Back to commentaries – Pokorný

Returning to my series on commentaries on GosThom, I want to look at:

Petr Pokorný’s A Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas

Pokorný, Petr, Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas: From interpretations to the interpreted.  T&T Clark Jewish and Christians Texts Series. New York: T&T Clark Ltd, 2009 (hardcover) and 2011 (paperback).

Pokorný is Professor of New Testament exegesis at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.  He is a former president of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, fellow of several Learned Societies. A festschrift in honour of his 70th birthday was published in 2004, so he has a long track record in the field. He is the author of 12 German monographs, textbooks and commentaries, some of which have been translated into English.  This commentary was, however, written in English. It uses the English translation of the Berliner Arbeitskreis für Koptisch-Gnosticsche Schriften as the text of Thomas.

The format of the commentary is fairly traditional – general information about the text followed by detailed comment on each saying. Each of the individual commentaries is divided into two parts. Part A looks at individual features and part B provides a more general overview. The comment sections are generally followed by a short list of relevant literature.

Assessment of Thomas

Seeing I found Skinner’s formulation of the three major issues for Thomas scholarship today helpful, I thought I would use them as the structure for this section, but found this somewhat difficult at times. When he addresses an issue, Pokorný has a tendency to present the arguments of various scholars and outline the consequences of each of them. Unfortunately, however, because of the way he uses tenses and sentence structure, it is not always clear (at least not to me) when he is saying “if you take this position, then you must necessarily believe X and not believe Y” and when he is saying “my position is X and not Y”.

When was it written?

Pokorný contends that Thomas originated later than the Synoptics and that the version we have “represents a theolgical stream that originated in the early second century” (p 19) and “originated at a time when some of the earlier Gospels had already attained canonical status” (p 13).  He thus rejects the idea that Thomas is one of the earliest documents of Christian literature (p 15). However, he also identifies five different versions that have existed, including the one represented by Hippolytus’ quotation of saying 3, which he suggests is a later version than NHII,2 (pp 20-25).

What is its relationship to the canonical gospels?

Pokorný states that the fact that has been named “The Gospel of Thomas”  despite its genre (see below) indicates that at the point where the title was added (the third version) the “text claimed canonical authority”. I would suggest that it was the editor who claimed canonical authority on its behalf, but the point is well made. He further suggests that it was used as a liturgical text in place of the canonical gospels (p 22). This is not, however, the issue that is raised by Skinner in posing this question and Pokorný spends several pages on Skinner’s issue – examining the relationship between Thomas and John and then between Thomas and the Synoptics.

He notes that there a number of similarities between the theologies of John and Thomas, which he says is understandable because both have links with Syria. He does not reject the idea that John is a reaction to Thomas, but says how much John was influenced by Thomas is unknown. He suggests that the Thomas group seem to have gained ground in Syria after the Johannine group left for Asia Minor (pp 16-17).

With respect to the relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics, he rejects both of the black and white models – ie that Thomas is totally derived from the Synoptics and that it is totally independent – in favour of a development in several stages that involves the use of some material that either comes directly from the Synoptic tradition or from a shared source, as well as some independent tradition. He thus appears to be saying that, although it is not early, it can still provide us with useful information about Jesus and his teachings, or at least how the early church received them.

What is its genre and theological outlook?

Pokorný states that Thomas is not the same literary genre as the canonical gospels – it is not a biography. From a purely literary perspective, it belongs to the same genre as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Pseudo-Phyocydes or the New Testament letter of James – a collection of wise sayings. It is, however, different from a simple collection of proverbs in that it is a collection of dominical sayings and as such it belongs to a genre represented by Q,  by the small collections of sayings of Jesus that are included in the Gospels  eg the parables from Mark 4 and by the special source of Luke and other early collections (pp 7-8).

He holds that to say that the Gospel of Thomas is Gnostic is anachronistic. Even though it was used by Gnostics, all that can be found in it is a theology influenced by the Platonic ideas that were popular at the time of its writing and were used by Gnostics – although  Hippolytus’ version of Saying 3 shows a much stronger Gnostic influence. It seems that the subheading on p 27 of the section on the theology of Thomas reflects his position: that it sits “between Gnosticism and mainstream Christianity”.

Other items of note

In four separate places, Pokorný states as though it were a given that putting Jesus’ sayings in the context of an account of his life resulted in their being (better) preserved (emphasis added by me in each case).

Admittedly, the pieces of tradition that have been embedded in the canonical Gospels are preserved in an interpreted form; but after they have been written and used in liturgy, they underwent only minor changes. By linking them with Jesus’ deeds, with descriptions of his attitudes, and by placing them within the contingent past of Jesus’ life, they have indeed been preserved. (p 10)

Christian proclamation, which originally was considered to be a kind of sermon on biblical texts, became now liturgical text itself. The tradition about Jesus has been preserved and protected from falsification because it was framed by the life story of the earthly Jesus. (p 11)

We have to suppose that from the very beginning fragments of memories circulated among Jesus’ adherents, and the fact that from a speech of Jesus some of the hearers recalled only individual sayings that seemed to them memorable is understandable and probable. The narrrative frame protected the sayings from transformation better than the genre of a collection of sentences, but the free circulation still did not stop immediately. (p 18)

and finally

Finally, the method of conserving Jesus’ teaching in individual sayings as in the wisdom traditions and prophetic proclamation is obviously more ancient than the method of setting his teaching in a biographical frame, as invented by Mark. All the same, the biographic frame conserved the ancient layer of the Jesus tradition more effectively than collections of his sayings. (p 158)

He appears to be arguing that the fact that Jesus sayings were preserved in the canon in the context of Jesus’ life is some kind of guarantee that they were better preserved. Although the first two quotes also mention use in a liturgical context, he maintains elsewhere that Thomas was used instead of the Synoptics in the liturgies of the Thomas community (p 22). Perhaps a reader can help here?

Positive Aspects

  • the layout is clear and easy to follow.
  • Pokorný pays particular attention to the relationship between each saying and any canonical parallels
  • he builds on the work of others and draws on his own research to develop some fresh and interesting ideas about the various texts. My reaction on reading the introductory material was that it is different, unexpected, although I cannot quite articulate how. In the comment on saying 8 he suggests that the big fish represents the human soul, as do the large branch in the mustard seed parable and the big sheep in the lost sheep parable. I am not aware of this having been suggested elsewhere in the literature (although perhaps I am suffering from memory lapse?)

Negative Aspects

  • part of the part B of the comment on saying 8 (the parable of the net) actually belongs with the comment on saying 9, the parable of the sower.
  • the decision to transliterate djandja as č and kyima as q makes perfect sense to speakers of Slavic languages, but not to the average English speaker
  • most importantly, as I have indicated above, there are many places where the English is not smooth, times where it is ambiguous or difficult to follow and one or two places where what he is trying to communicate is quite unclear. It would have benefitted from more effective editing.

And finally

For the Thomas scholar, this commentary provides interesting insights into the text and comment on the work of other scholars and is certainly worth reading. I would probably not recommend it as an introduction to the text, however – it assumes too much background knowledge.

A little plug here for T&T Clark/Continuum – again they have released a paperback edition not too long after the publication of the hardcover. I bought the hardcover but my paperback copy of De Conick’s Recovering the Original Gospel of  Thomas is perfect bound (ie stitched in sections), rather than having the cut binding (pages just glued individually into the cover) of many cheaper paperbacks. I assume that this is their standard paperback binding method, so I would definitely be inclined to buy the paperback version rather than the hardcover.

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4 thoughts on “Back to commentaries – Pokorný

  1. Thanks Judy, for this review. You are saying that Pokorny’s book is a worthy addition to GTh studies, though his writing style sometimes makes his meaning unclear.

  2. Pingback: Judy Redman reviews Petr Pokorny’s Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas « PEJE IESOUS

  3. Pingback: Recent commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas « Judy’s research blog

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