Thursday, March 11, 2010

Patterson on DeConick on Thomas, and thoughts on form criticism

The most recent SBL Review of Biblical Literature has a lengthy and very interesting review of April DeConick, The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation by Stephen Patterson (PDF).  It is of special interest to those of us studying Thomas because it is one of the experts in the field commenting in detail on the work of one of the other experts in the field.  It is all the more interesting in that although appreciative of the book and the contribution it makes, Patterson is critical of the central conceptualizing of DeConick's project.

Patterson feels that DeConick's work is flawed because she is using form-critical methods in order to engage in literary stratigraphy.  In other words, she is setting out the literary history of Thomas by using a method that is designed for work on oral tradition.  As Patterson puts it,
Can form criticism be used to identify literary strata? This seems doubtful. Form criticism theorizes about how sayings may be adapted and used in an oral medium to accommodate various situations in the life of a community. But, of course, Thomas is not an oral performance. It is a document that incorporates material from countless prior oral performances in which all manner of development and remodeling has already taken place. That a particular saying in Thomas bears the form critical (i.e., oral) marks of secondary development is not an indication that it represents a secondary development in the literary history of the Gospel as a whole.
Patterson's criticism of DeConick on this point may be a little too stark.  As I read her, the method is not so much old form-criticism but an attempt to integrate form-criticism, source-criticism and redaction-criticism into a newer model that also takes seriously the rhetorical culture of the emerging Christian movement.  She speaks of a "'New' Traditionsgeschichtliche Approach" (e.g. Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas, Chapter 1) and it is a repeated emphasis across the two volumes that Thomas and Thomas traditions went in and out of different instantiations in oral performance and literary text.  These different performances interacted with one another and flowed into one another.  It is probably not fair to say, then, that she is applying form critical methods towards the goal of ascertaining literary history.  She is rejecting the idea of literary history as traditionally configured, and she is attempting to rework the usual tools used for analysis.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to reflect a little further on Patterson's general point, about the potential for confusion between form-critical methods and literary history.  On one level, I am encouraged by what he says because I have been banging away at a similar point in a different context for some time, that we should be careful not to confuse age of traditions and literary priority.  It is a mistake that I think underpins the Q hypothesis, where signs of an older tradition are always taken as signs of literary primitivity.  I have argued that Q forces the whole discussion of Christian origins onto a literary footing, with double tradition material getting projected always onto a literary text.

On the other hand, though, I wonder whether we need to avoid driving too hard a wedge between oral tradition and literary text in the thinking of the form critics.  After, the form-critics often thought of the phenomena they isolated in the oral tradition as being continuous with the phenomena they could see between different literary texts.  The same laws applied when they were tracking the development of a saying in the pre-Marcan tradition and when they were looking at the way that Matthew edited Mark, and so on.  So the process of allegorization of parables, for example, began in the pre-Marcan oral tradition, but continued with the evangelists.  The trajectories they theorized began in the pre-Gospel era and continued in the literary phase.

In the end, I think that the problems with form criticism are such that it is not particularly useful in tracking the development of the tradition, but at the same time it is worth attempting to understand how it worked in the thinking of the greats in order to work out how it still affects our thinking about Christian origins.


Geoff Hudson said...

Thank you for defining form criticism - theorizing how sayings could have been used in a community. But just suppose that a text bore the marks of an earlier history that can be supported by another document. I am thinking of the writings attributed to Josephus in relation to the New Testament. You then surely have something to work with.

Frank McCoy said...

Your citation of Patterson begins, "Can form criticism be used to identify literary strata?" However,DeConick's rolling corpus model posits a Kernel Gospel to which additional material gradually accrued over time--and, so, the additional material cannot be divided into distinct literary strata. While, granted, she speaks of distinct time periods within the ongoing accrual process, with some unique features to each time period, a sharp distinction needs to be made between them and actual literary strata--just as, in historical geology, a sharp distinction is made between geologic time periods and rock strata, even though each geologic time period has its unique features.

Also, since Patterson believes in Q, I do not understand why he fails, in his critical review of her book, to address this comment by her (pp. 7-8), "In fact, every Thomasine saying that has a parallel in Quelle belonged to the Kernel Gospel. This represents over 50 per cent of the sayings belonging to the Gospel. Not even one Thomasine logion with a common Quelle variant can be located among the accretions! This provides an independent confirmation, in my opinion, that the very strict methodology that I have developed and applied to the Gospel in *Recovering* was successful distinguishing between earlier tradions and later accretions."