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.

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

My copy of Chris Skinner’s new book What are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas (New York, Paulist Press, 2012) finally arrived earlier this week. Apparently the Book Depository was selling the US edition which wasn’t due to be published until 1 May, whereas Amazon had ordered the UK (?) edition, which was published a month earlier.

Anyway, it arrived, I’ve read it and I’m impressed. The aim of this series is to provide a summary of the current/recent scholarly literature in the particular field which is accessible to the ordinary reader and I think that Skinner has done an admirable job.

After a short introduction to the history of the text, he identifies the three crucial questions that are still being debated some fifty-five years after the text of Thomas became reasonably easily accessible to interested scholars:

  • when was it written?
  • what is its relationship to the canonical gospels?
  • what is its genre and theological outlook?

Skinner devotes a chapter to each question, in which he lays out the various positions held by scholars, who the main proponents of each one are and (briefly) why they hold their particular positions. While the particular scholars may well think that he has missed some of the nuances of their arguments (due to summarising whole books in a few paragraphs), I think he has done an excellent job of summaraising the main points of the various positions, where they fit in and how they interrelate. The final chapter (unless you count a one-page conclusion as a chapter) looks at the debate about the role of Thomas in the quest for the historical Jesus, summarising the positions of John Paul Meier, the Jesus Seminar and John Dominic Crossan.

Skinner has done an admirable job of identifying the main players and the main issues in the field. As well as the three crucial questions and the issue of the role of Jesus in the quest for the historical Jesus, he also highlights a number of other important issues. He points out, for example, how intertwined these four issues are – so those who hold that Thomas is Gnostic and dependent on the canon will not be arguing for an early dating or that it is important in the quest for the historical Jesus. He notes the general divide between North American and European scholars on the issues of dating and independence, and the movement in the idea of theological outlook that has resulted from the debate about the definition of Gnosticism in the past decade or two.

As is always the case in the area of biblical studies, there are quite a few pages of notes that don’t quite belong in the main text but are nevertheless useful. Paulist, like most book publishers, prints endnotes at the end of the book and, as usual, this annoyed me as I flipped backwards and forwards between text and note. These are followed by a select bibliography which Skinner has divided into a number of sections: English translations; Thomas within early Christianity; Commentaries; Thomas and early Christian literature; Surveys of Thomas reserach; Important related reading: and Helpful online resources. This last is annotated, the rest are not, but there is a rating system that indicates which books are: accessible to the nonspecialist; written at an academic level but accessible to an educated nonspecialist; an intended for those with background knowledge of early Christian literature and the requisite reserach languages.

As the reader has no doubt gathered, I am very positive about this book. I found the structure that Skinner offers a helpful way of conceptualising the field of Thomas scholarship at the moment. He does a good job of presenting the various positions in an even-handed way. I discovered that Hedrick’s 2010 commentary on Thomas had slipped under my radar and have ordered a copy, which was particularly useful to me. My one disappointment was in the bibliography. David Gowler’s WATSA the Parables has a fully annotated bibliography, whereas in WATSA the Gospel of Thomas one has to search the text for a summary of the various positions of the authors. While there is an index, some of the more prolific authors are mentioned a number of times and an overview of the positions in each major publication would have been helpful.

In general, though, I think that Skinner has done what he set out to do and written a book that will provide a useful way into Thomas scholarship for the interested general reader and the student. I am certainly going to recommend that it be added to the reading list of the subject I taught when I was based at the University of New England.

Relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics

In the comments Mike K says:

I take it you view Thomas as largely independent of the Synoptics so that there similarities and differences may be explained as a result of different processes of oral transmission from the original eyewitnesses? I was just reading Andrew Gregory’s “The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Ireneaus” and he is very cautious about accepting any literary dependence as demonstrable unless it meets Koester’s criteria of whether the redaction is present, but he too finds evidence of Lukan redaction in the Greek fragments of Thomas (so difficult to blame on later scribal harmonization in the Coptic version). So I was wondering if you think it may be possible that whoever put together this compilation of sayings in the 2nd century was familiar with the Synoptics in some way, yet perhaps many of the sayings still reached the author independently from oral tradition?

This is too big to answer in the comments, so I am bringing it up to a post of its own.

I don’t know that I want to be that definite, but that’s certainly the way I am leaning, yes. As a person of faith, I believe that Jesus really existed, that there were many eyewitnesses to the various parts of his ministry and that they shared their stories of their encounters with Jesus with friends, family, colleagues. I would also like to believe that the early Christians were, in general, people of good will and integrity who told others what they genuinely believed to be true and accurate accounts of what they saw, heard and experienced, rather than deliberately reshaping material to convince others to their way of thinking. A lot of the redaction criticism theory sounds too cold and calculating to me: author X took author Y’s version and edited it so that it fitted in with his theology sounds like a very deliberate thing to me.

I think that the level of verbatim correspondence between some parts of the Synoptics are long enough for us to be pretty sure either that one version was copied from the other or that there was some common source with which both authors were familiar. If what scholars beginning with Gerhardsson suggest is correct, it may well be that this source was oral material learned verbatim, rather than necessarily a written copy but I suspect that alterations were made because the version that was available did not line up with the author’s memory of the event (or the account that s/he had heard from an(other) eyewitness), rather than something more deliberate. How we understand an event andwhat we remember of an event are strongly shaped by what we believe about the world, so our memories do tend to line up with our beliefs and therefore theologies but mostly this shaping is unconscious. McIver summarises the evidence here quite well (see my review of his Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels) although I don’t agree with the conclusions he draws about what it means for reliability.

Another possible explanation, however, of how there are different versions of what appears to be the same story in circulation is that Jesus actually told basically the same story several times with slightly different details because he was telling them to a different audience in different settings. In other words, it is possible that the reason that Matthew, Mark and Luke have parallel stories in different settings is not that they wrote their gospels to achieve particular theological purposes that worked best if they put them in different orders, combinations and settings and but because Jesus actually used them in different orders, combinations and settings and the ones that fitted best with a particular eyewitness’s theological emphasis were the ones that were remembered by that person. Quite a few of the changes that we see that are named as ‘redaction’ could equally be the result of people retelling a story in their own words and it doesn’t matter whether the story is one they have read somewhere or one they have heard somewhere. My article  “How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 1 (2010): 177-97 summarises the literature on both eyewitness testimony and human memory.

So, in short, yes, I think what you suggest is possible, Mike, but because we are working with Greek text of the Synoptics and largely Coptic text of Thomas and some of the Greek text we do have puts the sayings in a different order to the Coptic text, I don’t think we canbe at all certain about which of the various theories is correct. I think that on the basis of the evidence we have, it is perfectly possible that Thomas was written in total isolation from the Synoptics, on the basis of teaching that he learned verbatim from Jesus. That he used the sayings he used because they were the ones that he remembered best over the years because they were the ones that helped him to make sense of his world and his life.  I think it is exceedingly unlikely that the author picked up texts of the Synoptics, selected his/her favourite bits, changed them so that they would produce the spin he wanted and made up a whole pile of other stuff so that he could convince a group of gullible people of the veracity of his/her particular theological system (whatever that is). What we need in order to make a more definitive statement about which of the various theories of composition is most likely is an early copy of a full Greek text. Even then, however, if you accept that Jesus tried to get his disciples to learn his sayings verbatim, you don’t need to have a theory of textual dependence even with really significant verbatim sections.

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas as script consultant? (a temporary diversion from Gathercole)

What would a stageplay of the Gospel of Matthew look like if they used the author of the Gospel of Thomas as script consultant? An awful lot like Godspell, I suspect. We watched it yesterday because it was Easter Day, so the local TV stations were running some vaguely Christian programming. As I watched, I kept thinking two things:

  • If I didn’t already know about the life and death of Jesus, this would make very little sense
  • This reminds me very much of the Gospel of Thomas

Like Thomas, Godspell provides the audience with very little context. A man appears. He blows a shofar and people who are unhappy with their lives follow him. He baptises Jesus (dressed as a sad clown) in the local fountain and they go off to a secluded place where Jesus says things, fairly much a propos of nothing. Strange and probably fairly incomprehensible things if you don’t have the back story. We have no idea of the timeframe in which the teaching happens, no context from within which to understand any of the sayings, no miracles, no narrative at all. All very Thomasine.

I could make reasonable sense of it all because I knew the stories behind the sayings, but otherwise it would have been quite mystifying, I think. This reminded me of Thomas. Like the people in the English-speaking world in the second half of the twentieth century (Godspell’s implied audience), Thomas’ implied readers knew the backstory and therefore had no need of it to make sense of the sayings and anyone who didn’t needed to seek until they found it – not the author’s problem, really.  I don’t think this stripped down characteristic helps with the dating of Thomas, despite what a number of scholars want to suggest.

Of course, Godspell then moves out of  ‘sayings collection’ mode so that Jesus can be betrayed – in Godspell the movie, by the John the Baptist character – and die and be carried away, but no resurrection here, either. Jesus is simply presented as a teacher – as someone who could be described as the righteous messenger and wise philospher that Peter and Matthew proclaim him to be in GTh 13.  The screenplay is much closer to the gospel account than is Jesus Christ Superstar (no tapdancing Herod singing “prove to me that you’re divine – change my water into wine”, no disciples singing “then when we retire, we can write the gospels and they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died”), but it still moves the temptations to the night of Jesus’ betrayal and death and has a number of the people around Jesus saying words that the gospels put on Jesus’ lips. It also adds some material that’s only found in Luke. At the time when Superstar and Godspell were box office stage plays, the churches preferred Godspell because it was closer to the Bible, but they condemned both as not presenting the Gospel fully or accurately. Again, a lot like Thomas and the church fathers, really. And maybe, like the writers of Superstar and Godspell, the author of Thomas wasn’t trying to provide a full, accurate account of Jesus.

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (5)

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

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

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

The third surprised me.

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

Gathercole also indicates that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (4)

Chapter 4 is entitled “Positive evidence for a Greek-language origin” and in it, Gathercole addresses six areas:

  1. The material evidence of the manuscripts: Here, Gathercole says that we have no manuscript evidence of a Semitic version of Thomas but there are three fragments of  Greek copies. Although he notes that an argument from silence needs to be viewed with caution, he suggests that the material evidence is sufficient to suggest that a Greek composition should be the default position.
  2. Level of correspondence between items of Greek vocabulary in Greek and Coptic Thomas: Gathercole looks at those sections of Coptic Thomas where there is also an existing Greek version in the P. Oxy fragments and  lists 27 Greek loanwords in the Coptic text. In only three cases is there a different word used in the extant Greek text and two of these are particles, which (as was noted previously) are least predictably rendered in other Greek-to-Coptic translations.  He ends this section with “This is a fairly remarkable statistic, making a Greek Vorlage – and one which is fairly similar to our extant Greek fragments – almost certain (p 108).” Again, I feel that he overstates the case, for three reasons. First, as he says himself in the next section, it is quite common for texts that we are sure were originally composed in Coptic to have many Greek loanwords.  Second, the presence of Greek loanwords could simply indicate that the translator spoke  Greek more fluently than Coptic. Third, loanwords usually enter a language because the target language doesn’t already have a word that expresses the concept effectively and this is likely to be the case with at least some of the words cited eg sabbaton, sarx.
  3. Additional features of Greek loanwords in Coptic Thomas: Gathercole draws attention to Stephen Emmel’s index to the Coptic Gnostic Library, which contains 372 instances of “words borrowed from Greek” that are not proper nouns. This, as he says, does not in itself support a Greek original or Vorlage since it was quite common for “native Coptic works” to contain a high proportion of Greek vocabulary. He provides  examples, however, where the Greek is unusual, and also points to the survival of inflected Greek forms. Again, however, this kind of oddity could result from the translator being more fluent in Greek than in Coptic.
  4. Greek Gospels: Here, Gathercole argues that the genre of Thomas is “overwhelmingly” Greek: because of its designation as a gospel; because it is referred to as a gospel in the patristic references; and because it “was intended as a collection of saving words. Even if it is not a Gospel in the canonical sense, it is probably a Gospel when considered on its own terms (p 110).” He then goes on to demonstrate that, although the area is “messy and difficult to penetrate” the majority of scholarly opinion is that the original language of the gospels that we have is Greek – that “the Gospel genre is overwhelmingly a Greek-language genre (p 115)” and thus that the original language for a gospel is most likely to be Greek. This hinges on the assertion that Thomas  is a typical Greek gospel. In fact, however, if we are to accept Richard Burridge’s argument (and most scholars do) that the canonical gospels are a sub-genre of the Graeco-Roman genre bios (Burridge, R.A. What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), Thomas simply doesn’t make the cut. Most obviously lacking of Burridge’s criteria is the narrative about Jesus’ life and, in particular, the account of his death. Thomas may fit into the genre of Greek sayings-source, but these are not exactly thick on the ground to provide comparisons.
  5. Greek originals of Nag Hammadi tractates: Gathercole shows that the weight of scholarly opinion is that the majority, if not all, of the texts in the Nag Hammadi library were originally composed in Greek. He concludes “if the scholarly consensus on the rest of Codex II is right, this is at least circumstantial evidence in favour of a Greek original for Thomas. It is strong evidence for a Greek Vorlage to the present Coptic translation, and the more evidence for Greek one finds in all this, the higher the burden of proof on Semitic theories (p121).” This seems to me to be an overstatement of the strength of circumstantial evidence.
  6. Close similarity to early Greek parallels: Here, Gathercole points to the similarity between the Greek text of Thomas and the Greek texts of a number of other Gospels, both canonincal and non-canonical. The major problem with the case he presents is that there is no example where the level of correspondence that he reports is adequate to satisfy the criteria of copying rather than familiarity developed by McIver and Carroll. Even in their earlier, less stringent work (McIver, Robert K., and Marie Carroll. “Experiments to Develop Criteria for Determining the Existence of Written Sources, and Their Potential Implications for the Synoptic Problem.” Journal of Biblical Literature 121, no. 4 (2002): 667-87), they conclude that there needs to be verbatim correspondence in a string of at least 16 words. Gathercole’s longest example is 13 words and most are much shorter, so he can really only suggest that the author of one text was familiar with the other at the level of oral transmission.  Thus, his conclusion: “Unless one regards a Greek Thomas as the ultimate source of the canonical versions, we are left with the strong likelihood that Thomas incorporated known Greek tradition” again overstates the case, since the evidence could again be accounted for by the development of parallel eyewitness traditions (see previous post). A second problem is that it is quite clear that the P. Oxy fragments which which he is working are not the original source of Coptic Thomas. P. Oxy 655 contains the prologue and sayings 1-7, then saying 24, which could be explained if it were a collection of someone’s favourite sayings from Thomas.P. Oxy 1, however, contains sayings 26-33 with lines 2-3 of saying 77 interpolated between saying 30 and saying 31, which suggests that there was a Greek version of Thomas in which the sayings appeared in a different order to that of Coptic Thomas. Thus it seems to me that one cannot assume that the conclusions about similarity with the canon reached from the Greek text necessarily apply to the Coptic text.

Gathercole concludes that the evidence provided means “that a Greek Vorlage to the Coptic version of Thomas is a virtual certainty, with proposals for a translation into Coptic from another language being highly speculative (p 125).”  As is obvious from my various comments, I do not think the case he makes is a strong as he suggests.

He continues “Moreover, the close parallels in phraseology between the Greek texts of Thomas and other Gospels are perhaps the strongest evidence for the incorporation of Greek tradition at the stage of Thomas’s composition (p 125).” The psychological research literature on human memory suggests, however, that the parallels he mentions are not particularly close. This will, I think, have significant implications for what follows, since he indicates that this will be an important factor in the case he will build “that Thomas is likely to be dependent upon Mathew and Luke, as well as upon some other early Christian literature.”

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (3)

In Chapter 3, Gathercole works through 77 areas in the Coptic text of Thomas that have been proposed by various authors as Semitisms. He looks at those identified by Quispel and Guillaumont and listed by DeConick in her The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation but adds a number of others presented elsewhere in the scholarly literature. He quite rightly says that problematising the proposal of a Semitic background requires a large sample size.  He does not, however, attempt to include all the 502 Syrian catchwords proposed by Perrin. Of the aim of the chapter, he says:

It is hoped that the present chapter will show that in almost every instance, alternative explanations are readily available, and to suggest that, as a result, the case for a Semitic Vorlage underlying our Greek and Coptic texts has been greatly exaggerated and is in fact very vulnerable. In addition to the immediate concern with the original language, this chapter is also significant for the question (which will loom large later, in Part II) of Thomas’ s independence, since we will treat here a number of alleged cases of Aramaic Vorlagen translated differently (and thus independently) by Thomas and the Synoptics. (pp 43-4)

As can be seen from the previous post, Gathercole’s argument about the Semitisms in Thomas looks at three main areas: the identification and classification of Semitisms in the text; the identification of mistranslations or wooden translations which could are explained by an underlying Semitic text; and the identification of divergent translations that occur in either the Greek and Coptic Thomas or  in canonical parallels to Thomas and which could be explained by a common Semitic Vorlage.

I think he demonstrates quite credibly that quite a few of the pieces of text identified by other scholars as Semitisms are either acceptable Greek or acceptable Coptic idiom and that others, while clearly arising as a result of translation from a Semitic language can be classified as Septuagintisms, rather than what might be termed de novo Semitisms. He also demonstrates that a significant number of those passages which have previously been considered to be the result of mistranslation are actually the result of problematic exegesis and are acceptable was they stand; and that in a number of situations where real problems exist with the text, there are Greek explanations that are equally as likely as the Semitic ones that have been proposed, or they could be explained by textual corruption. Thus, he raises significant doubt in the first two areas.

In looking at the third area, that of divergent translations, he notes that in a number of situations the parallel texts are so different that they could only be considered to be loose translations at best, so do not provide convincing evidence that they are translations of a common Semitic Vorlage. In other situations, the divergences are translations of conjunctions and prepositions which are acknowledged by scholars  to be translated unpredictably between other languages and Coptic. Finally, there are places where the explanations offered by other scholars require a translation directly from a Semitic language to Coptic, which he finds untenable.

He finishes with: “These conclusions do not, of course, mean that it is impossible that various sayings in Thomas go back to Semitic originals  . . . The analysis in this chapter does emphasise, however, how difficult it is to conjure up evidence which can only be explained on the basis of a Western Aramaic or Syriac Vorlage.” (p 104)

Again, however, while the evidence he provides is well researched, it seems to me that the conclusions he draws from it are an overstatement of the case, for several reasons. First, even though it may be possible to provide an individual explanation of every Semitism proposed that does not require that it comes from a Semitic language original, the people who are proposing a Semitic original are saying, in effect, that when you put all these pieces together the overwhelming ‘feel’ of the text is that there is a Semitic language underlying it. To provide a modernt parallel: When I read the English translation of Uwe-Karsten Plisch’s commentary on Thomas, there is nothing in it that is incorrect, but there are definitely segments which someone who speaks English as their first language would have worded differently. The fact that I can provide perfectly acceptable explanations for each one of them in English does not take away the “germanic” feel which is caused by their presence in numerous places in the text. Of course, as Gathercole himself notes once or twice, it is difficult to identify the source of this Semitic feel. Given that Jesus did most, if not all, of his teaching in Aramaic and Thomas consists almost entirely of  Jesus’ words, it may come from Jesus. If the person who translated the text into Coptic spoke a Semitic language as his/her first language s/he may have introduced Semitisms that did not exist in the original text, and the notion of LXXisms of course makes sense, too. Thus, while a Semitic Vorlage may not be the only explanation for many of the Semitisms detected in the text, it must one of the possible explanations remain at this stage and I don’t think it is necessary that it be the only possible explanation in order for it to be the best one.

From my perspective, however, there is a more significant gap in Gathercole’s treatment when he deals with the divergent translations. While I concur that we are on shaky ground trying to demonstrate a common Vorlage for material that appears only to be a loose translation of the original, much of the problematic material seems to me to have an explanation which Gathercole does not explore. The more I read about eyewitness testimony and human memory, the more likely I think it that divergences such as those between Thomas and the canon come from the accounts of different eyewitnesses to the same events, exacerbated by the fact that the transmission for the first decade or two was oral. Most of the divergence theories were proposed several decades ago, before much research had been done about eyewitness testimony and when biblical scholars were largely unaware of research on human memory and oral transmission that was being done in other fields. The variations seem to me to be better explained as gist transmissions by several eyewitnesses through different trajectories than by loose translations of one underlying text. Whether they became stable as part of community tradition (see eg Bailey) or as a result of Jesus teaching his disciples in the manner of the rabbis of his time (see eg Gerhardsson) is unclear.

In chapter 4, which will be the subject of the next post, Gathercole moves on to positive evidence for a Greek-language origin. This may build a case which outweighs the difficulties that I’ve raised above.

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (2)

The first section in Gathercole’s book deals with the original language of Thomas and consists of four chapters. This post will deal with the first two.

In chapter 1, which is very short, he outlines the various theories that have been advanced about the language in which Thomas was originally written. When Puech announced the discovery of the gospel in 1957, he was sure that the original had been in Greek. In 1958, Guillaumont noted a significant number of mistranslations and argued that the sayings had been translated from Aramaic. In 1960, Garitte proposed a Coptic original. The notion of a Coptic original has not persisted, but both other options are still argued by scholars today, while other scholars have added arguments for a Syriac original. A significant factor in the various arguments for an Aramaic or Syriac original is the presence of many Semitisms in the text, but Gathercole indicates that he plans to present a criticism of the proposal for an Aramaic or Syriac original and demonstrate that a Greek original is ‘much more likely’. This he will do in three parts – first looking at problems with gathering evidence for a Semitic original; second examining all the proposed Semitisms systematically; and third providing positive evidence for a Greek original. ‘This conclusion in favour of a Greek original will pave the way for seeing a closer relationship to the New Testament Gospels than is often seen in current scholarship’ (p 23).

Chapter 2 looks at methodological problems with Semitic theories under a number of headings.

  1. The need to eliminate Greek and Coptic explanations before arguing for a Semitism: this is the basic, common sense idea that even though a particular turn of phrase might be common in Semitic languages, if an explanation for it can be found in Greek or Coptic, it should not be claimed as a Semitism. Gathercole offers five possible scenarios where this might be the case: (a) where a particular turn of phrase which is common in Semitic languages is also acceptable Greek or Coptic; (b) where the original text is corrupt (c) where there was a scribal error in copying; (d) where the phraseology in question has been misunderstood (e) in Thomas, it may simply be that the author’s intention is to be obscure.
  2. The need to establish the linguistic base for identification of Semitisms: here, he draws on the work of Wilcox and Davila on the need to be comparing the text with Syriac, Hebrew and Aramaic texts from the same period rather than from a century or two afterwards.
  3. The difficulty of classifying Semitisms: some Semitisms come from Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures and make good sense in the text as it stands – they are examples of ‘biblical expression’. Gathercole cites two other similar cases where, he argues, the Semitic origin of an expression does not indicate any particular linguistic background and distinguishes between these and those cases where the Greek makes little or no sense because it appears to be a literal translation of a specific Semitic idiom.
  4. The difficulty of assessing the significance of Semitisms for the original language of composition: texts such as the Didache provide examples of texts written in Greek but with a huge number of Semitisms. Gathercole quotes Davila’s argument that the presence of such Semitisms cannot be taken as decisive proof of translation from a Semitic Vorlage. He also argues that the fact that part of a composition might have a Semitic origin does not indicate that the whole has a Semitic origin – citing as an example the parts of the Gospels that can be traced back to the OT.

Gathercole then proposes that there are two principle ways to identify a Semitic Vorlage to Thomas – identification of mistranslations which make little or no sense in Coptic or are very wooden, but which make sense as idiom in a Semitic Vorlage;  and of divergent translations of parallel passages in Thomas and the canonical gospels or in Greek and Coptic Thomas which might be accounted for by a common Semitic Vorlage, although these also are not without problem, the possibility of bilingual interference being one that is common to both possible explanations.

Gathercole then lists four additional problems associated with therories of a specifically Syriac original.

  1. The paucity of Syriac literature in the relevant period- we have virtually no evidence of Syriac being used as a literary language in the first two centuries CE, so the earlier Thomas is dated, the more surprising it would be for it to have originally been written in Syriac.
  2. The rarity of translation of Syriac works into Greek
  3. The possibility of bilingual composition – A late Syrian origin might well have resulted in two versions, one in each language, having been written mor or less simultaneously, as Klijn has suggested for the Acts of Thomas
  4. The difficulty of the ‘catchword’ theory – here, Gathercole criques Nicholas Perrin’s identification of catchwords as being too uncontrolled to be convincing.

I think that Gathercole has successfully made a case for need not to be too hasty in identifying Semitisms in Thomas; and in reminding us that there are other explanations for the presence of Semitisms in the text than that the text was originally written in a Semitic language. I am rather surprised, however, that he hasn’t suggested what to me is an obvious possibility – that the author spoke a Semitic language as his/her first language and was not sufficiently fluent in Greek to eliminate entirely the traces of that language from the text ie that the author was not, in fact, truely bilingual – although perhaps he uses a looser sense of  ‘bilingual’.

I am not sure, however, that he makes a strong enough case to justify his conclusion to the chapter:

In sum, these caveats may lead us to wonder whether an Aramaic or Syriac original is identifiable; at the very least they should mean that the burden of proof lies heavily on those who would argue for such a Semitic Vorlage.  It is surely such factors as the above which led even such an enthusiast as Ménard to compare the terrain of the study of Semetisms to quicksand ( L’évangile Selon Thomas, 1973, p 23). As we proceed to investigate the particular instances, we will see that the terrain is uncertain indeed. (p 42)

I continue to be uneasy when dealing with early Christian material when people start talking about ‘proof’ and ‘burden of  proof’. I simply don’t think that the material we are working with enables us to be more confident that anything is more than ‘highly likely’ – empirical proof is beyond us.