Interview with William Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas: Part Three (Skinner)

Arnal 3Today I am posting the third and final installment of my interview with Bill Arnal.

(CWS) 5. In light of your answer to question 5, I’m wondering if you are planning any future projects on the Gospel of Thomas?

(WA) I’m currently working on a commentary on Thomas as a wisdom writing. This is contracted with the SBL for the series on “Wisdom Literature from the Ancient World.” I planned to have it done sometime in late 2015, but health issues have slowed me down a little bit.

(CWS) 6. Another interest that I have, and one that I hope to promote on this blog, is research on the historical Jesus. Your past publications and scholarly involvements suggest that you are also interested in such questions. In your opinion, is there anything in the Gospel of Thomas that goes back to the historical Jesus? If yes, what? If no, explain why not.

Actually, you know, I don’t think I’ve ever drawn any positive conclusions about the historical Jesus. Everything I’ve written on the topic is negative. For instance, I’ve argued that the “indisputable facts” about Jesus (per Sanders) are not nearly so “indisputable” as he claims. I’ve argued (at some length) that the turn toward a “Jewish Jesus” since the 1970s is basically meaningless, allows few substantive conclusions, and is driven by today’s ideological problems. I’ve argued that source-critical conclusions have no real bearing on one’s image of the historical Jesus. And I have argued that the quest for Jesus doesn’t matter. It’s simply not a coherent or significant historical question. Our sources are terrible, the relevance of Jesus to the development of Christianity is dubious, and our obsessive interest in him is driven by religious concerns. The whole thing is like trying to explain the fall of the Roman Republic by writing a biography of Caesar. It’s the kind of thing that few serious historians would think to do, at least with material we didn’t regard as “religious.” So I am very negative about the value or prospects of historical Jesus scholarship in general, and my interest in Thomas is not driven by any assumption that Thomas is (or is not) a good source for Jesus. Let me be as clear about this as possible: my understanding of Thomas has no implications for the historical Jesus.

With all that negativity in mind, it seems to me that there is very little in Thomas that we could (were we so inclined) trace back to the historical Jesus with any confidence. I’m pretty sure the name “Jesus” (or rather, its equivalent) is historical. And I imagine Jesus said stuff, sometimes, so that’s probably accurate too. I’m not especially confident about anything else. I suppose it’s plausible enough to claim that, for instance, Thomas’s parables about the assassin (saying 98), or about the woman with the broken jar (saying 97), go back to the historical Jesus, but I don’t see how one could prove that, nor do I see what difference it would make.

Many thanks to Bill for taking the time to contribute to our ongoing interest in the Gospel of Thomas!

Interview with William Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas: Part Two (Skinner)

Arnal 2Here’s the second installment of my interview with Bill Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas. Those who are both interested in and skeptical of “Q” will be interested in what he has to say here. Enjoy.

(CWS) 3. You are widely recognized for your work on Q. As you well know, there is a strand within North American scholarship that sees Q and Thomas as the earliest strata of the Jesus-sayings tradition. However, opposition to Q has been growing in recent years (largely due to the work of Mark Goodacre) and much of the recent work on Thomas insists that Thomas was familiar with the Synoptic tradition (viz., Gathercole, Goodacre, Meier). I am interested in hearing your reflections on and responses to these two currents within Q and Thomas studies.

(WA) I have a very hard time taking Q denial seriously. It’s easy to poke holes and find weaknesses in any source-critical theory whatsoever; to find this exception, that problem, and so on. What’s harder is to find an alternative theory that doesn’t suffer from just as compelling problems (or worse problems). And there’s a reason for this: the actual process of composing Mark, Matthew, and Luke (and Thomas) was necessarily and undoubtedly more complicated than any useful source hypothesis will reflect – source theories are maps, not territories, and they do not and should not include or encompass all of the literary details of the texts they discuss. But this means that there will always be material that a source theory does not quite grasp, and thus that any source theory can be criticized from this perspective. How to deal with this problem? By assessing source theories in terms of their overall persuasiveness, and in terms of broad patterns, rather than in terms of individual and isolated problems. Does a hypothesis offer a compelling and realistic overarching explanation of the general shape of things, or does it force us to rely on ad hoc explanations that appeal to facts not in evidence?

Since Q denial has mainly taken the form of simply throwing criticisms at the Q hypothesis (many of which turn out to be wrong [Q’s genre is unattested], or not logically sound [“Q is hypothetical!”], or are easily accounted for [many of the “minor agreements”]), without developing a strong alternative hypothesis, it strikes me that Q denial, in the long run, doesn’t have legs. Yes, of course, the main contender (but not the only one!) for an alternative hypothesis these days is FG [=Farrer-Goulder], but the real question must be: is FG a strong and better-evidenced hypothesis than 2DH [= Two Document Hypothesis]? Does it raise fewer problems than Q? And the short answer is no. Indeed, FG multiplies the problems we have understanding synoptic relationships. As just one simple example, it defers the problem Q is invoked to solve: if Mark was the first gospel, where did Matthew get his additional (i.e., the stuff we currently regard as M and as double-tradition) information from? We’re still forced to hypothesize some sort of non-extant source for Matthew (even if it’s just oral tradition). And we’re left with Luke’s use of Matthew as a source, which per FG requires us to imagine that Luke treated his two sources (Mark and Matthew) in completely different ways, and for no persuasive reason. The 2DH is the more compact and economical of the two hypotheses: it explains where double tradition (and maybe a very small amount of M and L stuff) comes from, and it imagines that Matthew and Luke are consistent in their treatment of sources. Aside from that, the 2DH, and specifically the postulation of Q, has an astonishing degree of what I like to call experimental validation. That is to say, we posit Q on the basis of the double tradition. Then we subsequently discover, independently of the grounds for hypothesizing it in the first place, that this material hangs together, that it has a coherent ideological perspective, that it consistently lacks certain types of concerns or vocabulary, that it has coherent reasons for lacking those concerns and consistent alternative vocabularies, that it represents a known ancient literary genre, and so on. Meanwhile, Q scholarship continues to produce interesting work on, especially, Q’s social context, including important forthcoming books on Q and peasant societies by Sarah Rollens, and on Q and scribal ideologies by Giovanni Bazzana.

In the case of Thomas, things are more complicated. We are dealing here – and everyone agrees, even if they don’t put it that way – with a redacted document. So we need to achieve some clarity on what is at issue here: is it that our manuscripts of Thomas show knowledge of the synoptics? Or that the final form of Thomas (insofar as we can accurately reconstruct it, given our dismal MS evidence) depends on the synoptics, and does so globally and exclusively? Or that our final text was influenced by the synoptics, but without global or detailed dependence? Or that, perhaps, an initial collection of chreiai were independent of the written synoptics, and later redacted from a synoptic perspective? Or that some initial chreia collection was dependent on the synoptics, and redacted from a non-synoptic perspective? And then there is the question – a question of importance no matter what one thinks of the sources for Thomas’s synoptic-like material – where did all the other stuff come from? The simplistic either-or approach to the question of sources strikes me as evidence that both sides are guilty of making thinly-disguised value judgments. What really seems at stake is whether Thomas is good (= early and independent) or bad (= late, dependent, Gnostic). Of course none of this follows: we recognize the canonical Gospel of Luke to be late, dependent on the synoptic(s), and agenda-driven, but no one takes this to mean that Luke isn’t worth studying, or is easily dismissible, or the like.

A more serious source-criticism of Thomas would not peck through the document looking for strings of synoptic-like wording, or, conversely, strings of wording that (somehow) couldn’t be synoptic; it would look at overall patterns, and try to understand what kind of constellation of sources, and what kinds of uses of those sources, best account for such patterns. After all, even if we could show that Thomas knew (one or more of) the synoptic gospels, that hardly proves that they were his only sources, even for material paralleled in the synoptics. Indeed, a clear case for dependency would raise a whole of fascinating ancillary questions about Thomas’s literary techniques, about his other sources, and about the dissemination and circulation of synoptic tradition in the late first or second centuries. In this sense, I think that John Kloppenborg’s rejoinder to Gathercole and Goodacre in the recent JSNT is exemplary. It identifies, among other things, many of the weaknesses in their arguments. But more importantly, it suggests an alternative that is productive, socially grounded, and sophisticated. Given the complexity of Thomas’s traditions, and the complexity of their relationship with their synoptic parallels, Kloppenborg suggests a context for Thomas drawing on a fairly extensive commentary tradition on the sayings of Jesus. This suggestion allows for the possibility of some synoptic influence on Thomas (as we have it), but at the same time recognizes that many of (I would say, the vast majority of) Thomas’s versions of this material do not appear to be drawn from the synoptics, and that there is a host of material on Thomas that cannot come from the synoptics (because it has no synoptic parallels). Whether he’s right or not, this argument has the virtue of taking Thomas seriously as a historical and textual datum, rather than either dismissing it or valorizing it.

But in the end, I don’t think these kinds of questions matter as much as people think they do. Yes, the idea of Q, and of an early Thomas, are mutually reinforcing; but neither requires the other. If you get rid of Q, it has no direct bearing on Thomas. And if you say that Thomas is a late document, and/or that it used the synoptics as sources, we are still left with a real document that both requires explanation, and that provides us with a host of new data for antiquity.

(CWS) 4. Not too long ago, you reviewed my book, What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas? (JAAR 4 [2012]: 1113-1116), and along with your comments about the book, you also spent an entire paragraph lamenting the current state of Thomas research. Specifically, you suggested that scholars have been spinning in circles for years, asking the same questions over and over. To your mind, what areas are most in need of further research and what questions need to be raised that aren’t being asked by scholars? What are the most interesting or substantive areas currently being investigated, and in what other directions would you like to see Thomas research move?

(WA) Off the top of my head, there are two questions being addressed in current scholarship that are of serious interest, and that I would like to see pursued further. One of them is the interest in Thomas and middle Platonism – and especially Jewish traditions informed by Middle Platonism – which has in the past been flagged, inter alia, by Elaine Pagels, Arthur Droge, and others. Steve Patterson is currently investing a lot of energy in this question. Such an investigation will shed light not simply on the ideology and philosophical presuppositions undergirding Thomas, including insight into its treatment of Adam, androgyny, and the material world (none of which can be accounted for via synoptic parallels); but will also illuminate Thomas’s parallels with Paul and with the Gospel of John; and will allow Thomas to serve as additional evidence for the impact of Middle Platonism on Jewish mythological speculations. This in turn can help illustrate the cultural cross-fertilization between Greek materials and indigenous ANE traditions in places like Judea, Egypt, and Syria.

A second area of interesting research is basically into the social conditions of possibility for a text like Thomas. We have here a document whose genre is strongly associated with teaching, and with the inculcation of morals, a document packed with proverbial wisdom, and governed by an insistence on transformation, a document that contains at least one extensive elaboration of a saying (21), extensive glosses on others (45), and clusters of proverbs (e.g., 31-36). It is a literate document, and, more than this, a literary document, i.e., one that assumes proficiency in both reading texts and in interpreting them. So the most straightforward supposition is that Thomas is an ancient school product. The implications of this social setting for understanding Thomas, and for comparing it to other ancient social practices, is especially being pursued right now by Ian Brown, one of John Kloppenborg’s doctoral students. I think there is tremendous potential here for making sense of Thomas.

And then there are other areas that I wish received more attention than they do. For instance, the circulation and transmission of Thomas merits serious attention. The text is quite widely attested, so it is definitely worth trying to determine just who was interested in this document, and why. I also think that the parallels we find in Thomas with materials in Philo, in Paul, and in the Mishnah, among others, suggest that Thomas was participating in a conversation that some Jews were having in the first or second centuries. It would be very intriguing to try to work out the nature of this conversation, albeit without invoking a putative Aramaic or Syriac Thomas for which there is little evidence (on which point I am thoroughly persuaded by Gathercole).

Of even more importance, to my mind, is the esoteric character of Thomas. We need to understand this much better than we currently do. The document’s esotericism is quite obviously artificial and manufactured by the redaction of the text. “A man cannot mount two horses” is quite clearly not a mystical saying, and requires no great insight to make sense, nor does it seem to have any metaphysical ramifications. So it’s not the inclusion of stuff like this that makes Thomas esoteric. Thomas’s opening, of course, imposes an esotericizing framework on all the material that follows, but the actual substance of that following material reinforces the sense that this teaching is all mysterious, metaphysical, and in need of fairly serious interpretive skills. How does Thomas accomplish this? This is something that I think is a sine qua non of making sense of Thomas as a document, and that I’ve tried to contribute to in more recent work, including my contribution to Stowers’ FS, where I look at a variety of ways Thomas imposes an esoteric sensibility on his material, and so shapes both the document as a whole and its constituent units. This in turn raises the issue of, again, the economic, social, and cultural conditions of possibility for a text like Thomas. We can contextualize it in terms of both the social circumstances of ancient schools, and the production and the treatment of esoteric texts in antiquity, thus placing Thomas within a range of relatively ordinary ancient practices and wider human doings than is afforded by the very restricted comparisons available to “Christian theology.” To a considerable degree, I think Thomas was as popular as it was simply because it made possession of a fairly basic knowledge of Middle Platonic tropes feel like a big deal. It thus addressed the social aspirations of the recently- or modestly-literate.

There’s another piece I published some years ago, that I don’t think gets nearly the attention it deserves. It’s called “The Rhetoric of Social Construction” (in Rhetoric and Reality in Early Christianities, 2005), and in it I argue – I would say, I show – a literary feature of Thomas that does not seem to be widely recognized. Thomas uses metaphors copiously, and he uses them in loaded ways: that is, a given notion, say, “poverty,” has a particular negative or positive connotation. What several analysts of Thomas have noted is that sometimes, these metaphors are applied in contradictory ways. The clearest example I can think of is Thomas’s use of “drunkenness.” In saying 13, being drunk is a positive metaphor for having the capacity to grasp Jesus’ teaching, whereas in saying 28, it’s a negative metaphor for lacking the capacity to receive Jesus’ words. This kind of thing is sometimes held up as evidence of Thomas’s incoherence, or of layers of tradition. But it turns out that this inconsistency is thoroughly consistent across the Gospel of Thomas: nearly every single metaphor used in the text is used multiple times and with opposite valences. This is true, for instance, of: drunkenness, poverty, wealth, merchants, usury, duplicity, thieves, maleness, and others besides. The inconsistency of Thomas is so extraordinarily consistent that it indicates a very clear redactional perspective that unifies the document across a wide range of sayings. This article has been cited a couple times, but to the best of my knowledge, no one has engaged it directly, or indicated whether they find my explanation of the phenomenon to be adequate or not. But what I think is especially interesting here and perhaps fodder for additional strands of research, is how this literary feature of Thomas plays in connection to theories about Thomas’s sources, or stratification hypotheses. It seems to me that this phenomenon of opposing metaphors could be used to confirm, or disconfirm, those hypotheses by seeing how this feature is distributed across the putative sources or layers of the text. Take April DeConick’s stratification of Thomas, for instance. We actually have a means to test this thesis: do one set of metaphors appear consistently in her kernel, and the opposing metaphors in a particular accretion layer? Or perhaps all of them stem from one set of accretions? Or at least, does positive usage of a specific metaphor consistently dominate one accretion layer, with a negative use dominating the other? Such observations would tend to confirm DeConick’s thesis. Or again, take the stratification I proposed in 1995: same questions. And if the metaphors do not line up by strata, or appear to stem from one stratum in particular, this would tend to disconfirm my thesis. The same kind of thing applies to source theories: does the pattern of conflicting metaphors mesh somehow with the shape of the putative sources, or not? So I would really like to see someone run with this, although I have no plans to do so myself.

Again, I really appreciate the substantive and detailed way Bill has answered these questions. Stay tuned for part three!

Interview with William Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas: Part One (Skinner)

Bill ArnalFor the past several years, while blogging over at PEJE IESOUS, I’ve been interviewing scholars who have done important work on the Gospel of Thomas. Today I am posting the first installment of my interview with Dr. William Arnal, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Regina. I am extremely pleased that Bill has taken so much time to answer my questions in such great detail. This means that I will most likely be forced to break up the interview into three posts. Enjoy!

(CWS) 1. I have posed this question to every scholar I have interviewed thus far: What initially sparked your interest in studying the Gospel of Thomas?

(WA) I’m hesitant to admit it, because of what I’m going to say in response to some of your other questions, but the truth is that as an undergrad as I was absolutely fascinated by the development of the sayings-tradition, and especially by what might be called “form criticism” or, better, “tradition-history.” This was in my second year as an undergrad, and I had a wonderful teacher named Michel Desjardins (at the time at University of Toronto, now at nearby Wilfrid Laurier University) who made this material come alive, mostly by really effectively demystifying it all. And I just thought it was fascinating the way you can actually see presentations of Jesus’s teaching being changed before your eyes, whether (most clearly) by the evangelists themselves, or (less clearly but even more intriguingly) in seams and breaks and strange connections within given sayings or among variant versions of sayings. It’s this set of interests that initially got me into Q. But Michel was no respecter of canon, and had done his dissertation on Valentinian Christianity, so he was quite comfortable throwing the Gospel of Thomas into the synoptic mix. And it just blew my mind. Here was exactly what someone interested in tradition-history would have asked from a fairy-godmother: a whole, new (from my perspective, that is) list of over a hundred ancient variant versions of sayings of Jesus, with an obviously independent perspective on the character of those sayings. Basically, Thomas was a fourth synoptic gospel. For someone fascinated by the patterns of agreement and disagreement among the synoptics, Thomas is simply a wonderful text, adding data and complexifying the problems. So I’ve basically been struggling to understand it and make sense of it ever since Michel first introduced me to it way back in 1987. (Incidentally, while I learned Greek as an undergrad, I didn’t have the chance to learn Coptic until grad school, whereupon I took introductory Coptic from the amazing Egyptologist Donald Redford. The class only had two students: me and Nicola Denzey.)

(CWS) 2. You have well-formed (and well-known) opinions about Thomas’s genre and theological outlook. Would you articulate these views to our readers and provide a rationale for why you argue as you do?

(WA) In terms of genre, Thomas conforms perfectly to a known, and common, type of ancient writing, the chreia collection. If you read it side by side with something like Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, especially the material on Diogenes of Sinope (VI.20-81), the similarities are too striking to ignore. While Thomas lacks the biographical and bibliographical skeletons provided by Diogenes Laertius, the “meat” of the life of Diogenes, especially, is simply of list of scattered quotations introduced by “he used to say,” or “in response to such-and-such person saying x, he said,” and the like. And it’s not alone. There’s a ton of this stuff in Plutarch, including “sayings [apophthegms] of kings and commanders,” “sayings of Romans,” “sayings of Spartan women,” and others besides. There’s Lucian’s Demonax. Among Jewish writings, there’s Mishnah’s tractate Aboth. And Quintillian describes and defines the chreia, and indicates grammatical exercises that students can be asked to perform on chreiai. So Thomas exemplifies a known, and quite common, ancient literary genre. Moreover, the content of Thomas’s chreiai often conform to proverbial wisdom: “if a blind man leads a blind man, they will both fall into a pit”; “it is impossible for a person to mount two horses”; and so on. But alongside these chreiai with proverbial wisdom sayings, we also have chreiai whose content is more developed, elaborated, and metaphysical: “Adam came from a great wealth and a great power”; etc. In any case, Thomas is clearly a form of what is sometimes called wisdom literature, and, very specifically, a chreia collection.

As for the theology of Thomas, I have argued in the past that it developed over (at least) two stages: an initial stage marked by aphoristic wisdom, and a redaction of that initial collection marked by – as I describe it in a 1995 HTR article – a reorientation of the wisdom material in a more “Gnostic” direction, mainly as a rationalizing effort. But that was an argument I made a almost twenty years ago. I still do think that Thomas offers us at least two stages of literary development: a stage in which fairly traditional, proverbial Jesus-aphorisms were collected; and a second stage in which these sayings were embedded in a larger literary framework that presented the aphorisms as having a “secret” meaning with a more metaphysical point of reference. Or to put it differently, and perhaps more plausibly: Thomas in its current form has an authorial perspective, and it has source material that it has shaped to conform to that perspective. This view stands whether one regards Thomas as dependent or independent of the synoptic gospels. If you think Thomas drew from the synoptics, then they are the pre-Thomas source of the aphoristic wisdom, subsequently redacted to conform to Thomas’s perspective. If you think that Thomas is independent of the synoptics, then their parallel materials (at least) must be accounted for by some common source (including perhaps oral tradition), and it is that common source that Thomas redacted. I also note that such a process would hardly be unusual within the synoptic tradition: it’s what we posit for Matthew and Luke as well (i.e., they are redactions of Mark with additional material thrown in).

Where my opinion on Thomas now differs from that earlier perspective is in how I would describe the document’s redactional perspective. I have been thoroughly convinced by Michael Allen Williams and by Karen King, among others, that we need to be more careful and self-conscious about how we use the term “Gnostic,” if we use it at all. I certainly no longer think there are any demiurgical references in Thomas. Steve Davies and I went around on that years ago, and in retrospect it’s clear to me that he had the better part of the argument. In any case, throwing such a loaded label on Thomas’s ideological agenda is not helpful at all. So while I maintain that Thomas is redacted from a more or less mystical and metaphysical perspective, I’d want to characterize that perspective today, with Stephen Patterson (and Elaine Pagels, and Arthur Droge, etc.), as Middle Platonic, and as esoteric. Not everything with esoteric pretensions needs to be viewed as “Gnostic.”

And anyway, it’s funny, once you have Thomas’s generic parallels in view, talk of seeking after Thomas’s theology begins to sound a little weird, and perhaps a tad over-specific. Do we really want to know the theology of Demonax, or even of Aboth? When confronted with these documents, instead, what springs to mind are much more ordinary questions: why did people write documents of this sort? What sorts of techniques, agenda, literary sources, etc. were used in their construction? What were these texts used for? What kinds of people read them? Some of my more recent work on Thomas has tried to address precisely these questions. Unfortunately, it’s been published in collections that have little to do with Thomas (one in a book on ancient rhetoric, another in the Festschrift for Stan Stowers [The One who Sows Bountifully, 2014]), so it’s easy to overlook. But my point is that speaking of Thomas’s “theology” really directs our attention to very specific questions, and to a considerable degree also pre-determines the answers to those questions. Worse, it directs our attention away from questions like the text’s function and use, and from questions about the base capacities, that is, the cultural, physical, and economic resources, needed to produce or to make sense of a writing like this.

In the next installment, Bill talks about Q and interesting prospects for future research on Thomas.

William Arnal Reviews My Book

In the recent fascicle of Journal of the American Academy of Religion (JAAR), Bill Arnal reviews my, What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas? The review is actually rather lengthy (four pages) for such a short book (121 pages). It’s clear to me that Bill  has read the book thorougly and thought about its contents (believe me, not every reviewer does this). Also, like the other four reviews the book has received thus far, Bill’s review is largely sympathetic. However, the review ends with this paragraph (reproduced verbatim):

Generally speaking, the book does a good job of representing things as they are. It turns out, however, that what Skinner illustrates is that at least the bulk of scholarship on the Gospel of Thomas is going around in circles, visiting and revisiting the same old questions, and neglecting–culpably–the opportunities Thomas provides for learning something new about ancient Christianity, or about ancient religion in general. The arena of biblical scholarship, against all odds having actually found some new data, seems content to approach that data in terms of the same old “New Testament Introduction” issues of date, literary, sources, theology, and–perhaps worst of all–the historical Jesus. In the end, all of these matters are really just occluded debates about value, ultimately reducing the question whether the Gospel of Thomas is good or not. There is better work than this being done, work on Thomas’s explicitly esoteric hermeneutic, work on Thomas’s genre, work on Thomas’s relationship to other literary forms and to the ideological currents of the Roman Empire, and work on Thomas’s social history, the identity and characteristics of the people who composed and/or transmitted the text. Thomas can tell us a great deal about the role of literacy or orality in the context of Christian origins and of ancient society in general. It can teach us something about the role of intellectuals, about the prestige associated with esoteric knowledge. It seems to me that focusing on these kinds of discussions–question that many scholars of Thomas really are addressing when they are not caught up in what amount to preliminaries–would move our discussion forward from the endless and sterile claims and counter-claims about Thomas’s value. By reducing “what they are saying about the Gospel of Thomas” to the three or four still-dominant trigger-issues of date, sources, theology, and the historical Jesus, Skinner runs the risk of perpetuating the very impasse he bemoans.

I must admit, I especially appreciate the rhetorical flourish in Bill’s closing statement. I’m a sucker for a good “punch” at the end (even if it’s aimed in my direction). There’s actually a lot in this paragraph with which I agree. This critique is similar to the one provided by Ian Brown.  It seems to me, however, that Bill’s biggest complaint is more with the state of Thomas studies than with my book (which he admits above is an accurate reflection the bulk of current scholarship on Thomas.) I would also respond by saying that, had I chosen to write a book on the issues Bill identifies, the book would have amounted to little more than a chapter. However, I agree that more and better work needs to be done in the areas he mentions (specifically in the areas of orality and literacy) and I look forward to further conversations about these.

Four Views on Thomas: Thomas as Gnostic Text (Part II)

Despite the trend in understanding Thomas as something other than gnostic, a handful of scholars still regard Thomas as such. In his revised dissertation, Das Thomasevangelium: Einleitung, Kommentar, und Systematik, Michael Fieger (1991) includes an 11-page introduction that rehearses many of the standard issues, including date, provenance, and theological outlook. Fieger argues that Thomas is a second-century gnostic gospel that is largely dependent upon both the Synoptics and gnostic traditions available to the community in which it was composed. Fieger identifies two types of material in Thomas: synoptic-like sayings and gnostic sayings, the latter of which provides the interpretive grid through which the entire gospel can be understood (cf. pp. 3-6).

The process by which Fieger approaches Thomas is somewhat circular. Fieger reads every logion in Thomas through the lens of gnosticism, resulting in gnostic interpretations that further reinforce his premise that Thomas is gnostic. In his review of Fieger’s monograph, Stephen J. Patterson (JBL 111 [1992]: 361-63) criticizes the book’s approach, suggesting that a large number of Fieger’s gnostic readings are not demanded by the text but are imposed by the gnostic grid with which he begins. Patterson’s critique echoes an assertion that is commonly voiced by scholars today—for one to interpret Thomas as a gnostic text, one must import gnosticism into the text. Patterson also points out Fieger’s failure to recognize the presence of sapiential material in Thomas. How, he asks, have both wisdom traditions and gnostic traditions come to exist side-by-side in Thomas? Fieger’s gnostic model fails to address this question.

William Arnal also sees both sapiential and gnostic material in the Gospel of Thomas, though unlike Patterson he does regard some of the material in Thomas as genuinely rather than incipiently gnostic (cf. “The Rhetoric of Marginality: Apocalypticism, Gnosticism, and Sayings Gospels,” HTR 88: 471–94). Arnal argues that gnostic themes are part of a secondary redaction to the original, wisdom-oriented gospel. Through the introduction of gnostic material, a gnostic interpreter has co-opted the original and pressed it into the service of gnosticism.

The terms “gnostic” and “gnosticism” have also appeared in the titles of several books by Marvin Meyer, and in one volume, Meyer’s translation of Thomas is accompanied by a gnostic interpretation of each logion (with Harold Bloom, 1992). More recently Meyer has taken a more nuanced stand, acknowledging that “[w]hile the Gospel of Thomas has some features in common with gnostic gospels, it does not seem to fit the definition of Gnosticism. . . .to a significant extent. Thus I prefer to consider the Gospel of Thomas to be a gospel with an incipient gnostic perspective” (The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus, 2005). With this comment Meyer affirms what a growing number of scholars are recognizing. The use of Thomas by later gnostics is not enough for scholars to consider it a full-blown gnostic text.

Overall, recent scholarship on the Gospel of Thomas appears to be moving away from the supposition that Thomas is a gnostic text, while remaining aware of the interest Thomas held for later gnostic interpreters.

In our next few posts we will look at the view that Thomas is an example of Christian wisdom literature.