First, in the canonical gospels there are incidents which are quite differently narrated, such as the story of the woman who anoints Jesus. It is hard to tell whether this represents more than one similar incident or variations of one incident, although most scholars incline (as I do) to the latter view. The difference between variations of an incident – less likely to have happened on more than occasion – is a warning about assuming variations of a saying are simply owing to its having been uttered on more than occasion. A lot of variation is it would seem creative work in either the memory or the narration, and it may still be right to try an essay a judgement about which variant is most likely historical.
I, too, am inclined to believe that incidents like the story of the woman who annoints Jesus are variations on the same incident, rather than different ones. It seems highly unlikely that women made a habit of annointing Jesus with expensive perfume. 🙂
I would suggest that there is a third possibility for variations of this kind, though, and that is in the passing on of stories. Allport and Postman in The Psychology of Rumor (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1947) provide some fascinating examples of what happens when a story is retold in what they termed “rumour chain”. They had one person look at a picture and describe it to someone else who could not see the picture. This person described it to a third and so on. The most famous of their scenarios was a picture of an African-American man in a suit and an Anglo-American man in overalls and carrying a half-open cut-throat razor. They are both standing in a subway carriage. In most cases, by the sixth retelling it is the African-American who is holding the razor and in some cases he is threatening the Anglo-American with it. In the same way that in proof-reading our own writing we tend to read what we expect to read, people tend to hear what they expect to hear.
It is possible that any two or all three of these sources of variation might have come into play to produce the variations in question.
I’d also like to draw more clearly the distinction between variations between the canonical gospels with respect to narratives and variations between the synoptics and Thomas with respect to how parallel sayings are grouped. When parallel sayings are grouped differently, I would tend to look first at the possibility that they were heard that way because Jesus used them on different occasions. In looking at variations in narrative and variations in detail, I would be more inclined to look at memory and transmission issues. I am also rather inclined to suggest that some of the variation that has been ascribed to redaction may be more likely to reflect the way in which particular events and sayings were remembered in the communities from which the texts came than to be an attempt of a redactor to influence the belief of the community.
The second caution is that (and this is one of the points made early on in Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism which is not always given due attention) sayings are very hard to evaluate historically. When they are removed from narrative contexts as in Thomas, questions of historicity become almost impossible. Judging the historicity of any of Thomas’ variants depends, I think, on some prior judgments being made about the core of historical teaching material especially in the synoptics, and those judgements in turn depend in part on ones made about the contexts provided from events and narratives. Making historical judgments about Thomas is, I think, a necessarily derivative activity.
I agree. The whole issue of historicity is a really difficult one. I want to say that anything that is not obviously anachronistic or antithetical to Jesus’ known teaching should not be ruled out as ‘authentic Jesus tradition’* simply on the basis that we have no other record that Jesus said it. That is, I think that it is possible that GosThom contains more authentic Jesus tradition than is found in the canon. The problem with this, of course, is that working out what is not antithetical to Jesus’ known teaching involves assuming that teaching in the canon is authentic Jesus tradition, which means that we are, to some extent at least, bringing faith claims into the historical enterprise. This about as convincing as trying to use sections of the Bible to prove the existence of God – they are only convincing if you are prepared to believe that the Bible is an authoritative text, which requires a prior belief in the existence of God.
*I think we have no chance of reliably recovering Jesus’ actual words unless and until someone develops a functional time machine.