Reflections on Literacy

Media of Jesus' LiteracyAfter reading Chris Skinner’s review of Chris Keith’s Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee (LHJS 8; LNTS 413; London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2011), I thought I would like to read the book for myself. His third chapter, ‘Scribal Culture in the Time of Jesus’ started me reflecting on the whole concept of literacy, which, as Keith points out, is a fairly imprecise term. He talks about levels of literacy, and this makes a great deal of sense of my own experiences with language speaking and learning.

I have had several surprised native speakers of Spanish ask me if I can speak Spanish after hearing me read Spanish text out loud. The answer is no, I can’t, but I did attend the school language club’s Spanish lessons for long enough to learn how to pronounce it, and Spanish is a pretty phonetic language. Give me a can of food produced in a Spanish-speaking country and I can read the label to you in what is apparently quite convincing-sounding Spanish. Put me in Houston for five weeks, where all the signs on the public transport system are in English and Spanish and all the announcements are, too, and I can tell you in Spanish that, no, this is not a seat; that the next train on platform two goes to…; that you should take care when alighting from the bus not to step out in front of a car; and that no, I am sorry, but I don’t speak Spanish! Give me something complex to read, however, and I think it would quickly become obvious that I was reading without much comprehension. Am I literate in Spanish? Well, hardly by normal standards, but I can read it within some very narrow limits.

When I was younger, I volunteered to type drafts of translations of various books of the New Testament into Bislama, the lingua franca of Vanuatu, to help Rev Bill Camden, the head of the translation team for this project, who attended the same church as me. Bislama is a creole of English, French and several of the more widely spread indigenous languages, so although I did not speak the language, I found lots of the words very familiar. The grammatical structure is not very complex either, so it wasn’t too long before I got to the stage where I could often tell when there were errors in the manuscripts I was typing. Sometimes, as well as knowing that what I was typing wasn’t right, I could also make a decent stab at what it ought to have been. I wasn’t as fast a typist as the other volunteers, but I quickly became Bill’s favourite, because the others simply copied letter for letter what they had in front of them, whereas I provided a measure of proofreading as I went. Was I literate in Bislama? At one level, clearly I was – I could read it with sufficient understanding to spot errors in the manuscript. I could also take dictation over the phone. When I spotted a mistake, I’d ring Bill and he’d tell me what it should be and I’d type the correction into the manuscript. I couldn’t, however, write a sentence of any level of complexity (and no Vanuatuan would have understood my horrible pronunciation, but that’s a different issue). Since I was very familiar with the content in English of the texts I was typing there are definitely situations where I could have given the impression of a higher level of literacy than I actually had – something that Keith suggests might have been true of Jesus.

It is also certainly common now for people learning ‘dead’ languages to be taught to read them, but not to write them. It is also possible in many English-speaking universities to undertake courses in French and German for academic purposes which teach you how to read at a reasonably sophisticated level, but not to write or speak them. I was taught both Koine Greek and Coptic as reading languages and I’m sure that this is part of the reason that I find them so much harder to keep up than I do the French and German that I was taught to read, write and speak. I can see no reason why people in the first century would not also have only taken the time to gain the level of literacy that they needed in their everyday lives.

Keith makes some interesting points about different levels of literacy in first century Palestine, often corresponding to the needs of people in particular strata of society. There were lots of people who could read a bit, but not at the level of sophistication of the scholars of the time. He quotes information about how students were taught to read in Qumran before they were allowed to read out loud in worship.

Something that I have not seen mentioned by Keith (at least so far), or by anyone else, is the fact that the manuscripts that were available for reading at the time must have assumed a level of familiarity with the content, too. Not only did they not have any punctuation or breaks between words, the Hebrew texts were also unpointed (ie they only had consonants, and not vowels) and I have often wondered if this was partially a function of the fact that rabbis were encouraged to learn Scripture by heart. It is one thing to learn something by heart and recite it from beginning to end. It is quite another thing to learn something by heart and be able to start at any point and continue on. I have often thought that an unpointed text might well have functioned more as an aide memoire for someone who knew the whole text by heart than as a means of communicating the text to people who had never seen or heard it before.

Reading any unfamiliar first century manuscript out loud without significant preparation would have been considerably more difficult than is reading something like this blog, with its spaces between words, punctuation and full set of vowels.  Even the Greek manuscripts, which included vowels, would have been challenging, and my memory of reading about this suggests that the epistles were most likely performed by a literate member of the church community to the non-literate members after reading and rehearsal. We also have evidence from the early church Fathers that they trusted oral communication more than written, which is hardly surprising in such a heavily oral-leaning culture.

All of this is, I guess, a rather long-winded way of saying that so far Chris Keith’s book makes a lot of sense to me, but also raises some other issues.

And now for something completely different

Outlooks and Opportunities in Blended and Distance LearningDuring 2010, I was what a colleague referred to as ‘underemployed’. The church ran out of funding for my chaplaincy position and I spent time working as a research assistant/editor for a number of people around the University of New England. One of my jobs was doing research about how various universities offer postgraduate research degrees by distance education for the DEHub in its previous iteration as a consortium between five universities (four  Australian and one New Zealand). I was invited to present the findings at the international SUMMIT that they held in February 2011 and the paper has recently been published as a chapter in  Belinda Tynan, Julie Willems & Rosalind James (eds) Outlooks and Opportunities in Blended and Distance Learning Hershey PA, IGI Global, 2013. My chapter is “Communities of Practice for Distance Research Students in Australia: Why Do We Need Them and How Might We Create Them? (pp 346-352)” The book contains a range of interesting papers (another job that I had was to check that all the authors had implemented the reviewers’ suggestions or justified not doing so, so I have read them all), but it is quite expensive and probably of limited use to anyone who is not working in distance/blended learning.

One of my favourites is Mpine Makoe’s “The Pedagogical Suitability of Using Cell Phones to Support Distance Education Students” (pp 114-128), which talks about how she and her colleagues use mobile (cell) phones to provide support for students studying by distance in rural South Africa. She says:

The potential for using cell phones for educational purposes is enormous in a country of limited access to infrastructure that supports telephones, computers and broadband capacity for easy connectivity. In addition, few people have expertise of using computers. In the past ten years, cell phone users in Africa have increased to over 600 million, second only to Asia, (Reed 2011). In South Africa alone, the cell phone penetration is estimated at 98 percent. More than 90 per cent of University of South Africa (UNISA) students own or have access to a cell phone. Most of the cell phones they own have software features such as the internet, instant messaging platforms, pictures, video, music and games. Even the low-cost cell phones have some of these features that enable them to be used in education for collaboration, tutoring, research, reading and writing purposes (Prensky, 2004). The latest top of the range cell phones have the computing power of the mid-1990s computers while consuming one-hundredth of the energy (Prensky, 2004). Its mobility allows students to learn anytime, anywhere and everywhere.

Keegan (2005, p. 3) argues that ‘it is not technologies with inherent pedagogical qualities that are successful in distance education, but technologies that are generally available to citizens’. Since cell phones are used widely by a majority of distance education students, their use in teaching and learning is even more appropriate in a distance education context because they have the potential to reduce the formality of learning experiences that is not tied to a particular physical location. What this means in the South African context is that distance education students who live in remote rural areas can use cell phones to communicate with their lecturers and seek help from their peers. The efficacy of distance education in promoting access to marginalised students is premised on the notion that it can accommodate an increased and more diverse student population at reduced costs.

I found this concept amazing – I had to rethink my view of South Africa and of the use of mobile phones.

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.

Not Only a Father

One of the things I have been doing recently instead of working on my thesis is reading Tim Bulkeley’s book Not Only A Father. You can, too – for free because it’s online as well as available in paper form – and the online format allows you to comment or ask questions along the way, which is fun.

Tim is a Baptist who has been a pastor in Britain, a missionary in Africa and an Old Testament lecturer in New Zealand and he has been thinking about the way we name God and its implications since he started work on his PhD in the 1970s. The book takes a careful look at what language Scripture actually uses when it talks about God (not only Father and not only male, but also Mother and female) and also at the implications of insisting that Father is the only proper title for God and that male imagery is the only proper imagery for God.

I am liking the content and I like the fact that I can make comments and ask questions as I go, knowing that Tim will read them and quite likely respond. I am not, however, a big fan of reading books on line – I still like paper, especially for reference material. The interface is a bit ‘clunky’, but the material is very, very worthwhile.

Recent commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas

When I first started studying Thomas in about 2004, I asked about commentaries and was told that the only English language full commentary available was Richard Valantasis’  The Gospel of Thomas (London and New York: Routledge, 1997) and that I was really better off getting a copy of  Jacques Ménard’s L’Évangile Selon Thomas (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975).

Since then, there have been five commentaries published in English and one in German.  They are:

Nordsieck, Reinhard, Das Thomas-Evangelium: Einleitung: Zur Frage des historischen Jesus: Kommentierung aller 114 Logien.  (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2004).

DeConick, April D, The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, With a Commentary and New English Translation of the Complete Gospel (London: T & T Clark, 2006), together with the companion volume DeConick, April D, Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth (London: T&T Clark, 2005).

Plisch, Uwe-Karsten, The Gospel of Thomas : original text with commentary (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2008) – a translation from German.

Pokorný, Petr, Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas: From interpretations to the interpreted.  (T&T Clark Jewish and Christians Texts Series. New York: T&T Clark Ltd, 2009).

Hedrick, Charles W., Unlocking the secrets of the Gospel according to Thomas: a radical faith for a new age. (Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2010).

I have linked to my reviews of them, although the material on Plisch is in a post that gives another overview of commentaries, rather than (as yet) having a review of its own. In addition, two books have been published on Thomas this year (Chris Skinner’s What are they Saying About the Gospel of Thomas (Paulist) and Simon Gathercole’s The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas (Cambridge)) and a third, Mark Goodacre’s Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics (Eerdmans) is due out soon. Clearly, there is a significant increase in interest in Thomas!

Update (because I hit publish instead of save draft)

Hedrick’s commentary is suitable for a reader who is not a biblical scholar. The rest assume some knowledge of the discipline. DeConick and Plisch spend a significant amount of time looking at scholarship in the field and provide extensive bibliographies (as does Nordsieck, but in German). Porkorný and Hedrick place less emphasis on this and have much more limited bibliographies. It does not appear that Plisch’s commentary is available in paperback, but all the others are. All are worthy of attention in their own ways, but if I were only to buy two I would choose DeConick and Plisch and would recommend that you also buy DeConick’s companion volume.

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.

Back to commentaries – Pokorný

Returning to my series on commentaries on GosThom, I want to look at:

Petr Pokorný’s A Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas

Pokorný, Petr, Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas: From interpretations to the interpreted.  T&T Clark Jewish and Christians Texts Series. New York: T&T Clark Ltd, 2009 (hardcover) and 2011 (paperback).

Pokorný is Professor of New Testament exegesis at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.  He is a former president of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, fellow of several Learned Societies. A festschrift in honour of his 70th birthday was published in 2004, so he has a long track record in the field. He is the author of 12 German monographs, textbooks and commentaries, some of which have been translated into English.  This commentary was, however, written in English. It uses the English translation of the Berliner Arbeitskreis für Koptisch-Gnosticsche Schriften as the text of Thomas.

The format of the commentary is fairly traditional – general information about the text followed by detailed comment on each saying. Each of the individual commentaries is divided into two parts. Part A looks at individual features and part B provides a more general overview. The comment sections are generally followed by a short list of relevant literature.

Assessment of Thomas

Seeing I found Skinner’s formulation of the three major issues for Thomas scholarship today helpful, I thought I would use them as the structure for this section, but found this somewhat difficult at times. When he addresses an issue, Pokorný has a tendency to present the arguments of various scholars and outline the consequences of each of them. Unfortunately, however, because of the way he uses tenses and sentence structure, it is not always clear (at least not to me) when he is saying “if you take this position, then you must necessarily believe X and not believe Y” and when he is saying “my position is X and not Y”.

When was it written?

Pokorný contends that Thomas originated later than the Synoptics and that the version we have “represents a theolgical stream that originated in the early second century” (p 19) and “originated at a time when some of the earlier Gospels had already attained canonical status” (p 13).  He thus rejects the idea that Thomas is one of the earliest documents of Christian literature (p 15). However, he also identifies five different versions that have existed, including the one represented by Hippolytus’ quotation of saying 3, which he suggests is a later version than NHII,2 (pp 20-25).

What is its relationship to the canonical gospels?

Pokorný states that the fact that has been named “The Gospel of Thomas”  despite its genre (see below) indicates that at the point where the title was added (the third version) the “text claimed canonical authority”. I would suggest that it was the editor who claimed canonical authority on its behalf, but the point is well made. He further suggests that it was used as a liturgical text in place of the canonical gospels (p 22). This is not, however, the issue that is raised by Skinner in posing this question and Pokorný spends several pages on Skinner’s issue – examining the relationship between Thomas and John and then between Thomas and the Synoptics.

He notes that there a number of similarities between the theologies of John and Thomas, which he says is understandable because both have links with Syria. He does not reject the idea that John is a reaction to Thomas, but says how much John was influenced by Thomas is unknown. He suggests that the Thomas group seem to have gained ground in Syria after the Johannine group left for Asia Minor (pp 16-17).

With respect to the relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics, he rejects both of the black and white models – ie that Thomas is totally derived from the Synoptics and that it is totally independent – in favour of a development in several stages that involves the use of some material that either comes directly from the Synoptic tradition or from a shared source, as well as some independent tradition. He thus appears to be saying that, although it is not early, it can still provide us with useful information about Jesus and his teachings, or at least how the early church received them.

What is its genre and theological outlook?

Pokorný states that Thomas is not the same literary genre as the canonical gospels – it is not a biography. From a purely literary perspective, it belongs to the same genre as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Pseudo-Phyocydes or the New Testament letter of James – a collection of wise sayings. It is, however, different from a simple collection of proverbs in that it is a collection of dominical sayings and as such it belongs to a genre represented by Q,  by the small collections of sayings of Jesus that are included in the Gospels  eg the parables from Mark 4 and by the special source of Luke and other early collections (pp 7-8).

He holds that to say that the Gospel of Thomas is Gnostic is anachronistic. Even though it was used by Gnostics, all that can be found in it is a theology influenced by the Platonic ideas that were popular at the time of its writing and were used by Gnostics – although  Hippolytus’ version of Saying 3 shows a much stronger Gnostic influence. It seems that the subheading on p 27 of the section on the theology of Thomas reflects his position: that it sits “between Gnosticism and mainstream Christianity”.

Other items of note

In four separate places, Pokorný states as though it were a given that putting Jesus’ sayings in the context of an account of his life resulted in their being (better) preserved (emphasis added by me in each case).

Admittedly, the pieces of tradition that have been embedded in the canonical Gospels are preserved in an interpreted form; but after they have been written and used in liturgy, they underwent only minor changes. By linking them with Jesus’ deeds, with descriptions of his attitudes, and by placing them within the contingent past of Jesus’ life, they have indeed been preserved. (p 10)

Christian proclamation, which originally was considered to be a kind of sermon on biblical texts, became now liturgical text itself. The tradition about Jesus has been preserved and protected from falsification because it was framed by the life story of the earthly Jesus. (p 11)

We have to suppose that from the very beginning fragments of memories circulated among Jesus’ adherents, and the fact that from a speech of Jesus some of the hearers recalled only individual sayings that seemed to them memorable is understandable and probable. The narrrative frame protected the sayings from transformation better than the genre of a collection of sentences, but the free circulation still did not stop immediately. (p 18)

and finally

Finally, the method of conserving Jesus’ teaching in individual sayings as in the wisdom traditions and prophetic proclamation is obviously more ancient than the method of setting his teaching in a biographical frame, as invented by Mark. All the same, the biographic frame conserved the ancient layer of the Jesus tradition more effectively than collections of his sayings. (p 158)

He appears to be arguing that the fact that Jesus sayings were preserved in the canon in the context of Jesus’ life is some kind of guarantee that they were better preserved. Although the first two quotes also mention use in a liturgical context, he maintains elsewhere that Thomas was used instead of the Synoptics in the liturgies of the Thomas community (p 22). Perhaps a reader can help here?

Positive Aspects

  • the layout is clear and easy to follow.
  • Pokorný pays particular attention to the relationship between each saying and any canonical parallels
  • he builds on the work of others and draws on his own research to develop some fresh and interesting ideas about the various texts. My reaction on reading the introductory material was that it is different, unexpected, although I cannot quite articulate how. In the comment on saying 8 he suggests that the big fish represents the human soul, as do the large branch in the mustard seed parable and the big sheep in the lost sheep parable. I am not aware of this having been suggested elsewhere in the literature (although perhaps I am suffering from memory lapse?)

Negative Aspects

  • part of the part B of the comment on saying 8 (the parable of the net) actually belongs with the comment on saying 9, the parable of the sower.
  • the decision to transliterate djandja as č and kyima as q makes perfect sense to speakers of Slavic languages, but not to the average English speaker
  • most importantly, as I have indicated above, there are many places where the English is not smooth, times where it is ambiguous or difficult to follow and one or two places where what he is trying to communicate is quite unclear. It would have benefitted from more effective editing.

And finally

For the Thomas scholar, this commentary provides interesting insights into the text and comment on the work of other scholars and is certainly worth reading. I would probably not recommend it as an introduction to the text, however – it assumes too much background knowledge.

A little plug here for T&T Clark/Continuum – again they have released a paperback edition not too long after the publication of the hardcover. I bought the hardcover but my paperback copy of De Conick’s Recovering the Original Gospel of  Thomas is perfect bound (ie stitched in sections), rather than having the cut binding (pages just glued individually into the cover) of many cheaper paperbacks. I assume that this is their standard paperback binding method, so I would definitely be inclined to buy the paperback version rather than the hardcover.

Skinner: What are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas?

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.

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (6)

I have finally finished the book and propose to deal with the remaining 8 chapters in one post. The other option would be to look at each chapter in detail and that would take too long.

Chapter 6  is entitled Thomas and the Synoptics: A Method for Assessing Influence and proposes 6 stages in a method for assessing the influence of the Synoptics on Thomas. Gathercole outlines it as follows:

  1. Influence from the Synotpics on Thomas will be evident where Thomas reproduces redactional material.
  2. Where there is influence, taking the direction of that influence to be Synoptics –> Thomas (rather than Thomas –> Synoptics) can be justified on various grounds.
  3. The influence from the Synoptics can only reliably be seen in Thomas’s reception of Matthean and Lukan redaction of Mark.
  4. The sample of Thomas sayings to be analysed is thus restricted to places where there are parallels with Mark and at least one of the other Synoptics.
  5. Various options are discussed for how influence might take place, including combinations of oral and literary factors.
  6. Finally, the quesiton is raised of when in Thomas‘s compositional and transmission history any influence of the Synoptics might have been exerted (p 145).

On the basis of point 4, Gathercole only looks at 20 sayings – those that have a parallel in both Mark and at least one of Matthew or Luke.

Having amplified the six points, he then applies the method in chapters 7 & 8, Matthew in the Gospel of Thomas and Luke and the Gospel of Thomas. In doing this, he picks up Elaine Pagels’ suggestion that GTh 13.3 (where Jesus asks the disciples what they think he is and Matthew answers that he is a wise philosopher) is a reference to the content of Matthew’s gospel, although he rejects the notion that Peter’s comment about Jesus being like a righteous angel does not need to be a reference to either Mark or Gospel of Peter, because Peter is an unsurprising interlocuter, whereas Matthew is not. The notion that GTh 13.3 is a reference to Matthew’s gospel appears to be a key piece of evidence because he mentions it quite frequently. On the basis of his methodology, 11 of the 20 sayings are examples of Thomas‘s reception of Matthean or Lukan redaction of Mark.

Section II ends with chapter 9, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas, in which Gathercole surveys the previous chapters and concludes that:

attempts to exclude the influence of the Synoptics from the Gospel of Thomas are unsuccessful. There is in Thomas what one might term ‘significant’ influence indentifiable from Matthew and Luke. The influence is significant not because the redactional elements … which appear in Thomas are remarkably extensive in any particular places, but rather because these redactional traces appear in eleven out of twenty sayings in which they might be identified ( p 223).

He notes that it is not possible to know by what method this influence was exerted – whether it was oral, literary or “secondary orality”, but it is clear from the foregoing and succeeding parts of the book that his definite preference is that it is literary influence.

I find his arguments significantly less convincing than he does, especially for literary influence. He continually uses words such as ‘significant’ and ‘striking’ for extremely short strings of correspondence, similar wording that is not the same and the occasional shared use of an unusual word. Research on human memory has demonstrated that even members of highly writing-dependent cultures can reproduce strings of 15 words or more verbatim from memory and people living in oral and verbomotor cultures can do significantly better than this, so strings of 6-7 words, even with one of 13, are not convincing evidence of literary influence. While it is, of course, possible that the author of Thomas was familiar with written versions of both Matthew and Luke but chose to change the wording to suit his own ends, the evidence provided is not enough to rule out: oral transmission; a common source, either oral or written; or transmission of traditions that sprang from two different eyewitnesses to Jesus’ teaching. Gathercole dismisses the first two of these and does not address the third. Indeed, it appears that he has done very little reading in the area of oral transmission and none at all in human memory and eyewitness testimony. The latter two are, at least in my opinion, very important given that we hold that the gospels are, in general, eyewitness accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus which were transmitted orally in Christian communities for several decades before they were recorded in written form.

Part III looks at Thomas and other early Christian literature. Chapter 10 examines two passages in Romans and one in 1 Corinthians and concludes that Paul influences Thomas.  Chapter 11 looks at the phrase ‘the world is not worthy’ in the Epistle to the Hebrews and GTh 56, 80 and 111 and concludes that Thomas was influenced by the Epistle to the Hebrews. It seems to me that the argument he provides and dismisses for the expression simply being a pre-existing multilingual Jewish expression is stronger. Chapter 12 is entitled A note on the “two wys” tradition and GTh 25 and in it he concludes that Thomas should be included in the group of texts influenced by a hypothetical re-existing “two ways” source.

In summary, Gathercole finds that Thomas was originally written in Greek, is dependent on both Luke and Matthew as well as some of the Pauline corpus and the Epistle to the Hebrews (and probably other sources as well). Gathercole makes it clear that he is not arguing that the author of Thomas sat down with the texts of the Synoptics, Paul and Hebrews in front of him and copied and pasted as he saw fit, but it is also clear that he prefers the notion that there is literary rather than oral dependence of Thomas on the Synoptics. What this actually means, though, is rather unclear. The book would have benefitted from a careful definition of dependence (as would most works addressing this issue). Sometimes he suggests that this might be as vague as once having heard them read and remembering them, at other times, the reader gets the impression that he thinks that the author may have read them. In the latter chapters, he tends to use ‘influence’ rather than dependence, and this seems to be a better way of talking about what he is claiming. I think that  he succeeds in making it obvious that we simply do not have sufficient evidence to be able to be dogmatic about any theory of  composition of Thomas and that theories about source, dating, original language etc are all intertwined, but I do not find his arguments for his position nearly as compelling as he does.

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (5)

Chapter 5 is entitled Responses to Arguments for Independence and contains a discussion of the weaknesses that Gathercole perceives in the arguments for Thomas being independent of the Synoptics. I find a number of the things he says in it puzzling or surprising and often wish that he had provided examples to back up his statements.

In the introduction, Gathercole notes that while the previous four chapters can stand alone, their findings also have three significant implications for how we understand the relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics. The first two are straightforward and simply summaries of what has gone before:

  • a putative early Aramaic Thomas would make a relationship between it and the Synoptics unlikely, but a Greek original makes a relationship between the four more likely.
  • if it were possible to demonstrate that Thomas and the Synoptics contained divergent translations from Aramaic originals, independence would be more likely, but the conclusions drawn in chapters 2 and 3  suggest that the case is not particularly compelling.

The third surprised me.

  • He says that the discussion in chapter 4 of the similarities bettween the Greek and Coptic texts “showed that the content of Thomas was reasonably stable across the century or two separating the Greek fragments and the Coptic version. The implications of this point for our discussion are traced further in ensuing chapters (p 129).” Perhaps I have not read chapter 4 thoroughly enough, but I have been unable to find any statement about the stability of the content until this point in the book. It is therefore not clear to me exactly how he feels that he has demonstrated this.

Gathercole also indicates that:

these chapters will not argue for anything like total dependence upon the Synoptics, as if all the author or editor of Thomas knew was Mark, Matthew and Luke and nothing else (I am not aware of any scholar who has argued for that position.) Clearly Thomas is – on any reckoning – at least partially independent of the Synoptics, as it is virtually incredible that the editor of Thomas invented all the material not paralleled with the Synoptics. The presence both of non-Synoptic but Synoptic-like material in Thomas and of other quite different sayings clearly points towards partial independence, but neither of these can be regarded as indicating the independence of what is paralleled in the Synoptics (pp 129-130). [underlining added]

I am not sure what it is that Gathercole is trying to convey in the underlined sentence.  Clearly, those sayings in Thomas which do not appear in any of the Synoptics cannot possibly be held to be dependent on them, but the source of any non-parallel material is irrelevant.  FWIW, if you hold that the extra material is not authentic Jesus tradition, then the most likely explanation is that the editor and/or his/her community did, in fact, invent it. If you hold that it has the possibility of being authentic Jesus tradition then it must ultimately stem back to some alternative eyewitness source – and John 21:25 certainly suggests that there is plenty of authentic Jesus material that has not appeared in the canonical gospels.

Having said this, Gathercole then identifies four main areas of argument in favour of Thomas being independent and addresses each in turn. I am using his own headings:

  1. Do the differences in order imply the independence of Thomas and the Synoptics? He makes four ponts. He first raises the question of why Thomas would break up and re-order Matthew, which he says is essentially a non-problem, arising from the highly scribal mentality of the early Thomas scholarship. “When this scribal mentality is abandoned, however, the objection ceases to have any force (p 131).” With this comment, he moves on to the next issue, but the situation is by no means as clear cut as he suggests. While it is true that in cultures where material is transmitted orally rather than in written form, the preservation of text in exact verbatim form is not as high a priority as it is in a scribal culture, one of the features of oral transmission is grouping items ways that make them easy to memory. Deliberately dragging a nice, neat, easy to remember section such as Matthew 13 apart is counter-intuitive, unless you wish to accept an explanation such as Perrin’s Syriac catchwords as providing a new way of remembering such a large body of material. His second counter is to quote Tuckett: ‘someone somewhere must have changed or created either the synoptic order or GTh’s order to produce the other (probably with a number of stages in between’ (“The Gospel of Thomas: Evidence for Jesus?”, NTT 52 (1998) 23-24). This is, of course, only true if one is dependent on the other. Given the lack of verbatim agreement and, in some cases, significant differences even in the gist of the parallels, another possibility is that the two come from different eyewitness accounts of different events in Jesus’ teaching where he used slightly different versions of stories in somewhat different order. His third is to remind us that Wilson identified several cases where adjacent sayings in Thomas ‘are also juxtaposed in the Synoptics” (p 131) and asks if this is purely accidentally. It almost certainly isn’t, but if what we have is accounts from different eyewitnesses recounting the same events, it would be expected that there would be overlap as well as difference. Fourthly he draws attention to the difference in genre and suggests that in a collection of sayings, one might expect the order not to be as important as it is in something that is clearly narrative. While this is true, it goes against his earlier argument that Thomas and the Synoptics are of the same genre. Most of these points would benefit from the provision of an example to illustrate how he reaches his conclusions, rather than just a bare statement of what he holds to be fact but which appears to me to be open to question.
  2. Do form-critical factors suggest the priority of Thomas‘s versions? This section looks at the various form-critical ‘rules’ used to indicate that one piece of text is older/earlier than another and demonstrates  that some contradict one another and they are by no means as watertight as their supporters suggest. While I agree with what he says in most of this section, his cases would be stronger with the use of examples. As it stands, much of his argument consists simply of quoting the opinions of other scholars and, as usual, he has ignored the evidence from oral transmission and human memory, which this time would support his case.
  3. If Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, why is there no extensive verbatim correspondence? Here, we are promised a discussion of individual sayings in later chapters, shown again the longest example of correspondence between Greek texts and told that by adopting the correspondence between the Synoptics as the ‘norm’ scholars who favour the independence argument are placing the burden of proof artificially high. Again, the psychological literature on eyewitness testimony and human memory would suggest that this is not the case.
  4. Does the absence or insignificance of Thomas’s appropriation of redactional feature in the Synoptics show that there is no literary relationship? Gathercole obviously argues that it doesn’t, because he has made it very clear that he is convinced that there is a literary relationship between them. He indicates that he will deal with these issues more fully in the next three chapters but in the meantimes makes a number of remarks. I find the points he makes less than obvious without concrete examples. At this point, all I feel that he does successfully is to indicate that there is sufficient evidence of potential redaction so that we cannot rule out the possibility of literary relationship. This hardly needs stating, given the debate in scholarly circles over the past 50 or so years.

In view of my comments above and in previous posts, I am afraid I cannot agree with the first sentence of the conclusion to this chapter “In sum, there is not really a single argument for the thoroughgoing independence of Thomas which has any force (p 143).” He promises that in the following chapters he will demonstrate “that there is actually good reason to suspect the opposite, namely that Matthew and Luke do influence Thomas (p 144).” I hope that this involves more than simple citations of the opinions of others.

To this point, the book has very much the feel of a text for which the author has been given a strict word/page limit which only allows a sketch of the material being presented. It is a relatively slim volume, but this is clearly the result of the nice paper on which I commented in the first post. There are 270 pages of text, plus introduction and indices, and I notice that many of the thicker paperbacks on my shelves have fewer pages than this.