Gathercole: “The Gospel of Thomas”

Gathercole's Recently, I received my copy of Simon Gathercole’s The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014) – something  of a saga since the first copy I ordered got lost in transit and I had to request a refund and order it again! It’s over 700 pages long, the first 188 pages being introductory material, followed by 430 pages of commentary, then an extensive bibliography, an index locorum (aka index of ancient texts cited), an index of modern authors and an index of subjects. This post provides a summary of the introductory material.

Let me get my intemperate rant about the pricing of academic books out of the way before I address the content. Given that the amount I paid for it (AUD282 including postage) would enable someone to be trained as a teacher in a developing country and provide a toilet for a village that doesn’t have one, I would have expected better proof-reading (there are typos and missing citations – some, but not all of which can be tracked down in the bibliography) and editing (when the item ‘below’ doesn’t appear for 13 pages or several chapters, providing a page number would surely be more useful to the reader), better binding, and that all the pages would be cut so that the printers’ marks weren’t visible.  It does, however, have footnotes, rather than endnotes, which is a definite plus!! There is an e-book available, but it appears to cost USD250, which is more than AUD310.

Gathercole has done an enormous amount of work, investigating a huge amount of literature and has, I think, struggled at times to decide how to put it together in ways that make sense and are accessible to the reader. I assume that this is why the ‘appended note’ on Thomas as a ‘rolling corpus’ is slightly longer than the chapter to which it is appended. A helpful feature of each chapter is that the first footnote contains a bibliography of major works on the issue addressed.

Chapter 1 looks at the manuscripts, their datings and various features and chapter 2 compares the Greek and Coptic texts, looking at theories of composition. The third chapter looks at the ancient texts that mention GThom by name, providing the relevant sections in their original languages, followed by a reflection on the content of each. Chapter 4 looks at passages where it seems likely that the content of GThom is being referred to without specifically mentioning GThom. In this chapter, he cites the source material in English translation.

The fifth chapter is a summary of his work in pages 19-125 of The composition of the Gospel of Thomas original language and influences (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) and rehearses his position that there are very strong reasons to conclude both that the Coptic version of GThom is a translation from the Greek and that it was originally written in Greek. Chapter 6 addresses the issue of provenance and, after identifying from the literature Syria (either Edessa or Antioch) and Egypt as possibilities, he concludes that we can’t know and that it probably does not really matter.

He then moves on to dating and authorship in chapter 7. As stated in Composition, Gathercole believes that GThom is a later rather than an earlier work. He dates it somewhere between 135 and 200 CE. His dating thus means that the author was neither an apostle nor a Manichaen, and he notes that the author is unknown. He then provides a reasonably extensive list of proposed dates from the literature in chronological order.

In chapter 8, he bravely addresses the issue of structure, agreeing with most commentators that it is not a particularly carefully ordered text. He lists four attempts to divide Thomas into sections – by Janssens, Tripp, Davies and Nordsieck, all of which he sees as unsustainable. He does not, however, address DeConick’s five speeches proposal. He lists three generally recognised structuring devices – “Jesus said”; an opening section; and links between pairs/clusters of sayings. He lists the sayings in pairs or groups and indicates which of a catchword link, a thematic connection and/or a form in common link them (in a number of cases, he sees more than one of these applying to a group). He questions how many of the catchwords are accidental and indicates that he hopes to avoid the extremes of overcontextualising and ignoring context in his commentary.

The next chapter looks at the genre. Gathercole looks at the variety of genres suggested by various authors and discards as unlikely all but two: gospel; and sentence collection/chreia collection. He makes a point that I had not considered in talking about the gospel genre – that just as John is written so that the reader may believe, so Thomas gives guidance about transcending death (p 140). He concludes that it is a mixed genre and notes that Kelber’s term ‘sayings gospel’ is helpful.

Chapter 10 is probably the longest of the introductory material (although this depends on how you choose to count the pages of ‘appended notes’) and deals with the religious outlook of GThom. It contains a very thorough listing of the various characteristics of the text under a comprehensive range of headings and he reserves his analytical comments until he has laid out all the evidence, all of which is helpful. He argues that GThom sets itself against non-Christian Judaism, the wider Christian movement and various figures of authority. He suggests that GThom ‘may not be completely systematic, but it is reasonably coherent’ (pp 166-167) but resists putting a particular theological label on it. There follows another ‘appended note’ addressing the issue of whether or not GThom is Gnostic, which towards the beginning notes that the answer to the question depends on one’s definition of Gnosticism. He summarises the debate, and suggests not only that it is difficult to categorise GThom as Gnostic given that it does not contain a clear demiurgic account of creation (p 173), but also that using labels such as Mack’s ‘proto-gnostic’ or  Funk’s ‘reflecting an incipient gnosticism’ is questionable and that ‘it is very difficult to align GThom very closely with any particular movement’ (pp 174).

In chapter 11, he looks at GThom and the historical Jesus and contends that GThom is not useful in developing a picture of the historical Jesus. Chapter 12 is the final chapter of the introductory material and describes the plan of the commentary section. It provides for each saying a bibliography, a copy of the Coptic text and, where available, the Greek text, together with translations, followed by textual comment, interpretation and notes.

This book is clearly intended for the scholar rather than the interested lay person. Gathercole quotes material written in Greek, Coptic, Latin, French, German and Italian in their original languages and without translation. English translations of the ancient material are largely available on the internet and the modern language material is short enough so that using an on-line translation service would probably give a reasonable understanding of the gist of each, but following the argument in depth could prove frustrating. He also has a tendency to use uncommon English words and Latin terms quite regularly. It is by far the most detailed commentary on the actual text of GThom available in English, French or German. DeConick’s two volumes combined are the closest in length, but she spends more time on her theory of composition and on overview issues and less on the text itself. Gathercole has, as I said earlier, consulted a massive number of works and this and the detailed attention to the text make it a very useful reference work on GThom. Noticeably absent from his bibliography, however, are the major works on oral transmission, human and communal memory that I think help to understand the transmission issues for early Christian collections of the sayings of Jesus, and which provide the strength of DeConick’s work.

Clearly, any real review of the book would need to include an assessment of the textual commentary. I have not begun to read that part and at this stage have no time to do it in any systematic way. This, then, is more a summary of and reflections on the introductory material. I am sure the book will prove very useful, but I am still not happy about the price.

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7 thoughts on “Gathercole: “The Gospel of Thomas”

  1. Thanks! I enjoyed reading this. Just one minor note on your observations on vague references. It seems to me that imprecise references to ‘below’ (or the like) rather than page number are becoming inevitable since publishers understandably want/need to format their books in such a way that the references work in both book form and electronic form. I suspect most authors would like to keep referring to page numbers, but the dual book-electronic medium of current publications will probably make this a thing of the past. In other words, I think your frustration about this point is justified but probably unavoidable!

    • Wayne, you’re probably correct, unfortunately. This hadn’t occurred to me, because I am not a big user of e-books. While more general e-books tend to be cheaper than the paper version, it seems that Brill and publishers like them are publishing books for libraries where having an electronic version means that more than one person can ‘borrow’ it at a time, so they charge the same or more for the electronic edition. This is a particularly useful format for universities where there are many students who study at a distance, because you also don’t lose borrowing time while books are in transit in the mail. A plus for e-books! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Gathercole on dating Thomas | Judy's research blog

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