Who knew whom?

20th Century style . . . Montefiore and Jeremias

As part of my research, I have been looking at the parables of the Reign/Kingdom of God that take the form ‘the kingdom is like a person who…’.  A number of the commentators I have read cite Joachim Jeremias in The Parables of Jesus (translated by S H Hooke. third (revised) ed. SCM Press, 1972, pp 101-102) where he argues that that parables which in Greek begin with ὁμοίος and a noun in the dative case, indicate that there is an underlying Aramaic le in the original and that they should be translated, ‘It is the case with . . . as with . . .’.  This, he argues, shifts the focus of the comparison from the closest object in the sentence to some other part, so for example the kingdom is not actually being compared to a mustard seed, but to the end result of planting one. I have referred to this in several places because the parables that I am looking at in the Synoptics mainly fall into this category.

To my surprise, however,  on going back over some old work I discovered that Hugh Montefiore had said the same thing about the underlying Aramaic le and its effect in “Comparison of the Parables of the Gospel According to Thomas and of the Synoptic Gospels,” (NTS 7(1961): 246-7). Montefiore doesn’t mention the ὁμοίος + dative Greek structure, but clearly they are both talking about the same thing. Although the Montefiore paper is older than the Jeremias book, the Jeremias book is the third English edition, based on the text of the eighth German edition of Die Gliechnisse Jesu, the first edition of which was published in 1947. Thus, Montefiore could have read an earlier version of Jeremias’s book.

Montefiore does not attribute his statement to anyone, but citations can be omitted by accident and in the next section he refers twice to ‘Jeremias, op cit’. At this point I groaned, because this meant trawling back through the footnotes on many pages to find out which of Jeremias’ publications had been cited previously. Montefiore liked Jeremias’ work and cited it a dozen or so times in the paper, but I eventually found that he was referring to the 1957 edition of The Unknown Sayings of Jesus, a translation of the 1951 second edition of Unbekannte Jesusworte. I liberated a copy from my favourite theological library and started reading – or at least skimming – not finding anything. It was quite weird, however, to read an analysis of POxy 1, 654 and 655 written before it was recognised that they were fragments of Thomas (although in an addendum for the English translation he notes that Puech had published a paper in Revue de l’Histoire des Religions in 1955 that indicated that POxy 654 was identical with the opening section of Gospel of Thomas).

It then occurred to me that maybe my assumption that Jeremias had made the original observation and that Montefiore had failed to attribute it correctly might not be right. Maybe Jeremias got the idea from Montefiore. I am not totally sure that this is what happened because of the wording of the footnote on p 101 doesn’t make it clear exactly what Jeremias is referring to, but he certainly cites pp 246 f of Montefiore’s paper at the end of the section where he talks about this feature of the Greek. It would therefore seem that the reason that this is normally attributed to Jeremias is that most people I’ve been reading have been focussing on the Synoptics, so have probably not read Montefiore – and it does seem that Jeremias explains the phenomenon more fully.

The final test would be to get a copy of Jeremias that had been published before 1961 to see if he mentions this feature in it. I’ve just put in a request for the 1954 edition of the English version but I won’t get it until towards the end of the week, since Monday is a public holiday for Easter and it has to come from another campus.

Who would have thought that working out which scholar was basing his work on the other’s would be so tricky in the age of print and enthusiasm for correct referencing?

Tools for studying Coptic

A pause in my thoughts about memory to return to something more closely relevant to my PhD…Coptic resources

AULA Coptica Barcinonensis has just put up links to a range of tools for studying Coptic. The site is in Spanish, but the links are reasonably self-explanatory, I think. There are links to dictionaries, grammars and crestomathies and while some of the information is just about books that are in print, in other cases they provide links to the text of the books online. Most are directly to .pdf versions of the text.

In the Sahidic dictionary section, there are links to Richard Smith’s very useful Coptic-English Lexicon and Pierre Cherix’s Lexique copte (dialecte sahidique) with which I am not familiar because I don’t work directly between Coptic and French. What is missing is the on-line version of Crum’s Coptic Dictionary which can also be accessed as software that creates a searchable version on your own computer via the Marcion page.

In the English teaching/learning grammar category, there are links not only to Plumley’s 1948 Introductory Coptic Grammar (Sahidic Dialect) which has been available for a long time, but also to Lambdin’s Introduction to Sahidic Coptic and Layton’s Coptic in 20 Lessons.  In German, there is a very old grammar but also Einführung in die koptische Sprache. Sahidischer Dialekt by Uwe-Karsten Plisch.

Definitely worth a visit!

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.

More on Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses

I’ve just spent several hours reading two papers whose authors were kind enough not only to draw my attention to them but also to remind me that I had meant to read them but not managed to do so. One is a philosophy paper published in the Journal of Political Ecology and written by one of my office-mates. Tanzim Khan has written a fascinating account one of the outworkings of the tension between forest conservation and energy procurement in Bangladesh, which, of course, has nothing at all to do with the topic of this post, but I enjoyed reading it.

The second is by John N Collins – “Re-thinking ‘Eyewitnesses’ in the Light of ‘Servants of the Word’ (Luke 1:2)” (Expository Times 2010 121: 447). It is just the kind of thing I enjoy most. The first part sets Bauckham’s work in the context of Catholic scholarship over the past half century or so; the second takes a close look at translation issues and how they affect our understanding of theological concepts and as an added bonus John writes really well. Lest this sound condescending, I need to say that I’ve spent the last two days at work struggling with an abominably written report so John’s smooth prose was a delight. (Tanzim, writing in his second language produced a significantly more readable result than this report.)

In the first section of the paper, John traces the approach of the Catholic church to biblical scholarship from pre-Vatican II rejection of Bultmann through the 1993 Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church which states the importance of the place of the Historical Critical Method to the point where Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, expresses reservations about the historical method in his 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth. Collins suggest that Richard Bauckham “has arrived at the same conundrum as Benedict but after travelling in the opposite direction” (449). I think it is helpful to be reminded that there are times when Catholic biblical scholarship comes at issues from a somewhat different direction- something I was conscious of during my theological training at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Having established the differences and similarities between Bauckham and Benedict, Collins goes on to look at how the term ‘eyewitnesses’ (autoptai) is used at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. He argues that Luke’s autoptai are not the oral tradents that Bauckham suggests, but those who are working with a literary tradition; and that their role as “guarantors of the tradition” began siginficantly later than Bauckham’s argument would require. I can’t reproduce his reasoning here, but I would recommend the paper.

As I read through Collins’ paper, I was reminded again of why Bauckham’s thesis is so attractive to Christian biblical scholars. Those of us who grew up in a church community just assumed that the gospels were eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry and our first encounter with twentieth-century biblical scholarship required a significant mental gear-change. At some level, I suspect we all want to be convinced that the gospels are historically accurate, because faith would be so much easier if we could prove this. Unfortunately, I don’t think this can be done without the aid of a time machine, but Bauckham’s work has certainly prompted a significant number of people to think in new ways about the gospels, which can’t be a bad thing. 🙂

Marcion (on-line Crum) update

Coming out from a deep lurk caused by my taking on a new short term research contract at the same time as I have had marking commitments for the Earliest Christianity subject I taught into this semester…

Milan Konvicka recently emailed me to let me know that he has updated the Marcion database which includes an on-line searchable version of Crum’s Coptic Dictionary – see these previous posts for details.

Milan says:

the main improvements are in:

  • text highlighting
  • upgraded searching in all databases
  • more coptic words (Crum still not finished yet, prepositions and adverbs following many verbs still missing – I think in 1-2 months crum will be finished completely if hectolitres of cofee do not kill me) ,
  • and many others graphical details  (virtual keyboard for example).

To download the application, go to:

To read the documentation, go to:

I finished marking what I think should be the last paper this morning, although there will still be some work related to the plagiarism I detected in one of the others that I marked. I am hoping to have some time and mental space to get back to both Perrin on Thomas and my doctoral texts in the next little while.

More on the Marcion Coptic resource

Milan Konvicka has posted information in the comments of my last post that I think merits putting in a post of its own.

He has produced two instructional videos to help people to use the Marcion program. You can find them at:


The first one demonstrates how to import and index the libraries that aren’t installed by default when you install the program. I now have the Sahidic New Testament, Codex Tchacos and the Nag Hammadi library installed and indexed. What is not immediately obvious from the video is that in order to get the drop-down menu that allows you to index the libraries, you need to right click on the name of the library you want to index.

The second one shows how to update the Coptic database, which he is still developing. You need to download and us  the file crumX-Y.tar.bz2 from the website (where X-Y gives you the date that the file was put up – you obviously select the newest file).

You can look also at Mani, a subproject of Marcion, for users who are interested only for coptic dictionary.


Two Notes

  1. You should not attempt to do anything else while the files are installing and indexing. If you do, the process will hang, but the program will think that it is finished so you will have an incompletely indexed library.
  2. If you do hang the process, sometimes it is possible to delete the library and start again. Other times it isn’t and you have to reinstall the program and start your installation and indexing again.

The Nag Hammadi Library in particular takes several minutes to index (it is a big library, after all). I would suggest starting it and then going off to make yourself a nice warm drink so you are not tempted to just read an email or follow a link, or even update your blog. 🙂