Wisdom from the past

I was recently taken by something that R McLean Wilson wrote in his very early Studies in the Gospel of Thomas (A R Mowbray and Co, London, 1960). He introduces his consideration of the Gnostic element in Thomas by saying:

In the study of an ancient document much depends upon the pre-suppositions with which we begin, on the questions with which we approach the examination of the text.(p 14)

He goes on to say that if you concentrate on details and isolate passages from one another, while you may produce useful information, you may also miss the “range and sweep” of the document. General impressions acquired by looking at the text as a whole, however, may be misleading if not combined with a detailed examination. As Wilson so rightly states, if you start with the assumption that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, you can find evidence for dependence, and if you start with the assumption that it’s independent, many of the same things will provide evidence for that, so your initial assumptions are important.

I think Wilson’s comment is sound advice for all studies of ancient text. The challenge is to approach texts with a reasonably open mind and to look at the problematic elements and ask “What sorts of things might cause/explain this? Which of these is most likely and why? What are the minimum conditions that need to apply in order for explanation A to be true? And explanation B? And C, if there is a C? If it doesn’t fulfill either/any of the minimum conditions, what have I missed?”

I try to use this methodology on all occasions and hope that I am usually successful. 🙂


3 thoughts on “Wisdom from the past

  1. Hello Judy …

    … your point is well taken, but as a proposed research method, perhaps Wilson’s view lacks provision for the reality and the (lack of rigors) of today’s (path of least resistance) research approach to discovery. Researchers today seldom start at “square one” anymore … as all too many people who would consider themselves to be “researchers” are mere “synthesists” of other people’s prior work and simply take their (the synthesists’) sometimes questionable conclusions to be sacred “givens”. Thus in addition to becoming sidetracked (a la Wilson) by their initial “range and sweep” bias vis-a-vis the texts (or lack thereof) which they are researching, many tend to first and foremost seek out what all of the experts have said about the text beforehand, and thus become jaded and further go astray in their findings and conclusions. The example I like to use is the “given” that the Gospel of Thomas”, for example, was written by the apostle Thomas while domiciled in Edessa when on leave from Judea and Jerusalem following Jesus’ eventual crucifixion sometime in the first century C.E.. Was the apostle Thomas not also alternately commissioned to India, Parthia and, as some believe, even to China as well? So why was the Gospel of Thomas, then, not written “elsewhere” perhaps? And additionally, what proof is this that the Gospel of Thomas was originally written in the first century … none whatsoever, actually. Indeed, the truth of the matter is that not long after Thomas’ gospel was discovered in the 1940s, scholars (specifically Henri-Charles Peuch in 1959 among others) began to reason that since this crowning gem was the seeming product of the apostle Thomas himself, it must have been written by Jesus’ doubting scribe while domiciled in Edessa. Deductive reasoning … sure … but not necessarily fact, and much less a “given” for a valid starting point in one’s research on Thomas.

    While I support the caution expressed in your proposed research method (… approach texts with a reasonably open mind and to look at the problematic elements and ask “What sorts of things might cause/explain this?”) I would have to suggest that astute researchers should tend to accept reference “givens” only with a grain of salt, or based on irrefutable conclusions. After all, after 60 years of expert commentary and “expert” opinion, the Thomasene gospel still remains as much of a riddle today as it did on the day Muhammad Ali al-Samman’s shovel struck his now famous earthen jar on the banks of the Nile river in the mid 1940s.


  2. Maurice,

    What you’re suggesting (accepting ‘givens’ with a grain of salt) is exactly what I am also suggesting. I do think that you overstate the case somewhat in suggesting that Thomas remains as much of a riddle today as it was when the jar was found 60 years ago, though. 🙂


    I’m not sure about Wilson, but I’m not saying that Thomas contains both Gnostic sayings and saying from the canonical gospels. My current thinking is that Thomas is largely independent of the canonical gospels, although I am sure that they share common sources, and I would suggest that Thomas does not come from a Gnostic worldview at all, if you use a tight definition of “Gnostic” such as the one provided by Birger Pearson in his latest work.

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