More Interviews on the Gospel of Thomas

One of things I have tried to do since starting this blog is provide something of a clearinghouse of scholarly views on the Gospel of Thomas. While I have other scholarly interests (the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, narrative criticism, etc.), many of these are well-covered across the web and throughout the blogosphere. When I started this blog, I wanted to turn my attention to an area that did not have as much web coverage as some others in biblical and early Christian studies. Since I was in the process of researching and writing on the Gospel of Thomas, I thought it might be helpful to those looking for good information to have a place to go. Based upon my blog traffic, I was right that web surfers would return to a site that had a storehouse of information on the Gospel of Thomas. The interviews have proven to be the most visited posts on this blog.

Thus far I have conducted interviews with a good number of the most important figures working in contemporary Thomas research: Stephen J. Patterson, Nicholas Perrin, Stevan Davies, Risto Uro, Marvin Meyer, Ismo Dunderberg, to name a few. Over the next few months, both Simon Gathercole and Mark Goodacre have books coming out on the Gospel of Thomas. In the coming weeks will be interviewing each of them about their books and their views on important questions in Thomas research. Stay tuned. . . .


Reviews of my book

Since the last time I sat down to think seriously about my blog I have read three critical reviews of my book, John and Thomas: Gospels in Conflict?, and I wanted to interact briefly with those reviews here on the blog.

The first review appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and was reviewed by Timothy Wiarda of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. Wiarda was generally sympathetic to my thesis, commenting that my exegesis is judicious and that my attempt to refute “one of the main pillars of the community-conflict hypothesis must be judged a success” (p. 652). He seems to get what I’m trying to do, though there are times when his presuppositions lead him to question a particular exegetical assertion I have made. This happens to us all, doesn’t it? I tell my students that often, what we bring to a text is more determinative in the interpretive process than what the text presents to us. Still, Wiarda’s review is positive and it was good to see that the first reviewer received the book without deciding to use it as a doorstop!

The second review appeared in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly and was reviewed by Stevan Davies of Misericordia University. I have interacted some with Steve on this blog and have always appreciated his work. In fact, in my forthcoming book on Thomas, the first extended quotation belongs to him. I read his review with some excitement and was surprised by the largely dismissive tone Steve takes throughout the review. Not only has he (apparently) failed to grasp the narrative method I’m seeking to employ (which is spelled out at great length in Chapter Two), his review makes it sound as if he did not even read that chapter. As a specialist in Thomasine studies, he understandably agreed to review the book with the hopes that it would shed more light on the Gospel of Thomas than it actually does. Though you should never judge a book by its cover, the subtitle of the book, Johannine Characterization and the Thomas Question, does shed some light on the dominant emphasis of the book. Inexplicably, Steve also left the subtitle of the book out of the review’s citation(?). To me, that would have been helpful for any reader of the review to understand a little more about my purpose in the book. Again, I’m not sure Steve really understood what I was trying to do.  He closes the review by commenting that while “this book may be a contribution to Johannine studies, it is not very much of a contribution to Thomasine studies” (p. 175). This is a fair criticism, but it’s a criticism that speaks more to his expectations of the book prior to reading it than it does to my stated purpose for the book. My main goal was to examine Johannine characters with a view to shedding light on the Thomas issue. That is explicitly stated in the book’s introductory chapter!

The third review was written by Susan Hylen of Vanderbilt University for the journal Interpretation. The review has not yet been published but Susan was kind enough to send me a copy in advance. Like Wiarda, Hylen is sympathetic to my thesis and complementary of my exegesis, though she comments that she would like to see more of a specific focus on issues of Johannine characterization and less emphasis on narrative exegesis. She writes: “Skinner’s work is a useful reminder that scholars who engage in constructing a history of the early church often neglect complex literary questions,” but then expresses some concern that I have not provided an alternative theory for the relationship between John and Thomas

These reviews point out limitations that are probably to be expected of most published dissertations. They also raise prospects for future explorations. I am very thankful for all three reviews. Each reviewer spent time interacting with my thesis and providing critical reflections. It is certainly better to be critiqued than to be ignored altogether. Overall this was a positive first experience with peer review. I found it interesting that two journals sent my book to individuals with interests in questions of Johannine exegesis and characterization, while the third sent it to a scholar who specializes in Gospel of Thomas research. It’s even more interesting that the Johannine specialists found it helpful while the Thomasine specialist found it lacking.

I await further review and more opportunities for reflection. . . .

Interview with Risto Uro on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

9780567086075Here’s part two of my interview with Professor Uro:

(CWS) 4. To your mind, what is the relationship, if any, between the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John?

(RU) I agree with Ismo Dunderberg that the attempts to reconstruct a conflict between John’s and Thomas’ communities are on a shaky ground. I also find helpful his idea that both the figure of the beloved disciple in John and the apostle Thomas in the Gospel of Thomas should be seen in the context of other figures of authentication that abound in early Christian literature. There are interesting points of contact, though, and both gospels seem to roughly derive from same stage of the Christian movement as 1Timothy, Hebrews, and some of the Apostolic Fathers.

(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? In your opinion is there anything in Thomas that is old enough to be potentially illuminating about the life of the historical Jesus? If so, what?

(RU) I think the most important contribution of Thomasine studies to historical Jesus research is methodological. As I explained above, one of my first interests was to use Thomas’ materials to understand the tradition process in light of orality and literacy studies. Now the field is often called orality-scribality-memory studies. The results of such studies may not be as direct or dramatic as tracing some “authentic” traditions in Thomas, but I have been influenced by E.P. Sanders too much to take the sayings tradition as a point of departure in the study of the historical Jesus.

(CWS) 6. What scholars pursuing research on the Gospel of Thomas (and/or Christian Origins) have you found most helpful for your own work on the Gospel of Thomas?

(RU) As to the scholars, I cannot overstate the influence of the “original” Thomas project team in Helsinki (Dunderberg, Marjanen and Uro). We worked together intensively musing over Thomas and other Nag Hammadi writings on countless occasions for a period of several years. Moreover, my post-doctoral studies in Claremont brought me under the influence of the so-called Koester-Robinson school. I haven’t been a very obedient member of the school, but I always think with appreciation of what these great scholars have done to promote the study of Nag Hammadi and extra-canonical writings.

In terms of books, I have already mentioned Davies’ The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom and Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel. Steve Patterson’s The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus was on my desk constantly while working on Thomas.

Interview with Risto Uro on the Gospel of Thomas (Part I)

iso-uroAfter a short hiatus I am back and ready to post the first part of my interview with Finnish Thomas scholar, Risto Uro. Professor Uro is Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki. He has been a prominent voice in the so-called “Finnish school” of Thomas studies. I would like to extend my thanks to Professor Uro for his willingness to be interviewed in this forum.

(CWS) 1. I have asked this question of each Thomas scholar I have interviewed thus far. 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?

(RU) I wrote my dissertation on Q and after I had completed my doctoral studies I was invited to Claremont (The Institute for Antiquity and Christianity) by James Robinson, who was gathering a large international research team to produce a Critical Edition of the Q Gospel. During my stay in California, I also took an elementary course in Coptic taught by Dick Smith. In the atmosphere of Claremont it was almost impossible not to get interested and somehow involved in Thomasine studies.  Besides, my curiosity had already been awakened by Stevan Davies’s thought-provoking book I had read earlier (I have told that part of the story in the prologue of my 2003 book on Thomas). In Claremont (where I was two times, in 1989 and in 1992) I made the acquaintance of many scholars (e.g., Jon Asgeirsson, Marv Meyer, and Greg Riley) who were enthusiastic about Thomas and enthusiasm is contagious. After my return to Finland, I met Antti Marjanen, who had studied in Switzerland and learned Coptic there. We translated the Gospel of Thomas into Finnish, applied funding for a larger research project on Thomas (a young promising scholar Ismo Dunderberg had joined us), and—hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant—the rest is history.

(CWS) 2. In your work you have argued that Thomas shows evidence of “secondary orality” (specifically, Thomas shows dependence upon Matthew and Q through oral tradition). Could you briefly explain how you arrived at this conclusion?

(RU) Originally I made this suggestion in a paper that was published in 1993 (Foundations & Facets Forum 9:3-4), one of my earliest works on Thomas. I got interested in orality and literacy studies, which by that time seemed to provide a fresh perspective to the timeworn issue of literary dependence.   Werner Kelber had published a pioneering study on orality and the gospel tradition in 1983.  Kelber’s study was insightful and seminal, but he emphasized the Great Divide view, the idea that there is a deep-going hermeneutic difference between the oral and written modes of transmission.  I wanted to modify Kelber’s ideas toward a model that would allow more interplay and interaction between orality and literacy in the tradition process, a view that actually became a dominant in later scholarship. Also Kelber has admitted that his initial thesis was too much on the side of Great Divide theory.  I picked up the term “secondary orality” from Klyne Snodgrass’ 1989 article, which argued that the author of Thomas drew on free oral traditions and interpretations of the Synoptic Gospels as used in the Gnostic circles. But I never meant that “secondary orality” be taken as a magic bullet that explains the relationship between Thomas and the Synopticts in the whole. The issue is much more complicated than that. For me “secondary orality” was one concrete example of the interplay between orality and textuality, which could possibly be identified in some sayings of Thomas. Recent studies on (social and cognitive) memory and the “sociology of reading” in antiquity have shown that orality and literacy were intertwined with each other in manifold ways. Some impressive steps of progress have been taken with regard to these questions recently. I hope to be able to return to the issue from the perspective of my ritual project in near future.

(CWS) 3. In one essay from your edited volume, Thomas at the Crossroads, you ask the question, “Is Thomas an Encratite Gospel?” Could you share what conclusions you reach on this question and whether or not you regard Thomas as Gnostic?

My argument that Thomas is not really “encratite” was a reaction against the view dominant in the earlier scholarship according to which Thomas represents an extreme form of sexual asceticism. If we consider the gospel in the context of the Christian world at the turn of the second century, there is nothing extreme in Thomas’ relationship to marriage and sexuality.  Ascetic ideals were common in early Christianity and can be found already in Paul and in later first-century writings, such as the Gospel of Luke and Revelation. On the scale of ascetic emphasis, Thomas can be situated somewhere between Luke and the Apocryphal Acts, Thomas the Contender etc.

As to the question of whether Thomas is Gnostic or not, in my 2003 book I argued that Thomas represents a similar cosmological view as the Dialogue of Savior. They both share a view of the divine origin of humanity and fail to give any signs of demiurgical traditions.  If you define Gnosticism so that it must embrace both cosmological views (divine origin of humanity and the Demiurge), Thomas obviously isn’t Gnostic. But this is a matter of how you define Gnostic and Gnosticism. In Finland and perhaps elsewhere in Europe, the terms are not as ideologically-laden as they are in North America, and consequently the stakes in deciding the issue are not as high.

Stay tuned for part two. . . .

Forthcoming Interviews

I have had little time to devote to blogging lately but I will be returning to a regimen of regular posting very soon. I just wanted to mention that in the next few weeks I will be continuing my series of interviews with prominent researchers on the Gospel of Thomas. If you’ve been following along you know that I’ve already posted interviews with Nick Perrin (here and here), Stevan Davies (here, here, and here), Stephen Patterson (here, here, and here), and Ismo Dunderberg (here and here). In the upcoming weeks I will be posting interviews that I have conducted with Risto Uro (University of Helsinki) and Marvin Meyer (Chapman University). Until then I am still in the process of moving into an office and into a new house so my posting will likely be sporadic.

Interview with Stevan Davies on the Gospel of Thomas (Part III)

Here is the third and final installment of my interview with Professor Davies.

(CWS) 5.  Another research interest that I have and one that I hope to promote on this blog is the historical Jesus. To your mind, what implications for historical Jesus research does the Gospel of Thomas have? You argue that there is material in Thomas old enough to be illuminating about the life of the historical Jesus. How do these two research interests coalesce in your own scholarship?

 (SLD) Historical Jesus research is difficult to the point of present impossibility. You sure wouldn’t think so… we have quite a few ancient sources that you’d figure would be highly valuable and two millennia of people working with them to find out about the historical Jesus. And now, at the end of the process, we don’t seem to have a clue and Jesus usually looks just as much like a mirror now as he did in the period of the Acts of John where in the Round Dance section he says, “A mirror am I to those who know me.” That’s not quite true for my Jesus the Healer book on the historical Jesus where I argue that Jesus should be considered a spirit-possessed healer (just following Mark) but I’m not one myself. Not yet anyhow.

Even if Jesus isn’t just a fiction from the start (before you laugh your hollow laugh and point the finger of scorn at that notion, recall that the Johannine Jesus is complete fiction and nearly every scholar knows that, although most will phrase it differently, e.g. “the sayings and miracles of John’s gospel are the products not of historical knowledge but of community reflection upon the truths of the faith” and so forth). We have Mark, but Mark is invented largely to attack the established leaders of the Christian movement, the disciples and family. Mark’s gospel is full of miracle stories none of which ever happened and is focused on the idea of a resurrection that also didn’t happen. Connecting the miracle stories are sayings and dialogues the narrative context of which Mark invents. So you sure don’t have much left of true historical fact.

Couple the fact that most of Mark and all of John is fiction with the fact that you, gentle reader, know a good bit more about Jesus than Matthew or Luke ever did and you should despair. How do you know more than Matthew or Luke? Why, you have read both of their books carefully and their Q and Thomas’ gospel and John’s gospel;  they did not have any such collection. How do we know? Because when Matthew and Luke supplement Mark, they do so via Mark, which we have, and a written list that we have reconstructed, Q, and darn little else that has any claim to being something they didn’t just make up. Their infancy accounts? Their resurrection accounts? History? I don’t think so. Did Matthew or Luke have a store of historically significant information about Jesus that they chose not to include in their gospels, relying instead on Q and Mark and imagination? Maybe, but prima facie, since they didn’t include that material, it is more likely that they just didn’t know of it. As well, we might assume that when they did know something of significance, such as is to be found in Special Luke material, they did include it and you have read it. You know more than they did.

Two of the earliest sources (cf. Thomas’ saying 1 and Mark’s chapter 4) insist that Jesus’ teachings were riddles that are incomprehensible without great struggle (Thomas 2), or incomprehensible because Jesus wanted it that way (Mark 4:11-12). Matthew invents Jesus the Pharisee-Messiah to give voice to Matthew’s own convert’s view of what Pharisees ought to be doing. The proponents of the Jesus-was-a-myth theory rejoice in pointing out that the epistles of the canon lack historical information or interest almost entirely. So, at the very outset of the traditions you have fiction and confusion, riddles and parables. And then comes John who just makes up a fantasy about a god-man who never was doing things that never happened and talking about himself in impossible ways. You might as well quest for the historical Harold Potter.

My scholarship is going to go in the direction of trying to figure out why they didn’t know what they were talking about vis-à-vis Jesus. The assumption that they, the first century Christians known to us, knew a great deal more than we do about the historical Jesus is not backed up by the evidence we have. They really didn’t even particularly care about the historical Jesus… but why didn’t they? They did care enough to presume that a single individual in the course of a rather short period of activity gave rise to their religion, and the meaning of their lives, and their hope for immortality, but why they didn’t care enough to try and sort out what that individual actually thought about anything? This may have been common procedure in ancient circles, but it didn’t have to be that way, they could have found out what he had to say and what he meant by it and how he lived and so forth, but they didn’t.

How do you get from the Galilean who, in a style I presume is quite typical of Galileans, thought it wasn’t necessary to have serious respect for the Judean law, to somebody who was said to be the anointed king of Judea in the royal genealogical line; and, beyond that, born of a virgin impregnated by the holy ghost and, before that, he had been the creator of the universe? How does this happen in a few decades? Meanwhile his followers are paying almost no attention to his actual biography nor are they putting his actual teachings into a form that we today can say reflects whatever it was that he thought about anything. This is, I think, a lot odder than we generally think it is and the chaos in historical Jesus studies today proves that some sort of paradigm shift will be required if we are to get anywhere.

Perhaps the paradigm shift will come in through consideration of this question: why did Paul persecute the churches of God in Judea (Gal. 1:13-24)? This is first hand autobiographical eyewitness data; it doesn’t get better than that. Paul writing about his own life ca. 35 AD tells us that there were churches in Judea immediately after Jesus’ death, that they were doing something sufficiently illegal to be persecuted by him, a Pharisee, that those churches posed a threat to whatever authority Paul represented, and that later on Paul joined those churches having been informed, by spirit possession, that what he knew they were teaching (you don’t persecute if you don’t think you know what the subject of your persecution is up to) was right after all. Scholars may think Paul made it all up, but Paul doesn’t think so, he thinks he joined an existing movement and that he then advocated its positions to the gentiles.

I might ask how it was that Jesus taught in such a way as to bring about groups known for breaking the Judean law, or were there already such groups and he joined with them? I would be interested to trace back Pauline antinomianism (I think the best thing to do with the New Perspective on Paul is to understand it as a politically inspired movement of the late twentieth century and patiently wait for it to go away) to Jesus’ antinomianism. So I would seek the historical Jesus, beginning with questions like these and analyze descriptions of Jesus vis-à-vis the Judean law as found in Mark 2 or in various Thomas sayings (e.g. 14, 53). Historical Jesus was perhaps a spirit possessed Galilean prophet encouraging Judeans via YHWH’s Spirit to take a Galilean sort of attitude to Torah. That should be enough upset some Pharisees. Then along came James and then Matthew to try and convert Jesus into a Judean rabbi. But they failed and so we eat the grilled ham and cheese to this very day.

(CWS) 6. What scholars pursuing research on the Gospel of Thomas (and/or Christian Origins) have you found most helpful for your own work on the Gospel of Thomas? Is there anything in current Thomasine research that causes a visceral reaction in you?

(SLD) I think the Finnish scholars are doing solid competent work, Risto Uro for example, but it’s not breakthrough exciting stuff (cf. my review of his book Thomas at the Crossroads in CBQ October, 2004). I agree with you that the line of reasoning that leads to the conclusion that the John gospel is reacting against the Thomas gospel is invalid (but I don’t think you argued strongly enough against it and that you really wished you were writing a study of John [cf. Christopher Skinner’s John and Thomas]). I think much of April DeConick’s work is speculative rather than convincingly argued (cf. my review of her book Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas in CBQ October, 2007). Nicholas Perrin’s notion that Thomas is largely based on the Diatessaron is, I think, no more probable than that Thomas is based on the Necronomicon (cf. my review of his book Thomas: The Other Gospel in CBQ July 2008).

 (CWS) 7. You have written three books and a number of substantive articles on the Gospel of Thomas. Are you planning to pursue any more research on the Gospel of Thomas? If so, what other projects do you currently have planned (or in the works)?

(SLD) I’ve written only two books on the Gospel of Thomas, but one was re-released in an expanded edition and that might count for three. Since writing The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom I have written books on the Historical Jesus, and the Apocryphon “Secret Book” of John. I’m not planning on doing a whole lot more with Thomas, unless I think of something clever, except to revise and extend my remarks about Thomas being a source for Mark.

 Lately I’ve been working a lot on Mongolian Vajrayana iconography and my most recent book (The Infancy Gospels of Jesus, 2009) is about the fictional but fascinating infancy gospels.

(CWS) 8. To your mind, what area(s) of Thomas research is/are in need of further investigation? If you were going to supervise Ph.D. students in this area, what avenues of study would you suggest?

(SLD) I’d suggest a logical analysis of the arguments for and against independence. That’s the crucial question and should be settled, but the whole issue needs some clarity and rigor that it has never had; e.g. what counts as evidence for and against. Instead of new argument we need a philosophy for argumentation of this sort. I would similarly encourage a dissertation on Thomas as a source for ideological conflict within scholarship and to clarify the motives for some scholars’ efforts to make Thomas disappear from the agenda of the study of Jesus, which would be a sociology of religion dissertation. Oh yes, I would like to see a dissertation that would examine the Odes of Solomon and their relationship to the Gospel of Thomas. I think the Odes are probably pre-Christian and that the community from which they came might also be at the root of pre-Christian Thomasine sayings that came to be attributed to Jesus. That would be an interesting project.

Stevan Davies, Professor of Religious Studies, Misericordia University

Again, I want to express my thanks to Professor Davies for his time and his outstanding answers to my questions. Stay tuned for more interviews in the near future!

Interview with Stevan Davies on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

upload-107Here’s part two of my interview with Professor Davies. In this installment he shares, at length, his views on Thomas and the canonical gospels, dating the sayings tradition behind Thomas, issues related to orality, and the existence of anti-Thomas polemics in early Christian literature. Enjoy!

(CWS) 3. In an often-cited article (“The Christology and Protology of the Gospel of Thomas,” JBL 111 [1992]), you begin by writing,  “A consensus is emerging in American scholarship that the Gospel of Thomas is a text independent of the synoptics and that it was compiled in the mid to late first century. It appears to be roughly as valuable a primary source for the teachings of Jesus as Q, and perhaps more so than the Gospels of Mark and John.” Though your use of the term “consensus” is probably an overstatement, you are obviously convinced of Thomas’s independence from the synoptic tradition. Could you explain why you find this view most compelling?

(SLD) It’s hard to answer this set of questions because they are all part of the same package. The date question and the value as source question is tied up with the independence question and the genre question. I’ll address the matter, but I’m not sure I’ll do so in a well organized fashion. You are right about the “consensus” being overstatement.

I am OK with the idea that there was a Common Tradition defined as the paralleled sayings from Thomas and the synoptics, which then is bifurcated through made-up sayings into at least two separate texts: one, an eschatological plus other odd stuff track called Q, and a protological plus other odd stuff track called Thomas. I’m not so happy to think of the Common Tradition as a proto-manuscript of some sort, however.

I assume Thomas and Q are roughly the same date, and that that date is prior to Mark. Mark then came up with the idea that to make sense of any of this sort of stuff you have to have a biographical narrative context to put it in and so he had a fine old time making up that context as he wrote a narrative to prove his ideas right and the disciples and family of Jesus to be fools and failures. So he narrativized into context whatever sayings he felt like narrativizing. (Some came from Thomas and some didn’t.) But prior to this narrativizing of sayings there were lists of sayings, two of which we now have, both of which were written at about the same time, Thomas and Q. Was there a Common Tradition list before that? Maybe. More on this later.

The most common argument for Thomas’ dependence begins with the observation that a portion of a Thomasine saying-version is more like a version of the same saying that appears to have been redacted by Matthew or Luke from Mark than it is like the Markan original, which is a relevant observation. But I’m struck by the amount of effort it takes them to try and argue such a case, and I’m struck by the difficulty they have in recognizing that, while it is a reasonable hypothesis that a seemingly redactional element in e.g. Luke that is in Thomas derives from Thomas’ use of Luke, that it is not the only reasonable hypothesis that can account for such an observation. In fact a whole variety of things might have happened to produce the same result:

  • a) An earlier oral version was like the version in Luke and Thomas, but Mark changed it and then both Luke and Thomas separately reverted to the more original version.
  • b) There have been changes in the manuscript tradition of Thomas or Luke thanks to scribal harmonization in the process of copying or translation that has led the wording of the two to be more similar in our copies than they were in the autograph originals.
  • c) Coincidence or similar lines of thinking led independently to similar changes by two authors.
  • d) And so forth

It is foolish to conclude that “Luke, e.g., was a source for Thomas because Thomas contains what appear to be a few redactional elements” without disproving the various other possible mechanisms that could produce the same result. And one must bear in mind that there are very few places where one can argue for Thomasine adoption of redactional changes. The paucity of instances argues against the thesis, for if Thomas is in fact literarily dependent on written texts of the canonical gospels, as dependence theory concludes (by definition), then the manner by which Thomas proceeds so as to almost but not quite always avoid betraying any precise knowledge of those sources must be accounted for; but it is not.

The argument for dependence assumes a literary process that has somebody flopping back and forth between Mt and Mk and Lk and his new Thomasine manuscript picking out a saying here, revising it, and another from another source, and then one from Mark and then another from who knows where and another from who knows where and another from Mark and then one from Matthew but revised and then a version only vaguely like a Lukan saying and then one from who knows where, and then another from an unknown source, and then a saying copied from Matthew but with alterations, and then …. on and on. This never happened. No way.

Further, while Thomas’ sayings seem congenial to ideas found in the Gospel of John (e.g. Thomas 77) none of John’s sayings are in Thomas. There is no dependence or even evident knowledge between John and Thomas (and, incidentally, I don’t believe that John was written anti-Thomas). So does Thomas know all three synoptics and go through them taking out bits and pieces here and there seemingly at random while throwing in dozens of hitherto unknown sayings of diverse sorts while absolutely self-consciously ignoring John or failing to know of John? When could this have happened in Christianity that the three synoptics are used and John rejected by an author who is by and large more Johannine than Synoptic in his thinking? Much more likely that Thomas came into existence before John did, or at least at a time when complete ignorance of John was a reasonable possibility, which would be pretty much any time before 100… though the fact that there is a Johannine saying in Q gives one pause and makes a hash of the idea that John’s (or Thomas’) date can be related to its relative theological sophistication (cf. Luke 10:22).

Also, as scholars have remarked time and again, Trajectories through Early Christianity, Thomas’ sayings, when they are parallels to synoptic sayings, often appear to be earlier and less elaborated. This line of thought cannot be pushed very far, but it does need to be kept in mind. The dependence theory not only has to explain why the person taking sayings out of Matthew, Mark, and Luke was so desperate to eliminate almost all traces of dependence, but also to explain why he engaged in an effort to make it seem that the Thomasine sayings are earlier versions.

The thesis that Thomas used the synoptics as sources must explain why it is that the order of Thomas sayings is wholly unrelated to the order of synoptic sayings and why Thomas changed synoptic sayings so frequently and so often produced a result that looks more primitive. In addition the dependence theory must give sustained attention to the fact that it is at least as likely that one of the synoptics, Mark, used Thomas as a source as vice versa or that the redactional touches found in common between a bit of Luke and a bit of Thomas isn’t better explained by Luke’s knowledge of Thomas. If X and Y show evidence that one of them used the other, you must still prove which one used the other and that won’t be easy. The dependence theory requires a great deal of elaboration beyond “here are a couple redactional touches in Matthew or Luke and behold they are found in Thomas, QED, end of discussion.”

It is prima facie unlikely to the point of impossibility to imagine how this literary process of borrowing is supposed to have happened physically. Flipping pages or unrolling and reunrolling a series of scrolls? Arguments that Thomas contains a redactional term or phrase from Matthew or Luke is a literary argument, not an oral tradition argument; it is an argument that author A copied from a manuscript of author B. You cannot argue that Thomas took a particular supposedly redactional phrase from e.g. Luke’s version of a saying without assuming that Thomas had a version of Luke in front of him to use. But with that version in front of him, which he did use in that instance, he continued on most of the time to ignore it as he wrote down in very different ways other sayings that are also to be found in Luke. Same for Matthew and Mark.

As for Klyne Snodgrass and his secondary orality argument, I don’t know what that is but a possibility without proof or evidence behind it. Lots of things are possibilities. It is possible that Thomas is a translation from a now lost Aramaic manuscript from a Syrian prophet of the Odes of Solomon community who pre-dated Jesus by two generations and whose teachings were mistakenly attributed to the sage of Nazareth. It is possible that the Thomas material was written first, then entered the great unknown of oral tradition, then was utilized by Q and the canonical authors; bear in mind that the secondary orality thesis works both ways and, since Thomas’ genre is more primitive, the likelihood is considerably greater that Thomas was secondarily oralized than that all of the synoptics were (but none of John) and then finally Thomas came into being.

Yes, the Gospel of Thomas is an independent source for the teachings of Jesus. Arguments to the contrary are convincing to those who are eager for them, but are otherwise remarkably weak. The issue hasn’t really advanced anywhere, in my opinion, since Stephen Patterson’s book The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus, which covered the issue about as well as it can be covered. There’s only so much you can say about rather weak arguments for dependence that advance no comprehensive thesis of their own and that leave aside the problem of imagining how an actual human writer in a room with physical scrolls or codices would have ever managed to write such a thing. The Gospel of Thomas is independent of the synoptic gospels in every sense but the relatively trivial sense that various monastic scribes and copyists and translators in the Thomas tradition were probably influenced by their knowledge of the canonical sayings so as to occasionally improve Thomas sayings versions by revising them toward the canonical versions.

(CWS) 4. Currently, scholarship is divided on the question of Thomas’s antiquity. Many argue for a date between 70 to 85 CE, while others argue for a date in the late second century. In two articles from Neotestamentica (“Mark’s Use of the Gospel of Thomas,” Part I and Part II) you set forth the somewhat controversial view that Thomas is from the 50s CE, and that Mark could have used Thomas as a source. Could you briefly explain how you arrive at this position? What sort of response(s) have you received on this position from others pursuing Thomas research? To your mind, where do late-dating theories fail?

(SLD) If I do anything more with Thomas ever it will start with a rewriting of those two articles. Well, I suppose I have to preface that with “I haven’t read them in years but I remember them as being better arguments than they are given credit for being and I should rework them” but then again maybe I’ll decide they aren’t. We’ll see.

As for the question of Thomas’ date, I begin with my theory of Thomas’ genre, i.e. that it is a simple barely organized list. In terms of the development of literary genre over time the list comes first and Thomas is less an organized list even than Q is. This is prima facie evidence of early dating. It may be that this prima facie evidence can be shown to be misleading, but Thomas must be given a presumption of quite an early date at the outset.

The sayings in the Gospel of Thomas that are unique to that text come strangely into the ear and seem quite inauthentic, giving rise to the immediate impression that they must therefore be later in date than are Thomas’ versions of sayings paralleled in the synoptics. This then gives rise to the theory that while Thomas may have had its origin in a list of authentic material, and that that list may be early in date, the strange new sayings are to be dated much later and so the text as we have it is to be dated into the later second century.

I note that everyone from a Christian background, which is almost everyone who bothers with Thomas, assumes, as if it were a fact of nature, that the sayings of Jesus with which they are familiar from Sunday School are earlier than sayings of Jesus that they have never heard of before in their lives. Some go on to argue that Thomas’ sayings that are paralleled in the synoptics  are certainly very early and may have constituted a proto-Thomas text while the odd sayings are a later addition from later times giving us a later date for the composition of the whole. They seem to reason that the unparalleled sayings are later in date because they evidence a more advanced, or at least a more weird, theological approach. Thus Thomas as we have it is a rather late text while hypothetical proto-Thomas is rather early. But dating a bunch of sayings into different chronological layers by speculating on the varying dates of the nearly incoherent religious views that the sayings seem to present seems to me to be a hopeless enterprise.

I’m pretty sensitive to the fact that our dating of all gospels is practically meaningless. People today are putting Luke ahead into the early second century and I still don’t know why it is so obvious that John isn’t from 60; John’s advanced theology isn’t so much more advanced than Paul’s, if anything it’s less advanced, basically just identifying Jesus as the holy ghost incarnate. Anyway, to use arguments from relative theological advancement to date documents seems to me to be flawed from the outset. Is Paul’s soteriology, from 50, so much less advanced than that of Acts, supposedly from 120? Is Mark so much less advanced than Luke?  It’s all a muddle, I think, a line of argument that really has nothing behind it and, when it comes to Thomas, where the views themselves are rather unclear, dating material on the basis of the chronology of those views is impossible. But is it the case that Thomas’ unique sayings, most of which are conceded by scholars of all ilks to be inauthentic, are of later date than Thomas’ paralleled sayings and so evidencing a relatively late final version? Is it the case that making up sayings for Jesus, or perhaps mistakenly attributing sayings to Jesus, is a relatively late Christian practice? I don’t think so.

I observe that the Gospel of John is complete fiction, made up by who knows who but evidently during the first century and possibly quite early in the first century (standard reasons for later dating are rather weak). Similarly, the Sermon on the Mount is entirely fictional as a lecture by Jesus himself even if it was fabricated out of existing fragments and pieces, for it was woven together into Matthew’s personal lecture by Matthew himself. In the opinion of many scholars Q contains a considerable number of sayings that were invented for Jesus to have said, especially the more shocking apocalyptic ones. Most of Mark’s gospel, especially chapters 8 through 10, is invented by Mark to express Mark’s ideas of what Jesus’ ideas ought to have been; in various places you can observe Mark transforming a saying into a narrative to contextualize the saying with (Thomas 31 into Mark 6:1-6, for a good example). And so forth. Thomas contains sayings that Jesus never said, but I don’t think it does so to a greater degree than the synoptics do. It’s not a better source, but it is an equivalent source, “as valuable a primary source” as the others. I didn’t reach that conclusion by an overvaluation of Thomas’ gospel but by a realistic evaluation of the canonical gospels.

When it comes to attributing special-Thomas sayings to Jesus I am pretty mainstream, i.e. I’m not convinced that he said very many of them even though I’m open to the idea that he might have. Although I observe that quite a few Thomasine sayings are not in accord with sayings known from canonical texts and that many were invented and didn’t originate from Jesus, this doesn’t demonstrate that they are therefore not as old as the material in the canonical gospels. Despite the general awareness in scholarship that remarkable amounts of the canonical Jesus tradition is completely fictional, scholars sometimes seem to conclude that some fictions are more fictional than others and Thomas is in that category. From that line of thought some seem to conclude that the Gospel of Thomas should be dated later than canonical fictional material that is somehow regarded as less fictional. This is absurd.

We know that even in the early literary times of Mark, Matthew, John, etc. Christians rejoiced in the prospect of making up stuff for Jesus to say. So if Thomas contains material that is unlike synoptic material, that does not mean that it is therefore less authentic or later in date than synoptic material. It’s just different. Our dating of “early Gnostic” or “proto-Gnostic” or whatever you want to label the sayings in Thomas that you didn’t hear in church is without evidentiary support as far as I know. Maybe there were people saying such things hanging around in Alexandria or Edessa or Sepphoris in 50 BC, maybe no such people existed until 50 AD, but who knows? What we appear to have in Thomas is a collection of stuff of diverse sorts that lacks a fully coherent ideology that was compiled by people who themselves probably didn’t think they fully understood it (saying 1).

People sometimes take the sayings of Jesus that they heard in Sunday school and put them in one pile (usually they deny that that was their methodology, but that is their result). They take the sayings they didn’t hear in Sunday school and put them in another pile. Then they date the first pile early and the second pile late. Not me, although it wouldn’t bother me if “late” were understood to be a matter of a dozen years or less. It doesn’t take much time to make things up.

Paul (ca. 45 AD)  is understood to have made up the whole Christian religion before any of our gospels were written. So putting Thomasine sayings into two piles and dating one pile late is OK as long as you aren’t dating late much past 60. Frankly I don’t much care, 50, 60, 70… except to avoid conceding that Thomas is later than Mark. It’s not later than the Markan invention of the use of narrative to give sayings meaning through biographical context.

I just don’t know why a bunch of sayings of Jesus, half or so paralleled in the earliest Jesus sayings sources we have, the synoptics, and the other bunch largely made up to express various ancient New Age ways of thinking, within an overall Christian tradition that was remarkably happy to make all sorts of stuff up about Jesus, isn’t earlier than anything. Maybe it’s not, but its genre is and that’s an actual argument for earliest dating. It’s not a probative argument, but it’s not nothing. Thomas is the most primitive type of text that we have.

I think Thomas should be dated somewhere early on, before the narrative format became normative, i.e. at the same general time as Q. From its content we don’t have datable anything except that it assumes James, who died in 62 AD, is still alive (cf. saying 12). The question-answer material makes me suspect that Thomas is a reaction against the Q ideology rather than just being an alternative list independent of Q but, for all I know, the Q list came into being to counteract Thomas with its claims that Jesus spoke against Q ideology. “No,” Q people may have responded through their own list, “he certainly did speak about the eschatological apocalypse and here’s your proof, we can quote him doing it!”

I appreciate how Professor Davies goes above and beyond the call of duty in answering my questions. I trust regular readers of my blog also appreciate his answers. Installment three is forthcoming. . . .