Today my reflections on this topic are guided by the following paragraph from DeConick’s Recovering. She writes
We must suspend the processes of composition familiar to our own literate minds and try to enter into a process that makes sense within the ancient world where orality was not only the dominant form of transmission and preservation, but also the dominant form of consciousness. . . .There was no orality behind Thomas. Thomas was orally-derived. That is, it emerged as an oral ‘text’ (p, 55) (emphasis in original).
To my mind, this recognition needs to be one of the essential starting points for the discussion of dating Thomas. Our thinking is so shaped and really, dominated by the fact that we are a literate, text-based society. Many of the models we apply to the examination of early Christian texts are tainted by our inability to recognize the pervasiveness of oral transmission in the first few Christian centuries. This is why we have “cut and paste” models that, given full consideration, could never be considered tenable explanations of how these ancient documents developed. At this point someone may object, “but we DO have written texts, how can we account for that?” Anticipating this objection, DeConick offers this qualifier:
Let me be clear. I am not saying that ancient people did not rely on written sources in their composition process. Certainly they did. But the ancients did so as much from their memory of having heard or read those sources previously as from having written copies in hand. Also we must remember that they felt a certain skepticism about the accuracy of texts and preferred to rely on oral sources whenever possible (p. 57).
So, step 1 in this whole pursuit must be recognizing, and maybe even erring on the side of, orality. In the next post I want to consider how this gets us to DeConick’s “Kernel.” Some of her arguments are compelling. Again, I’m not convinced that it goes all the way back to 30 CE, but we’ll consider that as the discussion progresses.