Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (2)

The first section in Gathercole’s book deals with the original language of Thomas and consists of four chapters. This post will deal with the first two.

In chapter 1, which is very short, he outlines the various theories that have been advanced about the language in which Thomas was originally written. When Puech announced the discovery of the gospel in 1957, he was sure that the original had been in Greek. In 1958, Guillaumont noted a significant number of mistranslations and argued that the sayings had been translated from Aramaic. In 1960, Garitte proposed a Coptic original. The notion of a Coptic original has not persisted, but both other options are still argued by scholars today, while other scholars have added arguments for a Syriac original. A significant factor in the various arguments for an Aramaic or Syriac original is the presence of many Semitisms in the text, but Gathercole indicates that he plans to present a criticism of the proposal for an Aramaic or Syriac original and demonstrate that a Greek original is ‘much more likely’. This he will do in three parts – first looking at problems with gathering evidence for a Semitic original; second examining all the proposed Semitisms systematically; and third providing positive evidence for a Greek original. ‘This conclusion in favour of a Greek original will pave the way for seeing a closer relationship to the New Testament Gospels than is often seen in current scholarship’ (p 23).

Chapter 2 looks at methodological problems with Semitic theories under a number of headings.

  1. The need to eliminate Greek and Coptic explanations before arguing for a Semitism: this is the basic, common sense idea that even though a particular turn of phrase might be common in Semitic languages, if an explanation for it can be found in Greek or Coptic, it should not be claimed as a Semitism. Gathercole offers five possible scenarios where this might be the case: (a) where a particular turn of phrase which is common in Semitic languages is also acceptable Greek or Coptic; (b) where the original text is corrupt (c) where there was a scribal error in copying; (d) where the phraseology in question has been misunderstood (e) in Thomas, it may simply be that the author’s intention is to be obscure.
  2. The need to establish the linguistic base for identification of Semitisms: here, he draws on the work of Wilcox and Davila on the need to be comparing the text with Syriac, Hebrew and Aramaic texts from the same period rather than from a century or two afterwards.
  3. The difficulty of classifying Semitisms: some Semitisms come from Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures and make good sense in the text as it stands – they are examples of ‘biblical expression’. Gathercole cites two other similar cases where, he argues, the Semitic origin of an expression does not indicate any particular linguistic background and distinguishes between these and those cases where the Greek makes little or no sense because it appears to be a literal translation of a specific Semitic idiom.
  4. The difficulty of assessing the significance of Semitisms for the original language of composition: texts such as the Didache provide examples of texts written in Greek but with a huge number of Semitisms. Gathercole quotes Davila’s argument that the presence of such Semitisms cannot be taken as decisive proof of translation from a Semitic Vorlage. He also argues that the fact that part of a composition might have a Semitic origin does not indicate that the whole has a Semitic origin – citing as an example the parts of the Gospels that can be traced back to the OT.

Gathercole then proposes that there are two principle ways to identify a Semitic Vorlage to Thomas – identification of mistranslations which make little or no sense in Coptic or are very wooden, but which make sense as idiom in a Semitic Vorlage;  and of divergent translations of parallel passages in Thomas and the canonical gospels or in Greek and Coptic Thomas which might be accounted for by a common Semitic Vorlage, although these also are not without problem, the possibility of bilingual interference being one that is common to both possible explanations.

Gathercole then lists four additional problems associated with therories of a specifically Syriac original.

  1. The paucity of Syriac literature in the relevant period- we have virtually no evidence of Syriac being used as a literary language in the first two centuries CE, so the earlier Thomas is dated, the more surprising it would be for it to have originally been written in Syriac.
  2. The rarity of translation of Syriac works into Greek
  3. The possibility of bilingual composition – A late Syrian origin might well have resulted in two versions, one in each language, having been written mor or less simultaneously, as Klijn has suggested for the Acts of Thomas
  4. The difficulty of the ‘catchword’ theory – here, Gathercole criques Nicholas Perrin’s identification of catchwords as being too uncontrolled to be convincing.

I think that Gathercole has successfully made a case for need not to be too hasty in identifying Semitisms in Thomas; and in reminding us that there are other explanations for the presence of Semitisms in the text than that the text was originally written in a Semitic language. I am rather surprised, however, that he hasn’t suggested what to me is an obvious possibility – that the author spoke a Semitic language as his/her first language and was not sufficiently fluent in Greek to eliminate entirely the traces of that language from the text ie that the author was not, in fact, truely bilingual – although perhaps he uses a looser sense of  ‘bilingual’.

I am not sure, however, that he makes a strong enough case to justify his conclusion to the chapter:

In sum, these caveats may lead us to wonder whether an Aramaic or Syriac original is identifiable; at the very least they should mean that the burden of proof lies heavily on those who would argue for such a Semitic Vorlage.  It is surely such factors as the above which led even such an enthusiast as Ménard to compare the terrain of the study of Semetisms to quicksand ( L’évangile Selon Thomas, 1973, p 23). As we proceed to investigate the particular instances, we will see that the terrain is uncertain indeed. (p 42)

I continue to be uneasy when dealing with early Christian material when people start talking about ‘proof’ and ‘burden of  proof’. I simply don’t think that the material we are working with enables us to be more confident that anything is more than ‘highly likely’ – empirical proof is beyond us.

5 thoughts on “Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (2)

  1. Thanks for this review. Myself, I wouldn’t bother to spend time on a possible semitic original for GTh, the so-called semitisms contained therein are too questionable and aren’t different in kind from what we find in the canonical gospels, upon which much study has been exerted. Jesus and the apostles spoke aramaic, so of course bits of that language will be present in the texts that have come down to us. The author of GTh may have been bilingual, as you say at the end of your review. I wholeheartedly endorse your final paragraph – hypothesis, no matter how eloquently argued, does not equate to proof in historical study. What is concensus in one generation of scholars may become passe in another! Even the Q source behind Matt & Lk remains theoretical and is subject to overturning by further research or discovery.

  2. Paul, at one level I agree with you – there is, of course, a Semitic background that comes from the fact that Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, but if the Semitisms in GTh are different to the Semitisms in the canonical gospels, it tells us something about the trajectories through which the texts went from Jesus’ words to extant version.

  3. Pingback: Gospel posts around the blogs « Euangelion Kata Markon

  4. Pingback: Anyone Read the JSNT Articles on Thomas and the Synoptics? | Euangelion Kata Markon

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