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Interview with Nicholas Perrin on the Gospel of Thomas (Part I)

September 28, 2009

One of the goals of my blog is to promote further reflection on the Gospel of Thomas. As I mentioned earlier in the month I have planned to post a series of interviews with prominent Thomas scholars throughout the fall semester. The first scholar to sign on board with my interview request was Nicholas Perrin, Associate Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. I have asked him a few generic questions (which I have also posed to the other interviewed scholars) and a few questions related to his own research. What follows is the first part of my interview with him. Thanks for participating, Nick!

Question #1 (CWS) Before I interact with your work on the Gospel of Thomas I would like to begin by asking what got you interested in studying the Gospel of Thomas in the first place?

(NP) Actually when I entered my PhD program, I thought I was going to do something or other on Paul. But when the opportunity came up to do some research on Thomas, I grabbed it: I would be darned if I would get through a doctorate and not learn something about this text which I had been hearing so much about. I looked at Thomas’s use of the Old Testament which got me stuck on the question of sources.

Question #2 (CWS) In your monograph Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron (AcBib 5; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002), and in your book Thomas: The Other Gospel (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2007), (along with a few journal articles) you seek to rehabilitate the earlier view (advocated by Gilles Quispel and others) that the Gospel of Thomas was composed in the last quarter of the second century and was literarily dependent upon the Diatessaron. Could you briefly explain why you find this approach to be convincing? For readers who may not have interacted with your work, can you briefly summarize what arguments you find most compelling?

(NP) It’s funny how scholarship comes full circle on things. People sometimes call my view new, when actually one of the very first commentaries on Thomas, published in Dutch in the early 1960s, argued just this. He didn’t have much to go on, but his hunches were right. Other Dutch scholarship followed suit, notably Klijn.

My argument basically draws attention to the catchwords in Thomas, that is, rhetorical devices which replicate sound or meaning across two or more sayings. No one would disagree with the existence of such catchwords in this sayings collection. And anyone familiar with ancient literature, including the Bible, will know that catchwords are actually fairly common in antiquity. They are extremely common in early Syriac literature and most scholars agree that Thomas was composed in Edessa, the Syriac metropolis.

While we have always assumed that Thomas was originally written in Greek, I entertain the proposition that it was written in Syriac. This can be explored by looking for the presence of catchwords on a Syriac versus Greek versus Coptic reconstruction. The number and distribution of Syriac catchwords in a Syriac Thomas is overwhelming. Can I prove that I have accurately reconstructed the Syriac in each case? Of course not. But history only works in terms of probability, and I do think that I have shifted the burden of proof on those who resist Syriac composition. And why should we be so surprised?  I am basically saying it was written in the mother tongue of the (virtually) agreed-upon city of origin.

From here I argue that the sequence of sayings in Coptic Thomas is a faithful reflection of the original text in Syriac. Since the sayings in Coptic Thomas at seven or eight points follow the order of the Diatessaron (not to mention the countless shared textual variants with the Diatessaron), this suggests influence from the Diatessaron to Thomas – not vice versa.

Now since the Diatessaron is typically assigned to Syriac, c. 173 AD, this puts Thomas pretty late. Certainly enough time to be translated and disseminated broadly within the generation. After all, the church fathers in Rome are squawking about it within two generations – this was a popular book. It must have moved fast and been translated as need be for local readers.

Question #3 (CWS)  As you know, the view that Thomas was dependent upon the Diatessaron, and that it was originally composed in Syriac has not been met with widespread acceptance (this is the case with Quispel’s version of the argument and your own). In addition, these views have been criticized by those with expertise in Tatian and in the Syriac Peshitta. Are you aware of the arguments leveled against your own and how would you respond to them?

(NP) Well, it depends what you mean by ‘wide acceptance’. Tom Wright, Scot McKnight and Craig Evans, whom I consider to be among the best NT scholars alive, have signed on in print. I’m fine with that. I always assumed that most Thomas scholars, who have much invested in this text as an early text, would be naturally resistant. Will April DeConick ever wake up one day and say, “You know, that Nick Perrin was right about Thomas all along”? I doubt it. But I wonder if the ground is shifting. Last November at an open SBL meeting, Stephen Patterson kept talking about Tatian and Philo (who had a formidable reception coming into the third century), and I asked him publicly what prevented him from allowing a late second century date. He said – in front of a few hundred witnesses, mind you — it was plausible. I thought it was a stunning and commendable admission.

I’m not sure what ‘Tatian expert’ you had in mind. In private conversations with Bill Petersen, he said he read my book, had some questions for me, but seemed to have time for the case I was making. True, one of my first reviews was written by a soi-disant Tatian expert and largely unsympathetic. But there was no point at which he criticized me as a Tatian scholar. (Looking back, he could have, at a minor juncture involving Jesus’ saying on ‘grapes and thistles’, but this does not amount to much so far as the larger argument goes.) Judging by Petersen’s rather fierce review of my reviewer’s dissertation on the Diatessaron, I suspect Bill would have questions about his ‘Tatian expert’ status. My questions have more to do with the immediate relevance to a linguistic study.

Pete Williams knows his way around Syriac and has written against my proposal. I consider Pete a friend, but I believe he has missed some pretty key tricks along the way in his criticism. I will be responding in Vigiliae Christianae. I appreciate a good go-around.

But I think there is also an issue regarding the nature of evidence and hypothesis-verification. When over coffee I asked Pete, since he was skeptical of my position, when he thought Thomas was written, he said, ‘I don’t know.’ Fair enough, but this seems a bit too easy. Faced between the option of skepticism (we can’t say anything meaningful about this text because we can’t be sure our theories are sufficiently sustained by the evidence) and tentative hypothesis (there are no irrefutable theories but I am willing to stake a paradigm that makes the best sense of the data we’ve got), I will take the latter course any day. Personally, I am generally more drawn to scholarship that delivers a big picture with some risk of maximalism than scholarship that refuses to venture even a tentative position. So if you don’t like a late second-century Thomas, I’m okay with that and such scholarship has its place, but I would then like to know whether you hitch your wagon to Pagels, Patterson, DeConick, or the standard (‘140 CE because that’s what the discoverers of Oxyrhynchus fragments guessed a century ago — and who I am I to argue with a guess out of thin air?’).

 

Stay tuned for part two. . . .

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2009 8:02 am

    Great interview with a great scholar. What I’d like you to ask Nick is why doesn’t G.Thom cite Johannine material from Tatian?

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