Secret Scriptures Revealed – Tony Burke

Over the past little while, I have been reading Tony Burke’s Secret Scriptures Revealed – A new introduction to the Christian Apocrypha (London, SPCK, 2013). It took me a while because I was using it as my ongoing light reading material – the book I read to relax before going to bed and take with me to read in waiting rooms etc, rather than something I was using for my research.

Tony has been studying the Christian Apocrypha for many years and this book aims to provide the intelligent non-expert in biblical studies with clear, accessible information about them. I think he succeeds.

It is divided into seven chapters. The first asks (and answers) “what are the Christian apocrypha?”; the second provides an overview of what studying them is involved; the third looks at apocryphal lives of Jesus; the fourth at passion and resurrection gospels; the fifth focuses on legends about Jesus in the early church; chapter six looks at myths, misconceptions and misinformation about the Christian apocrypha; and the final (short) chapter sums up what has been covered. It doesn’t have footnotes, endnotes or in text referencing, but at the end of each section there is a box which tells the reader where the information has come from and there is a bibliography at the end, as well as a section on where to go for further information.

In addition to providing information about the texts themselves, Tony makes links between them and popular literature of today – like The Da Vinci Code – and indicates where there has been exaggeration and misrepresentation. He looks at where the texts came from, who wrote them, why they weren’t included in the Bible and whether reading them is harmful to personal faith (he says no and I agree with him).

I enjoyed reading it. Because I haven’t made an extensive study of the Christian apocrypha, I learned quite a number of things from it quite painlessly and am confident from what he has to say about the texts that I have studied in some depth that what he has written is accurate and trustworthy.  He gives the reader a taste for what can be found in each of the texts he covers, and shows them where they can find out more, including the names of trustworthy places on the web, whilst acknowledging that this can become out of date quite quickly.  I would definitely recommend it for those interesting in getting an introduction to and an overview of the Christian apocrypha.

Old doctoral dissertations

When I started my doctoral candidature, I got the library to do a search to see if any doctoral dissertations had been written in my subject area. They found three: one from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; one from Emory University; and one from St Andrew’s University. I decided that the St Andrew’s one was not sufficiently interesting for me to be bothered going through the procedure needed to sight it. We had to borrow it on interlibrary loan and I had to sign a declaration saying that I would neither remove it from the library nor photocopy it; I could only have it for a relatively short period and that period included the postage time to and from Scotland. I must add that this was a number of years ago and St Andrew’s may have changed their policy since then. Emory already had theirs microfilmed and happily posted me a printout at a reasonable cost. Southwestern needed to photocopy their original but once they had worked out how to allow me to pay them from outside the US, they did the copying speedily and again at a very reasonable price. I got both of them softbound, skimmed them and then put them aside until I needed them for detailed text work.

I’ve just started working with them and am finding that they provide quite detailed information about the state of play of scholarship up to the first half of the 1960s – both were examined in 1965. I assume this is because there was a limited amount of material written at that stage, so they could describe it in more detail without exceeding the word limit. I am also in awe of the task that must have been involved in producing a thesis in the era before computers.

Hollie L. Briscoe’s  “A Comparison of the Parables in the Gospel According to Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels” (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1965) begins with the assumption that Gos Thom is a Gnostic adaptation of the Synoptics and unfortunately has a rather mechanistic approach to demonstrating that this is true. Any word or phrase that can be used in a Gnostic sense he claims as Gnostic and further proof of his claim, even though all his examples can be used in other ways as well. It’s not dissimilar to the approach taken by a number of other early Thomas scholars and I don’t find it particularly compelling. That aside, however, he provides useful summaries of the scholarship at the time, and a helpful bibliography. Theologically, I sometimes find it uncomfortable, but that is not particularly surprising given where it comes from. He nevertheless demonstrates the difference in emphasis between Thomas and the Synoptics effectively. My copy is now bristling with labelled sticky notes so I can find the necessary sections quickly as I address particular pieces of text. I appreciated his decision to transliterate all words that needed to be written in a non-English script, given the limitations of the manual typewriter that was used to produce the thesis. I also appreciate the footnotes which must have driven his typist demented!!!

I find John Bunyan Sheppard’s “A Study of the Parables Common to the Synoptic Gospels and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas” (PhD, Emory University, 1965) theologically more comfortable, but I do wish he’d decided to transliterate the Greek and Coptic rather than painstakingly hand writing slabs of both languages in a hand that would not have got him a job as a community scribe or in a scriptorium in earlier times. Again, he provides detailed summaries of the scholarship of the time and because of the way he’s divided the texts I can use the index to find the bits that interest me, which is better than sticky notes. On the other hand, unlike Briscoe, Sheppard has gone for end notes, which means sticky notes at the back so I can find the relevant notes reasonably quickly.

If, like me, you are interested in the specific parables that Thomas has in common with the Synoptics, both these dissertations are worth looking at, even though thought about them has moved on since 1965.

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.

Two Thomas-related links

Andrew Bernhard has posted an interview that he and Mike Grondin conducted with Christopher Skinner about his new book John and Thomas: Gospels in Conflict? (Wipf & Stock, 2009) on his site. I’ve read the interview, but not the book – one of the downsides of doing graduate study part time is that you have to choose what you read and none of the texts that I’m looking at for my research appear in John. The interview, not surprisingly, concentrates on the relationship between the two gospels, something on which I have no considered opinion. Skinner’s response to the first question in the interview, however, makes a great deal of sense. The question is:

You point out in your book that questions about the Gospel of Thomas’s date of origin, relationship to the canonical gospels, and theology seem to have been inextricably linked in modern scholarship (either the text is treated as early, literarily independent, and non-gnostic OR late, literarily dependent, and gnostic). However, you clearly indicate your dissatisfaction with this situation by writing, “an awareness of this trend in previous scholarship points to the present need for careful examination of each question on its own terms.” Why do you feel it’s so important to treat each of these questions individually? And do you think that’s realistic?

The answer you can read on Andrew’s site.

In the interview that Skinner interacts reasonably significantly with the work of April DeConick, Elaine Pagels and Gregory Riley. April has posted a clarification of her position on her Forbidden Gospels site.

Two further notes about this book:

  • Discussion about the book with Dr. Skinner is ongoing on the Gospel of Thomas e-list, and all are invited to participate. You will need to join the list in order to do so and you will be requested to give a reason for wanting to join. An interest in the discussion would be deemed an appropriate reason. :-)
  • Wipf & Stock have agreed to give a 40% discount to on-line purchasers who have visited Andrew’s site, so if this is an area of interest to you and you’re in the market for a copy of the book, head right over and find out what you need to do.


Christopher Skinner has now responded to April’s response on his Peje Iesous blog. relaunch

Andrew Bernhard relaunched his site this week.  It has a new look and in his words:

It is now “an online resource dedicated to the Gospel of Thomas and other early Christian gospels” … The design is straightforward. It includes a blog, which will focus on providing the latest news relevant to the study of early Christian gospels not included in the New Testament.

It also includes three web pages, which I have labeled “resource centers.”

Each resource center provides extensive lists of helpful online and offline resources. These lists aren’t intended to be exhaustive. Instead, I want to focus on highlighting top-quality websites, blogs, books, and articles that deal with the pertinent gospels and related subjects. I will ultimately be providing a summary of the nature of each offline resource, effectively creating a select annotated bibliography for each of the different gospels (but this will take some time since I’ve already got nearly 100 bibliographic entries posted).

The Thomas material is already linked in the blogroll from this blog, but I expect that some readers are also interested in the other non-canonical gospels. Andrew currently has material on the Gospels of Judas, Mary, Peter, Ebionites, Nazarean, Hebrews, Secret Mark, Infancy Gospels of Thomas and James, The Unknown Gospel: Egerton Papyrus 2 and Oxyrhynchus Parchment 840.

Thomas, Gnosticism and WordPress Polls

OK.  So you can do polls in WordPress, and I have worked out how they worked, thanks to 35 people who voted in mine.  I am not sure, however, why one might bother.

I can say quite categorically that of the 35 people who voted in my poll, only 11 think that it is a gnostic text and one of those admits that this is not a personal opinion, but something s/he read somewhere. The other 24, together with Mike and Paul, who wrote comments, think it is something else.  Given the nature of this blog, it is probably reasonable to suggest that at least some of the voters are familiar with the debate, but who knows who voted and therefore whether this is a reasonable representation of current thinking in the field or not? WordPress polls only allow you to ask one question per poll, so you can’t get demographics to go with the answers.

In addition, as was pointed out to me in an email, who knows what definition of gnostic the respondents were using?  I personally warm to Birger Pearson’s as found in Ancient Gnosticism Traditions and Literature. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007. (This book is currently sitting on my desk at home, so I can’t replicate it here, but it’s a much tighter definition than the one Michael Williams rejects in Rethinking “Gnosticism”:  An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. paperback ed. Vol. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999.)

So, probably no more polls on this blog.

Is Thomas gnostic?

It appears that it is now possible to add polls to WordPress blogs (assuming one is able to deal with the tech bits), so I thought I’d do a slightly more serious one than I’ve seen on other blogs in the last day or so. When I tell people I’m doing a PhD on the Gospel of Thomas, many nod sagely and say “Oh, yes, the Gnostic gospel.” I actually don’t think it’s Gnostic but I’m wondering what other readers of this blog think. You will be pleased to see that there is an option where you can write in your own answer in case you don’t like any of mine. There is probably a character limit for the write-in box. If you find out what it is, please let me know. :-)


It appears that the comments in “other” don’t show up when you check the votes, so I will paste them here. So far, there are three:

  • Wisdom literature with gnostic overtones
  • It’s eclectic – wisdom traditions, mystic traditions, gnostic traditions, synoptic
  • Gnostic, but only because that’s what I read somewhere.

Update 2

And a fourth:

  • Wisdom open to gnostic interpretation

Update 3

The results say there are now five comments, but I can only find four.  I may have accidentally deleted it when I pressed ctrl-W instead of shift-W If your comment hasn’t been included, you might like to post a comment or email me at jredman2 at une dot edu dot au and I’ll put it up anonymously.

Poster Presentations

Recently, April DeConick updated her website on the Codex Judas Congress to be held at Rice University 13-16 March 2008. All the paper titles are up now and it looks really fascinating, with a wide range of speakers presenting papers – a real who’s who of gnostic studies from a range of perspectives, including Prof Majella Franzmann, my doctoral supervisor. Pity it’s on the other side of the world and outside my actual research area. :-(

I am trying to stay away from the site to help control my basic envy, but I did notice on my last visit that there are some very useful links to pages on the web about doing poster presentations. Although I have seen some very effective science-based posters presented at conferences, I have always found the concept of presenting a poster for a religion/humanities topic rather puzzling, so have never offered one. These links are helpful.

DeConick’s “Thirteenth Apostle”

As some will be aware, I was working at Rice University when April DeConick’s new book The Thirteenth Apostle was in the final stages of preparation. I proofread the main body of the text and one or two of the appendices that April was preparing. I was impressed enough to want my own copy of the final book, even though Gospel of Judas isn’t my particular area of specialty, because it contains a very good overview of Gnosticism and a number of other useful features as well as the commentary on the text of the Gospel.

I looked at the Coptic text of the relevant passages and read her arguments for her interpretation of the text through very carefully and they make sense to me. I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of my own copy – it’s due within the next few days – and plan to write a review once I’ve finished writing the conference paper that’s been hanging over my head for the last several weeks. In the meantime, you might like to look at the review on the Baptist Press website that also includes a report of an interview between April and Gregory Tomlin. My only criticism of it is that it lists the Gospel of Thomas as a Gnostic text and I don’t agree with this! You might also like to read what she has to say about her translation and about the problems that scholars are having in gaining access to the facsimiles of the text.

Update 9 Nov

My copy has arrived and I am very surprised.  I really thought I was going to get a paperback, but it’s hardcover.  I cannot believe that I paid $13.57 US for a hardcover new release book!  Of course, the postage and handling were almost as much as the book itself, but it’s still amazingly reasonably priced, especially given the very favourable exchange rate at the moment.  The last DeConick book I bought cost waaaaaaay more. :-)