Is it me, or R McL Wilson?

In “Thomas and the Growth of the Gospels.” Harvard Theological Review (1960) 53(10): 231-250), R McL Wilson says about GTh 76:

This is sufficiently close to the parable of the Pearl of Great Price to be recognized as simply another version. The only question is which is the more primitive, and here the stress on the merchant’s wisdom is surely secondary, while the phrase “the kingdom of the Father” has a Gnostic ring. (p. 230)

In Studies in the Gospel of Thomas. London, Mowbray (1960), he says:

This seems to make a clear case for dependence on the first Gospel, but a glance at the order must give rise to doubts. Matthew’s chapter of parables begins with the Sower, which in Thomas is logion 9, and continues with an exposition of the reason for the use of parables and with other sayings, … and finally the parables of the Treasure (logion109), the Pearl (logion 76) and the Drag-net (logion 8). If Thomas drew from Matthew, why did he separate the parable one from another in this way? And why do they appear in this order? … On the assumption that Thomas is based on Matthew these fact present a problem. On the other hand we know from comparison with Luke that Matthew has a tendency to assemble his material into large blocks, as for example in the Sermon on the Mount, and the fact that these parables are separated in Thomas, and appear in a different order, may point to the author’s use of a different tradition, or at least to his independent access to the tradition from which Matthew drew. (p.54)

Here, in two publications from the same year, he seems to be arguing quite different positions on the relationship between GThom and Matthew. Or is it just that I am missing something?

Making bread…

…clearly something many biblical scholars don’t do

raised loaves

Raised loaves

I have moved on to the parable of the woman who used some yeast/the parable of the leaven (Gos Thom 96 || Matt 13: 33 || Lk 13: 20-21) and one thing strikes me in the comments of a number of scholars. They talk about the inevitability of yeast creating large loaves. Yeah, right!

Before I started my postgraduate studies, I used to make a lot of bread. I would take it places and people would be amazed that I could do it, because their bread always ended up heavy, hard and nasty-tasting. This puzzled them, because usually they were good at cooking other things and could produce good results simply by following a recipe. With bread, however, there is much more to it than just mixing together yeast, flour and water and putting it in a warm place – there’s a lot about how the dough looks and feels that can’t be described in a recipe.

Things that can cause your bread to spoil:

  • putting your bread in conditions that are too hot – it kills the yeast
  • putting your bread in conditions that are not hot enough – the bread takes forever to rise. At least, however, you can fix this by warming it
  • not putting enough water into the dough – the dough is too heavy for the yeast to work properly, so you get small, dense loaves that aren’t nice to eat
  • putting too much water into the dough – it doesn’t form shapes properly and oozes all over the place, sticks to your fingers and is generally painful to work with
  • putting too much salt in it – salt inhibits the action of the yeast and you get small, dense loaves
  • not putting any salt in it – the yeast works too fast and you get bread with big bubbles in it so your topping leaks through the holes
  • not keeping the top of the rising loaves moist enough – if a tough, dry skin forms, the yeast action is again inhibited and you get small, dense loaves. Now this is easy – you oil it lightly and put it in a plastic bag. No plastic bags in 1st century Palestine, so you used a damp cloth – and had to keep renewing the dampness when it was hot
  • not kneading the dough enough – the gluten doesn’t form properly and you get small, dense loaves
  • kneading the dough too much – too much gluten formation makes the loaves tough. This usually only happens, however, if you are in a very bad mood and are kneading dough to work off your frustrations. :-)
  • not cooking the loaves for long enough – you get a gooey glug in the middle that is very difficult to digest
  • cooking the loaves for too long – they burn and dry out
  • cooking the loaves at too low a temperature – again, you get small, dense loaves
  • cooking the loaves at too high a temperature – yes, they burn, but you can also get small, dense loaves because there should be some rising happening in the oven and if it’s too hot, the yeast dies immediately and you don’t get the extra rising. And remember that in Jesus’ day, ovens did not have a thermostat – you regulated the temperature by watching the fire that was heating your oven very carefully and knowing by experience what you needed to do.

In addition, yeast is a tricky thing to work with because it is alive. Modern home bakers are spoiled. The dried yeast that we can use is much more forgiving than the cake yeast and sourdough starters that were used for many centuries. You can put dried yeast in an airtight container in the freezer and it will keep for years. Even in a cupboard, it lasts for many months.  It also works over a wider range of temperatures than fresh yeast. Fresh yeast really needs to be kept at about body temperature in order to work well. Dried yeast can be significantly hotter and still work beautifully. Cake yeast might last a month or so if frozen, and only a few days in a cool place in the kitchen and a few more days in a fridge. (Do I need to point out that fridges and freezers were not a normal part of 1st century Palestine kitchen equipment?) Dying yeast imparts a nasty, sour taste to the bread and you need to use a lot more to get it to rise. Sourdough starter is a little less finicky, but rises more slowly and must be fed and divided regularly.

So there is nothing inevitable about yeast dough turning into bread, unless it is in the hands of an experienced bread maker. Did Jesus know this? Quite possibly. If he did, then the Gos Thom version is quite likely at least as close to Jesus’ version as are Matt/Luke/Q. The coming of Kingdom of the Father is like the situation where a woman takes a tiny piece of yeast, mixes it with flour (and other ingredients) and cares for it until it turns into big loaves – although I guess you need to be comfortable with Jesus being like a woman to be happy with this interpretation. :-)

Growing wheat …

… or things the parable of the wheat and the tares almost certainly isn’ t saying

I have been working on the parable of the wheat and the tares Matt 13: 24-30 || GTh 57 and have been fascinated by some of the suggestions that various commentators have come up with in the way of interpretation. It is clear that they have never been involved in a wheat-growing enterprise. I have a degree in Agricultural Science and spent the first four years of my ministry in one of the major wheat-growing areas of Australia so I though I would share some of my learning about the process.

First, everyone seems to agree that the ‘tares’ or weeds of the biblical parable are a kind of bearded ryegrass also called ‘darnel’, and with the botanical name Lolium temulentum. For those of you who are not good at botanical names, both the uppercase L at the beginning of the Lolium (regardless of where it appears in a sentence) and the italicised words are essential if you want any agronomical cred at all.

Second, it appears that the basic method of sowing in first century Palestine was to walk through the plough field, throwing handfuls of seed out around you. You didn’t then cover it over, so it wasn’t particularly challenging for someone to come in during the night and throw darnel seed in with your wheat seeds. It appears that it was not until 1701 when Jethro Tull perfected the first horse-drawn seed drill that covering sown seed became anything like a common practice.  And because the seeds are about the same size and shape, unless you had reason to inspect them closely, you would not notice the new seeds sown on top of the old and if you did, you would have a snowball’s chance in hell of picking all the darnel seeds out of your wheat. It also appears that the practice of sowing darnel and wild oats in your neighbour’s crop was common enough in Rome in the early second century CE for there to be a law against it, so this was not just a rhetorical device. (A. J. Kerr, “Matthew 13:25. Sowing Zizania among another’s wheat: Realistic or artificial?,” JTS 48(1997): 108.)

Third, when the wheat and ryegrass plants are small, they look very similar to one another. As they grow bigger, it becomes obvious that the ryegrass leaves are narrower, have less prominent veins and are shinier. Thus, someone who is used to looking at fields of wheat will know before the crop starts to set seed if there is any significant infestation of darnel in their wheat crop. Unfortunately, by the time this becomes obvious, if you have planted your seeds closely enough to get a good yield per acre/hectare the roots of the plants are so intertwined that you run a very serious risk of pulling up wheat plants when you pull up the weeds and they will not respond particularly well to replanting. And while it was probably normal practice for the servants to pull out weeds when they were noticed in a crop, there wouldn’t be all that many in a well-cared-for field, so losing a few wheat plants along the way would not have been a big deal. The crop in the parable had far more darnel plants, though, because extras had been deliberately planted and the plants were probably closer together. The servants probably asked their master about pulling them out expecting that the answer would be ‘don’t.’

Fourth, once heads form even the most inexperienced person can tell the difference, as can be seen from the images to the right. It is not just at the harvest that the different kinds of plant are easily identifiable by all who care to look. The seeds of darnel are poisonous, or are commonly infested by a poisonous fungus, (Penn Veterinary Medicine, Poisonous Plants: Genus: Lolium (2014 ; available from so they cannot be combined with wheat grain and must be disposed of before the grain is threshed from the plants, but when harvesting is done by hand, as happened in first century Palestine, it is easy enough to bind the darnel heads up in bundles and keep them separate from the wheat which is taken away for threshing. This is *not* possible with the modern combine harvesters.

Fourth, harvesting is a labour intensive, time critical activity. The grain cannot be harvested until it is ripe or it will not keep well, will not make good flour and will not sprout if it is being used to sow a new crop the following year. Once it is ripe, it needs to be cut as soon as possible because it will drop from the plant onto the ground and spoil if left too long, and if it rains while the ripe seeds are in the field, they will sprout in the ear and be unsuitable for flour making or replanting. The window of time is often only a few days. In the twenty-first century, the combine harvester goes into the field as soon as the dew has dried off enough and it works until late into the day and sometimes as far into the night as the dew makes possible. In pre-mechanised societies, it was customary to hire day workers as reapers to supplement the farmer’s normal workforce, so the reapers mentioned at the end of the Matthean parable are different people to the servants/slaves at the beginning – it is not just the literary device suggested by some commentators.

Fifth, burning the darnel is the appropriate method of disposing of it, because burning will kill the seeds and make sure that the next crop planted in the field is not infested with darnel plants from viable seed left lying in the field. The more weeds you have in the crop, the more important it is to kill the seeds so you don’t have the same problem the next year. Despite Hultgren’s footnote citing the Dictionary of Life in Bible Times, (Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, Grand Rapids; Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2000 296 n 14. citing “Agriculture” in Willy Corswant (ed) Dictionary of Life in Bible Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960) it is highly unlikely that the tares would normally have been fed to stock, because the seeds are also poisonous to animals. (See, for example, M Tadych and J F White, “Endophytic Microbes,” in Eukaryotic microbes, ed. Moselio Schaechter; Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2012, 56.) Keeping them for fuel has some significant problems in that carrying the ripe darnel plants away from the field has the potential to broadcast the darnel seed across a wide area, thus introducing weeds into other places on your farm, although if fuel was in very short supply, the farmer might have been willing to take this risk.

Thus, the process described in the parable is not the unusual, allegorical account that some commentators want to make of it.

Update: On re-reading the last sentence, I see that this could be interpreted as saying that Matthew doesn’t allegorise the account – of course he does, but the story itself is highly likely to be an account of a normal, if not frequent, happening in first century Palestinian agriculture.

The Jesus Blog: The SBL Memory and Historical Jesus Session–Chris Keith

There are definitely times when living on the other side of the world to the US is a pain. I don’t actually want to live in the US, Canada is too cold and my Spanish is too poor to live in Mexico, but once again I am wishing that attending the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting didn’t involve at least 24 hours in transit each way and at least $4,500 outlay. At least I get to read other people’s blogs about it. Chris Keith has recently posted a piece about The SBL Memory and Historical Jesus Session, which I would have loved to have attended. The post has a number of extended comments which raise some fascinating questions. Well worth the visit.

Recent commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas

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.

Hedrick’s commentary on Thomas

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.

Positive Aspects

  • 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

Negative Aspects

  • 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

And finally

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.

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.