A week or two ago, I got bored with the look of my blog and changed it, but did it in a hurry and failed to notice that the new template didn’t actually include a sidebar for widgets. I think they are all back now, although I am not particularly happy with the look of it and will try to find time to change this in the not too distant future. The blogroll also needs work.
Tony Burke (who seems to have dropped the Chartrand from his name?) has recently posted a review of Mark Goodacre’s Thomas and the Gospels: the case for Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptics (Eerdmans/SPCK, 2012) – something I have been trying to find time to do for some time. In it, he expresses many of both my enthusiasms and reservations about the book and in some cases provides extra arguments to reinforce my opinions. I therefore don’t feel the need to write a systematic review when I can refer readers to Tony’s blog post. Instead, I plan to pick up some of the issues that struck me in particular along the way.
As an aside, though, let me mention that Mark’s publishers have moved into the multimedia world in publicising the book, so you can watch either a trailer or an 8 minute video interview, both linked from Mark’s NTBlog. I enjoyed watching them, but they in no way influenced me to buy the book which I had pre-ordered as soon as I could. I was also very pleased that it was published in paperback rather than hardcover, because it made a ‘must have’ book more affordable. It is clear, incidentally, that there are some subtle differences between the Eerdmans and SPCK editions, because Tony’s review mentions Kloppenborg’s comment on the back cover. My copy (the Eerdmans edition) has comments from Larry Hurtado, Dale Allison, Simon Gathercole and Klyne Snodgrass. No Kloppenborg.
I expected the book to be well written, well researched, well argued and engaging and it is all of those things. As Tony comments, Mark presents his case in ‘an economy of space’, but he presents all the evidence clearly. Several authors I’ve read recently seem to have conserved space by saying things like ‘Bloggs says that the moon is blue’ without outlining Bloggs’ reasons for a highly contentions statement, as though the fact that Bloggs has said it means it requires no rationale. Mark provides the necessary outlines when he quotes, for which I was very grateful.
I now want to look at three issues in particular.
Dependence vs Familiarity
In the first chapter, there is a discussion (pp. 5-7) of the problematic nature of the word ‘dependence’. Mark suggests that it is a loaded term that is best avoided and that ‘knowledge’, ‘familiarity’ or ‘use’ are better. In practice, he tends to use ‘familiarity’ most of the time. I wholeheartedly agree that the term is problematic, but I am not sure that he has found a workable solution, for two reasons.
The first is that, like dependence, the alternatives he suggests are all imprecise terms that are open to a range of interpretations. I would happily agree that I know my husband and children, but if someone were to ask me “do you know Mark Goodacre?” there are circumstances under which I would also say yes, even though we have never met. While there is a fighting chance that I would recognise him at an SBL annual meeting, I doubt that I would recognise him in a place where I wasn’t expecting him to be, but I am very familiar with his work, we are Facebook friends and I have seen quite a few photos of him. There are also circumstances in which I would say that I know Tony Burke, even though I have no idea what he looks like, because I am familiar with the field in which he works, have read his blog and some of his publications. I might also, however, say that I ‘know’ Flogging Molly, even though all I know about them is that they are a band that my husband and son both like, but whose music my daughter doesn’t enjoy. ‘Familiarity’ has a similar number of different levels of meaning. Even ‘use’ is open to interpretation, since I can use things in ways and for purposes for which they were not intended.
The second reason is that I don’t think you can use ‘independence’ and reasonably expect that your audience will not hear ‘dependence’ as its opposite. Mark uses independence throughout the book and I certainly kept thinking of its opposite as dependence, even though I didn’t want to and Mark did not use it. It is, however, difficult to come up with a simple alternative, and maybe that points to another problem with the debate. What exactly are scholars saying when they say that Thomas is independent of the Synoptics? That the author of Thomas did not have a copy of the manuscripts in front of him as he wrote? That the author had never heard of the Synoptics and had no idea what they contained? That he knew the content but did not deliberately consult the tradition in the preparation of his own manuscript?
It seems to me that a better option is simply to describe one’s theory about the relationship between two or more parallel texts and the likely trajectories through which they have travelled to reach their current forms, without trying to find a label when the options are open to as much difference in interpretation as are ‘dependent’, ‘knowledge’, ‘familiarity’ and ‘use’. One might say, for example, that the relationship between two texts is a literary one, with the author of one having had a written copy of the other in front of her/him during the composition of the later work. Or that it is a literary one, with both authors using a common written source which they may have been quoting from memory. Or that it is an oral relationship, or that we cannot be at all sure, given the evidence available. Or any one of a range of other options.
Literary Relationships and the ‘Plagiarist’s Charter’
Mark develops what he terms the ‘plagiarist’s charter’ (pp. 54-56) – that if a student copies only a small percentage of someone else’s work without appropriate acknowledgement, no one will accept the argument that the majority of the work was not plagiarised as proof that plagiarism had not occurred. In the same way, he argues, it is only necessary to demonstrate that a small amount of the material in Thomas is copied from the canonical gospels to demonstrate a literary relationship – it does not have to have been done consistently. While this is true, I think that it is not as easy to demonstrate that even a small amount of Thomasine material has been copied directly from the Synoptics as Mark suggests.
Like Tony, I do not find Mark’s work on verbatim agreements particularly strong. The verbatim agreements between the Greek texts of Thomas and the Synoptics are less than ten words long, and in some cases they are not exactly the same eg POxy 654:25-26 contains the text of Thom 4:2-3||Matt 19:30||Mk 10:31 in which there is a 7 or 8 word agreement in a group of 9 words. I have certainly had TurnItIn suggest to me on the strength of this kind of concurrence that in the paper I was writing on eyewitness testimony I may have neglected to cite material that I had quoted from an article on managment or marketing theory in a journal I had never heard of, let alone consulted.
Mark argues that the fact that the verbatim passages contain unusual words or a hapax legomenon is further evidence of a literary relationship, but this is not necessarily so. The psychological research on human memory and eyewitness testimony suggests that the things most likely to be remembered are those that someone finds interesting or striking and a person who likes words is likely to retain unusual ones, or unusual turns of phrase, so the fact that there is repetition of one or two unusual words is only an indication of familiarity with the tradition, not with the text. One of the examples Mark uses (see p. 47) is that of Werner Kelber using James Robinson’s account of the discover of the Nag Hammadi codices as the basis for his own. Mark highlights the use of a number of phrases, the most remarkable of which is “the ultimate act of blood revenge”, as clear evidence of a literary relationship (which is provable because Kelber provides a citation). While in this case we know that the relationship is a literary one, without Kelber’s citation, all that we could say would be that Kelber was familiar with Robinson’s wording. We would have no way of knowing whether Kelber had read Robinson’s book section or whether he had simply attended a lecture where Robinson was telling the story of the discovery, or even heard someone else tell the story of the discovery as they had heard it from Robinson. If a student hands in an essay which contains a small verbatim section of another work, we cannot tell whether s/he has had access to the original work or is simply using a quotation from it that s/he has found on the net or in a review of the work. In the same way, a verbatim quote of a short passage or several short passages from one of the Synoptics in another or in Thomas is not a guarantee that the author who has quoted the material had access to the entire text from which the excerpt comes.
In addition, I’m afraid I don’t find arguments about verbatim agreement between a Greek text and a Coptic text at all convincing. Even though Mark uses Bethge’s retroversion of the Coptic text into Greek, this retroversion was still created by someone who was very familiar with the canonical texts so could hardly help but have been influenced by that in his translations. I think it provides indication of possibilities rather than concrete evidence.
The Missing Middle
This is a new issue in the argument for a direct literary relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics. Mark argues that there are a number of times when Thomas fails to narrate the middle part of a particular parable or saying, so that there is a need to be familiar with the Synoptics in order for it to make sense (p. 109). He then provides examples. Like Tony I would argue that sayings 26 and 63 are not unintelligible without the Synoptic middles – one is only conscious of something missing because of familiarity with the Synoptics. I am not so sure about saying 89 (washing the inside of the cup) which Tony suggests is clear without the middle, but the Lukan version of this parable is not exactly clear, either, even with the middle added. I don’t find saying 100 (tribute to Caesar) unintelligible, and the fact that it does not have any contextual framing that explains why ‘they’ would show him a coin with Caesar’s image on it is not unusual for Thomas. The other two, sayings 36 (what will you wear) and 57 (the weeds in the wheat), do indeed show signs of missing material, but given that we only have one manuscript of the Thomasine versions of these two sayings, the missing material could just as easily be a result of haplography on the part of a scribe at some stage between the autograph and NH II,2 as a result of Thomas assuming knowledge of the Synoptic versions of the stories.
In addition, I think that in trying to determine what kind of relationship there is between various parallels in early Christian texts, insufficient notice is taken of the fact that the Church holds that these accounts all stem back to the teachings of Jesus, which has been passed on orally for a significant period before it was written down. We tend to behave as though Jesus only ever told each parable once and that version was preserved in the form in which it left Jesus’ lips for some indeterminate period after which the gospel writers adjusted it to fit their particular theological purposes. In fact, it is highly likely that Jesus used his stories more than once, that in the manner of all good story-tellers, he adjusted both the framing and the actual wording as he interacted with his different audiences, and that those who heard the stories made their own adjustments as they passed on what they heard. This makes it extremely likely that extended verbatim correlations such as occur between the Synoptics are the result of a textual relationship where the author compared his version with an earlier document, but that shorter verbatim correlations, such as those that occur between the Synoptics and Thomas cannot be taken as conclusive evidence of anything other than a source which might be textual or oral that is shared by the authors of the texts.
As I said at the outset, Mark’s book is well written, well researched, well argued and engaging and a ‘must have’ for any serious Thomas scholar. I am very pleased that I bought it. It has caused me to rethink how I understand the relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics and has helped me to begin to fit into place some ideas that have been wandering in my head for some time.
A very definite positive is Mark’s calling into question the problematic nature of the category ‘dependent’. I don’t, however, think that simply substituting another word is the solution. I think we need to give up on shorthand terms and describe exactly how we believe parallel texts are related.
Ultimately, however, I am not convinced that the relationship between the parallel passages in Thomas and the Synoptics is based on the author of Thomas having had access to the text of one or more of the Synoptics. This is not to say that I am convinced that it is impossible for this to be the case. I simply do not think that on the strength of three Greek fragments and one Coptic text we have sufficient information to be able to make a definitive judgement. Like Tony, I still find April DeConick’s rolling corpus model the most useful model for the evidence we have.
One of the things I have been doing recently instead of working on my thesis is reading Tim Bulkeley’s book Not Only A Father. You can, too – for free because it’s online as well as available in paper form – and the online format allows you to comment or ask questions along the way, which is fun.
Tim is a Baptist who has been a pastor in Britain, a missionary in Africa and an Old Testament lecturer in New Zealand and he has been thinking about the way we name God and its implications since he started work on his PhD in the 1970s. The book takes a careful look at what language Scripture actually uses when it talks about God (not only Father and not only male, but also Mother and female) and also at the implications of insisting that Father is the only proper title for God and that male imagery is the only proper imagery for God.
I am liking the content and I like the fact that I can make comments and ask questions as I go, knowing that Tim will read them and quite likely respond. I am not, however, a big fan of reading books on line – I still like paper, especially for reference material. The interface is a bit ‘clunky’, but the material is very, very worthwhile.
Earlier this year, I attended a seminar in Melbourne at which Richard Burrdige was one of the speakers. I found out that there is a Fellowship for Biblical Studies operating and I joined just in time to offer a paper for their inaugural conference and have it accepted.
Sean Winter has posted the program on his blog, so I won’t bother. I am a little awed to discover that all the papers are going to be presented in plenary, since I am used to being part of a parallel program where people have some opportunity to choose what they want to hear. At least, however, I will only be presenting to biblical scholars, even if some of them focus on the Hebrew Scriptures. At UNE school seminars, I get to present to historians, classicists, philosophers, archaeologists and people from peace studies and international studies so I spend about half of my presentation sketching in the background.
Here’s the abstract:
Matthew, Luke and Thomas all tell stories about a man who lost one of his hundred sheep and left the other ninety-nine to go and look for it. They start out with the same basic details, but the significance they give to the sheep and to the happy ending are different in each gospel. This paper will explore the similarities and differences between the three lost sheep stories and examine their implications for our understanding of the relationship between sheep and shepherd and the relationship between the three. In doing so, it will try to take seriously the effects of oral transmission and human memory as well as scribal redaction on the extant versions of the text.
I’ve been enjoying doing the research for this – it is helping me to think about how to integrate my work on memory and eyewitness testimony better into my thesis/dissertation. In the process, I have been interested to note how much tighter the referencing conventions have become in the last thirty or forty years. Jacques Ménard’s 1975 commentary on Saying 107 owes a huge amount to that of Wolfgang Schrage (1964) – in a significant part of the comment he has done virtually nothing other than translate Schrage’s words from German into French – yet there is very minimal acknowledgement. Even a first year undergrad would get a very stern warning about plagiarism nowadays, but I assume from the fact that the book is published by Brill that this was considered fair dealing back then!
Over at Peje Iesous, Chris Skinner recently commented about Charles Hedrick talking about the ‘onus of proof’ being on those who claim that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, which reminded me of how irritating I find this kind of statement. We both agreed that Hedrick is not by any means the only person to use these words - Simon Gathercole, Nicholas Perrin and Robert McIver use them, or ‘burden of proof’, too, as do others – and we also both agreed that the onus of proof is on anyone who makes an assertion, not those who wish to disagree with her or him. This is especially the case in the area of Thomas studies where there is very little scholarly consensus on anything.
I would go further than that, though, I think. I find it really difficult to see how scholars can talk about proof at all when all that we have in the way of evidence is three Greek manuscript fragments that nobody realised were from Thomas for half a century after they were found, one more or less full manuscript in Coptic and a few quotes or paraphrases, generally disparaging, from various of the church fathers. I am not even convinced that we can talk about proof when dealing with the canon, given that everyone recognises that the content was not written down until several decades after the events and teachings that they portray. We may have theories that fit the facts, or theories that fit the facts better than other theories – although the fit of the latter usually depends on what weighting you want to give to various pieces of evidence – but we really don’t have proof!
Honesty, I would suggest, would compel us to acknowledge that the best we can really do is to propose a series of more likely possibilities and make choices between them on the basis of what fits best with our particular world view and view of Scripture. Typically, when someone says “the burden/onus is on you to disprove what I have said” they are standing on one side of a divide which is caused by disagreement over basic, underlying principles. The words make me want to look very carefully for holes in the argument being propounded.
This kind of problem becomes very clear when you watch debates between Richard Dawkins and whoever the local favourite Christian leader is. The atheists in the audience are generally sure that Dawkins has won and the conservative Christians in the audience generally think that the Christian leader has won, but since Dawkins’ arguments are based on the premise that there is no God and the Christian leaders’ are based on the premise that God created the world and everything in it, neither is going to find the arguments of the other convincing.
Unless we find more old manuscripts of Thomas, I think that the best we can realistically hope for is to outline the problems that our particular solutions solve and those they raise and accept that some Thomas scholars will agree with us and others will not be convinced at all. We need to learn to live with the fact that we probably can’t be generally acknowledged to be right, but we can be rigorous and we should all strive to be interesting.
On Friday and Saturday of last week, I attended Wisdom’s Feast – an annual event run by the Centre for Theology and Ministry of the Uniting Church’s Vic/Tas Synod. This year’s theme was “Rivers of Life” and one of the sessions I attended was led by Sean Winter, who looked at water in John’s gospel. This, not surprisingly, included the Woman at the Well – one of my favourite gospel passages. Some of the material I wrote but couldn’t use in my chapter for the forthcoming book Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John (Library of New Testament Studies; London: T & T Clark, edited by Chris Skinner), intersected with what Sean was saying, so I thought I would share it here, instead, with additions prompted by Sean.
Sean pointed out that in John, the imagery of water always has the potential to teach the reader/hearer something about life in the Spirit and that when water is introduced as a physical element of a Johannine story, it rapidly becomes spiritualised. This is definitely the case in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. He begins by asking her for a drink (v 7), which surprises her because Jews don’t normally share things with Samaritans (v 9). He responds to her surprise by saying that if she knew who he was, she would be asking him for a drink of water (the Greek here has a dual meaning – either running water or water that gives life) (v 10).
Whenever I have heard the next verse read aloud, it has always been made to sound as though the woman is respectful and subservient, but I don’t think this is right. It doesn’t fit well with her question in v 12 – “are you greater than our ancestor Jacob…?” I think it is more likely that she decides that not only is the Jew unusual in talking to her, but also at least a little loopy. She is an intelligent woman, capable, as we will see, of holding her own in a theological conversation, so she tries to discourage him, but carefully, since they are alone at the well and he doesn’t appear to be quite balanced.
“So, sir, there is a major flaw in this offer – you don’t happen to have a bucket and this well is too deep for you to just lean over and scoop some up with your hands. (I have the bucket, remember – that’s why you asked me for water.) Who do you think you are – are you greater than our ancestor Jacob (ie, do you think you can create a new spring)?”
Jesus responds by telling her that the water he’s offering will mean she will never be thirsty again. It is not clear at this stage whether she is still humouring him – “Yes. OK. Give me some of this water so I don’t have to keep coming back here to draw water (v 15)” – or whether he has started to convince her that his offer is worht considering, but I agree with Sean that at this stage she is not actually conceptualising him as the Messiah.
It isn’t until he tells her to go and call her husband and it becomes clear that he knows an awful lot about her domestic situation that she starts to think that there might be something more to him than she had initially thought – and then she names him a prophet (v 19). Even when she leaves her jar of water and goes back to the town to tell the others, she is still saying “he cannot be the Messiah, can he?” in a way that in the Greek expects the answer “no”. We never hear a claim that Jesus is Messiah from her lips, although it is probably reasonable to assume from v 42 that she, like the people of the town, believes him to be “the Saviour of the world.”
Traditional interpretation depicts her as an outcast because she is at the well in the middle of the day by herself, has had five husbands and is now living with a man to whom she is not married. In order to come to this conclusion the reader needs to fill in the information that women normally went to wells together in the morning or evening, avoiding the heat of the day, and that this woman had been divorced five times. Given that average maximum winter temperatures in the area are around 12-16 degrees Centigrade (50-60 degrees Fahrenheit), noon does not always mean hot, though; unexpected events can lead to the need to get more water than was anticipated; and her husbands may have died from illness and accident until the point where there was no further male relative in her first husband’s family that she could marry. The fact that, when she returns to town the people she meets come out to find him suggests that she was probably not a total outcast.
I like this story because it traces the growth in the woman’s understanding of Jesus and her belief in him and because in it we have an account of a Gentile woman who not only comes to saving faith but is the means by which others come, too. I really don’t think, though that she immediately recognised Jesus as anything other than what she hoped was a harmless nutter of the kind that you get stuck sitting beside on a long haul plane flight when you haven’t brought significant work with you to do. We also need to remember that the account of the original conversation between Jesus and the woman cannot have been a firsthand account (unless we would like to suggest that the woman at the well was the beloved disciple – not a line I would like to try to run) because the woman and Jesus were the only two there. It would be interesting to know whether Jesus or the woman is the source of the story.
When I first started studying Thomas in about 2004, I asked about commentaries and was told that the only English language full commentary available was Richard Valantasis’ The Gospel of Thomas (London and New York: Routledge, 1997) and that I was really better off getting a copy of Jacques Ménard’s L’Évangile Selon Thomas (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975).
Since then, there have been five commentaries published in English and one in German. They are:
Nordsieck, Reinhard, Das Thomas-Evangelium: Einleitung: Zur Frage des historischen Jesus: Kommentierung aller 114 Logien. (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2004).
DeConick, April D, The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, With a Commentary and New English Translation of the Complete Gospel (London: T & T Clark, 2006), together with the companion volume DeConick, April D, Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth (London: T&T Clark, 2005).
Plisch, Uwe-Karsten, The Gospel of Thomas : original text with commentary (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2008) – a translation from German.
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).
Hedrick, Charles W., Unlocking the secrets of the Gospel according to Thomas: a radical faith for a new age. (Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2010).
I have linked to my reviews of them, although the material on Plisch is in a post that gives another overview of commentaries, rather than (as yet) having a review of its own. In addition, two books have been published on Thomas this year (Chris Skinner’s What are they Saying About the Gospel of Thomas (Paulist) and Simon Gathercole’s The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas (Cambridge)) and a third, Mark Goodacre’s Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics (Eerdmans) is due out soon. Clearly, there is a significant increase in interest in Thomas!
Update (because I hit publish instead of save draft)
Hedrick’s commentary is suitable for a reader who is not a biblical scholar. The rest assume some knowledge of the discipline. DeConick and Plisch spend a significant amount of time looking at scholarship in the field and provide extensive bibliographies (as does Nordsieck, but in German). Porkorný and Hedrick place less emphasis on this and have much more limited bibliographies. It does not appear that Plisch’s commentary is available in paperback, but all the others are. All are worthy of attention in their own ways, but if I were only to buy two I would choose DeConick and Plisch and would recommend that you also buy DeConick’s companion volume.
Another reasonably recent commentary on Thomas is:
Charles Hedrick’s Unlocking the Secrets of the Gospel According to Thomas
Hedrick, Charles W. Unlocking the Secrets of the Gospel According to Thomas: A Radical Faith for a New Age. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2010.
Hedrick is distinguished Emeritus Professor at Missouri State University in the US and has written extensively on Thomas, the Synoptic problem and parables (among other things). He blogs at Wry thoughts about religion and is a fellow of the Westar Institute (home of the Jesus Seminar and Polebridge Press).
This commentary is aimed at a more general audience than is Pokorný’s. Hedrick provides a glossary of terms and names that are likely to be unfamiliar to someone without some formal education or reading in scholarly writings about early Christianity. The translation he provides of the text uses gender neutral terms where possible and less formal English than is usual in commentaries. For example, he translates the closing sentence of Saying 8 as “Better pay attention to this” rather than the more usual variants around “Let the one who has ears listen” and uses the term “imperial rule” rather than the familiar “kingdom.” He has also chosen to subdivide a number of the sayings so that sections that are clearly different in content are numbered separately. For example, he treats saying 47 in four separate sections – the sayings about not serving two masters; not wanting to drink new wine after old; not putting new wine into old wineskins; and the one about not sewing an old patch onto a new garment. This makes sense to me, but I am not so sure about his decision not to include the “Jesus says” at the beginning of each saying.
Assessment of Thomas
I will again address Skinner’s three questions as a way into the material.
When was it written?
It was composed or compiled for the first time for the first time by the late first or early second century, or perhaps earlier (p 3).
What is its relationship to the canonical gospels?
Thomas is a “collection of collections” of sayings of Jesus. Each saying needs to be considered individually and regarded as potentially independent until it can be shown to be dependent on the Synoptics (p 15).
What is its genre and theological outlook?
As noted above, Thomas is a collection of collected sayings of Jesus, so it doesn’t have a consistent systematic theology (p 7). As a whole it is not a Gnostic text, although it contains ideas that are in line with Gnostic thought, just as it contains ideas that are in line with early orothodox Christianity.
Other items of note
Hedrick considers that only a small percentage of the sayings in Thomas actually originated with the historical Jesus – most of them represent the work of Jesus’ followers at various times and in various places (p 8). He says, however, that a good case can be made for the noncannonical sayings 82 and 98 to have originated with Jesus. It tells us nothing about the historical Jesus because its author has no interest in the person of Jesus, only in his teachings.
- the layout is clear and easy to follow
- Hedrick shows how the various sayings link to one another (at least in his opion – I suppose others might disagree)
- He also indicates the links to Q and to the canonical material
- He also indicates where in the commentary he has first dealt with recurring themes eg whenever the imperial reign of the Father appears in a saying, the reader is referred back to the first place where it is mentioned. This makes it possible to dip easily into the comment on a particular saying and follow his line of thought about the various issues it raises
- the writing style is engaging and easy to read
- the bibliography is relatively brief
- because of his translation choice, it is not easy to see the Coptic text in the English translation. He does, however, normally justify unusual choices of translation
This commentary would be a good introduction to the text for a reader with little background in biblical studies, but still provides stimulation for the more expert reader. While it does not provide the depth of analysis that is found in either DeConick or Plisch’s commentaries, it is still definitely worth consulting.
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)
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?
- 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?)
- 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.
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.
First, I have been re-reading some of my earlier posts and have been doing a little editing and tagging. I am not sure if this has resulted in the posts popping up again for those who subscribe to this blog by RSS etc. If you have been getting notices about new posts and seen that you’ve read them before, this is the reason why.
Second, Chris Skinner has just started blogging about Simon Gathercole’s new book on Thomas over at Peje Iesous. I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say.
Third, the reason I was going back through old posts was to see how far I had got through my series of notes on commentaries on Thomas. (The answer is not far – I have done DeConick, Nordsieck and Kasser and a bit of an outline of Uwe-Karsten Plisch’s book in the initial post about commentaries). The reason for this is that I am in the process of reading Petr Pokorny’s A Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas: From Interpretations to the Interpreted (T&T Clark Jewish and Christian Texts Series: New York, 2009). There don’t seem to be terribly many reviews of it in journals and I find it interesting, so am planning on posting on it in the next little while.