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.

This and that

First, I have been re-reading some of my earlier posts and have been doing a little editing and tagging. I am not sure if this has resulted in the posts popping up again for those who subscribe to this blog by RSS etc. If you have been getting notices about new posts and seen that you’ve read them before, this is the reason why.

Second, Chris Skinner has just started blogging about Simon Gathercole’s new book on Thomas over at Peje Iesous. I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say.

Third, the reason I was going back through old posts was to see how far I had got through my series of notes on commentaries on Thomas. (The answer is not far – I have done DeConick, Nordsieck and Kasser and a bit of an outline of Uwe-Karsten Plisch’s book in the initial post about commentaries). The reason for this is that I am in the process of reading Petr Pokorny’s A Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas: From Interpretations to the Interpreted (T&T Clark Jewish and Christian Texts Series: New York, 2009). There don’t seem to be terribly many reviews of it in journals and I find it interesting, so am planning on posting on it in the next little while.

More on commentaries – DeConick

The second post in my series on commentaries on GosThom focuses on:

April DeConick’s The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation

DECONICK, A. D. 2006. The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, With a Commentary and New English Translation of the Complete Gospel, London, T & T Clark (hardcover) and DECONICK, A. D. (2007). The original Gospel of Thomas in translation: with a commentary and new English translation of the complete gospel. London, T&T Clark (paperback). The paperback is considerablely cheaper and has a much nicer cover, with artwork by April herself. I bought the hardcover because I wanted a copy as soon as it was released. It is next because it was next on my pile.

Assessment of Thomas

DeConick argues that the Gospel is not Gnostic. She maintains that the most likely explanation for the Thomasine-Synoptic parallels is that they come from orally transmitted rather than literary sources. She suggests that it came into being over time, with the earliest Kernel of sayings originating in the Jerusalem mission prior to 50 CE and various layers of accretions added between 50 and 120 CE.

Positive Aspects

    • Has a significant amount of detailed comment on each saying, interacting with the various positions stated in the literature.
    • Provides the Coptic text and her English translation of each saying, together with the  full text of parallels from the literature of the time.
    • Each section has a selected bibliography at the end and the bibliography at the end of the book is comprehensive


  • Consistent methodology for approaching each saying, together with an informative introduction, makes her line of reasoning easy to follow
  • The layout is very easy to follow and the language is clear and relatively simple, without being simplistic
  • Provides an appendix of verbal similarities between Thomas and the Synoptics
  • The paperback edition is relatively inexpensive (and nicer to look at)

Negative Aspects

I found it very difficult to find any significant negative aspects, but two minor niggles…

  • although the introductory material summarises her hypotheses about the way in which GosThom evolved and the reasoning behind them, in order to follow this completely, one needs access to a copy of the companion volume, DECONICK, A. D. 2005 (hc) and 2006 (pb) Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth, London, T&T Clark. The alternative would have been either one huge volume or skimping on the scholarship, so I think going with two volumes was the right decision.
  • the bibliography is perhaps less comprehensive of the German language literature than is Nordsieck’s, but Nordsieck’s is less comprehensive of the English language literature. It is hardly surprising that a scholar puts more emphasis on material in his or her first language. 🙂


For those doing intensive work on the text of GosThom this is a “must have”. Even if you don’t agree with her conclusions (which I do), it provides some extremely useful tools for doing your own textual analysis.  Those who want a less “in-depth” approach will still find this a very, very useful volume.

A little plug here for T&T Clark/Continuum – very few publishers in the field of academic biblical scholarship are prepared to release a paperback edition only twelve months after they launch the hardcover edition, but they did this both for the commentary and its companion volume. Kudos also to April for making the effort to negotiate for this to happen.

More on commentaries – Nordsieck

A while ago, I posted about the commentaries that I had on GosThom. Brandon Wason also has a summary of GosThom commentaries over at Sitz im Leben, but I am now working fairly intensively on some specific texts and thought it might be interesting to provide comment about how I am finding using the various books.  I will do this over the course of several posts, starting with:

Reinhard Nordsieck’s Das Thomas-Evangelium

Reinhard Nordsieck, Das Thomas-Evangelium: Einleitung: Zur Frage des historischen Jesus: Kommentierung aller 114 Logien, Neukirchen-Vluyn, Neukirchener Verlag, 2004, 408 pp, paperback.  I chose this to start with simply because it is on top of the pile on my desk.

Assessment of Thomas

Nordsieck argues that the Gospel is neither Gnostic nor dependent on the Synoptic tradition. He believes that it was initially written early – 40 CE to 70 CE – with several later additions and is one of the oldest examples of the gospel genre, very close to the oral tradition.

Positive Aspects

  • Has a significant amount of detailed comment on each saying, interacting with the various positions stated in the literature.
  • Provides comment on the saying’s likely relationship to Q and to the various canonical and non-canonical parallels and an assessment of its likely authenticity as a saying of Jesus.
  • Traces catchword connections from saying to saying.
  • Provides a good overview of the German-language literature and picks up the most recent scholarship (at the time of writing) on GosThom
  • Consistent methodology for approaching each saying makes his line of reasoning reasonably easy to follow (however, see below re language)
  • In text referencing and author’s names in uppercase makes it easy to see whose arguments are being talked about. (Although Brandon finds the use of uppercase for names irritating it doesn’t bother me and I found it quite useful when I was scanning to find out what I wanted to aquire from the library.)
  • Being a paperback, it is relatively inexpensive

Negative Aspects

  • the layout is not at all reader-friendly – there is very little whitespace which makes finding things on the page quite challenging.  The bibliography is unformatted – no italics for book titles, inverted commas for article/chapter titles or hanging indents for citations longer than one line.  I found the bibliographay so difficult that I actually scanned it and reformated it so I could find things. I am happy to provide readers with a copy of this if they wish. There are also inconsistencies in the referencing methods. My guess is that it was originally formatted differently, but was deemed to be too long and has been redone to take less space. I notice that the cover picture on Amazon is quite different to the one on my copy, so perhaps there is another edition which is nicer to read.
  • the language is quite complex. In the comment on every saying I find one or two sentences that I simply cannot be sure I have understood correctly.  I have two friends who help me when I get stuck.  Both speak German as their first language and both have theological qualifications and they both tell me that they have to read the bits I send them several times to work out what he is saying.


For those doing intensive work on the text of GosThom who are comfortable reading complex theological German, this is a useful book, but not a particularly “nice read” because of its layout.

Getting back into Gospel of Thomas – commentaries

As I’ve moved from reading what I’ve already written to working on new material, it has occurred to me that over the last several years, several new commentaries on Thomas have become available. When I first began looking at Thomas, there were only four books that were commentaries on the text.

  • Rodolphe Kasser (1961). L’Evangile selon Thomas: présentation et commentaire théologique. Neuchatel, Editions Delachaux & Niestlé.
  • Jacques Ménard (1975.). L’Évangile Selon Thomas. Leiden, E.J. Brill.
  • Michael Fieger, (1991). Das Thomasevangelium.  Einleitung, Kommentar and Systematik. Münster, Aschendorff.
  • Richard Valantasis (1997). The Gospel of Thomas. London and New York, Routledge.

I own a copy of Valantasis and the only other one available in a library in Australia is Fieger.  The comments I’ve heard about the latter are underwhelming, but I guess I need to fill out an ILL request, anyway. I believe that Ménard is good and have heard nothing about Kasser.  Comments from readers are most welcome about whether I should start scouring the second hand sellers for copies of either of them.

In the last several years I have acquired three new books:

  • Reinhard Nordsieck (2004). Das Thomas-Evangelium: Einleitung: Zur Frage des historischen Jesus: Kommentierung aller 114 Logien. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Neukirchener Verlag.
  • April DeConick (2006). The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, With a Commentary and New English Translation of the Complete Gospel. London, T & T Clark.
  • Uwe-Karsten Plisch (2008). The Gospel of Thomas: original text with commentary. Stuttgart, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.

These three books have made my task signficantly easier and since they are reasonably new, I offer some information about them.

April DeConick’s work is laid out so that it is very easy to follow and it offers a very comprehensive range of information. It provides the Coptic text, her English translation and the Greek P Oxy whenever this is available.  It looks, where appropriate at Text and Translation Issues; Interpretative Comment; Source Discussion, Literature Parallels; Agreement in Syrian Gospels, Western Text and Diatessaron; and Selected Bibliography. She also indicates whether she sees it as a kernel saying or an accretion.  It’s available in paperback – an added bonus – although I bought the hard-cover version as soon as it came out. Combined with its companion volume (DeConick, A. D. (2005). Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth. London, T&T Clark.) it provides a huge amount of resource information about the text as well as her insights into interpreting it.

Richard Nordsiek’s book is also available as a paperback. I can’t remember exactly what I paid for it, but it was quite inexpensive and some of the reason for the low cost can been seen in the formatting.   The layout is less user-friendly than DeConick’s – no headings, just the text in German translation followed by his comments. Where he is commenting on Coptic or Greek text, it’s presented using the appropriate alphabet, rather than a transliteration (thank goodness! – I find transliterated Coptic very difficult to read). There is very little white space in the formatting – no spaces between paragraphs – but the size of the text is good. This has kept the size of the book to a reasonably managable 408 pages. There is not much introductory material – 20 pages of introduction, 7 pages on the question of the Historical Jesus – and no indices. Apart from a 9 page bibliography the rest of the book is commentary with comprehensive in text citations. I haven’t used it enough to get a good feel for it, but am finding it interesting.

Uwe-Karsten Plisch’s book is translated from German (although I have not been able to find information about a German edition). There are times when the underlying German is not far below the surface, but it is in general a good read. Like Nordsiek’s book, this has minimal introductory material, but it does include an index of texts cited as well as a bibliography, which is divided into subheadings. For each saying, he provides the Coptic text, the P Oxy text where available, a Greek retroversion wherever there is a New Testament parallel and an English translation as well as comments.  Again, I haven’t used this enough yet to make any comment on the usefulness or otherwise of the Greek retroversion. The commentary is helpful, although there are times when I feel that he makes statements about things that are self-evident to him but for which I would like a bit of justification.

An added advantage of Nordsieck and Plisch’s books is that they sometimes highlight German language material that I had not heard of before. At other times, they provide an overview of particular German language material that I haven’t been able to access. Sometimes they convince me that I need to try harder. 🙂