In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus makes a claim that sounds incredibly misogynistic and offensive to modern ears. Working from Marvin Meyer’s translation in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures , the final saying (#114):

Simon Peter said to them, “Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life.”
Jesus said, “Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter heaven’s kingdom.”Jesus on Gender- Gospel of Thomas Saying 114

Reading that passage at first value, you probably respond with disgust– as is appropriate for a text that makes sexist claims. However, it’s worth digging into this further. Why did the authors make this claim? What were they trying to assert? How is gender being used in this passage– is it actually being used to reference gender identity, or is it a metaphor for something else? Is it really as belittling to women as it sounds, or is it doing something subversive to upset existing expectations? (Spoilers– there’s some major subversion of gender identity and the role of women going on, here!)

 To learn more, let’s talk about how some early Christians read passages about gender in a fundamental text on the topic, Genesis.

Males and Females in Genesis

In the second account of creation in Genesis, starting in Chapter 2, the following is how the creation of the man was described:

…Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being

In this passage, we see the mixture of the dust of the ground with the breath– the spirit, or pneuma– of God. Man was created through the elements of both the physical world and the spiritual world.

Now, let’s explore the creation of the woman, from the same chapter:

The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.”

Let’s unpack that, for it’s critical to understanding Jewish and Christian perspectives on what it means to be a “woman”. In this story, the woman is not made from the breath of God, nor is she made from the elements of the earth. Rather, she is made from Adam. And, she’s not even made from the whole of Adam, but just a part.

The result of this split in the story is a clear metaphysical hierarchy. Man (as the gender) is no longer whole– he is made of dust and the breath of God, but a part of him was taken away and made into Woman. Woman, on the other hand, never directly had the breath of God– what little if any she has, she gained as part of her inheritance from Man. That sounds really problematic, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to change the past; ancient peoples often thought in some really disturbing ways about topics such as gender. The challenge, then, is how different thinkers responded to the tension through the power of interpretation.

Jesus as Bridegroom, Humans as Bride

Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 11, has a fascinating take on this passage and how it relates to us:

I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.

For Paul, who is the Woman in the story? We are– we are all Eve, regardless of our gender. Just as the serpent deceived the Woman, all of us– not just those of us whose gender is female– are at risk of being deceived.

For Paul, who is the Man in the story? It is Christ! Christ is the one for whom we are promised to in marriage, as chaste virgins. It is not the case that only females are to marry Christ, but all of us. How’s that for a subversion of gender roles?

As we read Paul here, we can read how he interprets gender operating in Genesis 2. Christ is the Man, the one filled with the breath of God and the dust of the earth(is this sounding familiar? You may have read about that distinction in my post, Discover Paul’s Gnostic Argument in Romans 1!). We, all of us humans, are Eve, the Woman; our glory is derived not from God as Christ’s is, but from Christ as an intermediary.

So, from Paul’s perspective here, we all are to see ourselves as the Woman in the story, and see Christ as the new Adam (the one who does not fall). This is explored in much greater depth in Romans 5!

Revisiting Thomas– Humans as Eve, or Adam?

Understanding that context, let’s revisit Meyer’s translation in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures , of the final saying (#114) in the Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter said to them, “Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life.”
Jesus said, “Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter heaven’s kingdom.”

In this passage, Peter clearly saw himself as superior– perhaps due to being literally male, but also for spiritual reasons. Peter sees himself as being worthy of life in a way that Mary was not. Both Paul and Thomas agree on the first part of the response– they would both tell Peter that, in the, story, he is not really the male; Jesus is the male,  made of dust and of the spirit of God, while we are the females whose glory is secondhand. Where Thomas and Paul disagree is what to do about it.

For Paul, the answer is that we as mortals need to accept our role with Christ as our head; embrace being spiritually “woman”, with Jesus as the true male. Thomas, however, subverts that approach. For Thomas, Jesus came not to inform us we are inferiors, but to make us equals.

Thus, in Thomas, Jesus says that the female must make herself male– that is, that those who derive their spiritual significance from a superior must themselves become that which they once served. In Thomas’ account, we who are spiritually female (per the Genesis story, not filled with pneuma but derived from the one who was filled with pneuma) must become filled with the spirit of God, must become pneumatic.

Concluding Thoughts

Early Christians did not think about gender the same way that most of us think about it, today. While some of the problematic perspectives still affect modern life, their groundings are often lost. Both Paul and Thomas started with the perceptions of their day, but they worked hard to challenge them. Neither simply accepted that women are subservient to men. Paul challenged this by arguing that men are spiritually women; Thomas challenged this by arguing that all (including females) we must spiritually become men.

This is a strange topic, and not a normal way of thinking about the problem. Just as we discussed about the Demiurge, ancient Christians lived long ago and approached tensions in their traditions very differently than we do today. Should we settle for either Paul’s solution or Jesus’ (in Thomas) solution? Maybe; maybe not. Either way, at the least: the more we can learn about these different approaches, the better we can understand the evolution of thought and perspectives on topics like gender.

To wrap up, I want to leave you with a few other sayings from the Gospel of Thomas, which I think this blog post will help you unpack:

Saying 11(4):

“On the day when you were one, you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?”

Saying 106:

Jesus said, “When you make the two into one, you will become children of humanity, and when you say, ‘Mountain, move from here,’ it will move.”


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