Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How was Thomas Written?

On The Forbidden Gospels Blog, April DeConick offers her thoughts on How was the Gospel of Thomas Written?, partly in response to recent discussion on the Gospel of Thomas E-List (see the thread beginning Why Was Thomas Written?, a thread to which I have contributed myself). Although the Thomas list thread has focused on issues focused more generally around the issue of the purpose of the Gospel of Thomas, DeConick's post focuses specially on the vexed question of literary dependence or independence, and I would like to make some of my own comments on her post here. Let me begin by saying that DeConick is a giant in Thomas studies, with several major publications, including the two recent key monographs published back to back. I have a huge respect for her scholarship, and studies of Thomas are all the richer for her contributions. By contrast, I am a mere beginner, having come to Thomas in the first place because of my interest in Q (e.g. see chapters seven and nine in The Case Against Q). Any comments I make on DeConick's current post, therefore, do not come from the same degree of rich research and expertise.

DeConick asks first "Why does the literary dependence appeal NOT work?" and lists several reasons for rejecting appeals to literary dependence. I am partly in agreement here in that I am pretty wary of the term "literary dependence" in relation to Thomas and the Synoptics. The phrase can be taken to suggest that Thomas is a fundamentally derivative Gospel, and that the most important thing about it is its relation to the Synoptic Gospels. Given that only about half of Thomas has parallels with the Synoptics, we need to hold open the possibility that the most important thing about Thomas is not the Synoptic parallel material but the non-Synoptic material. Perhaps it is in that 50% that we will learn most about Thomas. My preference, therefore, is to move the terminology away from "dependence" or "independence" and instead to talk about "familiarity" or otherwise. The term "familiarity" allows us to ask the question whether Thomas knows the Synoptic Gospels without prejudging the extent of their influence on his thinking.

Now, in relation to those parallels, of course the existence of those parallels in themselves demonstrates nothing about familiarity or otherwise (DeConick's first subheading). The key question is whether or not the parallels in question show evidence of Synoptic redaction (DeConick's second subheading). Here, DeConick comments on the proposition "Thomas contains parallels that have Synoptic 'redactional traces'" with the following:
This assumes that our sources (Quelle, Matthew, Luke, Mark) were fixed texts, and that they are the same copies that we have reconstructed as our eclectic Greek manuscript (NTG) from our late physical witnesses, none of which agree. This position does not allow for source variation and a lengthy complicated process of development of our sources, and scribing of our sources. Are we sure that the "redactional trace" is from Matthew or Luke? Or is it from a source(s) relied upon by Matthew or Luke? Or is it from an orator who reperformed the saying in light of his memory of a Synoptic version? Or is it from the hand of a later scribe harmonizing an older version of the saying to his memory of the Synoptic version?
Of course all these possibilities need to be taken into consideration for Thomas / Synoptic relationships, but I don't think the situation is substantially different here than it is with the intra-Synoptic relationships, where we always bear such possibilities in mind, but do not appeal to them for every decision. Further, one of the values of a redaction-critical approach to the Synoptics is that it can often help us to see where a given evangelist is himself shaping the entirety of a particular passage, where there are clusters of characteristic themes, imagery, language and style. Where passages are like that, ones that are effectively generated by a given evangelist, and which then appear in Thomas, we have a good case for Thomasine familiarity. I have given one example recently, Luke 11.27-28 // Thomas 79.1-2, where the Lucan language, imagery, style and content is so strongly marked that that Thomas must be familiar with it from Luke. In other words, I am keen that we do not focus solely on so-called "redactional traces" (emphasis added) and move the discussion instead to pervasive presence of clusters of redactional features.

DeConick's third point is that:
The entire compositional process of a Thomasine author sitting down one day with canonical texts and cutting and pasting a word here and a word there into his own gospel of sayings does NOT fit what we know about ancient compositional practices.
(and see her further comments). This point is well taken; we can do without weak appeals to cut-and-paste models of the way that Thomas, or, for that matter, any of the evangelists worked. I have criticized Synoptic Problem scholarship, and especially Q scholarship, on this very point. On the other hand, I think we have to be careful about excessive appeals to "orality as social location" (Robbins), or to "an essentially oral state of mind" (Kelber). I am not persuaded that Thomas exhibits "orality as social location" so much as Sayings Gospel as generic preference. A sayings book, as a generic necessity, has "an essentially oral state of mind," both in the ancient world and today. This claim will take a little teasing out and I will develop it in due course.

DeConick's fourth point is:
The literary dependence appeal has never been able to account for the differences in the versions of Thomas' sayings and the Synoptics.
This is also important. As with the study of intra-Synoptic relationships, accounting for similarities and differences is the name of the game. In developing the point, DeConick asks,
I mean this seriously. We have spent so much time looking for "same" words, have we really looked at the differences and tried to account for them? Has anyone noticed (other than me) that the exact verbal agreement, lengthy sequences of words, and secondary features shared between the Triple Tradition and the Quelle versions FAR exceeds anything we find paralleled between the Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptics?
I would say "Yes" but I may be misunderstanding the point. There is consensus that the Synoptic Problem is a problem of literary inter-relationships among the Synoptics, that there is such substantial verbatim agreement that there has to be some kind of literary relationship there. The reason that there is no consensus on this with respect to Thomas and the Synoptics is that the degree of agreement here is nothing like as strong as it is between the Synoptics.

DeConick goes on to give a shorter section on the difficulties with the "independence" model and I agree with most of this, though I would add more examples of "redactional activity traceable to Synoptic hands", including good Matthean examples as well as Lucan ones. I also dispute the premise of the second point:
2. The Thomas parables are not allegorized like their Synoptic counterparts.
There is at least one parable that is allegorized and several more interpreted. There is plenty of secondary material in the Gospel of Thomas, old sayings rewritten in new interpretative contexts.
This works on the form-critical premise of the secondary nature of allegory, a premise with which I disagree in the light of the work of Michael Goulder and John Drury in particular, and on which I will have more to say in due course.

In the final section of the post, DeConick asks "Where does this leave us?" and answers:
I hope it dislodges us from continuing to argue for direct literary dependence OR complete independence. If we keep slogging away at these same appeals, we will keep answering them with the same objections, and we will stay in the box.
I have some sympathy with this answer, and would for that reason push for the use of the term "familiarity with" rather than "direct literary dependence on" the Synoptics. I think the reference to "secondary orality" here is helpful and I regard it as possible that that is the manner of Thomas's familiarity with the Synoptics.

More fundamentally, though, I think we need to think much more seriously about the half of Thomas that does not have parallels with the Synoptics, and I think it is high time we started paying serious attention to the way that the Gospel of Thomas conceives of itself, viz. as "the secret sayings of the living Jesus, which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down" (Incipit). The obsessive focus in so much Thomas scholarship with Synoptic parallel material, whether among "dependence" or "independence" people, tends to focus attention on reconstructions of the Gospel's evolution and development, sometimes at the expense of working on the text as we have it, and building from there.


Danny Zacharias said...

I still don't understand why the word "literary" cannot be used to describe the relationship between thomas and the synoptics as long as we are understanding literacy in ancient terms to encompass oral and aural aspects.

I'm also unclear how the word familiarity clarifies matters. In the particular case you have worked on between Luke and Thomas, it actually seems to muddy the issue. You argued in your paper (which is great by the way) that distinctive Lukan redactional traits appear in Thomas 79. This moves beyond the realm of "familiarity" to literary dependence. This of course does not mean, as DeConick caricatures it, that the author cut & pasted it, but surely we move beyond familiarity to dependence at this point, no?

I definitely agree with you that we need to focus on the 50% that is different.


Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Danny. It's partly a strategic issue. It is clear to me that the term "literary dependence" is a major stumbling block to people who think that Thomas is not familiar with the Synoptics, perhaps because they look at intra-Synoptic issues and find Thomas's parallels with the Synoptics so different (e.g. see especially DeConick's fourth point under literary dependence). Talking about familiarity is a helpful way of focusing on the mode of Thomas's use of the Synoptics. But yes, ultimately we are often talking about clear use of the Synoptics, especially in cases like Thomas 79.1-2, and several others. So for me it is a question of observing what the connotations of the phrase "literary dependence" appear to have for those are arguing for a different view.

James F. McGrath said...

Might the same argument about the "missing middle" be made about the relationship between Mark 8 and Matthew 16? :)

It seems to me that if one takes seriously the primarily (but not entirely) oral mode of transmission of sayings of Jesus in early Christianity, then the fact that a particular text (whether the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Matthew) is later than and probably knew some other text (such as the Gospel of Mark) is not the only issue that needs to be considered. In any given case, the later author may be "correcting" the earlier text to the version as he always heard it, rather than strictly speaking redacting the earlier text. And so it seems to me that every single saying and narrative must be evaluated separately, rather than assuming that the earliest text always gives us the earliest form.