Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (4)

Chapter 4 is entitled “Positive evidence for a Greek-language origin” and in it, Gathercole addresses six areas:

  1. The material evidence of the manuscripts: Here, Gathercole says that we have no manuscript evidence of a Semitic version of Thomas but there are three fragments of  Greek copies. Although he notes that an argument from silence needs to be viewed with caution, he suggests that the material evidence is sufficient to suggest that a Greek composition should be the default position.
  2. Level of correspondence between items of Greek vocabulary in Greek and Coptic Thomas: Gathercole looks at those sections of Coptic Thomas where there is also an existing Greek version in the P. Oxy fragments and  lists 27 Greek loanwords in the Coptic text. In only three cases is there a different word used in the extant Greek text and two of these are particles, which (as was noted previously) are least predictably rendered in other Greek-to-Coptic translations.  He ends this section with “This is a fairly remarkable statistic, making a Greek Vorlage – and one which is fairly similar to our extant Greek fragments – almost certain (p 108).” Again, I feel that he overstates the case, for three reasons. First, as he says himself in the next section, it is quite common for texts that we are sure were originally composed in Coptic to have many Greek loanwords.  Second, the presence of Greek loanwords could simply indicate that the translator spoke  Greek more fluently than Coptic. Third, loanwords usually enter a language because the target language doesn’t already have a word that expresses the concept effectively and this is likely to be the case with at least some of the words cited eg sabbaton, sarx.
  3. Additional features of Greek loanwords in Coptic Thomas: Gathercole draws attention to Stephen Emmel’s index to the Coptic Gnostic Library, which contains 372 instances of “words borrowed from Greek” that are not proper nouns. This, as he says, does not in itself support a Greek original or Vorlage since it was quite common for “native Coptic works” to contain a high proportion of Greek vocabulary. He provides  examples, however, where the Greek is unusual, and also points to the survival of inflected Greek forms. Again, however, this kind of oddity could result from the translator being more fluent in Greek than in Coptic.
  4. Greek Gospels: Here, Gathercole argues that the genre of Thomas is “overwhelmingly” Greek: because of its designation as a gospel; because it is referred to as a gospel in the patristic references; and because it “was intended as a collection of saving words. Even if it is not a Gospel in the canonical sense, it is probably a Gospel when considered on its own terms (p 110).” He then goes on to demonstrate that, although the area is “messy and difficult to penetrate” the majority of scholarly opinion is that the original language of the gospels that we have is Greek – that “the Gospel genre is overwhelmingly a Greek-language genre (p 115)” and thus that the original language for a gospel is most likely to be Greek. This hinges on the assertion that Thomas  is a typical Greek gospel. In fact, however, if we are to accept Richard Burridge’s argument (and most scholars do) that the canonical gospels are a sub-genre of the Graeco-Roman genre bios (Burridge, R.A. What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), Thomas simply doesn’t make the cut. Most obviously lacking of Burridge’s criteria is the narrative about Jesus’ life and, in particular, the account of his death. Thomas may fit into the genre of Greek sayings-source, but these are not exactly thick on the ground to provide comparisons.
  5. Greek originals of Nag Hammadi tractates: Gathercole shows that the weight of scholarly opinion is that the majority, if not all, of the texts in the Nag Hammadi library were originally composed in Greek. He concludes “if the scholarly consensus on the rest of Codex II is right, this is at least circumstantial evidence in favour of a Greek original for Thomas. It is strong evidence for a Greek Vorlage to the present Coptic translation, and the more evidence for Greek one finds in all this, the higher the burden of proof on Semitic theories (p121).” This seems to me to be an overstatement of the strength of circumstantial evidence.
  6. Close similarity to early Greek parallels: Here, Gathercole points to the similarity between the Greek text of Thomas and the Greek texts of a number of other Gospels, both canonincal and non-canonical. The major problem with the case he presents is that there is no example where the level of correspondence that he reports is adequate to satisfy the criteria of copying rather than familiarity developed by McIver and Carroll. Even in their earlier, less stringent work (McIver, Robert K., and Marie Carroll. “Experiments to Develop Criteria for Determining the Existence of Written Sources, and Their Potential Implications for the Synoptic Problem.” Journal of Biblical Literature 121, no. 4 (2002): 667-87), they conclude that there needs to be verbatim correspondence in a string of at least 16 words. Gathercole’s longest example is 13 words and most are much shorter, so he can really only suggest that the author of one text was familiar with the other at the level of oral transmission.  Thus, his conclusion: “Unless one regards a Greek Thomas as the ultimate source of the canonical versions, we are left with the strong likelihood that Thomas incorporated known Greek tradition” again overstates the case, since the evidence could again be accounted for by the development of parallel eyewitness traditions (see previous post). A second problem is that it is quite clear that the P. Oxy fragments which which he is working are not the original source of Coptic Thomas. P. Oxy 655 contains the prologue and sayings 1-7, then saying 24, which could be explained if it were a collection of someone’s favourite sayings from Thomas.P. Oxy 1, however, contains sayings 26-33 with lines 2-3 of saying 77 interpolated between saying 30 and saying 31, which suggests that there was a Greek version of Thomas in which the sayings appeared in a different order to that of Coptic Thomas. Thus it seems to me that one cannot assume that the conclusions about similarity with the canon reached from the Greek text necessarily apply to the Coptic text.

Gathercole concludes that the evidence provided means “that a Greek Vorlage to the Coptic version of Thomas is a virtual certainty, with proposals for a translation into Coptic from another language being highly speculative (p 125).”  As is obvious from my various comments, I do not think the case he makes is a strong as he suggests.

He continues “Moreover, the close parallels in phraseology between the Greek texts of Thomas and other Gospels are perhaps the strongest evidence for the incorporation of Greek tradition at the stage of Thomas’s composition (p 125).” The psychological research literature on human memory suggests, however, that the parallels he mentions are not particularly close. This will, I think, have significant implications for what follows, since he indicates that this will be an important factor in the case he will build “that Thomas is likely to be dependent upon Mathew and Luke, as well as upon some other early Christian literature.”

4 thoughts on “Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (4)

  1. Once again, thank-you for continuing the review of Gathercole’s important work on GTh. Judy, you bring a cautious & critical view to the reading of Gathercole and I’m appreciative. You call attention to the differences between the Greek fragments of GTh and our extant Coptic text and the difficulties these pose for Gathercole’s use of the preserved Greek to make statements about GTh in toto, e.g., and this is proper. Indeed with the state of our evidence at present, any theory of composition of GTh is bound to be incomplete, although I think it is pretty darn sure that its original language was Greek. The author may have been a Greek-speaking Jew as you have suggested in earlier posts. I’m among the school that thinks GTh is basically independent of the canonical gospels, but that there may have been some influence along the way from Greek to Coptic, though here the study you mention from McIver & Carroll is relevant (the longest verbatim agreement, you say Gathercole is able to come up with being 13 words, rather than the proposed 16). Somewhere in my reading on GTh (it may have been Plisch, DeConick, Klauck, Koester, I’m not sure), it was advanced that each saying of GTh has to be examined on a piecemeal basis to determine its relation, if any, to another writing or its place in the history of the gospel tradition. With this I agree. Keep up the good work, Judy!

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

  3. Pingback: The onus/burden of proof « Judy’s research blog

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

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