Relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics

In the comments Mike K says:

I take it you view Thomas as largely independent of the Synoptics so that there similarities and differences may be explained as a result of different processes of oral transmission from the original eyewitnesses? I was just reading Andrew Gregory’s “The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Ireneaus” and he is very cautious about accepting any literary dependence as demonstrable unless it meets Koester’s criteria of whether the redaction is present, but he too finds evidence of Lukan redaction in the Greek fragments of Thomas (so difficult to blame on later scribal harmonization in the Coptic version). So I was wondering if you think it may be possible that whoever put together this compilation of sayings in the 2nd century was familiar with the Synoptics in some way, yet perhaps many of the sayings still reached the author independently from oral tradition?

This is too big to answer in the comments, so I am bringing it up to a post of its own.

I don’t know that I want to be that definite, but that’s certainly the way I am leaning, yes. As a person of faith, I believe that Jesus really existed, that there were many eyewitnesses to the various parts of his ministry and that they shared their stories of their encounters with Jesus with friends, family, colleagues. I would also like to believe that the early Christians were, in general, people of good will and integrity who told others what they genuinely believed to be true and accurate accounts of what they saw, heard and experienced, rather than deliberately reshaping material to convince others to their way of thinking. A lot of the redaction criticism theory sounds too cold and calculating to me: author X took author Y’s version and edited it so that it fitted in with his theology sounds like a very deliberate thing to me.

I think that the level of verbatim correspondence between some parts of the Synoptics are long enough for us to be pretty sure either that one version was copied from the other or that there was some common source with which both authors were familiar. If what scholars beginning with Gerhardsson suggest is correct, it may well be that this source was oral material learned verbatim, rather than necessarily a written copy but I suspect that alterations were made because the version that was available did not line up with the author’s memory of the event (or the account that s/he had heard from an(other) eyewitness), rather than something more deliberate. How we understand an event andwhat we remember of an event are strongly shaped by what we believe about the world, so our memories do tend to line up with our beliefs and therefore theologies but mostly this shaping is unconscious. McIver summarises the evidence here quite well (see my review of his Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels) although I don’t agree with the conclusions he draws about what it means for reliability.

Another possible explanation, however, of how there are different versions of what appears to be the same story in circulation is that Jesus actually told basically the same story several times with slightly different details because he was telling them to a different audience in different settings. In other words, it is possible that the reason that Matthew, Mark and Luke have parallel stories in different settings is not that they wrote their gospels to achieve particular theological purposes that worked best if they put them in different orders, combinations and settings and but because Jesus actually used them in different orders, combinations and settings and the ones that fitted best with a particular eyewitness’s theological emphasis were the ones that were remembered by that person. Quite a few of the changes that we see that are named as ‘redaction’ could equally be the result of people retelling a story in their own words and it doesn’t matter whether the story is one they have read somewhere or one they have heard somewhere. My article  “How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 1 (2010): 177-97 summarises the literature on both eyewitness testimony and human memory.

So, in short, yes, I think what you suggest is possible, Mike, but because we are working with Greek text of the Synoptics and largely Coptic text of Thomas and some of the Greek text we do have puts the sayings in a different order to the Coptic text, I don’t think we canbe at all certain about which of the various theories is correct. I think that on the basis of the evidence we have, it is perfectly possible that Thomas was written in total isolation from the Synoptics, on the basis of teaching that he learned verbatim from Jesus. That he used the sayings he used because they were the ones that he remembered best over the years because they were the ones that helped him to make sense of his world and his life.  I think it is exceedingly unlikely that the author picked up texts of the Synoptics, selected his/her favourite bits, changed them so that they would produce the spin he wanted and made up a whole pile of other stuff so that he could convince a group of gullible people of the veracity of his/her particular theological system (whatever that is). What we need in order to make a more definitive statement about which of the various theories of composition is most likely is an early copy of a full Greek text. Even then, however, if you accept that Jesus tried to get his disciples to learn his sayings verbatim, you don’t need to have a theory of textual dependence even with really significant verbatim sections.

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2 thoughts on “Relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics

  1. Pingback: Judy Redman on Memory, Oral Tradition and Jesus « Euangelion Kata Markon

  2. In my own research, I find that a person’s memory of a significent event tends to solidify about 5 years after the event. The eyewitness is convinced that what he rembers is true (although it may not be) and will not be shaken in his conviction.

    A discussion with another eyewitness may jog one’s memory and add to the memory and a group of eyewitnesses making an effort at rembering a significent event may yeild quite accurate data.

    Non-eyewitnesses, however, have little effect on eyewitnesses unless they jog the memory.Interestingly, once memory is jogged, the eyewitness can usually fill in numerous details that he couldn’t earlier.

    This research is easyrelatively easy to perform. Try it.

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