Interview with Simon Gathercole on the Gospel of Thomas (Part I)

GathercoleIt has been awhile since I conducted an interview with anyone working seriously on the Gospel of Thomas. Today I am glad to post the first part of my conversation with Simon Gathercole, Senior Lecturer in New Testament in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University. Dr. Gathercole has published numerous books on topics as wide-ranging as the christologies of the Synoptic Gospels, the soteriology of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Book of Tobit, and the Gospel of Judas. In recent years he has turned his attention to the Gospel of Thomas with essays on Thomas’‘s relationship to Paul and Luke, respectively. Dr. Gathercole’s forthcoming monograph, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences, is  set to be released next month. I wanted to catch him in advance of the book’s publication and provide him an opportunity to discuss his views. Thanks, Simon for agreeing to participate.

(CWS) 1. I have asked this question of every scholar I have interviewed on this blog: What initially sparked your interest in studying the Gospel of Thomas?

(SJG) Since first studying the New Testament I have always been interested in different views about Jesus, whether those purport to come from the NT or elsewhere. I suppose that both in the popular realm and in some scholarly circles there has been a growing interest in seeing the apocryphal gospels as equally legitimate interpretations of Jesus by comparison with the canonical gospels. I’m interested in evaluating the differing portraits of Jesus that one finds in all the gospels, both canonical and non-canonical.

 (CWS) 2. Several years ago you wrote an essay exploring Thomas’s relationship to the writings of Paul (“‘The Influence of Paul on the Gospel of Thomas [53.3 and 17]’, in J. Frey, E. E. Popkes, and J. Schröter, eds., Das Thomasevangelium: Entstehung – Rezeption – Theologie [BZNW 157; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008]). Very little has been written on this topic to date. To your mind, what, if any, is the relationship between Thomas and Paul?

(SJG) I don’t think there’s any direct literary relationship – at least it can’t be demonstrated that Thomas  had read Paul. (It’s impossible of course to prove that the author hadn’t.) But there are some telling similarities, in particular in sayings 3, 17 and 53 – the latter in particular with some very close parallels to Rom. 2.25-3.2. It may be, and here one is speculating, that Thomas emerged from a kind of “ultra-Pauline” circle, such as produced the Epistle of Barnabas, but it’s very difficult to know.

(CWS) 3. The relationship between the Synoptic Gospels and Thomas is a notoriously thorny issue for those working in Gospel studies. In a recent article on the relationship between Thomas and the Gospel of Luke, you write that “Thomas constitutes an interesting chapter in the reception history of Luke” [“Luke in the Gospel of Thomas,” NTS 57 [2011]: 114-44). Can you briefly summarize your position and explain why you think Thomas is (possibly indirectly) dependent on Luke rather than vice versa?

(SJG) I think that there are clear examples of instances where Luke has redacted Mark, and that some of those Lukan redactions of Mark appear in the Gospel of Thomas. I argued this in my NTS article (2011) [see bibliographic info listed above]. One of the things which strikes me most is that in three cases, Luke introduces an element into Mark, and then Thomas expands upon that Lukan element. So for example, in the image of the “light under the bushel”, Luke adds that the light is “for all who go in”, and Thomas expands it further to “all who go in and come out” (GTh 33); Luke adds a single “perhaps” into the parable of the wicked tenants, then Thomas includes this and adds another again (GTh 65); Luke adds a reference to prayer into the controversy about fasting, and Thomas includes this addition, and adds an extra reference to prayer (GTh 104). Again, I don’t think this is a matter necessarily of Thomas having read Luke (though this is impossible to rule out), but it reflects Thomas or his sources having known the stories in their Lukan forms, and elaborating on them further. So there is a gradual expansion, in these sayings at least, from Mark to Luke to Thomas, which I don’t think can be read in any other order (unless one denies Markan priority). The arguments for Thomas having influenced Luke in other sayings (which I also discuss in my article) seem to me to be based on very poor evidence.

Next time Simon will discuss his forthcoming book and his views on the recent theories of Perrin and DeConick. Stay tuned for Part II. . . .