaps the vineyard-owner wasn't necessarily a sympathetic character (still less representative of God) originally. Views of this sort range from the view that Jesus was engaging in (pointless?) non-judgmental social commentary (in Funk (1993)) to the view that the parable was a sort of seditious tale told by a social radical Jesus. Most all of these, however, are lent support by XRHSTHS. Given that that has become common in translations since 1996, it has taken on the aura of a settled issue. But should it be a settled issue?

John Kloppenborg Verbin has written extensively on the Parable of the Tenants, having focused on it in his 2001 Presidential Address to the Canadian Society of Biblical Scholarship, then later in a 2006 monograph. His argument (like that of Sevrin) is that the triad of Thomas sayings 63-65 (none of which are extant in Greek) represent a sustained criticism of wealthy folks, and that 'creditor' or 'usurer' in L65 is consistent with that (while 'good man' would be inconsistent with it). A glaring weakness of this argument is that L64 isn't a criticism of the banquet host (the wealthy person in question in that saying), but rather a criticism of those who refuse to come to the banquet. But if we suppose that those being criticized in L64 are the guests, why should we not also suppose that those being criticized in L65 are the tenants? In both cases, it seems, the major figure (banquet-host, vineyard-owner) is not the major focus of criticism. Foolish or naive they both may have been, but there is no indication of wickedness aside from the single pejorative proposed for the lacuna in L65, in the face of a much more statistically likely alternative that does not have that same disharmonious effect. Furthermore, the Coptic word for 'servant', which occurs seven times in L64 and L65 (and only once elsewhere - in L47), is overstroked in a way normally reserved for nomina sacra. Why? Because the Coptic scribes thought of themselves as servants of a divine cause, i.e., as good guys? But if so, then to the scribes, the mistreatment of the servants by the tenants would have been considered especially wicked, and the earlier title 'The Parable of the Wicked Tenants' seems rather apt for the written version, whatever Jesus' intent might have been. Furthermore, if L65 (and especially, the "son") wasn't intended to be taken allegorically, why is it immediately followed by the saying about the stone rejected by the builders (L66)? Or are we forced to suppose that that wasn't assumed by Thomas readers of the time as being about Jesus, either?

Be that as it may, however, neither the rarity of XRHSTHS nor criticism such as the above have seemed to change any minds so far. Perhaps what's needed is a good positive case for XRHSTOS. Perhaps we should think about why it was felt necessary to characterize the vineyard-owner as a good/kind man in Thomas, or indeed why it was felt necessary to characterize him at all? A plausible answer to that question arises from Kloppenborg's noting that Marcion's version of Luke didn't contain the Parable of the Tenants because Marcion saw that the vineyard-owner represented the creator-god in Luke's story, and he (Marcion) wasn't about to include any hint of the creator-god in his gospel. Could it be, then, that those who put the word XRHSTOS into the Thomas version of the parable (and it cannot be assumed to be its Greek authors, as Kloppenborg apparently does when he dates his favored word XRHSTHS prior to Marcion) - that those folks either interpreted the parable allegorically themselves, or assumed that others would do so, and thus included the word XRHSTOS to make clear what was already implicit in the absence of the sort of retaliation exhibited by the vineyard-owner in the canonical versions of the parable, namely that the vineyard-owner in Thomas didn't represent the inferior creator-god?

Now I have no stake in the interpretation of the parable of the tenants, but I do think that one's interpretation of the parable shouldn't be the determinative factor in reconstructing the lacuna. Nor should it be supposed that somehow the Gospel of Thomas has managed to preserve the original intent of the parable in the mouth of Jesus. We are not dealing with ear-witness reportage - despite the self-serving claim to that effect in Thomas's incipit. Nor does Thomas have any more interest in what we think of as factual accuracy than do the canonical gospels. So the first and major factor to consider is the known relative frequency of the two words in question. On that score, there's no evidence at all that the Copts used the word XRHSTHS. Nor should it be assumed that it occurred in the Greek version of Thomas, since Thomas isn't the kind of work where rare Greek words not occurring in the NT would be expected to occur. Given the wide disparity in frequency of usage, one would think that this factor should be given a great deal of consideration, but that seems not to be the case. Rather, it seems more often to be ignored, dismissed, or marginalized. (The attempt by Plisch to nullify the argument from statistical probability by declaring it "moot" precisely because XRHSTHS was so rare is embarrassingly fallacious.)

I guess I'm picky about what goes into a translation proper and what's relegated to footnotes. Given that there are plausible reasons for XRHSTOS (as I believe), it would seem that the best way to handle the lacuna in question is with an ellipsis. Admittedly, the proponents of 'creditor/usurer' are very probably more numerous and influential at present, but I don't think that all the factors have been properly considered, nor have purely linguistic considerations been given the prominence they should enjoy when translational decisions are to be made. At any rate, I do hope and believe that the rumors of the death of this particular 'good/kind man' are greatly exaggerated.

Michael W. Grondin, rev 31 May 2014.

Thanks to Nicholas Perrin and André Gagné for reading and commenting on an earlier
version of this piece, especially the latter, who drew my attention to Sevrin's essay.

Postscript (Dec, 2014): Since this essay was written, a model of the way scholars should handle the issue in question has appeared - Simon Gathercole's The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary. Gathercole uses an ellipsis in his translation, and devotes considerable attention to arguments for and against the two alternatives. Hopefully, future Thomas books will follow his example. See Gathercole on Logion 65

Appendix: Representative translations arranged by copyright date

The early period (1959-89)
Guillamont, et al (1959) ... "A good man had a vineyard"
Layton (1987) .............. "A kind man owned a vineyard"
Lambdin (1988)*............. "There was a good man who owned a vineyard"
*in Robinson, ed. (1988) and Layton (1989)

The middle period (1990-95)
Meyer (1990)................ "A [...] person owned a vineyard" in Kloppenborg (1990)
Blatz (1991)................ "A good man had a vineyard" in Schneemelcher (1991)
Meyer (1992)................ "A [...] person owned a vineyard"
Meyer/Patterson (1993)...... "A [...] person owned a vineyard" in Funk et al (1993)

The latter-day period (1996-2010)
Berliner Arbeitskreis (1996) "A [usurer] owned a vineyard" in Aland (1996) and Plisch (2008)
Patterson, et al (1998)..... "A [usurer] owned a vineyard" (slightly altered version of above)
Perrin (2001)............... "A good man owned a vineyard" 
Pagels (w/Meyer) (2003)..... "A [usurer] owned a vineyard" 
DeConick (2007)............. "A creditor owned a vineyard" 
Meyer (2010)................ "A [usurer] owned a vineyard" 


Aland, Kurt, ed (1996): Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, 15th ed.
DeConick, April (2007): The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation
Dehandschutter, Boudewijn (1974): La parabole des vignerons homocides ...
... in L'évangile selon Marc; tradition et rédaction (ed. Maurits Sabbe, reprinted 1988)
Funk, Robert et al (1993): The Five Gospels (with Hoover & the Jesus Seminar)
Guillamont, A., et al (1959): The Gospel According to Thomas
... (with Puech, Quispel, & Till)
Kloppenborg, John, et al (1990): Q-Thomas Reader
... (with Meyer, Patterson, & Steinhauser)
Kloppenborg, John (2001): Ideology and Ideological Readings of the Parable of the Tenants
----------------------- (2006): The Parable of the Tenants
Layton, Bentley (1987): The Gnostic Scriptures
--------------- ed. (1989): Nag Hammadi Codex II, 2-7, vol.1
Meyer, Marvin (1992): The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus
------------------ (2010): The Nag Hammadi Scriptures
Patterson, Stephen, et al (1998): The Fifth Gospel (with Robinson & Bethge)
Perrin, Nicholas (2001): Thomas and Tatian
Pagels, Elaine (2003): Beyond Belief
Plisch, Uwe-Karsten (2008): The Gospel of Thomas: Original Text with Commentary
Robinson, James M., ed (1988): The Nag Hammadi Library
Schneemelcher, Wilhelm, ed (1991): New Testament Apocrypha, rev. ed
... English translation edited by R. McL. Wilson
Sevrin, Jean-Marie (1989): "Un groupement de trois paraboles contre les richesses ..."
... in Les paraboles évangéliques. Perspectives nouvelles (ed. Jean Delorme)

Kurt Aland d. 1994
Wilhelm Schneemelcher d. 2003
Maurits Sabbe d. 2004
Marvin Meyer d. 2012