Wednesday, September 13, 2006

N. T. Wright on Trusting the Gospels

Over on Paleojudaica, Jim Davila draws attention to this new piece on Beliefnet:

Can We Trust the Gospels?
None of the Gnostic texts--or any other recently unearthed find--can trump the four canonical gospels
By N.T. Wright

It is apparently an excerpt from Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, published earlier this year. Jim quotes the following piece:
The version of Thomas we now have, like most of the Nag Hammadi material, is written in Coptic, a language spoken in Egypt at the time. But it has been demonstrated that Thomas is a translation from Syriac, a language quite like the Aramaic that Jesus must have spoken (though he pretty certainly spoke Greek as well, just as many people in today's world speak English as a second language). But the Syriac traditions that Thomas embodies can be dated, quite reliably, not to the first century at all, but to the second half of the second century. That is over a hundred years after Jesus's own day--in other words, seventy to a hundred years after the time when the four canonical gospels were in widespread use across the early church.
Jim adds that he is "very skeptical in principle of our ability to say that Thomas was composed (or transmitted) specifically in Syriac". So am I. Wright's source for the claim is Nicholas Perrin's Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship Between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron, which attempts to demonstrate that Thomas was originally composed in Syriac and that it was dependent on the Diatessaron. Nick Perrin (my co-editor on Questioning Q) was Tom Wright's research assistant and it is clear that Wright himself is convinced by the case, but at this point I think it is fair to say that several others are not (e.g. see reviews by Parker, Poirier, Shedinger and Williams). My own qualms, which I have shared with Nick, relate to the verbatim agreement, in Greek, between Thomas and the Synoptics, which create difficulties for the Syriac composition theory.

The excerpt also notes:
What's more, despite efforts to prove the opposite, the sayings of Jesus as they appear in Thomas show clear indications that they are not as original as the parallel material (where it exists) in the canonical gospels. Sayings have, in many cases, been quietly doctored in Thomas to express a very different viewpoint.
I am very much inclined to agree, except that it is important to point out what Wright does not, that the canonical Gospels also feature material that has been "doctored to express a very different viewpoint". Indeed, that is the whole point of redaction criticism. I think one always needs to be careful, in discussions of canonical and non-canonical gospels aimed at beginners with no training in Biblical Studies, to make clear that what one sees in non-canonical gospels is at least in continuity with what is underway in canonical gospels, viz. changes are constantly being made that speak to the needs of that author's differing situation. Having said that, I am inclined to agree with Wright (see the continuation of the paragraph above, which I won't quote here), and against some Thomas scholars, that the "god" of Thomas is often difficult to equate with the God of the canonical Gospels, especially in relation to the role played by the Scriptures in Thomas. I can't see anything that implies respect for the Old Testament in Thomas and a lot that implies disdain.

Another statement needs some qualification, I think:
Thomas and the other works like it--that is, almost all the so-called "gospels" outside the New Testament--are collections of sayings. There is hardly any narrative about things Jesus did or things that happened to him.
This seems to me to be an overstatement. "Almost all"? Gospel of Peter, Protevangelium of James, just to mention two of the earliest?

On the other hand, it is always refreshing to hear Q scepticism making its way into popular books:
I have never shared the enthusiasm for a source widely referred to as "Q," which many suppose lies behind Matthew and Luke.
In my own case, I have always wished I could share the enthusiasm some have for Q because it would so greatly add to our concrete data from early Christianity to know that there was this written source that pre-dated Matthew and Luke. It is to Wright's credit that he does not take the easy road here popular with many a conservative critic to seize on the Q hypothesis as a means of securing early, accurate information about Jesus' preaching.

Update (Thursday, 20.24): Michael Bird comments on Perrin's book on Euangelion.


Anonymous said...

Wright's comments on Gospel of Thomas come on pg 96 of US edition of "Simply Christian". For full context see pages95-99. Here in Japan Gospel of Thomas still held in high regard, in some circles,particularly among liberal protestant scholars. Personally I feel its overall theology argue against giving it serious weight.
Brendan Kelleher SVD
RC Priest and High School Teacher

James Crossley said...

I don't know about the book but there is again little said on John in this article, other than lump it with the canonical gospels. In terms of historicity it would take a powerful argument to convince me and I suspect many others that it has much worth in reconstructing the historical Jesus. That really does need serious qualification.

On Thomas and God, there are also the Christological disputes in John might also suggest John is doing something radically different with Jewish concepts of God, at least as these kinds of disputes are not in the synoptics and appear to upset 'the Jews.

I also get a little worried when Wright refers to historians and speaks about good history and so on. Rightly or wrongly his handling of some of the gospel material and particularly the resurrection accounts would not go down well among historians to say the least.

Anonymous said...

Does Wright ever make a comment like this about any material in the Syoptics, X "shows clear indications that they are not as original as the parallel material". I recall being slightly surprised and somehow disappointed at BNTC a couple of years ago that he seemed unwilling even to consider it possible that the Matthean account of the resurrection had been redactionally embellished.

He uses redaction criticism where it is congenial in giving grounds to argue for the secondary nature of material in Thomas. Within the Synoptics I'm not sure he is prepared to use it at all. Surely, there's a major methodological inconsistency here?