Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (3)

In Chapter 3, Gathercole works through 77 areas in the Coptic text of Thomas that have been proposed by various authors as Semitisms. He looks at those identified by Quispel and Guillaumont and listed by DeConick in her The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation but adds a number of others presented elsewhere in the scholarly literature. He quite rightly says that problematising the proposal of a Semitic background requires a large sample size.  He does not, however, attempt to include all the 502 Syrian catchwords proposed by Perrin. Of the aim of the chapter, he says:

It is hoped that the present chapter will show that in almost every instance, alternative explanations are readily available, and to suggest that, as a result, the case for a Semitic Vorlage underlying our Greek and Coptic texts has been greatly exaggerated and is in fact very vulnerable. In addition to the immediate concern with the original language, this chapter is also significant for the question (which will loom large later, in Part II) of Thomas’ s independence, since we will treat here a number of alleged cases of Aramaic Vorlagen translated differently (and thus independently) by Thomas and the Synoptics. (pp 43-4)

As can be seen from the previous post, Gathercole’s argument about the Semitisms in Thomas looks at three main areas: the identification and classification of Semitisms in the text; the identification of mistranslations or wooden translations which could are explained by an underlying Semitic text; and the identification of divergent translations that occur in either the Greek and Coptic Thomas or  in canonical parallels to Thomas and which could be explained by a common Semitic Vorlage.

I think he demonstrates quite credibly that quite a few of the pieces of text identified by other scholars as Semitisms are either acceptable Greek or acceptable Coptic idiom and that others, while clearly arising as a result of translation from a Semitic language can be classified as Septuagintisms, rather than what might be termed de novo Semitisms. He also demonstrates that a significant number of those passages which have previously been considered to be the result of mistranslation are actually the result of problematic exegesis and are acceptable was they stand; and that in a number of situations where real problems exist with the text, there are Greek explanations that are equally as likely as the Semitic ones that have been proposed, or they could be explained by textual corruption. Thus, he raises significant doubt in the first two areas.

In looking at the third area, that of divergent translations, he notes that in a number of situations the parallel texts are so different that they could only be considered to be loose translations at best, so do not provide convincing evidence that they are translations of a common Semitic Vorlage. In other situations, the divergences are translations of conjunctions and prepositions which are acknowledged by scholars  to be translated unpredictably between other languages and Coptic. Finally, there are places where the explanations offered by other scholars require a translation directly from a Semitic language to Coptic, which he finds untenable.

He finishes with: “These conclusions do not, of course, mean that it is impossible that various sayings in Thomas go back to Semitic originals  . . . The analysis in this chapter does emphasise, however, how difficult it is to conjure up evidence which can only be explained on the basis of a Western Aramaic or Syriac Vorlage.” (p 104)

Again, however, while the evidence he provides is well researched, it seems to me that the conclusions he draws from it are an overstatement of the case, for several reasons. First, even though it may be possible to provide an individual explanation of every Semitism proposed that does not require that it comes from a Semitic language original, the people who are proposing a Semitic original are saying, in effect, that when you put all these pieces together the overwhelming ‘feel’ of the text is that there is a Semitic language underlying it. To provide a modernt parallel: When I read the English translation of Uwe-Karsten Plisch’s commentary on Thomas, there is nothing in it that is incorrect, but there are definitely segments which someone who speaks English as their first language would have worded differently. The fact that I can provide perfectly acceptable explanations for each one of them in English does not take away the “germanic” feel which is caused by their presence in numerous places in the text. Of course, as Gathercole himself notes once or twice, it is difficult to identify the source of this Semitic feel. Given that Jesus did most, if not all, of his teaching in Aramaic and Thomas consists almost entirely of  Jesus’ words, it may come from Jesus. If the person who translated the text into Coptic spoke a Semitic language as his/her first language s/he may have introduced Semitisms that did not exist in the original text, and the notion of LXXisms of course makes sense, too. Thus, while a Semitic Vorlage may not be the only explanation for many of the Semitisms detected in the text, it must one of the possible explanations remain at this stage and I don’t think it is necessary that it be the only possible explanation in order for it to be the best one.

From my perspective, however, there is a more significant gap in Gathercole’s treatment when he deals with the divergent translations. While I concur that we are on shaky ground trying to demonstrate a common Vorlage for material that appears only to be a loose translation of the original, much of the problematic material seems to me to have an explanation which Gathercole does not explore. The more I read about eyewitness testimony and human memory, the more likely I think it that divergences such as those between Thomas and the canon come from the accounts of different eyewitnesses to the same events, exacerbated by the fact that the transmission for the first decade or two was oral. Most of the divergence theories were proposed several decades ago, before much research had been done about eyewitness testimony and when biblical scholars were largely unaware of research on human memory and oral transmission that was being done in other fields. The variations seem to me to be better explained as gist transmissions by several eyewitnesses through different trajectories than by loose translations of one underlying text. Whether they became stable as part of community tradition (see eg Bailey) or as a result of Jesus teaching his disciples in the manner of the rabbis of his time (see eg Gerhardsson) is unclear.

In chapter 4, which will be the subject of the next post, Gathercole moves on to positive evidence for a Greek-language origin. This may build a case which outweighs the difficulties that I’ve raised above.

8 thoughts on “Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (3)

  1. Thanks for this review, Judy. You are right to bring out the possibility of divergent memories of Jesus’ words during the early oral phase of transmission of the gospel as potential explanation of the differences we find between GTh & the canonical gospels. You also make good points about the ‘semitic feel’ of parts of GTh. On the whole though, it appears that Gathercole has shown through careful analysis that GTh was not originally written in Aramaic or Hebrew, wouldn’t you say?

  2. Hi Paul,

    Yes – the evidence he’s providing seems to be stacking up that way, but I want to wait until I’ve finished the book and also re-read the arguments of the main proponents of an Aramaic or Syriac original before I make a decision. Even then, because I have no Aramaic or Syriac, all I am able to say is that I find X’s arguments more convincing than Y’s. 😦

    • Very rational & cautious on your part, Judy, to wait for finishing the book & reexamining opposing arguments before forming an opinion on the matter of the original GTh. I await further posts on Gathercole, as the book is too expensive for me to buy at present, though I would have access to it through libraries of local universities (here in NJ) which I attended, Seton Hall & Drew. I thank you again & let you know that this review you are providing is intellectually stimulating to me since I am fond of GTh.

  3. I appreciate your review which is thorough and well presented. I am curious about the concept of an “overwhelming feel” of a Semetic text underneath. I think such a feeling could also be unconsciously emerging from the foreknoweldge that the sayings are attributed to an Aramaic speaker, the historical Jesus. Thus, we have a preconception that the text we are reading was a translation of Aramaic or Hebrew, and this may result in such a “feel”. Thanks again for sharing your review and your interest in the Gospel of Thomas.

    • Tim, this is certainly a possibility, although a good translation will read as though it were written in the target language. I read quite a lot of material in translation and even thought I know it’s a translation I generally don’t strike passages where I think “oh, what an odd way of saying this – I can see the French/German etc underlying it” or “hmm – this doesn’t make sense here, but if you used the other meaning from the original language, it would”. Clearly this has happened with Coptic Thomas. I think that Gathercole is trying to make the point that, having found some textual oddities that could be explained by their being Semitisms, some scholars have gone looking for more and have claimed as Semitisms things that could equally be explained as somewhat idiosyncratic Greek etc.

  4. Pingback: Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (4) « Judy’s research blog

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

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

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