Interview with Stephen J. Patterson on the Gospel of Thomas (Part I)

pattersonI am pleased to continue my series of interviews with leading Gospel of Thomas scholars by including this Q & A session with Stephen J. Patterson, Professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO. Patterson has published widely on the Gospel of Thomas, served as a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and has generally been sought after for his exptertise in this area. I am thrilled that he has agreed to be interviewed here. I hope you enjoy this first installment of the interview.

(CWS) 1. I have asked this question of each Thomas scholar I interview. Before I interact with your work on the Gospel of Thomas I would like to begin by asking what got you interested in studying the Gospel of Thomas in the first place?

 (SJP) I was a student at Harvard in Helmut Koester’s course on early Christianity and read Trajectories Through Early Christianity.  It did not take long to see what was obvious: Christian origins would have to be revised if he and Jim Robinson were right about Thomas.  From there I went to Claremont to work with Robinson with the expectation that this would be my research question.

(CWS) 2. Your book, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (Sonoma: Polebridge, 1992) is on the short list of required reading I recommend for anyone beginning their study of the Gospel of Thomas. In that book you argue for Thomas’s independence from the Synoptics (at least initially) by examining “Synoptic Twins,” “Synoptic Siblings,” and “Synoptic Cousins.” For those who may not have read your book, could you briefly explain the substance and significance of this argument?

(SJP) In his work Synoptische Überlieferung bei den apostolischen Vätern, Koester laid out a simple method for determining whether text B is literarily dependent on text A: identify the distinctive (redactional) features of text A, and if they turn up in text B, the latter used the former.  If not, they probably made use of independent oral or literary sources.  John Sieber had run this test with Thomas in his Claremont dissertation, and found that Thomas very seldom repeats the redactional fingerprints of one or another of the synoptic evangelists.  I wanted to repeat that work, expand it where necessary, and set it within the context of a broader argument that would include the evidence of sayings that were similar to, but not close enough to their synoptic parallels to be considered dependent, and sayings that were “synoptic-like” (straightforward aphorisms and parables, legal sayings, prophetic sayings, etc.), but without parallel.  It seemed to me that these synoptic “siblings” and “cousins” indicated that Thomas had other sources for synoptic  and synoptic-like material.  So, the only question was whether the evidence for dependence in the case of the “twins” was compelling enough to lead one to think that in these cases Thomas had used the synoptics. I found, as Sieber had before me, that there was slight evidence in a handful of cases.  This was not really disputed.  Others had seen the same things, but always concluded that if one could see one or two places where Thomas repeated something redactional from the synoptics, it proved that the whole thing had been derived from the synoptics.  This is what did not make sense to me.  If you know Thomas had independent sources, and in only a few cases is there evidence for dependence, it seemed most reasonable to me to assume that Thomas was basically independent, and to account for those exceptions in some other way—like minor agreements in the synoptic problem, for example.  By the way, the gimmick of using twins, siblings, and cousins for these three groups came from Gerd Theissen, with whom I was studying in 1986/87, when I began to write the thesis.

I recently revisited this question in an essay to appear shortly: “The Gospel of (Judas) Thomas and the Synoptic Problem,” in J. Kloppenborg, et al., eds., The Oxford Conference in the Synoptic Problem (Peeters).

(CWS) 3. There has been a minor resurgence of interest in the idea that Thomas is somehow related to or reliant upon the Syriac tradition (most notably the Diatessaron). (For readers of my blog who may not be aware, a variation of this idea originated with Gilles Quispel and was followed by A.F.J. Klijn. Today it is most associated with Nicholas Perrin and those who accept his position.) This discussion has obvious implications for dating the Gospel of Thomas. To your mind, where does this theory fail?

 (SJP) Quispel’s position, as I understand it, is different from Perrin’s.  He believed that Thomas and Tatian shared a number of readings, but it was because they shared a common primitive Syrian source or text type, not that Thomas used the Diatessaron.  On the other hand, Han Drijvers argued as Perrin does about 20 years ago that Thomas is dependent on Tatian, and to be dated around 200 C.E.  The theory ran aground on two issues: one was the date of POxy 1, one of the Greek fragments of Thomas.  Grenfell and Hunt dated it to around 200, which would make it a virtual autograph of the original if Drijvers and Perrin were correct.  This seems doubtful.  The second was that Drijvers could not show—and neither does Perrin show—why the common features shared by Thomas and the Diatessaron must be accounted for in this way.  Why could Tatian not have made use of Thomas, or both have used a common source or text type?  Common features suggest only a relationship; what that relationship was, is difficult now to say, given the limits of the evidence we have.   However, if POxy 1 is to be dated this early, in Egypt (not Syria), dependence on the Diatessaron is not very likely.

As for the special features of Perrin’s thesis, there is much more to be said.  I believe reviewers have been generally critical on one central point.  The evidence for a Syriac original is based on Perrin’s own retro-translation of the Coptic Thomas into Syriac.  He argues that when you render the text into Syriac, you find it contains hundreds of previously un-detected catchwords.  This cannot be an accident, he says, but must have been part of the original design of the gospel.  But he doesn’t actually make a Syriac translation, but using a thesaurus, creates a long list of Coptic to Syriac word equivalents moving from saying to saying.  This means he has a lot of room to choose Syriac words that would maximize the claims of his thesis.  This is a problem.  Generally, scholars do not create the evidence upon which their theories are built.  I would add to this that the theoretical text Perrin imagines, with hundreds of catchwords weaving very complex webs of connection between multiple sayings… well, this would be unprecedented among ancient texts.  Perrin realizes this, but proposes the Odes of Solomon as an analogy.  But the Odes are not at all like this, and are themselves considered to be quite unique.  Perhaps if Perrin were to actually produce the Syriac translation he has in mind, we could better assess its plausibility.  Finally, Perrin does not account for the apparent fact that the immediate Vorlage for our Coptic Thomas are at least two prior Coptic versions (a Subachmimic version, and a crypto-Subachmimic version, the immediate model for our copy), and before them, a Greek version, from which myriad loan-words and grammatical elements still remain.  So, if there were a Syriac original (certainly possible), one could only approach it by passing back through two prior hypothetical Coptic versions and a Greek one.  When you consider our sketchy knowledge of the actual text of the Diatessaron itself (e.g., Greek or Syriac original?)… well, the hypotheticals just start to stack up way beyond what is tolerable in scholarship. 

Thanks to Professor Patterson for his insightful answers. In the next installment I ask questions about his hopes for future prospects in Thomasine studies. Stay tuned.