Hedrick’s commentary on Thomas

Another reasonably recent commentary on Thomas is:

Charles  Hedrick’s Unlocking the Secrets of the Gospel According to Thomas

Hedrick, Charles W. Unlocking the Secrets of the Gospel According to Thomas: A Radical Faith for a New Age. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2010.

Hedrick is distinguished Emeritus Professor at Missouri State University in the US and has written extensively on Thomas, the Synoptic problem and parables (among other things). He blogs at Wry thoughts about religion and is a fellow of the Westar Institute (home of the Jesus Seminar and Polebridge Press).

This commentary is aimed at a more general audience than is Pokorný’s. Hedrick provides a glossary of  terms and names that are likely to be unfamiliar to someone without some formal education or reading in scholarly writings about early Christianity. The translation he provides of the text uses gender neutral terms where possible and less formal English than is usual in commentaries. For example, he translates the closing sentence of Saying 8 as “Better pay attention to this” rather than the more usual variants around “Let the one who has ears listen” and uses the term “imperial rule” rather than the familiar “kingdom.” He has also chosen to subdivide a number of the sayings so that sections that are clearly different in content are numbered separately. For example, he treats saying 47 in four separate sections – the sayings about not serving two masters; not wanting to drink new wine after old; not putting new wine into old wineskins; and the one about not sewing an old patch onto a new garment. This makes sense to me, but I am not so sure about his decision not to include the “Jesus says” at the beginning of each saying.

Assessment of Thomas

I will again address Skinner’s three questions as a way into the material.

When was it written?

It was composed or compiled for the first time for the first time by the late first or early second century, or perhaps earlier (p 3).

What is its relationship to the canonical gospels?

Thomas is a “collection of collections” of sayings of Jesus. Each saying needs to be considered individually and regarded as potentially independent until it can be shown to be dependent on the Synoptics (p 15).

What is its genre and theological outlook?

As noted above, Thomas is a collection of collected sayings of Jesus, so it doesn’t have a consistent systematic theology (p 7). As a whole it is not a Gnostic text, although it contains ideas that are in line with Gnostic thought, just as it contains ideas that are in line with early orothodox Christianity.

Other items of note

Hedrick considers that only a small percentage of the sayings in Thomas actually originated with the historical Jesus – most of them represent the work of Jesus’ followers at various times and in various places (p 8). He says, however, that a good case can be made for the noncannonical sayings 82 and 98 to have originated with Jesus. It tells us nothing about the historical Jesus because its author has no interest in the person of Jesus, only in his teachings.

Positive Aspects

  • the layout is clear and easy to follow
  • Hedrick shows how the various sayings link to one another (at least in his opion – I suppose others might disagree)
  • He also indicates the links to Q and to the canonical material
  • He also indicates where in the commentary he has first dealt with recurring themes eg whenever the imperial reign of the Father appears in a saying, the reader is referred back to the first place where it is mentioned. This makes it possible to dip easily into the comment on a particular saying and follow his line of thought about the various issues it raises
  • the writing style is engaging and easy to read

Negative Aspects

  • the bibliography is relatively brief
  • because of his translation choice, it is not easy to see the Coptic text in the English translation. He does, however, normally justify unusual choices of translation

And finally

This commentary would be a good introduction to the text for a reader with little background in biblical studies, but still provides stimulation for the more expert reader. While it does not provide the depth of analysis that is found in either DeConick or Plisch’s commentaries, it is still definitely worth consulting.

5 thoughts on “Hedrick’s commentary on Thomas

  1. Pingback: Recent commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas « Judy’s research blog

  2. Thanks for this review of Hedrick’s commentary, Judy, a book which I’ll probably purchase in the near future. Btw, “imperial rule” is used in the Scholars Version of ‘The Complete Gospels’ (Polebridge, 1992), so Hedrick, I guess, is subscribing to the translation theory pertaining to the underlying Greek or Coptic as put forward in that volume. P. 12 of ‘The Complete Gospels’ has a cameo essay on “God’s imperial rule” which explains the phrase. In brief, the SV translators wanted an Englsh term that, (1), “function(ed) as both verb and noun,” (2), “had to specify that God’s activity was absolute,” (3), has “tones of the ominous, of ultimate threat.” Personally I prefer the word ‘kingdom.’ The notion that GTh is a “collection of collections” of Jesus’ sayings reminds me of DeConick’s work on GTh, analyzing it into a kernel composition with accretions according to the needs of the ‘Thomas community’ at various stages. My main interest in GTh is its modern or postmodern spiritual relevance, that is, how can its teachings help me understand my life in this crazy world. It seems that Hedrick might be a good guide to GTh along those lines. Thanks again, Judy.

  3. Pingback: Judy Redman on Charles Hedrick’s Thomas Commentary « PEJE IESOUS

  4. I haven’t read Hedrick’s book or ‘The Complete Gospels’, but my comment is also about more general issues:

    Concerning translations: Personally I prefer translations which are near to the original language and in the overall spirit of GTh. Meanwhile, I’ve made more or less my own German (my native language) translation (on the base of two interlinear and some German and English ones, because I don’t know Coptic or Greek), including a ‘holistic lacuna and puzzle filling’.

    Concerning the term “God’s imperial rule” and the statement “tones of the ominous, of ultimate threat” (see paulyr2’s comment): I wonder, if that term is a fitting choice (the expression “Better pay attention to this” similarly). And that statement sounds apocalyptic, what is not a theme in GTh (the base theme is apparently a metanoia-like recognition). I prefer the word ‘kingdom’ (German: ‘Königreich’), and the expression ‘to be king over’ (German: ‘König sein über’). Both in the combined sense of a natural sovereignty, which is the result of a gained consciousness, and a realized spiritual realm.

    Concerning gender neutral terms: That’s a good point. However, it’s difficult in our gendered languages. This challenge is similar to the one in GTh22.

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