Thursday, May 21, 2009

Death and the Dating of Thomas and the Gospels

Although we should be careful of tracking over-simple lines of inevitable evolution in our early documents, there are occasions where one can see a reflection of a document's general dating by oberving shifting perspectives.  I recently suggested that one such example is the ever increasing presence of authorial self-representation.  Another example occurs over the question of death in the early Gospels.  In Mark and Matthew, where death is envisaged it is violent death in the present.  And where they speak about the future, natural death is scarcely ever in view.  Instead, people are snatched away at the eschaton, or go to their judgement.  With the later Luke, though, natural death begins to appear, notably on two occasions in the L parable material, the Rich Fool (Luke 12.13-21) and Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31), both of which feature rich men dying, and not at the end of the age.  In Dives and Lazarus, the rest of the world continues on its ordinary way while the protagonists are in Hades and Abraham's bosom respectively.

Thomas, typically, is further along the same trajectory.  Although there are references to violent death (e.g. Logion 98), the references to natural death are now more common than they were in the Synoptics, as in these sayings (Lambdin's translation):
59: Jesus said, "Take heed of the living one while you are alive, lest you die and seek to see him and be unable to do so."

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 ploughing and found the treasure. He began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished."
Logion 59 occurs in a cluster of material in which life and death is a key thread, from logia 58-61 and again in 63.   Logion 109 shows us that as in Luke, natural death is now a feature of the parable material.  Indeed Thomas's parallel to the Rich Fool (Luke 12.15-21 // Thomas 63) ends with the narration of the man's death ("that same night he died") rather than the death being implied in God's address, as in Luke.  

Perhaps the clearest example of the same phenomenon occurs in Thomas's version of a the double tradition saying Matt. 24.40-1 // Luke 17.34-5.  Luke's version of the Matthean saying is closest to Thomas's but both Matthew and Luke speak of people being "taken" rather than dying:
Luke 17.34-5: "I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed.  One will be taken and the other left.  There will be two women grinding together.  One will be taken and the other left." 

Thomas 61: Jesus said, "Two will rest on a bed: the one will die, and the other will live."
Thomas, even more than Luke, comes from a time where natural deaths have found their way into the representation of Jesus' teaching.  It's one small sign among several others that Thomas belongs to a slightly later historical context.


abernhar said...

I would be interested in hearing about what other signs you see in Thomas that suggest a slightly later context.

Skeptical as I always am of precise dating of anonymous literary texts (including the gospels), I must say that I do not find your argument hear persuasive. You do offer one _plausible_ interpretation, and you might be right. However, couldn't it be that the authors of Thomas (and Luke) just looked upon death with a kind of different intensity than the writers of other gospels? I mean, people today look upon death in different ways. Some of them perceive death as more imminent than others (depending on their age, personality, etc.). I'm not sure we have to look beyond the unknown authors to broader historical trends to explain your astute observation.
-Andrew Bernhard

abernhar said...

Please read "here" in place of "hear" in my comment.

Alfredo Garcia said...

I don't know, I disagree with you Andrew. I think that the shifting views of death are concordant with the shifting view of the end-of-times in the early church. If I am not mistaken, Matthew has dates ranging from 70-100 while Luke has dates ranging from 90-150. I don't have my notes with me at the moment, but I think I remember Luke being older than Matthew by some concrete margin.

Looking at the way that death is portrayed, however, can be indicative of an early church that was coming to terms with the fact that the end-of-times was NOT coming within their lifetime. Natural death is not an issue for Matthew (or earlier writings) because the end would come before then.

Isolating the way death is perceived as the ONLY way of denoting a date is incorrect, but I do not believe that Dr. Goodacre is here trying to defend that idea. I believe that in the Quest, scholars have to bring together all sources of evidence in order to come up with a more complete picture. Using the perception of death could possibly be another step towards understanding. I would like to see this thesis compared across other texts, however. Maybe a job for a graduate student?

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Andrew and Alfredo. Yes, on its own this wouldn't be a big deal, but I think it makes sense as one element in a broader picture. Another similar one is authorial self-representation (see older post), and I have some more to come.

Alfredo Garcia said...

Whoops, I meant that Matthew is somewhat older than Luke.

Timo S. Paananen said...

I wonder, if we should approach the dating of the Gospel of Thomas in a different manner than, say, the Gospel of Mark.

As far as I know, there is no explanation for the order of the logia in GTh, while Mark has a beginning, a plot development, and an end (whatever it was originally).

Isn't it much easier to edit a collection of random sayings than a coherent narrative like the Gospel of Mark? If so, isn't Logion 109 and its talk of natural death simply proof that Logion 109 (and not other logia) has been composed or adapted from earlier material in a later date.

And if this is the case, I wonder if it is really necessary to find a specific date of composition for a collection of random sayings which evolved over time. Obviously, going with the later logia like no 109 the date would be later and vice versa. Could we simply treat the logia in GTh independently, or in clusters of similar logia with the same catchword?

(I think this is also the revised position of professor Dunderberg, among others, who was mentioned in the linked post about Authorial Self-Representation.)

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Timo. Yes, good points. April DeConick's "rolling corpus" theory presses us to think about the evolution of the work in question too. And even if Thomas is not a "rolling corpus", there is the question of tradition history. However, the broad approach that I take is that a work is as late as the latest tradition it contains. When we are dating works, we are making approximations about the entity to which our texts bear witness; we are not -- in this context -- dating the traditions contained in the work.

One way of dealing with any specific element in the document, like death here, is to ask whether it is anomalous in the work in question. Thomas has a fairly consistent redactional attitude to death, both in the Synoptic parallels and the new materials, therefore I think the wording in 109 does not need to be seen as the product of a later accretion -- it coheres with the whole.

Mike Koke said...

Thanks Mark, this is fascinating and I like how you are again taking up the question of dating these documents. Too many of us just accept the general consensus on dates (e.g. Mark at 70, Matt/Luke 80-100, Thomas second century, etc.) and not do our own homework. I recently took a Luke-Acts seminar where we looked at Richard Pervo and Joseph Tyson who argue that it was written in the second century (Tyson even thinks it was written against Marcion!). I'm not sure I agree, but I enjoyed the course because I had just accepted the usual consensus for a late first century date (though Irenaeus is the first external attestation) and it challenged my basic assumptions. I wonder if you argument about natural death may also suggest a late date for Luke-Act?

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Mike; I find Pervo's late date for Acts most interesting and haven't come to a strong view on it myself, not least because I have not spent enough time with his book. Of course it would help me if Pervo is right because the later Luke is, the less plausible it becomes that he did not know Matthew. But I wouldn't make my decisions on the basis of self-interest :)

M.W.Grondin said...

Sorry, but your "broad approach" doesn't seem sound as stated, Mark. "A work is as late as the latest tradition it contains"? So GMk is as late as its extended ending, etc.? Sounds like a valid rule for dating manuscripts, but I assume that that isn't the kind of "work" that you're interested in dating.

Mark Goodacre said...

Hi Mike. Thanks for that. Good point, though of course the work to which the texts are witnessing is initially one without the longer ending -- Mark 16.9-20 is not present in all our witnesses. Add to that the strong stylistic reasons for thinking that Mark 16.9-20 is not part of the work and I think one would struggle to argue for its integrity.