Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Missing Middle in Thomas Synoptic Comparisons

There is a curious feature about several of the parallels between the Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptics. On at least four occasions where Thomas has lengthy parallels with the Synoptics, he lacks a parallel to the middle part of the story. It is a phenomenon I label the missing middle. It is easy to see when we lay out Thomas in parallel with the Synoptics. Here is the first example:

Log and Speck

Matt. 7.3-5
3. Why do you see the
speck that is in your
brother’s eye, but
do not notice the log that
is in your own eye?
4. Or how can you say
to your brother,
`Let me take
the speck out of your
eye,’ when there is
log in your own eye? 5.
You hypocrite, first take
the log out of your own
eye, and then you will
see clearly to take the
speck out of your
brother’s eye.
Luke 6.41-2
41. Why do you see the
speck that is in your
brother’s eye, but do not
notice the log that
is in your own eye?
42. Or how can you say
to your brother,
‘Brother, let me take out
the speck that is in your
eye,’ when you yourself
do not see the log that is
in your own eye?
You hypocrite, first take
the log out of your own
eye, and then you will
see clearly to take out
the speck that is in your
brother’s eye.
Thomas 26
Jesus said, You see the
speck in your
brother’s eye, but you
do not see the log
in your own eye.

When you take
the log out of your own
eye, then you will
see clearly to take out
the speck that is in your
brother’s eye.

Look at that wedge of white space on the right. It is unmissable. The middle of the story as it is found in Matthew and Luke is missing, but Thomas has clear parallels to the beginning and the end of the story. The same phenomenon happens again in the following example:

Wheat and Tares

Matt. 13.24-30
24. Another parable he put before them,
saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be
compared to a man who sowed good
seed in his field; 25 but while men were
sleeping, his enemy came and sowed
weeds among the wheat, and went away.
26 So when the plants came up and bore
grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27
And the servants of the householder
came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not
sow good seed in your field? How then
has it weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An
enemy has done this.’ The servants said
to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and
gather them?’ 29 But he said,
‘No; lest in gathering the weeds you root
up the wheat along with them. 30 Let
both grow together until the harvest; and
at harvest time I will tell the reapers,
Gather the weeds first and bind them in
bundles to be burned, but gather the
wheat into my barn.’”
Thomas 57
Jesus says,
“The Kingdom of the Father is
like a man who had
[good] seed.
His enemy came by night and sowed
weeds among the good seed.

The man did not allow them to pull up
the weeds; he said to them, ‘I am afraid
that you will go intending to pull up the
weeds and
pull up the wheat along with them.’

For on the day of the harvest the weeds
will be plainly visible, and they will be
pulled up and burned.”

Again, the middle of the story is missing, and this time to the detriment of the story's flow and logic in Thomas. The missing middle features the introduction of the servants who begin a conversation with their master. In Thomas, we just hear about "them" without introduction. The antecedent for "them" is missing, in a way similar to Synoptic examples of editorial fatigue.

There are further examples of the same phenomenon. In the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12.15-21 // Thomas 63), Thomas lacks the middle part of Luke's story, 12.18b-19, in which the Rich Fool is reflecting on his apparent great fortune, "And I’ll say to myself, 'You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.'" Thomas's fool is thinking things in his heart, but the full content of Luke's version provides a much better antecedent than the blander, truncated soliloquy of Thomas's version.

Similarly, in the Tribute to Caesar story (Matt. 22.15-22 // Mark 12.13-17 // Luke 20.20-26 // Thomas 100), Thomas lacks the middle part of the Synoptic story in which it is revealed that the coin has Caesar's image on it, the exchange that results in the aphorism shared with Thomas, "Render to Caesar . . ." (with Thomas's remarkable addition, ". . . . and to me what is mine").

It is interesting to see this repeated feature in Thomas's parallels to the Synoptics. My thesis is that it shows just how familiar Thomas is with the Synoptic stories he is retelling. In the rush to retell the familiar story, he does not notice that key parts have been left out. It reminds me of people who can't tell jokes, and who rush ahead too quickly, after having introduced it, to the punchline. Thomas sets the scene, gets the ball rolling, and then fast forwards to the story's conclusion. It may be that this is a casualty of writing a Sayings Gospel rather than a narrative Gospel. The Synoptic writers are all, to varying degrees, used to writing mini-narratives in their Gospels, and on the whole they make a good job of it. But Thomas is focused on shorter, self-contained sayings, with minimal narrative settings. When it comes to writing a fuller narrative, he is not as well practised as the Synoptic evangelists.


Judy Redman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Judy Redman said...


This is interesting and something I had noticed in passing, but not given any thought. Thanks for drawing attention to it. Thomas isn't consistent, though. Some of his parallels are longer than the synoptic versions.


Thomas 76
Jesus said, "The kingdom of the father is like a merchant who had a consignment of merchandise and who discovered a pearl. That merchant was shrewd. He sold the merchandise and bought the pearl alone for himself. You too, seek his unfailing and enduring treasure where no moth comes near to devour and no worm destroys."


Matt 13:45-46
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.


Thomas 109
Jesus said, "The kingdom is like a man who had a [hidden] treasure in his field without knowing it. And [after] he died, he left it to his [son]. The son [did] not know (about the treasure.) He inherited the field and sold [it]. And the one who bought it went plowing and [found] the treasure. He began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished."


Matt 13:44
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

This might say something about Thomas' sources. The Thomas version of the Treasure is much closer to the version of the story that appears in Song of Songs Midrash Rabbah IV:25, but there it is the Egyptians being compared to the man who has the hidden treasure, not the kingdom, but the 'punchline' is also different in the Midrash. I'm not aware of any rabbinic parallel for the pearl parable (but haven't yet done a thorough search).

It would be tempting to suggest that the Nag Hammadi version of the text had been copied from a damaged original, but it's happendd too often for this to be the case.

Perhaps, rather, Thomas was an impatient story-teller (and listener) and he did not want to waste his hearers time (or perhaps precious papyrus) with the bits of the story that were irrelevant for his purposes? And perhaps this means that whenever the Thomas version has extra detail that isn't present in the synoptic versions, we need to pay very careful attention to what he might be trying to say.

M.W.Grondin said...

I've posted this comment on the GThomas e-list, but I'll repost it here. With respect to Mark's "thesis":

1. Leaving key parts out of a story shows how _familiar_ one is with it? Just the opposite, one would think.

2. The Thomas author is in a "rush to retell the familiar story"? But he isn't in a rush and he isn't _retelling_ a story; he's writing it down. The analogy is prima facie all wrong. (Maybe there's a "missing middle"? :-)

Anonymous said...

I agree with the secondariness of Thomas, fatigue being one key reasons. Others are:
(1) He is often closest to Luke whom I see as the latest of the four
(2) He is 'rushed' in other ways. The sayings in Mark are nicely formed to a proverbial degree of refinement; not so in Thomas. They are sometimes bombastic, sometimes slapdash in phrasing.

Anonymous said...

Its a very interesting comparison that you make and one that my amateur eyes had never seen before.

However, I have to agree with Mike Grondin's skepticism towards the explanation you advance. It doesn't seem to follow to me that skipping the central segments is the action of someone desperate to get to the "punchline" through familiarity.

As a famously bad joke-teller, if I skip the bulk of the joke and short-cut to the punchline it is because I am unfamiliar with the joke.

Anonymous said...

Mark, you write "... In the rush to retell the familiar story, he does notice that key parts have been left out." There's a "not" missing in there between "does" and "notice",isn't it ;) It's either that famous scribal error rearing its pretty head (and so we now know that you COPY your blog posts rather than create them on the spot), or it was put there intentionally to make it seem so haha ;)

(hoping that I passed :razz: )


Mark Goodacre said...

Darko, thanks for pointing that out; I have adjusted it in the post. It was also pointed out to me by Mike Grondin, though it took me a while to correct it. Cheers, Mark