I recognise that I have started to talk about Nicholas Perrin’s Thomas, the Other Gospel (SPCK, 2007)in a rather piecemeal fashion, which gives a very skewed idea of his subject matter. Since I probably wouldn’t appreciate it if someone did that with my writing, I offer an overview, which probably should have been done first.
The book, which is aimed at what one might call an “educated lay audience” rather than specialists, is in two parts. In the first, he looks at what has been said about GosThom in books by three US scholars, noting what he finds helpful and what he disagrees with. The books are Stephen J Patterson’s The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (Polebridge Press, 1993), in a chapter entitled “The Thomas Community on the Move”; Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief (Random House, 2003) in “The Thomas Community on the Run”; and April DeConick’s Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (T&T Clark, 2005).
From his reading of these works, he generates six questions, two arising from each book, to which he adds a seventh and in the second part of the book he uses these questions as a framework for addressing what, in his opinion, should be said about GosThom.
The questions he addresses are:
- What accounts for the strange sequence of sayings in Thomas? Why do they occur in the order that they do? (Patterson)
- How might we explain the ascetical elements in Thomas? What socio-religious movement or movements might account for this renunciation of the world? (Patterson)
- Why is Thomas so interested in creational themes, that is, in protology? (Pagels)
- Why is the Gospel of Thomas according to Thomas? Why not some other apostle? Furthermore, what does this gospel say about the other apostles and why does it say what it does? (Pagels)
- What accounts for the disparate substance of the sayings ? (DeConick)
- Why are all these sayings connected with Jesus, when Jesus most certainly did not say at least some of the things attributed to him? (DeConick)
- Is there a single setting which can be hyopthesized behind Thomas that answers the above six questions in a stroke? (Perrin) (p 75)
The answer Perrin offers to his question 7 is yes – he believes that the six questions can be answered if one considers that GosThom orginated in late second century Edessa, where it was originally composed in Syriac and later translated into Greek. He argues that the underlying source is Tatian’s Diatessaron, rather than individual Greek gospels, and that it echoes Tatian’s eschatology and asceticism and that it was composed at one time.
In these things he goes against the mainstream of more contemporary US scholarship which is tending to agree that it was composed in stages, the first one being much earlier than late second century. Most agree to a Syrian origin, but some suggest Greek as the original language. It is interesting that Perrin’s argument for an Edessan origin for Thomas is based on his argument for a Syriac original which is supported by Barbara Ehlers’ (‘Kann das Thomasevangelium aus Edessa Stammen?’, 1970, Novum Testamentum, 12 (3), 284-317) arguments against an Edessan origin that most people there spoke Syriac almost exclusively, so it would have been highly unlikely that a gospel composed in Greek would have originated there!
I agree with Perrin’s assessment that the Jesus in GosThom is a much less Jewish Jesus than is the one that appears in the canon and that the picture it presents is at odds with what we have seen there. This is hardly surprising since the gospel was condemned with enthusiasm by the Church Fathers. I am not so sure about some of his other conclusions.