Rodríguez on oral tradition and our understanding of the gospels

I am currently reading in Rafael Rodríguez’s Structuring early Christian memory (London: T & T Clark, 2009). I don’t intend to write a formal review because I really am trying to complete a chapter of my thesis and make a good start on the next in the next week and a half, and much of the book has little relevance to these two chapters. I am, however, enthusiastic about his section on oral transmission – the fourth chapter, entitled ‘Performance, Structure, Meaning and Text’. I also found the previous chapter on social memory useful and interesting, but that’s not what I want to reflect on.

Rafael reminds us that the oral traditions on which the written gospels are based were not verbatim reproductions of previous performances and that the written gospels are neither verbatim dictations of an oral performance of the Jesus tradition nor notes to enable the reproduction of a verbatim re-performance. He says:

When we approach the gospels as primarily related to that hypothetical, abstract construct (the Jesus tradition) and conceive their interrelationships not as editions or redactions of one another but as interdependent, embodied expressions of that abstract tradition, we effect a critical paradigmatic shift that challenges both the methods and the results of previous analyses. The written gospel traditions are not ‘formally bounded, complete items’ (John Miles Foley, 1995. The Singer of Tales in Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.: xi); they refer to and incorporate the abstract Jesus tradition they instantiate, and they must be read accordingly. The gospels do not refer primarily or exclusively to other ‘formally bounded, complete items’, that is, to other written gospels or sources.

We thus find ourselves reading our texts not primarily in reference to other extant texts, which have a concrete, tangible existence, but in reference to a hypothetical construct: the abstract, untextualizable Jesus tradition. (p 90)

If we do this:

we begin to perceive the problem inherent in the scholarship that establishes one expression of the Jesus tradition (e. g., Mark or Q) as the standard against which other expressions are read simply on the basis that Mark or Q is the ‘earliest’ gospel or is ‘closest to the historical Jesus’…The texts of the gospels … for all their similarities and differences, reference the same traditional corpus, though in different ways, for different purposes, and, often, to different ends. (p 91)

This makes a great deal of sense to me. It is quite clear that there are sections of the synoptics where the level of verbatim correspondence indicates that there is a textual relationship between the two/three texts, but the fact that an author clearly had access to a written version of another gospel does not necessarily mean that he decided to alter the sections where it is different simply for his own theological purposes. Rather, it might well have differed from the version of the oral tradition with which he (and his community) was (were) familiar so that he felt the need to correct it – and this leads to the reception of the texts.

Rafael says:

New Testament research needs to broaden its focus from the texts’ composition to consider the texts’ reception. Both the evangelists and their audiences would have been familiar with and participants in oral performances of the Jesus tradition. Once the texts of the gospels were committed to writing, is it really likely that those texts represented radical departures from the oral tradition that preceded and continued to develop alongside them? We cannot presume that our texts preserve records of single performances, such that ‘gospel composition’ becomes transcription; still less can we continue to presume that our gospels are the ‘Markan’, ‘Matthean’, or ‘Lukan’ version of the tradition. Rather, our texts were written in the context of oral performances of the Jesus tradition and would have been received by their audiences as performances that, though transformed into written texts, preserved extra-textual references to the Jesus tradition as a whole. (pp 97-7)

In other words, a written text that was provided to a community that knew the oral tradition would not have been well received if its author tried to do a radical reshaping of the tradition, although they were highly unlikely to have objected to somewhat different wording of the stories as long as the punchline was correct.

In looking at the issue of reception, Rafael talks about the fact that the audiences of the oral transmission were familiar with the contexts in which the stories were told – something that is potentially lost once the text is written down and sent away. He suggests that the beginnings of the gospels might well provide cues to the context and how the author intended it to be read (ie in which ‘performance area’ it belonged), picking up on work by Loveday Alexander in this area (see pp 107-9). This certainly makes sense to me, and is the approach I am taking to the Thomas sayings. I think that the fact that the author tells us at the beginning that these are secret sayings and that anyone who finds the meaning of them will not taste death affects how the sayings are read.

One section, however, interests me because I see it differently. Early in the chapter, Rafael says:

Kelber emphasizes performance as the moment of composition: ‘transmission and composition converge in oral performance. Although the speaker used traditional materials, she or he was composing while speaking . . . The idea was not to reproduce what was said previously, but to (re)compose so as to affect the present circumstance.’ (Kelber 1995 ‘Jesus and Tradition: Words in Time, Words in Space’. Orality and Textuality in Early Christian Literature. Semeia 65. Ed J. Dewey. Atlanta: Scholars Press: 150, citing Lord 1960 The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 5, 101; emphasis added). But why does Kelber oppose ‘reproduc[ing] what was said previously’ with ‘affect[ing] the present’? This opposition is not only unnecessary, it jars against Kelber’s helpful recognition of ‘traditional materials’ in oral performance. (p 83)

To me, Kelber’s statement makes a great deal of sense in terms of what I know of the art of story-telling and also some of the psychological research on human memory and story-telling.  When skilled story-tellers tell a story, they take their outline and recast it in ways that they think will be most effective to achieve the effect the want to evoke from their current audience. They do not tell stories just because they can, but to achieve a particular effect or result. In other words, they tell stories to affect the present circumstance of their hearers. The desired effect might be as simple as to lift the mood of the audience by making them laugh, but it is more likely to be to promote thought about a particular issue as well. They will modify their language and choose which details to emphasize and which to minimize on the basis of the likely interests of the current audience. When I preach on one of the farming parables in a rural setting, I will often re-tell the parable with some added invitations to the audience to picture themselves in the situation, so I will encourage the grain farmers to think about the contrast between their use of huge headers and combine harvesters in contrast to the hand sowing and reaping practised in Jesus’ times; and I will talk in detail about the likely species of weed in the parable of the man who sowed good seed. I think that this is probably the kind of affecting of the present circumstance that Kelber had in mind and I don’t see it as jarring against his recognition of traditional materials in oral performance.

Memory and the historical Jesus – part 4 (Thomas)


Apart from what I have already said here, here and here about the 2013 SBL Memory and the Historical Jesus session, I am also interested in what we might make of the Gospel of Thomas in the light of Rafael’s point about the importance of context although this is moving away from the historical Jesus to the early Jesus movement. Rafael (in his paper, at least) is interested in the importance of context for the work of contemporary historians in accessing the historical Jesus, but it has another important function – that of controlling the possible interpretations.

We are all familiar with public figures, especially politicians, who insist that their comments have been quoted out of context and that they didn’t mean what they are quoted as having said at all. Sometimes this is even true. Sometimes quoting something out of context can sometimes make it possible to interpret it in exactly the opposite meaning to that which it had originally, and decontextualising can often enable a range of quite odd interpretations, as well as those intended by the speaker (or writer). Rafael reminds us that the interpretation given in the text explains why the words were remembered, but it does more than this – it also explains how the writer wants them to be remembered and understood. I wonder what it says about the intent of the author of  GTh, given that copies of it were still being made in the fourth century, so it clearly wasn’t considered to have been superseded by the narrative gospels.

Thomas begins his text with the statement that whoever finds the meaning of the secret sayings of Jesus which were recorded by Judas Didymos Thomas will not taste death, and in it the most complex context provided is “the disciples asked Jesus X and he replied…”. This contrasts with the Synoptics which almost invariably provide contexts that limit potential meanings and in some cases also provide the authorised interpretation (the parable of the sower springs immediately to mind). Given that about half of the so-called ‘secret’ sayings bear a significant resemblance to sayings of Jesus reported in one or more of the Synoptics, it is difficult to know exactly what the author meant by their being ‘secret’ unless GTh really did predate Mark or Q (assuming Q existed). What is quite clear is that he is not giving the reader any clues about the meanings. Any reader who wishes not to taste death needs to do some hard yards to find their correct interpretation.

If you subscribe to the theory that GTh is a Gnostic text (and many people don’t) then only the Gnostic elite have the ability to find the meaning.  If is not Gnostic, perhaps the Thomas community might have been allowing room for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help those who genuinely wanted/deserved eternal life to find the correct meaning of the sayings – although the role of the Holy Spirit does not feature significantly in GTh.

Verbatim memory

In addition, having been quite pessimistic about our ability to prove the authenticity of any Jesus tradition or to have the actual words of Jesus, both here and on Michael Kok’s blog, I want to note a counter-argument. Anyone who has read to a small, preliterate child will recognise the speed with which they are able to learn by heart the text of a favourite book. Any attempt to alter the words or skip pages is met with loud protests and some will also offer to ‘read’ the book to you, sitting down and leafing through the pages, turning at the right time whilst reciting the words for you. I suspect that some of Jesus’ teachings were produced often enough so the disciples who travelled around with him got to know them pretty much by heart. I still think that the time-lapse between when Jesus taught and the gospels were written down, combined with the vagaries of both individual and social memory mitigates against our being able to prove that the gospels contain Jesus’ actual words, but I don’t think that what we have is necessarily a long way removed from them.

Gospel of Thomas Online Videos and Podcasts

Mike Grondin has added some Gospel of Thomas Online Videos and Podcasts to his site. As well as providing interviews with and talks by some contemporary scholars (Gagné, Gathercole, Goodacre, Martin and Pagels) there are links to a 2006 BBCFour TV programme on the Lost Gospels and to a 1987 BBC programme about the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library that features Elaine Pagels, Hans Jonas, Giles Quispel, James Robinson and Mohammed Ali el Saman (the discoverer of the jar). Although the quality of this last is not good, I really enjoy seeing some of the early giants in the field talking about the importance of the discovery.

While I am talking about it, Mike’s site also has a range of other very useful tools as well as some op-ed pieces and links to other useful places on the net. The tool includes his extremely useful Coptic/English interlinear version of Thomas and his new-this-year concordance for Coptic Thomas. To use the concordance, you will need to install the Coptic fonts used, but they are available for download from the site. Well worth a bookmark!

Robbins and Gagné on Thomas

Today, I read two pieces of writing on Thomas – the seventh chapter (“My Mouth is Utterly Unable to Say What You are Like!”) in Vernon K Robbins’ new book Who Do People Say I Am?: Rewriting gospel in emerging Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: W B Eerdmans Pub Co, 2013) and André Gagné’s “Jésus, la lumière et le Père vivant. Principe de gémellité dans l’Évangile selon Thomas” (Apocrypha 23, no. 1 (2012): 209-21). The latter title translates roughly into English as “Jesus, the light and the living Father. The principle of twinship in the Gospel according to Thomas”. I found out about the first from a review on April DeConick’s Forbidden Gospels blog and the latter from a post on André’s blog which he announced on the Nag Hammadi Seminar Facebook page. If you don’t have access to the journal, you can read the text on Scribd from André’s blog, something I really appreciated.

I don’t propose to review Robbins’ book because I don’t have time to read the other chapters at the moment, but if this one is typical, I am very pleased that I bought myself a copy. Because he is looking at what various early Christian communities said about who Jesus was, he compares Thomas to the canon, especially John. He makes a number of points that I had not thought about in this way before He says “Thomas shows us how some early Christians were trying to push their thinking and believing both inwardly and outwardly into regions beyond both time and space. They were in their own way creating speculative or imaginative Christian philosophy” (p 115). And then: “Jesus, then, does not redeem people through his actions, that is, by dying on the cross or performing miracles of healing. Rather, he saves people through the sayings he speaks” (p 116). He notes that Jesus is presented as a righteous messenger, but that he draws attention to what already is (the Kingdom spread throughout the world), rather than what is to come (p 116) and argues that the heavens and earth rolling up described in S111 has nothing to do with the Kingdom. At the time that this happens, the earth will simply cease to exist together with all those who have not “found” the Kingdom, but the Kingdom will continue to exist as it is already existing – a place outside time (p 121-123, 130). He spends some time looking at the significance of light in Thomas and says “In the Gospel of Thomas, all the elect have come from the place of light and will return to the place of light when they seek and find the Kingdom, through the Living One, namely Jesus, who is in their presence” (p 136).

He offers the following as an elucidation of S2:

When people seek until they find within Jesus’ sayings, they will be disturbed when they find. When they are disturbed, however, they will begin to marvel! When they marvel, then they will begin to know the Living One who is in their presence. And when the know the Living One, they will know that they themselves have come from the place of light, they will take off their earthly clothes and return to the place of light, and in the place of light they will dwell in the motion and rest of the Living Father. (p 136)

It was interesting to move from this to Gagné’s article, which also looks at the significance of light. The English abstract says:

Very few studies have engaged in a synchronic reading of the Gospel according to Thomas. But such a perspective contributes to a better understanding of many of the Thomasine logia, as well as an appreciation of the doctrinal particularities of such an enigmatic text. This article is a test case which presents an analysis of the analogous characterization of Jesus, light, and the living Father in the Gos. Thom. The Thomasine tradition portrays Jesus and his Father in terms of twinship. This is what lies behind the similar characteristics of both figures.

He begins with the fact that Ménard, in his commentary, notes the correspondence between Jesus and the Father and suggests that it is a primitive form of modalism, but that since then scholarship has tended to focus more on the history of the redaction of the collection of sayings than on the interpretation of the hidden words it contains. Gagné’s article looks, rather, at the interrelationship between the Father, the light and Jesus. He begins by arguing that the responsibility for finding meaning rests with the reader, not the text and that behind the appearance of disorganisation of the sayings, there may be a certain coherence which the reader must discover in order to find the meaning. He argues that in some places in the text it is possible to see chains of meaning that link sayings to one another (that is, the links are much more significant than simply catchwords) so that we are always in relentless pursuit of wisdom. (p 211-212).

Beginning on p 215, he then looks at sayings 49 and 50 as the jumping off point for examining what at first glance appear to be examples of modalism in Thomas, discussing the significance of the terms ‘solitary’ and ‘elect’. After a careful analysis of the text he concludes that there is therefore no modalism in such statements. He asks whether we should simply give up trying to find some consistency in the Thomasine sayings or could there be another principle at work that could explain the characterization of Jesus as light and living Father (p 220). Clearly, the answer to this rhetorical question is ‘no’. He concludes that:

In logion 108, the revelation of hidden things is promised to those who drink from the mouth of Jesus. Obviously, there is a correspondence between what is hidden and the hidden words in the first lines of Gos Thom. The disciple is transformed by the words of Jesus. When he receives the words (= drinks from the mouth of Jesus), it is then that his own identity is lost in that of his master. Like Didymus Judas Thomas, who is recognized as the true hermeneutic of Jesus, the disciples, too, become a kind of twin of the master.

Logion 106 talks about the manner in which those who give themselves over to the principle of unity become Sons of Man. This unquestionably corresponds to the input of logion 108 where the “son of man” becomes “twin” of Jesus, the Son of Man.

The concept of twinship may be what is behind the characterization of Jesus as the living Father. Jesus is somehow the twin of his Father, so he has the same characteristics. Like their Master, the disciples will also come to demonstrate the characteristics of Jesus, even to the point of carrying the title that is normally attributed to him, “son of man.” (p 221 – my translation without Coptic inclusions because I can’t easily manage either Coptic alphabet or transliterations in WordPress)

Although neither author makes any comment about whether or not Thomas is Gnostic, both their treatments give me a better insight into how it can be seen as Gnostic than do any of the other writing that I’ve read.

Old doctoral dissertations

When I started my doctoral candidature, I got the library to do a search to see if any doctoral dissertations had been written in my subject area. They found three: one from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; one from Emory University; and one from St Andrew’s University. I decided that the St Andrew’s one was not sufficiently interesting for me to be bothered going through the procedure needed to sight it. We had to borrow it on interlibrary loan and I had to sign a declaration saying that I would neither remove it from the library nor photocopy it; I could only have it for a relatively short period and that period included the postage time to and from Scotland. I must add that this was a number of years ago and St Andrew’s may have changed their policy since then. Emory already had theirs microfilmed and happily posted me a printout at a reasonable cost. Southwestern needed to photocopy their original but once they had worked out how to allow me to pay them from outside the US, they did the copying speedily and again at a very reasonable price. I got both of them softbound, skimmed them and then put them aside until I needed them for detailed text work.

I’ve just started working with them and am finding that they provide quite detailed information about the state of play of scholarship up to the first half of the 1960s – both were examined in 1965. I assume this is because there was a limited amount of material written at that stage, so they could describe it in more detail without exceeding the word limit. I am also in awe of the task that must have been involved in producing a thesis in the era before computers.

Hollie L. Briscoe’s  “A Comparison of the Parables in the Gospel According to Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels” (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1965) begins with the assumption that Gos Thom is a Gnostic adaptation of the Synoptics and unfortunately has a rather mechanistic approach to demonstrating that this is true. Any word or phrase that can be used in a Gnostic sense he claims as Gnostic and further proof of his claim, even though all his examples can be used in other ways as well. It’s not dissimilar to the approach taken by a number of other early Thomas scholars and I don’t find it particularly compelling. That aside, however, he provides useful summaries of the scholarship at the time, and a helpful bibliography. Theologically, I sometimes find it uncomfortable, but that is not particularly surprising given where it comes from. He nevertheless demonstrates the difference in emphasis between Thomas and the Synoptics effectively. My copy is now bristling with labelled sticky notes so I can find the necessary sections quickly as I address particular pieces of text. I appreciated his decision to transliterate all words that needed to be written in a non-English script, given the limitations of the manual typewriter that was used to produce the thesis. I also appreciate the footnotes which must have driven his typist demented!!!

I find John Bunyan Sheppard’s “A Study of the Parables Common to the Synoptic Gospels and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas” (PhD, Emory University, 1965) theologically more comfortable, but I do wish he’d decided to transliterate the Greek and Coptic rather than painstakingly hand writing slabs of both languages in a hand that would not have got him a job as a community scribe or in a scriptorium in earlier times. Again, he provides detailed summaries of the scholarship of the time and because of the way he’s divided the texts I can use the index to find the bits that interest me, which is better than sticky notes. On the other hand, unlike Briscoe, Sheppard has gone for end notes, which means sticky notes at the back so I can find the relevant notes reasonably quickly.

If, like me, you are interested in the specific parables that Thomas has in common with the Synoptics, both these dissertations are worth looking at, even though thought about them has moved on since 1965.

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.

Fellowship for Biblical Studies Inaugural Conference

Earlier this year, I attended a seminar in Melbourne at which Richard Burrdige was one of the speakers. I found out that there is a Fellowship for Biblical Studies operating and I joined just in time to offer a paper for their inaugural conference and have it accepted.

Sean Winter has posted the program on his blog, so I won’t bother. I am a little awed to discover that all the papers are going to be presented in plenary, since I am used to being part of a parallel program where people have some opportunity to choose what they want to hear. At least, however, I will only be presenting to biblical scholars, even if some of them focus on the Hebrew Scriptures. At UNE school seminars, I get to present to historians, classicists, philosophers, archaeologists and people from peace studies and international studies so I spend about half of my presentation sketching in the background.

Here’s the abstract:

Matthew, Luke and Thomas all tell stories about a man who lost one of his hundred sheep and left the other ninety-nine to go and look for it. They start out with the same basic details, but the significance they give to the sheep and to the happy ending are different in each gospel. This paper will explore the similarities and differences between the three lost sheep stories and examine their implications for our understanding of the relationship between sheep and shepherd and the relationship between the three. In doing so, it will try to take seriously the effects of oral transmission and human memory as well as scribal redaction on the extant versions of the text.

I’ve been enjoying doing the research for this – it is helping me to think about how to integrate my work on memory and eyewitness testimony better into my thesis/dissertation. In the process, I have been interested to note how much tighter the referencing conventions have become in the last thirty or forty years. Jacques Ménard’s 1975 commentary on Saying 107 owes a huge amount to that of Wolfgang Schrage (1964) – in a significant part of the comment he has done virtually nothing other than translate Schrage’s words from German into French – yet there is very minimal acknowledgement. Even a first year undergrad would get a very stern warning about plagiarism nowadays, but I assume from the fact that the book is published by Brill that this was considered fair dealing back then!

The onus/burden of proof

Over at Peje Iesous, Chris Skinner recently commented about Charles Hedrick talking about the ‘onus of proof’ being on those who claim that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, which reminded me of how irritating I find this kind of statement. We both agreed that Hedrick is not by any means the only person to use these words –  Simon Gathercole, Nicholas Perrin and Robert McIver use them, or ‘burden of proof’, too, as do others – and we also both agreed that the onus of proof is on anyone who makes an assertion, not those who wish to disagree with her or him. This is especially the case in the area of Thomas studies where there is very little scholarly consensus on anything.

I would go further than that, though, I think. I find it really difficult to see how scholars can talk about proof at all when all that we have in the way of evidence is three Greek manuscript fragments that nobody realised were from Thomas for half a century after they were found, one more or less full manuscript in Coptic and a few quotes or paraphrases, generally disparaging, from various of the church fathers. I am not even convinced that we can talk about proof when dealing with the canon, given that everyone recognises that the content was not written down until several decades after the events and teachings that they portray. We may have theories that fit the facts, or theories that fit the facts better than other theories – although the fit of the latter usually depends on what weighting you want to give to various pieces of evidence – but we really don’t have proof!

Honesty, I would suggest, would compel us to acknowledge that the best we can really do is to propose a series of more likely possibilities and make choices between them on the basis of what fits best with our particular world view and view of Scripture. Typically, when someone says “the burden/onus  is on you to disprove what I have said” they are standing on one side of a divide which is caused by disagreement over basic, underlying principles. The words make me want to look very carefully for holes in the argument being propounded.

This kind of problem becomes very clear when you watch debates between Richard Dawkins and whoever the local favourite Christian leader is. The atheists in the audience are generally sure that Dawkins has won and the conservative Christians in the audience generally think that the Christian leader has won, but since Dawkins’ arguments are based on the premise that there is no God and the Christian leaders’ are based on the premise that God created the world and everything in it, neither is going to find the arguments of the other convincing.

Unless we find more old manuscripts of Thomas, I think that the best we can realistically hope for is to outline the problems that our particular solutions solve and those they raise and accept that some Thomas scholars will agree with us and others will not be convinced at all. We need to learn to live with the fact that we probably can’t be generally acknowledged to be right, but we can be rigorous and we should all strive to be interesting. 🙂

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.