Gathercole on dating Thomas

Victoria asked in the comments to my previous post what Gathercole’s reasons were for his dating and I thought it would be easier to do this as a new post than to put it in the comments section. He divides the chapter on dating into three sections:

  1. evidence for a terimnus ante quem – in which he includes the papyrological data which suggest that the P Oxy papyri tend to be assigned dates in the third century, especially the early or middle part; and the testimonia from other writers gives similar dates. He thus suggests that roughly 200 CE is a reasonable date for the original mss. He then discounts arguments for an early date that propose that GThom influenced the canonical gospels; that the depiction of James in S12 suggests that James was still alive; that the fact that GThom appears to have been influenced by the Synoptics but not John suggests that it was written after the Synoptics but before John; and Uro’s suggestion that it must be seen as early because it doesn’t evidence a fully developed Gnostic character.
  2. evidence for a terminus a quo – in which he discounts the suggestion that the author knew the Diatessaron (which would give an earliest date of after 175 CE); questions the idea that Ss 68 & 71 denote evidence that it was written before the destruction of the Temple (DeConick), or soon after (Dunderberg) and instead supports the idea that they refer to the Bar Kochba revolt – which suggests post 135 CE. He sees the idea expressed by some that Thomas thought Matthew to have been authoritative also supports a post 100 CE dating.
  3. additional indications – here he agrees with Hedrick that Thomas’ use of the term “the Jews” in S 43 suggests at least the end of the first century as a dating; that his stance on circumcision in S53 fits better in early to middle second century; and that while he hesitates to label the gospel ‘Gnostic’ some of the motifs are clearly influenced by Gnosticism, which would again make it later rather than earlier.

Mark Goodacre  in his Thomas and the Gospels: the case for Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 20102, pp 169-71) also argues that a dating post Bar Kochba revolt is fairly convincing – they both cite Hans-Martin Schenke in On the Compositional History of the Gospel of Thomas (Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, 1998, p 28).

Quite clearly, given the range of datings suggested by reputable biblical scholars (Gathercole lists 31 in his table, ranging from DeConick’s kernel prior to 50 CE through to Drijvers about 200 CE), the evidence is not at all clear, despite the fact that most are reasonably clear in their opinions. Where one lands depends to a certain extent on how much weight one puts onto particular pieces of evidence and there is a certain amount of personal opinion behind the scholarship, I think. This is not an issue on which my work actually turns, so I am prepared (to use one of Gathercole’s favourite expressions) to ‘remain agnostic’ about it for the moment.

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.

Is it me, or R McL Wilson?

In “Thomas and the Growth of the Gospels.” Harvard Theological Review (1960) 53(10): 231-250), R McL Wilson says about GTh 76:

This is sufficiently close to the parable of the Pearl of Great Price to be recognized as simply another version. The only question is which is the more primitive, and here the stress on the merchant’s wisdom is surely secondary, while the phrase “the kingdom of the Father” has a Gnostic ring. (p. 230)

In Studies in the Gospel of Thomas. London, Mowbray (1960), he says:

This seems to make a clear case for dependence on the first Gospel, but a glance at the order must give rise to doubts. Matthew’s chapter of parables begins with the Sower, which in Thomas is logion 9, and continues with an exposition of the reason for the use of parables and with other sayings, … and finally the parables of the Treasure (logion109), the Pearl (logion 76) and the Drag-net (logion 8). If Thomas drew from Matthew, why did he separate the parable one from another in this way? And why do they appear in this order? … On the assumption that Thomas is based on Matthew these fact present a problem. On the other hand we know from comparison with Luke that Matthew has a tendency to assemble his material into large blocks, as for example in the Sermon on the Mount, and the fact that these parables are separated in Thomas, and appear in a different order, may point to the author’s use of a different tradition, or at least to his independent access to the tradition from which Matthew drew. (p.54)

Here, in two publications from the same year, he seems to be arguing quite different positions on the relationship between GThom and Matthew. Or is it just that I am missing something?

Making bread…

…clearly something many biblical scholars don’t do

raised loaves

Raised loaves

I have moved on to the parable of the woman who used some yeast/the parable of the leaven (Gos Thom 96 || Matt 13: 33 || Lk 13: 20-21) and one thing strikes me in the comments of a number of scholars. They talk about the inevitability of yeast creating large loaves. Yeah, right!

Before I started my postgraduate studies, I used to make a lot of bread. I would take it places and people would be amazed that I could do it, because their bread always ended up heavy, hard and nasty-tasting. This puzzled them, because usually they were good at cooking other things and could produce good results simply by following a recipe. With bread, however, there is much more to it than just mixing together yeast, flour and water and putting it in a warm place – there’s a lot about how the dough looks and feels that can’t be described in a recipe.

Things that can cause your bread to spoil:

  • putting your bread in conditions that are too hot – it kills the yeast
  • putting your bread in conditions that are not hot enough – the bread takes forever to rise. At least, however, you can fix this by warming it
  • not putting enough water into the dough – the dough is too heavy for the yeast to work properly, so you get small, dense loaves that aren’t nice to eat
  • putting too much water into the dough – it doesn’t form shapes properly and oozes all over the place, sticks to your fingers and is generally painful to work with
  • putting too much salt in it – salt inhibits the action of the yeast and you get small, dense loaves
  • not putting any salt in it – the yeast works too fast and you get bread with big bubbles in it so your topping leaks through the holes
  • not keeping the top of the rising loaves moist enough – if a tough, dry skin forms, the yeast action is again inhibited and you get small, dense loaves. Now this is easy – you oil it lightly and put it in a plastic bag. No plastic bags in 1st century Palestine, so you used a damp cloth – and had to keep renewing the dampness when it was hot
  • not kneading the dough enough – the gluten doesn’t form properly and you get small, dense loaves
  • kneading the dough too much – too much gluten formation makes the loaves tough. This usually only happens, however, if you are in a very bad mood and are kneading dough to work off your frustrations. :-)
  • not cooking the loaves for long enough – you get a gooey glug in the middle that is very difficult to digest
  • cooking the loaves for too long – they burn and dry out
  • cooking the loaves at too low a temperature – again, you get small, dense loaves
  • cooking the loaves at too high a temperature – yes, they burn, but you can also get small, dense loaves because there should be some rising happening in the oven and if it’s too hot, the yeast dies immediately and you don’t get the extra rising. And remember that in Jesus’ day, ovens did not have a thermostat – you regulated the temperature by watching the fire that was heating your oven very carefully and knowing by experience what you needed to do.

In addition, yeast is a tricky thing to work with because it is alive. Modern home bakers are spoiled. The dried yeast that we can use is much more forgiving than the cake yeast and sourdough starters that were used for many centuries. You can put dried yeast in an airtight container in the freezer and it will keep for years. Even in a cupboard, it lasts for many months.  It also works over a wider range of temperatures than fresh yeast. Fresh yeast really needs to be kept at about body temperature in order to work well. Dried yeast can be significantly hotter and still work beautifully. Cake yeast might last a month or so if frozen, and only a few days in a cool place in the kitchen and a few more days in a fridge. (Do I need to point out that fridges and freezers were not a normal part of 1st century Palestine kitchen equipment?) Dying yeast imparts a nasty, sour taste to the bread and you need to use a lot more to get it to rise. Sourdough starter is a little less finicky, but rises more slowly and must be fed and divided regularly.

So there is nothing inevitable about yeast dough turning into bread, unless it is in the hands of an experienced bread maker. Did Jesus know this? Quite possibly. If he did, then the Gos Thom version is quite likely at least as close to Jesus’ version as are Matt/Luke/Q. The coming of Kingdom of the Father is like the situation where a woman takes a tiny piece of yeast, mixes it with flour (and other ingredients) and cares for it until it turns into big loaves – although I guess you need to be comfortable with Jesus being like a woman to be happy with this interpretation. :-)

Growing wheat …

… or things the parable of the wheat and the tares almost certainly isn’ t saying

I have been working on the parable of the wheat and the tares Matt 13: 24-30 || GTh 57 and have been fascinated by some of the suggestions that various commentators have come up with in the way of interpretation. It is clear that they have never been involved in a wheat-growing enterprise. I have a degree in Agricultural Science and spent the first four years of my ministry in one of the major wheat-growing areas of Australia so I though I would share some of my learning about the process.

First, everyone seems to agree that the ‘tares’ or weeds of the biblical parable are a kind of bearded ryegrass also called ‘darnel’, and with the botanical name Lolium temulentum. For those of you who are not good at botanical names, both the uppercase L at the beginning of the Lolium (regardless of where it appears in a sentence) and the italicised words are essential if you want any agronomical cred at all.

Second, it appears that the basic method of sowing in first century Palestine was to walk through the plough field, throwing handfuls of seed out around you. You didn’t then cover it over, so it wasn’t particularly challenging for someone to come in during the night and throw darnel seed in with your wheat seeds. It appears that it was not until 1701 when Jethro Tull perfected the first horse-drawn seed drill that covering sown seed became anything like a common practice.  And because the seeds are about the same size and shape, unless you had reason to inspect them closely, you would not notice the new seeds sown on top of the old and if you did, you would have a snowball’s chance in hell of picking all the darnel seeds out of your wheat. It also appears that the practice of sowing darnel and wild oats in your neighbour’s crop was common enough in Rome in the early second century CE for there to be a law against it, so this was not just a rhetorical device. (A. J. Kerr, “Matthew 13:25. Sowing Zizania among another’s wheat: Realistic or artificial?,” JTS 48(1997): 108.)

Third, when the wheat and ryegrass plants are small, they look very similar to one another. As they grow bigger, it becomes obvious that the ryegrass leaves are narrower, have less prominent veins and are shinier. Thus, someone who is used to looking at fields of wheat will know before the crop starts to set seed if there is any significant infestation of darnel in their wheat crop. Unfortunately, by the time this becomes obvious, if you have planted your seeds closely enough to get a good yield per acre/hectare the roots of the plants are so intertwined that you run a very serious risk of pulling up wheat plants when you pull up the weeds and they will not respond particularly well to replanting. And while it was probably normal practice for the servants to pull out weeds when they were noticed in a crop, there wouldn’t be all that many in a well-cared-for field, so losing a few wheat plants along the way would not have been a big deal. The crop in the parable had far more darnel plants, though, because extras had been deliberately planted and the plants were probably closer together. The servants probably asked their master about pulling them out expecting that the answer would be ‘don’t.’

Fourth, once heads form even the most inexperienced person can tell the difference, as can be seen from the images to the right. It is not just at the harvest that the different kinds of plant are easily identifiable by all who care to look. The seeds of darnel are poisonous, or are commonly infested by a poisonous fungus, (Penn Veterinary Medicine, Poisonous Plants: Genus: Lolium (2014 ; available from so they cannot be combined with wheat grain and must be disposed of before the grain is threshed from the plants, but when harvesting is done by hand, as happened in first century Palestine, it is easy enough to bind the darnel heads up in bundles and keep them separate from the wheat which is taken away for threshing. This is *not* possible with the modern combine harvesters.

Fourth, harvesting is a labour intensive, time critical activity. The grain cannot be harvested until it is ripe or it will not keep well, will not make good flour and will not sprout if it is being used to sow a new crop the following year. Once it is ripe, it needs to be cut as soon as possible because it will drop from the plant onto the ground and spoil if left too long, and if it rains while the ripe seeds are in the field, they will sprout in the ear and be unsuitable for flour making or replanting. The window of time is often only a few days. In the twenty-first century, the combine harvester goes into the field as soon as the dew has dried off enough and it works until late into the day and sometimes as far into the night as the dew makes possible. In pre-mechanised societies, it was customary to hire day workers as reapers to supplement the farmer’s normal workforce, so the reapers mentioned at the end of the Matthean parable are different people to the servants/slaves at the beginning – it is not just the literary device suggested by some commentators.

Fifth, burning the darnel is the appropriate method of disposing of it, because burning will kill the seeds and make sure that the next crop planted in the field is not infested with darnel plants from viable seed left lying in the field. The more weeds you have in the crop, the more important it is to kill the seeds so you don’t have the same problem the next year. Despite Hultgren’s footnote citing the Dictionary of Life in Bible Times, (Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, Grand Rapids; Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2000 296 n 14. citing “Agriculture” in Willy Corswant (ed) Dictionary of Life in Bible Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960) it is highly unlikely that the tares would normally have been fed to stock, because the seeds are also poisonous to animals. (See, for example, M Tadych and J F White, “Endophytic Microbes,” in Eukaryotic microbes, ed. Moselio Schaechter; Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2012, 56.) Keeping them for fuel has some significant problems in that carrying the ripe darnel plants away from the field has the potential to broadcast the darnel seed across a wide area, thus introducing weeds into other places on your farm, although if fuel was in very short supply, the farmer might have been willing to take this risk.

Thus, the process described in the parable is not the unusual, allegorical account that some commentators want to make of it.

Update: On re-reading the last sentence, I see that this could be interpreted as saying that Matthew doesn’t allegorise the account – of course he does, but the story itself is highly likely to be an account of a normal, if not frequent, happening in first century Palestinian agriculture.

The Jesus Blog: The SBL Memory and Historical Jesus Session–Chris Keith

There are definitely times when living on the other side of the world to the US is a pain. I don’t actually want to live in the US, Canada is too cold and my Spanish is too poor to live in Mexico, but once again I am wishing that attending the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting didn’t involve at least 24 hours in transit each way and at least $4,500 outlay. At least I get to read other people’s blogs about it. Chris Keith has recently posted a piece about The SBL Memory and Historical Jesus Session, which I would have loved to have attended. The post has a number of extended comments which raise some fascinating questions. Well worth the visit.

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.