An overview of Perrin’s “Thomas, the Other Gospel”

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:

  1. What accounts for the strange sequence of sayings in Thomas? Why do they occur in the order that they do? (Patterson)
  2. How might we explain the ascetical elements in Thomas? What socio-religious movement or movements might account for this renunciation of the world? (Patterson)
  3. Why is Thomas so interested in creational themes, that is, in protology? (Pagels)
  4. 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)
  5. What accounts for the disparate substance of the sayings ? (DeConick)
  6. 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)
  7. 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.

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One thought on “An overview of Perrin’s “Thomas, the Other Gospel”

  1. Thomas was the most traveled of all the apostles. First he went to Syria where he established Christian communities. Then he went to Iraq, then Iran, and finally India and set up more Christian communities in all these places. Other than Lebanese Maronite Christians, THOMAS’S CONVERTS AND THEIR DESCENDANT PROBABLY REPRESENT THE EARLIEST cHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES STILL IN EXISTENCE THAT CAN TRACE THEIR BELIEF STRUCTURE DIRECTLY back to a disciple of Jesus. I have been studying the historical Jesus for 25 plus years and have reached certain conclusions. Paul was a Roman plant. People were always trying to kill him and this was so because many Judaic communities knew it. In any case, Paul invented a religion whereas Jesus left us his life , his teachings, and his miracles to point the way to the Kingdom of Heaven, his favorite teaching subject.
    As far as the Gospel of Thomas goes, why can’t we take it at face value and understand that these are in fact the secret teachings of Jesus that have come down to us in a slighty garbled form but in my opinion are definitely from the mid first century. The copy we have is in Coptic. The original was probably in Syriac or even Aramaic before being translated into Greek. Jesus taught time and again that the Kingdom of Heaven was inside us and all around us and we can not see it. That we are all children of the Father and by doing what he did we could accomplish what he did.
    All of this is leading up to a book I have written called Tales of the Master which is the fictional memoirs of Thomas recalling all that he heard and saw Jesus do the 3 years they were together. The book is available at Amazon.com and is made up of 144 vignettes that come to some 380 pages. Karl Bruno Gatti

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