Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Saying 71


Jesus said, ‘I will destroy this temple, and no one will build it […]’


It is unfortunate that one of the most controversial sayings in the Gospel of Thomas does not completely survive. The Coptic copy is damaged so that the final word is lost, while this part of the Greek copy is missing entirely. Guesses for what the final word may have been include ‘again’ (inferring permanence for the act), some variation of ‘for three days’ (following the other gospels), or ‘except me’. An equivalent saying is found in three of the four New Testament gospels, along with Acts (instead of Luke). Mark attributes the saying to ‘false witnesses’ during Jesus’ trial. Matthew removes the identification of the witnesses as ‘false’ so that their report is essentially accurate, but his version has Jesus only claim to be ‘able’ to destroy the temple, rather than that he definitely will. The author of Luke omits the saying from Jesus’ trial when copying Mark, but preserves a paraphrased form in Acts, where the accusation is leveled against one of Jesus’ followers. John alone of the four New Testament gospels has Jesus actually speak this saying, but the author changes the wording so that it is the Judeans, not Jesus, who will ‘destroy this temple’. John also interprets the saying to have an explicitly spiritual meaning, making the ‘temple’ the body of Jesus, such that when the temple is rebuilt after three days, it refers to the resurrection of Jesus. Whatever the lost ending to Saying 71, a comparison of all five versions, and digging into why each gospel author made the changes they did, may reveal what the earliest form may have been of the saying could have been, something to the effect of: ‘I will destroy this temple, and over three days I will build another.’ Apocalyptic texts across the later part of Second Temple Judaism anticipated the replacement of the temple with a superior one after the end times, a concept which entered the Jesus Movement early on. However, the blunt admission from Jesus that he would be the one to destroy the temple was apparently an uncomfortable notion, leading to the authors of each gospel rewording it, reinterpreting it, or removing it to lessen the severity of such a threat.



13.1–2 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

14.57–58 Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, ‘We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and over three days I will build another, not made with hands.” ’


26.60–61 At last two came forward and said, ‘This fellow said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it over three days.” ’


2.19–22 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Judeans then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.


6.13–14 They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’

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