In the next chapter of Nicholas Perrin’s Thomas, the Other Gospel, I find myself surprised again, this time by a comment about April DeConick’s work. He says on p 61 that either she must develop a very complicated explanation of how the early church took “these Jesus speeches” and cut them up and recombined them or her position “virtually entails that the storyline preserved in Mark is entirely mythological”. I don’t see why this must be so.
It seems to me that although the canonical texts and GosThom are all called “gospels”, the canonical gospels serve a different purpose to GosThom.*
- The canonical gospels are trying to do two things: to tell people what Jesus taught; and to show people that what he taught is worth paying attention to. Thus, they need to give information about his life and his work as well as what he taught. They therefore present his teaching within a context that makes it obvious that Jesus was somewhat different to your run of the mill teacher of wisdom.
- GosThom is only trying to do one of those things. It starts with the presumption that its readers believed that what Jesus taught was worth paying attention to. They didn’t need convincing – they just needed to know what he said. GosThom therefore only presents context when it is necessary to understand the teaching. It makes no suggestion that it attempts an orderly account of Jesus’ life and ministry, just a collection of the sayings of Jesus that need to be understood in order to escape death.
Accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry in the canon
It seems to me that a considerable amount of scholarship and general Christian interpretation of the New Testament assumes that Jesus only ever said anything once. Thus, if one author presents a saying in one context and another has it in a different one, one of them must be wrong, or at the very least, have engaged in some creative editing. This, in turn, leads to some quite creative explanations of apparent contradictions in the texts.
It would seem to me, though, that if Jesus went to place A where they were doing X (which was wrong) he would have taught against X there. If he visited place B where they were also doing X, he would have taught against it there as well. If they were doing X in places C, F and J, then he would have taught against it there as well. However, given that it is highly unlikely that he just had the one speech that he trotted out in each place, and that he tailored what he had to say to the circumstances, the teaching against X could have been “written up” in any one of five different contexts if a narrative that was presenting the highlights of Jesus’ teaching were being written. (None of the gospels purports to be an exhaustive account of Jesus’ ministry.) The saying against X might have stayed in the writer’s mind linked with any one of a number of other sayings, depending on whether s/he was remembering what happened at A, B, C, F or J. Mark’s sources and Thomas’ sources may have been remembering different occasions where Jesus taught particular things, linked with different sets of teachings. Thus, differing accounts of the same teaching with a slightly different “spin” in a different context might simply be totally accurate recalls of different occasions where Jesus was reacting to the different circumstances in which he found himself.
I think that total accuracy is rather unlikely and that some of the differences are explained by how human memory works (which I explain in detail in my JBL article), but that’s not particularly relevant here. What is relevant is that the early Church didn’t seem to have any problem with the differing accounts – they canonised all four gospels, after all.
Recording Jesus’ teachings as speeches
In a situation where you are not attempting to provide Jesus with credentials, but simply to record his teachings, the overall context in which he said them is not important, although sometimes the audience makes a difference, or what he was responding to. As DeConick suggests on pp 65-6 of Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (London. T&T Clark. 2005), it may be that Jesus’ teachings on five different themes were put together as though they were speeches to enable them to be remembered more readily for oral performance (and to help the audience to remember them). If the content of the sayings were what was considered important, not their settings, then there is no problem about grouping them together so that teachings about a particular issue are together, and so that they build around a theme.
DeConick says on p 66 of Recovering:
When intense study is made of these discourse units, it appears that someone familiar with older sentences of Jesus has secondarily developed them into dialogues and elaborate question and answer units between Jesus and his disciples.
This has implications for the argument that the author of GosThom did not use one of the canonical gospels as a source because it would make no sense to take units that are put together and rip them apart and scatter them throughout another document. It might make sense if you were wanting to produce some kind of thematic overview of Jesus’ teachings. OTOH, it might also be that your source for Jesus’ teaching was the testimony of a different eyewitness who had been present when Jesus combined his teachings in a different way to address a different circumstance. It does not, however, require either a complex theory about how the early church cut up Jesus’ speeches or that the storyline in Mark is “entirely mythological”. The speeches are speeches of oral tradents, not speeches of Jesus.
An aside – the footnote from above
*I often read that GosThom is not really a gospel because it doesn’t have narrative, but it seems to me that modern scholars are the ones who have decided that the gospel genre/Gattung requires narrative. Euangelion simply means “good news” or “good message” and GosThom certainly contains that – it begins by telling us that whoever finds the meaning of the teachings in it will not die. I suspect that the people who wrote the texts that bear the title “euangelion” (or attached those titles to them) did not realise that there was a genre called “gospel” and that they had to obey rules in order to be able to use the title!