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

mEaabOPGUm5oE8EBfpCMoWwHere is the second part of my interview with Professor Patterson. He discusses his views on dating Thomas and on Thomas‘s implications for the discussion of the historical Jesus.

(CWS) 4. When I interviewed Nick Perrin for this blog earlier in the fall he made the following comment in one of his answers:  “Last November at an open SBL meeting, Stephen Patterson kept talking about Tatian and Philo (who had a formidable reception coming into the third century), and I asked him publicly what prevented him from allowing a late second century date. He said – in front of a few hundred witnesses, mind you — it was plausible. I thought it was a stunning and commendable admission.”

Can you talk about the shift in your thinking indicated in Nick’s answer. Is this “no big deal” or have you come to some (possibly radical?) new conclusions in your recent research on Thomas and Christian origins?

(SJP) I recall the exchange only vaguely, but my recollection was that he had asked me about a point I had made in my paper, that Thomas shares a Philo-like Hellenistic Jewish theology with other second century figures known from the second century: Tatian, Bardaisan, and later the Acts of Thomas and Book of Thomas.  Whatever I said to him that made him think I would endorse a date for Thomas in the second half of the second century, I must have misspoken, because this is not my view.  I believe it is fallacious to assume that because Thomas shares theological ideas with Tatian, that it comes from the same period as Tatian.  Hellenistic Jews were thinking such thoughts all over the Mediterranean basin for a century before either Tatian or Thomas came on the scene.  These ideas were around for a long time.  I do think that Christianity in Edessa was marked by this kind of theology.  Now, whether Thomas stands at or near the beginning of that tradition, or somewhere in the middle, like Tatian, is another matter.  In my view the dating of Thomas is no easy matter.  Since R. McL. Wilson first pointed it out years ago, the collection was surely a snowballing piece of literature, with early and late additions (and subtractions) accumulating over decades, maybe centuries.  Perhaps he asked me if there could be late material in Thomas.  The answer is certainly yes, even later than the second century.  But was the whole thing composed that late?  Doubtful.  POxy 1 gives us an absolute terminus of 200; Grenfell and Hunt guessed 140 as a likely terminus ante quem (latest possible date) for the Greek material, but thought that the first century was more likely.  To my thinking, the relative lack of contact with the synoptics and John, which only become more and more prominent in the second century, indicates an earlier rather than later date.  But so far as I can see, there is no definitive way to answer this question.

(CWS) 5. Another research interest that I have and one that I hope to promote on this blog is the historical Jesus. What implications for historical Jesus research does the Gospel of Thomas have? Is there anything in Thomas that is old enough to be potentially illuminating about the life of the historical Jesus? If so, what?

 (SJP) There have always been scholars who ask this question about new sayings… some of the best treatments, and most optimistic, were older: Jeremias’ Unbekannte Jesuswörte, J. Bauer’s essay “Echte Jesuswörte,” etc.  But they were not game-changers.

  • First, there are not many new sayings to be added to the corpus – the Jesus Seminar added only two, maybe three, from Thomas (the Assassin, the Jar, and Become passers-by—all three squeaked by on close votes).
  • Second, Jeremias et co. were only looking for sayings that looked like sayings in they thought were authentic in the synoptic tradition.
  • Crossan’s work, on the other hand, changed all that.  For Crossan saw that what Thomas changed was not the corpus, but our understanding of the tradition history of the corpus.  Thomas’s presentation of the parables and aphorisms of Jesus in a non-apocalyptic valence was what lead him to propose a more sapiential understanding of Jesus and the kingdom.  I would quibble with him on how he dates Thomas and other small matters, but the big picture is exactly right, I think.

Now, of course, scholars are arguing that Thomas has culled all the apocalyptic out of the tradition (something I find very unlikely), and in this way keeping the synoptic view in tact.  But one can no longer assume that the synoptic evangelists got it right.  In Thomas you find the same material: parables, aphorisms, prophetic sayings—but in a sapiential valence.  So, here is a new thing to consider.  I do not think this is settled yet; I don’t think anyone has quite solved it yet.

I recently published an essay on Thomas and the historical Jesus that is mostly an assessment of the discussion: “The Gospel of Thomas and Historical Jesus Research,” pp. 663-84 in L. Painchaud et P.-H. Poirier, eds., Coptica, Gnostica, et Manichaica.  Mélanges offerts à Wolf-Peter Funk à l’occasion de son 60e anniversaire; (BCNH Section; “Études,” 7;  Québec: Laval/Louvain-Paris: Éditions Peeters, 2006).  Also, the next issue of Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus will carry an essay in which I make a different kind of proposal: perhaps Jesus never really made up his mind about the when and where of the kingdom.

Stay tuned for part three of my discussion with Professor Patterson.


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