Gospel of Thomas as “authentic Jesus tradition”

I recently received an email which asked me what I think the implications of assuming an early dating for Gospel of Thomas might be on our understanding of the canon, given that one would assume that an early manuscript would (likely) contain significant amounts of authentic Jesus tradition. I found this a very interesting question and thought I might share my musings about it on this blog. This is what I think at the moment. I make no promises that I will still hold this position in six months’ time and am very happy for readers to disagree with me.

I don’t think that this is a question that has been addressed in any systematic way by scholars, although it is the logical question to ask about material that has been named as early and independent of the canon. My feeling is that the original Thomas scholarship was largely done by Christian Biblical scholars who really, really, really hoped that they would not need to revise two milennia of Christian scholarship, so they began with the hope that they could show that Thomas was not “more authentic” (whatever that might mean) than the canonical material and they breathed a huge sigh of relief when they decided that it was dependent on one or more of the synoptics and/or clearly gnostic. Since then, there has been a lot of debate about whether or not Thomas is “dependent” on the canonical gospels (although I don’t see people suggesting that Matthew and Luke are “dependent” on Mark) but I don’t recollect any of those people who have argued that Thomas is independent suggesting that this might have any effect on how we view the canon.

I think before we answer the question, though, we need to ask what we think an “authentic Jesus tradition” actually is and what it signifies.

I think that Christians in general tend to read the canon and gain the impression that Jesus only ever taught any of his teaching or told any of his parables once, so there is only one authentic original version of Jesus’ teachings. I don’t, however, think that this is particularly likely. Given that Jesus was an itinerant preacher/teacher/miracle worker who was trying to convince the Jewish people of his day that they’d strayed quite a distance from God’s desired path for them, it seems far more likely to me that he had a core of teachings that he used in most places, complete with a set of illustrations that went with them, but that he would have made adjustments to how he told them according to the audience he was talking to. So, he told his agricultural illustrations somewhat differently to a group of farmers to the way he did to a group of town-dwellers etc and he may have used different illustrations to make the same point depending on his audience. Thus, different audiences would have heard somewhat different versions of the same stories – same general thrust but different details. In other words, there could well have been several authentic versions of at least some of Jesus’ parables and sayings and we have no way of deciding which, if any of them, is the “best”, most “authentic” version. If we don’t accept this, then what do we do with the parallel versions of parables and sayings within the synoptic tradition?

In addition, as Bauckham points out in his book, the way that eyewitnesses retell stories varies. If you ask a group of people who have witnessed an event to tell you what happened, you’ll get a range of different accounts because of things like vantage points, personal situations and interest etc. So, four different people going away from hearing Jesus and telling their friends/family/local community about it, would result in four different accounts, even if the people were doing their best to give an accurate account of what they witnessed/heard. There is no guarantee that anyone was trying to produce an accurate, unbiased account of what they witnessed/heard because they didn’t see themselves as being witnesses in a court of law. Rather, they were bearing witness to a significant experience which they may or may not have discerned as being an experience of God.

So, if we accept that the Gospel of Thomas was early, it tells us that there were other versions of Jesus’ teachings in circulation in the early church and that some of the early Christians were happy to treat them as authoritative – otherwise they would not have given them the title “gospel”. Even taking into account the fact that Thomas is in Coptic and the canonical gospels are in Greek, Thomas has very little of the verbatim repetition of material that you see between Mark and Matthew and Luke, so I think it’s pretty unlikely that Thomas used one of the canonical gospels as a source ie Thomas is not dependent on the canonical gospels. However, that doesn’t mean that some communities a little later on did not have access to Thomas and one or more of the other gospels.

I don’t think that the dating of the various gospels alone tells us much about what might or might not be authentic Jesus tradition, but I suspect that the differences between parallels in different gospels are less due to deliberate redaction and more to oral transmission and Jesus having taught the same things slightly differently in different places than many scholars have suggested in the past. That is, I think that more than one of the variants we have available could be “authentic Jesus tradition”.

So, what implication does Thomas being early and potentially containing authentic Jesus tradition have for our understanding of the canon?

I think that what you finally conclude about Thomas and the canon depends to a significant extent on whether you are working from inside or outside the Church and therefore what weight you are prepared to give to the work of the Spirit in guiding the Church to select material for the canon. Those working within a secular framework tend to talk about what ended up in the canon in terms of political winners and losers, whereas those working within a Church framework tend to be somewhat more hopeful that the Councils of the Church actually tried to listen to the leading of the Spirit and even did a halfway reasonable job of hearing God (which requires a belief that there is a Spirit to do the leading in the first place, of course). I belong to a denomination that tries to take very seriously the notion that consensus decision-making in the councils of the Church should be in response to the Spirit and I have seen some radical changes in opinion and attitude taking place in church meetings as we listen to one another, so I tend to be more hopeful that the development of the canon involved more than politics, but that’s a faith stance rather than one for which I can produce empirical historical evidence. And there are times in church meetings when I wonder… 🙂

However, when I read the canon through the eyes of a Christian theologian/preacher/teacher, I am asking the question “in the light of what this says, how should I and other Christians live our daily lives?” My faith stance says that I do not need to take Thomas into account when I answer this question, or at least do not need to give it anywhere near the weight that I do those texts that the Church has declared to be canon.

When I look at Thomas in connection with my doctoral research, though, I am asking a different question. I am asking “what does this tell me about how early Christians understood the Christ event and what it meant for their daily lives?” My faith stance is irrelevant when I try to answer this question because I am not looking at Christians now, but at Christians then and I am not starting with the assumption that I need to be able to harmonise the teachings in all of them, but rather working on the assumption that the people who held these texts to be authoritative quite probably didn’t have access to the others so didn’t try to harmonise the teachings in them. It doesn’t matter what I think about the authenticity of the Jesus tradition contained in each of “my” texts, because the people who wrote and used them held them to be authentic and acted upon that belief.

I think that the fact that we are dealing with written records of orally transmitted eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry and teaching means that we have no accurate way of making empirical decisions about what is and isn’t authentic Jesus tradition, but I don’t think it actually matters. We are not, in the end, going to be able to prove Christianity (or any other religious belief system) – it will always require some level of faith commitment. While I think that Christianity is far more logical than a requirement to “believe five impossible things before breakfast”, it isn’t science, either. Historians of early Christianity will choose a different standard for evaluating the reliability of different versions of Jesus’ teaching than does the Church, but they are using the texts for a different purpose, so that, I think, is OK. The problem comes when Christian theologians want to use their standard for evaluation as a yardstick to measure history and historians want to use their standard to judge theology.

Please note that I am not saying that it is perfectly OK for Christians to believe any bizarre thing that takes their fancy and justify it as a “faith” stance, nor for historians to totally disregard what a body of believers have thought over the course of two thousand years – there needs to be some overlap between standards.

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5 thoughts on “Gospel of Thomas as “authentic Jesus tradition”

  1. Hi Judy,
    Yes, that is what I said, it’s an accurate quote.

    I hadn’t read the book, so I didn’t know he was making the additional claim about group memories. Group behavior is also a very active field in psychological research. Groups do not necessarily provide a check and force the truth. Groups can quite easily be swayed the other way. Even if someone says, “no he didn’t do that,” it is more likely that the person would be ostracized than that they would listen to him.
    In any case, my main point is that there is no need for biblical scholars to work in a vacuum. There is a lot of research being conducted on all these issues, and biblical scholars would benefit being informed by them.

    Best,
    Liz

  2. Pingback: Jesus Kills in the Gospel of Thomas « Islamic Archives

  3. Pingback: Provable vs true « Judy’s research blog

  4. Pingback: Jesus Kills in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas « Islamic Archives

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