Gathercole: “The Gospel of Thomas”

Gathercole's Recently, I received my copy of Simon Gathercole’s The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014) – something  of a saga since the first copy I ordered got lost in transit and I had to request a refund and order it again! It’s over 700 pages long, the first 188 pages being introductory material, followed by 430 pages of commentary, then an extensive bibliography, an index locorum (aka index of ancient texts cited), an index of modern authors and an index of subjects. This post provides a summary of the introductory material.

Let me get my intemperate rant about the pricing of academic books out of the way before I address the content. Given that the amount I paid for it (AUD282 including postage) would enable someone to be trained as a teacher in a developing country and provide a toilet for a village that doesn’t have one, I would have expected better proof-reading (there are typos and missing citations – some, but not all of which can be tracked down in the bibliography) and editing (when the item ‘below’ doesn’t appear for 13 pages or several chapters, providing a page number would surely be more useful to the reader), better binding, and that all the pages would be cut so that the printers’ marks weren’t visible.  It does, however, have footnotes, rather than endnotes, which is a definite plus!! There is an e-book available, but it appears to cost USD250, which is more than AUD310.

Gathercole has done an enormous amount of work, investigating a huge amount of literature and has, I think, struggled at times to decide how to put it together in ways that make sense and are accessible to the reader. I assume that this is why the ‘appended note’ on Thomas as a ‘rolling corpus’ is slightly longer than the chapter to which it is appended. A helpful feature of each chapter is that the first footnote contains a bibliography of major works on the issue addressed.

Chapter 1 looks at the manuscripts, their datings and various features and chapter 2 compares the Greek and Coptic texts, looking at theories of composition. The third chapter looks at the ancient texts that mention GThom by name, providing the relevant sections in their original languages, followed by a reflection on the content of each. Chapter 4 looks at passages where it seems likely that the content of GThom is being referred to without specifically mentioning GThom. In this chapter, he cites the source material in English translation.

The fifth chapter is a summary of his work in pages 19-125 of The composition of the Gospel of Thomas original language and influences (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) and rehearses his position that there are very strong reasons to conclude both that the Coptic version of GThom is a translation from the Greek and that it was originally written in Greek. Chapter 6 addresses the issue of provenance and, after identifying from the literature Syria (either Edessa or Antioch) and Egypt as possibilities, he concludes that we can’t know and that it probably does not really matter.

He then moves on to dating and authorship in chapter 7. As stated in Composition, Gathercole believes that GThom is a later rather than an earlier work. He dates it somewhere between 135 and 200 CE. His dating thus means that the author was neither an apostle nor a Manichaen, and he notes that the author is unknown. He then provides a reasonably extensive list of proposed dates from the literature in chronological order.

In chapter 8, he bravely addresses the issue of structure, agreeing with most commentators that it is not a particularly carefully ordered text. He lists four attempts to divide Thomas into sections – by Janssens, Tripp, Davies and Nordsieck, all of which he sees as unsustainable. He does not, however, address DeConick’s five speeches proposal. He lists three generally recognised structuring devices – “Jesus said”; an opening section; and links between pairs/clusters of sayings. He lists the sayings in pairs or groups and indicates which of a catchword link, a thematic connection and/or a form in common link them (in a number of cases, he sees more than one of these applying to a group). He questions how many of the catchwords are accidental and indicates that he hopes to avoid the extremes of overcontextualising and ignoring context in his commentary.

The next chapter looks at the genre. Gathercole looks at the variety of genres suggested by various authors and discards as unlikely all but two: gospel; and sentence collection/chreia collection. He makes a point that I had not considered in talking about the gospel genre – that just as John is written so that the reader may believe, so Thomas gives guidance about transcending death (p 140). He concludes that it is a mixed genre and notes that Kelber’s term ‘sayings gospel’ is helpful.

Chapter 10 is probably the longest of the introductory material (although this depends on how you choose to count the pages of ‘appended notes’) and deals with the religious outlook of GThom. It contains a very thorough listing of the various characteristics of the text under a comprehensive range of headings and he reserves his analytical comments until he has laid out all the evidence, all of which is helpful. He argues that GThom sets itself against non-Christian Judaism, the wider Christian movement and various figures of authority. He suggests that GThom ‘may not be completely systematic, but it is reasonably coherent’ (pp 166-167) but resists putting a particular theological label on it. There follows another ‘appended note’ addressing the issue of whether or not GThom is Gnostic, which towards the beginning notes that the answer to the question depends on one’s definition of Gnosticism. He summarises the debate, and suggests not only that it is difficult to categorise GThom as Gnostic given that it does not contain a clear demiurgic account of creation (p 173), but also that using labels such as Mack’s ‘proto-gnostic’ or  Funk’s ‘reflecting an incipient gnosticism’ is questionable and that ‘it is very difficult to align GThom very closely with any particular movement’ (pp 174).

In chapter 11, he looks at GThom and the historical Jesus and contends that GThom is not useful in developing a picture of the historical Jesus. Chapter 12 is the final chapter of the introductory material and describes the plan of the commentary section. It provides for each saying a bibliography, a copy of the Coptic text and, where available, the Greek text, together with translations, followed by textual comment, interpretation and notes.

This book is clearly intended for the scholar rather than the interested lay person. Gathercole quotes material written in Greek, Coptic, Latin, French, German and Italian in their original languages and without translation. English translations of the ancient material are largely available on the internet and the modern language material is short enough so that using an on-line translation service would probably give a reasonable understanding of the gist of each, but following the argument in depth could prove frustrating. He also has a tendency to use uncommon English words and Latin terms quite regularly. It is by far the most detailed commentary on the actual text of GThom available in English, French or German. DeConick’s two volumes combined are the closest in length, but she spends more time on her theory of composition and on overview issues and less on the text itself. Gathercole has, as I said earlier, consulted a massive number of works and this and the detailed attention to the text make it a very useful reference work on GThom. Noticeably absent from his bibliography, however, are the major works on oral transmission, human and communal memory that I think help to understand the transmission issues for early Christian collections of the sayings of Jesus, and which provide the strength of DeConick’s work.

Clearly, any real review of the book would need to include an assessment of the textual commentary. I have not begun to read that part and at this stage have no time to do it in any systematic way. This, then, is more a summary of and reflections on the introductory material. I am sure the book will prove very useful, but I am still not happy about the price.

Is it me, or R McL Wilson?

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas

Chris Skinner, over at Crux Sola, has recently posted the last of a series of three interviews with Bill (or more formally – but it seems that he rarely is – Dr William) Arnal from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. Bill’s paper,  “The Rhetoric of Marginality: Apocalypticism, Gnosticism and Sayings Gospels” (Harvard Theological Review, v. 88, n. 4, p. 471-494, 1995) was part of my early reading around Thomas and one of the things that really sparked my interest – so I was interested to read where he had moved to in the twenty years since he wrote it.  Since Chris blogs with Nijay Gupta, the posts aren’t adjacent to one another so here are the relevant links:

He makes some very interesting points about the nature of the Gospel of Thomas and areas that need (and don’t need) to be explored which are really worth reading. The highlight of my night, however, is this (yes, I know, I need to get out more):

…it seems to me that there is very little in Thomas that we could (were we so inclined) trace back to the historical Jesus with any confidence. I’m pretty sure the name “Jesus” (or rather, its equivalent) is historical. And I imagine Jesus said stuff, sometimes, so that’s probably accurate too. I’m not especially confident about anything else.

Bill doesn’t blog (at least not that I’ve found), but you can follow him on and get to see a lot of  his papers collected in the one place. :-)

Asking questions, getting answers

Returning to my blog after a longish break, I came across this half-written post and thought I might finish it and publish it.

At the end of last year for the first time I was teaching earliest Christianity during the leadup to Christmas. It was a very interesting experience to sit in the pews and listen to preachers talking about the Advent readings from a faith perspective whilst preparing lectures for Studies in Religion students and then reading essays about the challenges for the early Jesus movement. Something that has stood out starkly for me is that the information that you get from the text depends to a very large extent on the questions you bring to it.

The Studies in Religion students had been asked to write about the challenges that the members of the early Jesus groups faced and how they responded. The preachers were talking about the challenges that Christians today face and how we might respond to them. Both groups were using the Bible as a primary source of their answers, but the answers they were giving me were quite different- or they should have been. Unfortunately, some of the students gave me information about how to live as a Christian today, which, whilst not unreasonable things to read out of the text, was the wrong answer to the question they were addressing. Because the preachers I was listening to are good preachers, I didn’t hear sermons that just told me about how the early Jesus groups responded to the challenges of their time, but I have certainly heard this kind of sermon in the past. Usually the preacher of the latter kind of sermon has offered a very reasonable assessment of the situation at the time of writing of the text, but it has not been the right answer to the questions that most members of congregations bring to Sunday worship.

The early Christian texts are capable of providing answers to a range of both historical and faith questions and I think it’s perfectly valid to ask both kinds of questions of them, but it’s important not to confuse the answers. Or to try to force the answers to your questions down the throats of people who are asking different questions. As someone whose initial training in biblical studies was focussed on answering faith questions, I find that I have to watch quite carefully at times that I don’t slip into that mode in my current writing, but careful historical work is an essential basis for the faith work.

Perrin on context of Jesus’ speeches

Much to my delight,  Mike Bird has posted a guest post by Nick Perrin over at Euangelion which further explains his position on the importance of context for Jesus’ speeches (Nick’s, not Mike’s). He says:

If the historical Jesus is to be understood in a Jewish context (which now just about every Jesus scholar writing today says we must do), then we have at least grounds for presuming that Jesus was not a sage espousing abstract, universally-valid truths but a Jewish-style prophet who issued his teachings in response to a particular context and with reference to specific addressees (the disciples, the priesthood, the crowds, etc.). He also presumably expected his closest followers to understand the relevance of context to his utterances. Such a prophet, I would offer, would also normally expect to have his words interpreted within his historically-specific context. That Jesus’ followers were eager (in their re-presentation of Jesus) to abstract Jesus’ words from his deeds means either that the Third Quest is simply wrong or that the disciples fundamentally betrayed their master. Neither of these paths seems very helpful.

I am happy with the possibility (although it is merely a speculative possibility – Thomas offers us nothing more than very speculative evidence here) that a free-floating collection of Jesus sayings circulated with the Jesus’ backstory fully in mind. Presumably, this backstory could be communicated alongside the sayings of Jesus. I am not willing to make the historically indefensible move of saying that Jesus’ earliest followers transmitted the words of Jesus without giving a darn about the context/backstory. That’s the move Bultmann made; that’s what DeConick seems to want to do. If this is also the move Judy Redman wants to make, then I think she too is running up the pretty steep hill of current Jesus scholarship consensus. It is eminently un-Jewish to separate a prophet’s words from his deeds; in the Jewish scriptures, the two are always mutually reinforcing.

Nick, I have no argument with the notion that Jesus was/conceptualised himself as a Jewish-style prophet and that Jesus’ Jewish followers would not want to abstract Jesus’ words from his acts. I don’t necessarily see GosThom as coming from a Christian community with a strong Jewish identity, though.  I think that it is fairly clear both from the text itself and from the writings of the Church Fathers, that GosThom is not part of the stream of proto-orthodox or apostolic Christianity which is the ancestor of mainstream Christianity today.

I don’t think that a series of sayings that provide only the minimal contextual material necessary to make them comprehensible has anything at all to offer us in the way of information about the historical Jesus as a person. Rather, I think it tells us about what (some) early Christians who did not fit into the proto-orthodox mainstream believed about Jesus, ie it tells us about an early Christianity rather than about Jesus.  GosThom makes no attempt to present Jesus, only to present his teachings, and the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that GosThom is intended as a post-basic document to help people who are already believers to come to a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teachings.  It seems to me that the “good news” in GosThom is not that Jesus, in dying and rising again conquered sin and death on our behalf (which requires an historical context), but that believers can find the secret of eternal life if they earnestly seek to understand Jesus’ teachings (which requires no historical context). I would certainly see parallels between this kind of stance and the group in today’s society that likes Jesus’ ethical teachings but has no time for the miracle stories (or a bodily resurrection). May of these people would be happy with the Thomas stance on abstaining from alcohol and meat, but would probably not get excited about abstaining from sex. :-)

The fact that a group might want to divorce Jesus’ sayings from his actions doesn’t necessarily mean, I don’t think, that their report of the sayings is any more unreliable than the reports in the canon. If they believed that it is the sayings and the discovery of their meaning that was critical to escaping death, I would imagine that they would have paid particular attention to making sure that they got the sayings right. The two factors that would affect what was considered to be the “correct” version, though would be the effects of human memory and whether Jesus had more than one version of a particular story/saying.

This all probably means that I can’t sustain a very early dating for Thomas, but given that the mission to the Gentiles go underway quite early, I don’t think it means that I need a late date.

Speeches of Jesus (3) – human memory experiments

Again, I am  moving a comment up to a post of its own. Mark Goodacre says, referring to April DeConick, “Human Memory and the Sayings of Jesus” in Tom Thatcher (ed.), Jesus, the Voice and the Text: Beyond The Oral and Written Gospel (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008): 135-80 and Robert K. McIver and Marie Carroll: “Experiments to Develop Criteria for Determining the Existence of Written Sources, and Their Potential Implications for the Synoptic Problem,” JBL 121 (2002): 667-87:

I am not persuaded that we should use the 15 or 16 word string criterion of McIver and Carroll. This is something derived from experiments on contemporary students that included some flawed methods and dubious inferences (some comments on McIver and Carroll are included in a post on DeConick’s similar experiments,

[For some reason that I don’t understand, if you click on the link above, it takes you to an error message saying this page doesn’t exist, whereas if you copy the link and paste it into your browser, it finds the post quite happily. This problem is now fixed.]

Mark, as I indicated in my comment on the previous post, I also have reservations about applying research on 20th and 21st century undergraduates directly and uncritically to 1st century Christians because their memories have been trained so differently. I also agree that the fact that the students in April’s research were given stories that are not culturally familiar will have had an effect on how well they remembered. I therefore don’t think that you can take the statistics in her results and apply them to the 1st century, but she doesn’t seem to be trying to do this in what she terms a pilot study. I think that the kinds of transformations are, however, relevant and would bear further investigation in a population that is more like 1st century Christians.

Although I am using a very small sample size (3) and anecdotal evidence, my friends who are blind have far better memories than do I or my sighted friends because it used to be hugely more difficult for them to keep and access written records than it was for people who could write on paper with pencils and carry the notes around with them. I suspect that PDAs and talking text is going to change this, but I think that blind people in their 40s and 50s and older would be a better example of how memory works than are younger undergrads.

Also, at the beginning of her article, she talks about the Parable of the Lottery Ticket, which she gives to her classes. This is a culturally congruent story and it would be very interesting to see the statistics on it. I have also used this parable in my own classes and bible studies, but I get the participants to re-tell it the same day and even when I warn them that they are going to be asked to re-tell it, I only ever get accurate gist, not accurate detail and not terribly long verbatim strings. Their memories really are not terribly impressive.

All this, I think, makes McIver and Carrol’s data potentially an underestimate of the length of verbatim string needed for reasonable certainty that there is a textual rather than an oral relationship between two texts. OTOH, it is also likely that Jesus’ audience was paying closer attention to him than my students or April’s students were paying to us. Neither April nor I are demonstrable miracle workers, after all! Possibly what we needed to do was to say “pay careful attention – the material I am about to present will be examined”. :-)

At the same time, I don’t think we are dealing with the kind of material that lends itself to incontravertible proof of how it was transmitted. I think we can probably say, along with the originality software, that any verbatim string of 8 words or more that are not aphorisms or stock phrases has the possibility of being copied from a written text, but that we need a much longer string of verbatim correspondence to be able to say with any certainty that this is so. We then need to look at the string in context and analyse the kinds of changes that the material around it has undergone in order to be a bit more certain about our judgements.

Speeches of Jesus (2)

Doug Chaplin over at Clayboy has responded to my previoius post on Speeches of Jesus, adding two cautions. My response to his response is also too long to go in the comments.  He says:

First, in the canonical gospels there are incidents which are quite differently narrated, such as the story of the woman who anoints Jesus. It is hard to tell whether this represents more than one similar incident or variations of one incident, although most scholars incline (as I do) to the latter view. The difference between variations of an incident – less likely to have happened on more than occasion – is a warning about assuming variations of a saying are simply owing to its having been uttered on more than occasion. A lot of variation is it would seem creative work in either the memory or the narration, and it may still be right to try an essay a judgement about which variant is most likely historical.

I, too, am inclined to believe that incidents like the story of the woman who annoints Jesus are variations on the same incident, rather than different ones. It seems highly unlikely that women made a habit of annointing Jesus with expensive perfume. :-)

I would suggest that there is a third possibility for variations of this kind, though, and that is in the passing on of stories. Allport and Postman in The Psychology of Rumor (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1947) provide some fascinating examples of what happens when a story is retold in what they termed “rumour chain”. They had one person look at a picture and describe it to someone else who could not see the picture. This person described it to a third and so on. The most famous of their scenarios was a picture of an African-American man in a suit and an Anglo-American man in overalls and carrying a half-open cut-throat razor. They are both standing in a subway carriage. In most cases, by the sixth retelling it is the African-American who is holding the razor and in some cases he is threatening the Anglo-American with it. In the same way that in proof-reading our own writing we tend to read what we expect to read, people tend to hear what they expect to hear.

It is possible that any two or all three of these sources of variation might have come into play to produce the variations in question.

I’d also like to draw more clearly the distinction between variations between the canonical gospels with respect to narratives and variations between the synoptics and Thomas with respect to how parallel sayings are grouped. When parallel sayings are grouped differently, I would tend to look first at the possibility that they were heard that way because Jesus used them on different occasions. In looking at variations in narrative and variations in detail, I would be more inclined to look at memory and transmission issues. I am also rather inclined to suggest that some of the variation that has been ascribed to redaction may be more likely to reflect the way in which particular events and sayings were remembered in the communities from which the texts came than to be an attempt of a redactor to influence the belief of the community.

Doug continues:

The second caution is that (and this is one of the points made early on in Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism which is not always given due attention) sayings are very hard to evaluate historically. When they are removed from narrative contexts as in Thomas, questions of historicity become almost impossible. Judging the historicity of any of Thomas’ variants depends, I think, on some prior judgments being made about the core of historical teaching material especially in the synoptics, and those judgements in turn depend in part on ones made about the contexts provided from events and narratives. Making historical judgments about Thomas is, I think, a necessarily derivative activity.

I agree. The whole issue of historicity is a really difficult one. I want to say that anything that is not obviously anachronistic or antithetical to Jesus’ known teaching should not be ruled out as ‘authentic Jesus tradition’* simply on the basis that we have no other record that Jesus said it. That is, I think that it is possible that GosThom contains more authentic Jesus tradition than is found in the canon. The problem with this, of course, is that working out what is not antithetical to Jesus’ known teaching involves assuming that teaching in the canon is authentic Jesus tradition, which means that we are, to some extent at least, bringing faith claims into the historical enterprise. This about as convincing as trying to use sections of the Bible to prove the existence of God – they are only convincing if you are prepared to believe that the Bible is an authoritative text, which requires a prior belief in the existence of God.

*I think we have no chance of reliably recovering Jesus’ actual words unless and until someone develops a functional time machine.