Goodacre’s ‘Thomas and the Gospels’ – a response

Tony Burke (who seems to have dropped the Chartrand from his name?) has recently posted a review of Mark Goodacre’s Thomas and the Gospels: the case for Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptics (Eerdmans/SPCK, 2012) – something I have been trying to find time to do for some time. In it, he expresses many of both my enthusiasms and reservations about the book and in some cases provides extra arguments to reinforce my opinions. I therefore don’t feel the need to write a systematic review when I can refer readers to Tony’s blog post. Instead, I plan to pick up some of the issues that struck me in particular along the way.

As an aside, though, let me mention that Mark’s publishers have moved into the multimedia world in publicising the book, so you can watch either a trailer or an 8 minute video interview, both linked from Mark’s NTBlog. I enjoyed watching them, but they in no way influenced me to buy the book which I had pre-ordered as soon as I could. I was also very pleased that it was published in paperback rather than hardcover, because it made a ‘must have’ book more affordable. It is clear, incidentally, that there are some subtle differences between the Eerdmans and SPCK editions, because Tony’s review mentions Kloppenborg’s comment on the back cover. My copy (the Eerdmans edition) has comments from Larry Hurtado, Dale Allison, Simon Gathercole and Klyne Snodgrass. No Kloppenborg. 😦


I expected the book to be well written, well researched, well argued and engaging and it is all of those things. As Tony comments, Mark presents his case in ‘an economy of space’, but he presents all the evidence clearly. Several authors I’ve read recently seem to have conserved space by saying things like ‘Bloggs says that the moon is blue’ without outlining Bloggs’ reasons for a highly contentious statement, as though the fact that Bloggs has said it means it requires no rationale. Mark provides the necessary outlines when he quotes, for which I was very grateful.

Later addendum
On rereading this some months down the track, I realise that nowhere did I say that this is an excellent book!! It made me think about some of the Thomas text in a different way and is a great addition to the field. I am very glad I bought it and read it. I just don’t happen to agree with everything Mark writes. 🙂

There are three issues in particular that I want to comment on.

Dependence vs Familiarity

In the first chapter, there is a discussion (pp. 5-7) of the problematic nature of the word ‘dependence’. Mark suggests that it is a loaded term that is best avoided and that ‘knowledge’, ‘familiarity’ or ‘use’ are better. In practice, he tends to use ‘familiarity’ most of the time.  I wholeheartedly agree that the term is problematic and for all the reasons he outlines, but I  am not sure that he has found a workable solution, for two reasons.

The first is that, like dependence, the alternatives he suggests are all imprecise terms that are open to a range of interpretations. I would happily agree that I know my husband and children, but if someone were to ask me “do you know Mark Goodacre?” there are circumstances under which I would also say yes, even though we have never met. While there is a fighting chance that I would recognise him at an SBL annual meeting, I doubt that I would recognise him in a place where I wasn’t expecting him to be, but I am very familiar with his work, we are Facebook friends and I have seen quite a few photos of him. There are also circumstances in which I would say that I know Tony Burke, even though I have no idea what he looks like, because I am familiar with the field in which he works, have read his blog and some of his publications. I might also, however, say that I ‘know’ Flogging Molly, even though all I know about them is that they are a band that my husband and son both like, but whose music my daughter doesn’t enjoy.  ‘Familiarity’ has a similar number of different levels of meaning. Even ‘use’ is open to interpretation, since I can use things in ways and for purposes for which they were not intended.

The second reason is that I don’t think you can use ‘independence’ and reasonably expect that your audience will not hear ‘dependence’ as its opposite. Mark uses independence throughout the book and I certainly kept thinking of its opposite as dependence, even though I didn’t want to and Mark did not use it. It is, however, difficult to come up with a simple alternative, and maybe that points to another problem with the debate. What exactly are scholars saying when they say that Thomas is independent of the Synoptics? That the author of  Thomas did not have a copy of the manuscripts in front of him as he wrote? That the author had never heard of the Synoptics and had no idea what they contained? That he knew the content but did not deliberately consult the tradition in the preparation of his own manuscript?

It seems to me that a better option is simply to describe one’s theory about the relationship between two or more parallel texts and the likely trajectories through which they have travelled to reach their current forms, without trying to find a label when the options are open to as much difference in interpretation as are ‘dependent’, ‘knowledge’, ‘familiarity’ and ‘use’. One might say, for example, that the relationship between two texts is a literary one, with the author of one having had a written copy of the other in front of her/him during the composition of the later work. Or that it is a literary one, with both authors using a common written source which they may have been quoting from memory. Or that it is an oral relationship, or that we cannot be at all sure, given the evidence available. Or any one of a range of other options.

Literary Relationships and the ‘Plagiarist’s Charter’

Mark develops what he terms the ‘plagiarist’s charter’ (pp. 54-56) – that if a student copies only a small percentage of someone else’s work without appropriate acknowledgement, no one will accept the argument that the majority of the work was not plagiarised as proof that plagiarism had not occurred. In the same way, he argues, it is only necessary to demonstrate that a small amount of the material in Thomas is copied from the canonical gospels to demonstrate a literary relationship – it does not have to have been done consistently. While this is true, I think that it is not as easy to demonstrate that even a small amount of Thomasine material has been copied directly from the Synoptics as Mark suggests.

Like Tony, I do not find Mark’s work on verbatim agreements particularly strong. The verbatim agreements between the Greek texts of Thomas and the Synoptics are less than ten words long, and in some cases they are not exactly the same eg POxy 654:25-26 contains the text of Thom 4:2-3||Matt 19:30||Mk 10:31 in which there is a 7 or 8 word agreement in a group of 9 words. I have certainly had TurnItIn suggest to me on the strength of this kind of concurrence that in the paper I was writing on eyewitness testimony I may have neglected to cite material that I had quoted from an article on managment or marketing theory in a journal I had never heard of, let alone consulted.

Mark argues that the fact that the verbatim passages contain unusual words or a hapax legomenon is further evidence of a literary relationship, but this is not necessarily so. The psychological research on human memory and eyewitness testimony suggests that the things most likely to be remembered are those that someone finds interesting or striking and a person who likes words is likely to retain unusual ones, or unusual turns of phrase, so the fact that there is repetition of one or two unusual words is only an indication of familiarity with the tradition, not with the text. One of the examples Mark uses (see p. 47) is that of Werner Kelber using James Robinson’s account of the discover of the Nag Hammadi codices as the basis for his own. Mark highlights the use of a number of phrases, the most remarkable of which is “the ultimate act of blood revenge”, as clear evidence of a literary relationship (which is provable because Kelber provides a citation). While in this case we know that the relationship is a literary one, without Kelber’s citation, all that we could say would be that Kelber was familiar with Robinson’s wording. We would have no way of knowing whether Kelber had read Robinson’s book section or whether he had simply attended a lecture where Robinson was telling the story of the discovery, or even heard someone else tell the story of the discovery as they had heard it from Robinson. If a student hands in an essay which contains a small verbatim section of another work, we cannot tell whether s/he has had access to the original work or is simply using a quotation from it that s/he has found on the net or in a review of the work. In the same way, a verbatim quote of a short passage or several short passages from one of the Synoptics in another or in Thomas is not a guarantee that the author who has quoted the material had access to the entire text from which the excerpt comes.

In addition, I’m afraid I don’t find arguments about verbatim agreement between a Greek text and a Coptic text at all convincing. Even though Mark uses Bethge’s retroversion of the Coptic text into Greek, this retroversion was still created by someone who was very familiar with the canonical texts so could hardly help but have been influenced by that in his translations. I think it provides indication of possibilities rather than concrete evidence.

The Missing Middle

This is a new issue in the argument for a direct literary relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics. Mark argues that there are a number of times when Thomas fails to narrate the middle part of a particular parable or saying, so that there is a need to be familiar with the Synoptics in order for it to make sense (p. 109). He then provides examples. Like Tony I would argue that sayings 26 and 63 are not unintelligible without the Synoptic middles – one is only conscious of something missing because of familiarity with the Synoptics. I am not so sure about saying 89 (washing the inside of the cup) which Tony suggests is clear without the middle, but the Lukan version of this parable is not exactly clear, either, even with the middle added. I don’t find saying 100 (tribute to Caesar) unintelligible, and the fact that it does not have any contextual framing that explains why ‘they’ would show him a coin with Caesar’s image on it is not unusual for Thomas.  The other two, sayings 36 (what will you wear) and 57 (the weeds in the wheat), do indeed show signs of missing material, but given that we only have one manuscript of the Thomasine versions of these two sayings, the missing material could just as easily be a result of haplography on the part of a scribe at some stage between the autograph and NH II,2 as a result of Thomas assuming knowledge of the Synoptic versions of the stories.

In addition, I think that in trying to determine what kind of relationship there is between various parallels in early Christian texts, insufficient notice is taken of the fact that the Church holds that these accounts all stem back to the teachings of Jesus, which has been passed on orally for a significant period before it was written down. We tend to behave as though Jesus only ever told each parable once and that version was preserved in the form in which it left Jesus’ lips for some indeterminate period after which the gospel writers adjusted it to fit their particular theological purposes. In fact, it is highly likely that Jesus used his stories more than once, that in the manner of all good story-tellers, he adjusted both the framing and the actual wording as he interacted with his different audiences, and that those who heard the stories made their own adjustments as they passed on what they heard. This makes it extremely likely that extended verbatim correlations such as occur between the Synoptics are the result of a textual relationship where the author compared his version with an earlier document, but that shorter verbatim correlations, such as those that occur between the Synoptics and Thomas cannot be taken as conclusive evidence of anything other than a source which might be textual or oral that is shared by the authors of the texts.

In Conclusion

As I said at the outset, Mark’s book is well written, well researched, well argued and engaging and a ‘must have’ for any serious Thomas scholar. I am very pleased that I bought it. It has caused me to rethink how I understand the relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics and has helped me to begin to fit into place some ideas that have been wandering in my head for some time.

A very definite positive is Mark’s calling into question the problematic nature of the category ‘dependent’.  I don’t, however, think that simply substituting another word is the solution. I think we need to give up on shorthand terms and describe exactly how we believe parallel texts are related.

Ultimately, however, I am not convinced that the relationship between the parallel passages in Thomas and the Synoptics is based on the author of Thomas having had access to the text of one or more of the Synoptics.  This is not to say that I am convinced that it is impossible for this to be the case. I simply do not think that on the strength of  three Greek fragments and one Coptic text we have sufficient information to be able to make a definitive judgement. Like Tony, I still find April DeConick’s rolling corpus model the most useful model for the evidence we have.

7 thoughts on “Goodacre’s ‘Thomas and the Gospels’ – a response

  1. Good discussion of some key points in Goodacre’s book, Judy. I would say that if the author of GTh was familiar with the synoptics, it was a faulty and inaccurate knowledge/familiarity. What about those sayings in GTh that have a Johannine ring to them? Was he or she also knowledgeable of the Fourth Gospel? The primary question to be answered in understanding GTh is what is its value in bearing witness to the tradition of Jesus’ teachings. Is it an independent source or not? To me, it’s clear that it is. The most thorough study of GTh is still the work of DeConick.

  2. Thanks; this is really interesting and thoughtful, Judy. A question your discussion prompts is what you would consider as sufficient evidence of literary dependence, and whether that standard would be met by (e.g.) Luke’s use of Mark.

  3. “… insufficient notice is taken of the fact that the Church holds …” might better be worded as “… insufficient attention is paid to the possibility that (as the Church holds -or- as some hold) …” The former seems to emphasize what’s actually incidental, namely that the theory which you think isn’t being given its due happens to be held by “the Church”.

  4. Sorry, folks. I posted this and then took off for a weekend at the Yackandandah Folk Festival and have had very limited internet time until now and now I am very tired. 🙂

    Steve, I think that the long passages of verbatim or near verbatim correspondence between the various Synoptics makes it virtually impossible to deny a literary relationship between them – unless you agree with Gerhardssson et al that Jesus taught his disciples to learn his teaching by heart as the rabbis taught their disciples the Torah. Mark quotes Matt 6:25-30 || Luke 12: 22-28 – the lilies of the field. I am too lazy to count properly but these are passages of some 50-60 words where the correspondence is incredibly close to verbatim, except for the framing statements. This is very different to 8-9 words or even one 13 word example that both Goodacre and Gathercole highlight in their books.

    Mike, I think you’re right about the wording there needing revising, although I wouldn’t agree that ‘as some hold’ is the same as ‘as the Church holds’. The Church is an extremely large body of people. 🙂 What I was trying to convey is that most of the people who are interested in studying the various gospels hold that Jesus was a real person who lived and died in first century Palestine and travelled around for a number of years, teaching and performing miracles. Thus, what we have is accounts that stem from eyewitnesses to actual events, rather than stories that are made up.

    And Paul, I think that there is very definitely a relationship between the various texts – what I am not sure is how they are related and at what points.

  5. There is, of course, a risk in an author responding to reviews and comments on reviews — one might end up simply repeating oneself! But on the verbatim agreement issue, I would want to underline the importance of avoiding being spoiled by the Synoptic evidence. The degree of agreement among the Synoptics is very unusual in antiquity, but our problem as Biblical scholars is that we are really familiar with the Synoptics and end up thinking about that verbatim agreement as a norm rather than something exceptional.

    Re Gerhardsson, it’s worth bearing in mind that he did think the Synoptics were linked at the literary level.

  6. Mark, while this is true, I think that the level of verbatim correspondence is important for how certain we might be about whether we have a literary relationship or a more general familiarity with the tradition. If we want to be able to say that there is very little doubt that the relationship between two texts is a literary one, I think we need either to have a high degree of verbatim or near verbatim correspondence, or to be sure that there is no other way that the author of the later text can be familiar with the material contained in the former than by having seen a copy of the text. If we are prepared to accept that Jesus was a real person who moved around first century Palestine teaching a reformed understanding of the Jewish faith, then we have to accept that there were many people who heard him teach, including quite a few who heard him many times and that he lived in a culture where oral transmission of stories and teachings was the norm, so parallel content without verbatim agreement doesn’t provide a particularly high level of certainty about a literary relationship between two texts. By a high level of verbatim correspondence, I mean long strings of words – too long to be remembered by rote or to have occurred by chance. Without this, all that we can say is that it is clear that the author of the later text was familiar with the content of the earlier one and that this may have been a literary relationship.

    In looking at the relationship between the various Synoptics, we have a number of passages of verbatim or near verbatim agreement that are way too long to have come about in any other way than either copying directly from one text into another or a deliberate effort on the part of the early church to learn vast amounts of material by rote. With Thomas, the amount of evidence available is very much smaller – we can only compare Greek with Greek in the POxy fragments and there is only a small amount of parallel material in these. McIver and Carroll (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.” JBL 121, no. 4 (2002): 667-687 and McIver, Robert K. and Marie Carroll. “Distinguishing Characteristics of Orally Transmitted Material When Compared to Material Transmitted by Literary Means.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 18, no. 9 (2004): 1251-1269) suggest that we need to have at least 15-18 words correspondence to be able to be sure that copying has taken place. I would certainly argue that for stories in circulation in oral form within a community, 8-10 words could easily be achieved by chance supported by familiarity with the oral tradition. While copying could have taken place, this string length is not long enough to provide concrete evidence of copying. The only verbatim string of words from POxy that is longer than 7-9 is a 13 word string from POxy1 and this presents a significant problem because POxy is the fragment that contains GTh26-30 then 77b then 31-33. If this is part of an actual manuscript of GTh, then we have evidence that the text was not always in the same form as we have it in NHC II,2, which provides support for a rolling corpus theory. If it is part of either a homily or a collection of favourite sayings from Thomas, then an equally plausible explanation for the correspondence is a harmonisation attempt on the part of a/the scribe.

    I would therefore say that the level of verbatim correspondence that we can demonstrate between Thomas and the Synoptics does not provide strong evidence for the author’s familiarity with the Synoptic texts, merely with the Synoptic tradition. Of course, it doesn’t exclude the possibility that the author of Thomas was familiar with the Synoptic texts because, as you argue, the fact that the author had a copy of a text in front of him would not have compelled him to copy all of it or to copy any of it verbatim.

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