My copy of Chris Skinner’s new book What are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas (New York, Paulist Press, 2012) finally arrived earlier this week. Apparently the Book Depository was selling the US edition which wasn’t due to be published until 1 May, whereas Amazon had ordered the UK (?) edition, which was published a month earlier.
Anyway, it arrived, I’ve read it and I’m impressed. The aim of this series is to provide a summary of the current/recent scholarly literature in the particular field which is accessible to the ordinary reader and I think that Skinner has done an admirable job.
After a short introduction to the history of the text, he identifies the three crucial questions that are still being debated some fifty-five years after the text of Thomas became reasonably easily accessible to interested scholars:
- when was it written?
- what is its relationship to the canonical gospels?
- what is its genre and theological outlook?
Skinner devotes a chapter to each question, in which he lays out the various positions held by scholars, who the main proponents of each one are and (briefly) why they hold their particular positions. While the particular scholars may well think that he has missed some of the nuances of their arguments (due to summarising whole books in a few paragraphs), I think he has done an excellent job of summaraising the main points of the various positions, where they fit in and how they interrelate. The final chapter (unless you count a one-page conclusion as a chapter) looks at the debate about the role of Thomas in the quest for the historical Jesus, summarising the positions of John Paul Meier, the Jesus Seminar and John Dominic Crossan.
Skinner has done an admirable job of identifying the main players and the main issues in the field. As well as the three crucial questions and the issue of the role of Jesus in the quest for the historical Jesus, he also highlights a number of other important issues. He points out, for example, how intertwined these four issues are – so those who hold that Thomas is Gnostic and dependent on the canon will not be arguing for an early dating or that it is important in the quest for the historical Jesus. He notes the general divide between North American and European scholars on the issues of dating and independence, and the movement in the idea of theological outlook that has resulted from the debate about the definition of Gnosticism in the past decade or two.
As is always the case in the area of biblical studies, there are quite a few pages of notes that don’t quite belong in the main text but are nevertheless useful. Paulist, like most book publishers, prints endnotes at the end of the book and, as usual, this annoyed me as I flipped backwards and forwards between text and note. These are followed by a select bibliography which Skinner has divided into a number of sections: English translations; Thomas within early Christianity; Commentaries; Thomas and early Christian literature; Surveys of Thomas reserach; Important related reading: and Helpful online resources. This last is annotated, the rest are not, but there is a rating system that indicates which books are: accessible to the nonspecialist; written at an academic level but accessible to an educated nonspecialist; an intended for those with background knowledge of early Christian literature and the requisite reserach languages.
As the reader has no doubt gathered, I am very positive about this book. I found the structure that Skinner offers a helpful way of conceptualising the field of Thomas scholarship at the moment. He does a good job of presenting the various positions in an even-handed way. I discovered that Hedrick’s 2010 commentary on Thomas had slipped under my radar and have ordered a copy, which was particularly useful to me. My one disappointment was in the bibliography. David Gowler’s WATSA the Parables has a fully annotated bibliography, whereas in WATSA the Gospel of Thomas one has to search the text for a summary of the various positions of the authors. While there is an index, some of the more prolific authors are mentioned a number of times and an overview of the positions in each major publication would have been helpful.
In general, though, I think that Skinner has done what he set out to do and written a book that will provide a useful way into Thomas scholarship for the interested general reader and the student. I am certainly going to recommend that it be added to the reading list of the subject I taught when I was based at the University of New England.