Monday, August 06, 2012

Thomas and the Gospels: Excerpt from Chapter 1, on "Order"

It's time for another excerpt from my forthcoming Thomas and the Gospels.  At one point in Chapter 1, "First Impressions", I am looking at several key arguments that are made for Thomas's independence of the Synoptics, the arguments from genre, from order and from tradition history.  Here, is a part of the section on order:

The argument from the difference in order between the Synoptics and Thomas is at first sight impressive. Given the large number of parallel sayings in Thomas and the Synoptics, it is surprising that there are so few parallels in order. Yet the argument proceeds in large part from the unrealistic expectations that are thrown up by our familiarity with the Synoptics, where parallels in order are so frequent and sustained. It is easy to default to thinking that the remarkable extent of the parallel order among Matthew, Mark, and Luke is somehow the norm. Stephen Patterson thus begins his discussion of the question by looking at the agreements in wording and order among the Synoptics, looking for the same kind of thing in relation to Thomas and the Synoptics. He regards it as a requirement in a theory of literary dependence for the scholar to demonstrate that “the sequence of individual pericopae in each text is substantially the same.”

The extraordinary degree of agreement among the Synoptics has spoiled us. It has created unrealistic expectations when we look at other similar documents. Moreover, the argument essentially reverses a valid positive argument about literary relationships such that it becomes a flawed negative argument about literary relationships. It is true, in discussions of the common order among the Synoptics, that the substantial agreement in order among Matthew, Mark, and Luke necessitates theories of a literary relationship. But one cannot legitimately reverse that positive argument and make the absence of substantial agreement in order a sign of the lack of literary relationship. The relative lack of agreement in order between Thomas and the Synoptics of course leaves a literary link still to be demonstrated, but it does not show the absence of a literary link.

It is important to remind ourselves also that one of the reasons for the sustained agreements in order among the Synoptics is the key presence of common narrative sequence. The Synoptic evangelists are much more conservative in the order of narrative material than they are in the order of sayings material. This is particularly the case in the double tradition material, which often appears in different contexts in Matthew and Luke. Either Matthew or Luke (or both) has removed a lot of double tradition sayings material from the contexts in which he found it. Given that Thomas has no narrative contexts into which to slot its sayings material, it is not surprising that its sayings appear in a very different order from that found in the Synoptics.

Furthermore, the abbreviated, disconnected nature of the Thomasine sayings lends itself to a looser structure. The form of the sayings relates directly to Thomas’s redactional profile, the mysterious Gospel in which enigmatic, self-contained sayings, at best only loosely related to one another, are stacked up in baffling succession. The very success of the Gospel lies in its attempt to unnerve the reader, especially the outsider. This disconcerting aim reinforces the necessity for mysterious, pithy sayings, largely devoid of contextual clues to their interpretation. If Thomas’s redactional aims require particular forms, those forms themselves cohere with Thomas’s order, or lack of it.

This is a point to which we will return, and one that requires a little more exploration. For the purposes of this discussion about order, the important thing is to notice the way in which the author of Thomas is able to compound the nature of his enigma by surprising the hearer with constant changes of gear. It is not just the sayings themselves that shock and surprise, but also the bizarre juxtaposition of apparently contrasting ideas, side by
side. This is a key point: if the author of Thomas is aiming at coherence, he has failed. It is unlikely, however, that he is attempting to be coherent. Rather, his Gospel is aiming at enigma, and this is why it announces itself as an enigma from the beginning (Incipit, 1), and why it orders sayings in this apparently incomprehensible way. If one thing is clear about Thomas, it is that it is not clear. Modern interpreters with their bright ideas about
Thomas’s arrangement run the risk of attempting to explain what the author wishes to leave unexplained, blunting the author’s purpose by a artificially conjoining and deciphering sayings that resist that kind of work.

(Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas's Familiarity with the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 14-16)


Bob Derrenbacker said...

Mark - I look forward to reading your book - I have it on order with Eerdmans. Have you seen/read John Meier's article in the latest CBQ on Luke's parable of the rich fool and GThom?

Mark Goodacre said...

Bob -- many thanks. I No, I haven't seen that yet -- I'll take a look. Interesting because I have six or seven pages arguing that Thomas's Rich Fool is derived from Luke's.

Anonymous said...


Meier also wrote an article on Thomas and the Synoptics for the Frank Matera Festschrift. It's one of three essays he has been working on as he puts together volume 5 of a Marginal Jew. If you want, I'll send you a copy.

Mark Goodacre said...

Interesting. If possible, that would be great - thanks. But don't bust a gut doing it. Cheers, Mark

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Eerdmans cancelled my order ...

You appear to have two different volumes on Thomas on Amazon? What's the other one?