Interview with Stevan Davies on the Gospel of Thomas (Part I)
When I first began my research on the Gospel of Thomas, Stevan Davies’s, The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom proved to be a foundational book for my own thinking. I have read, with benefit, Davies’s other publications on the Gospel of Thomas and even where I have disagreed with him I have found his work to be helpful for my own study. Dr. Davies is Professor of Religious Studies at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania. I am very thankful to Professor Davies for taking the time to answer my questions. I will be posting this interview in three parts. Take the time to read his insightful and, at times, provocative answers.
(CWS) 1. I am asking this question of each Thomas scholar I interview. Before I interact with your work on the Gospel of Thomas I would like to begin by asking what got you interested in studying Thomas in the first place?
(SLD) In 1968 I was wandering around in the stacks of the Duke University divinity school library seeking whom I may devour (I was a Duke religion major not a div school seminarian) and I came across the Guillaumont et al. translation and read it. I thought that it was remarkable, featuring as it did Jesus who was not the vituperative (Mt 23) threatening (Q) speaker of platitudes (Lev. 19:18) I was used to. I didn’t think what the Thomasine Jesus had to say was particularly true or even comprehensible, but it wasn’t nasty. I liked that about it. But I promptly left it aside and paid no particular attention to it for the next ten or twelve years.
But eventually I got mad because, although I thought highly of Gnosticism and still do (I think my Skylight Paths commentary on the Secret Gospel of John (aka apocryphon of same) is altogether better than my Skylight Paths book commentary on the Gospel of Thomas) I didn’t see any reason to think that Thomas’ sayings reflected a Gnostic point of view. Yet it appeared to me that virtually all scholarship on Thomas declared it Gnostic, denigrated it for being Gnostic, and concluded that it must therefore be late, derivative and inauthentic.
So I thought I’d write a response to all that stuff, and I did. In the course of the response I came up with the word “Thomasine” and tried to use it as often as possible so that when all of my works have become dust, through the OED I will have that little bit of immortality. Unless, sigh, I am mistaken and Grant or Wilson or Robinson or somebody came up with it first… but I don’t think so.
(CWS) 2. In my estimation, your book, The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom (originally published 1982; 2nd ed., 2004), was the first convincing attempt to question the early consensus that the Gospel of Thomas reflected a Gnostic system of thought. For readers who may not have read your work, can you briefly summarize your views on Thomas’s genre and theological outlook?
(SLD) Genre? It’s a just a damn list is what its genre is. This is an underappreciated fact, in my opinion. Thomas starts with a few sayings that seem to be put deliberately in the beginning (1,2,3 and maybe a couple more) and concludes with 113 that returns to the beginning (3 cf. 18). I still think 114 is a later addition. Since nobody has ever liked my attempt to find organization in the other sayings, and I don’t like anybody else’s attempt or even my own, I think the other sayings are just a list, not mathematically random but conceptually so. There is no particular reason why you couldn’t take 4 through 112, put them on cards, shake them up and use the random sequence to reorder the whole thing. Clever people could then find patterns in that random sequence just as they do with the present sequence, but there isn’t any sequence there. Q, while sharing the “list” genre, is considerably more organized.
So where did this instance of the genre “list” come from? I imagine it this way. There was a bunch of people in a room, maybe eight, maybe average age 25, who are interested for some reason or other in the sayings of Jesus. “Christians” we might call them. And one of them can write! An actual literate person being rather a rarity, the people come up with the notion of writing down whatever they separately can remember of what they have been told that Jesus said. One thinks of a few things, then another does; when the notion of “light” or “parable” or whatever comes up in one saying it sometimes called to mind another saying of the same sort. Thus we have the famous “catchword” connections. This process results in redundancy appearing more frequently toward the end of the list than at the beginning, which you would not expect in a purely random sequence. Since the people are friends or associates and fellow Christians, naturally they share points of view and modes of expression even though they are not reciting sayings with the idea of promoting a particular ideology or propagandizing a certain point of view.
Thomas’ list was not particularly intentional in presenting an ideology; rather it was historiographical or archival in intent: “Let’s get this stuff written down while we’ve got Bubba here available to write for us.” Out of this collection of material scholars isolate a subset of sayings that they think they can make sense of and then they make sense of that subset. For my part I argued that my subset of sayings makes Thomas a protological document of realized eschatology. Others have taken subsets and misinterpreted them as Gnostic. Richard Valantasis found a lot that meant asceticism to him. There are a few that could be used to argue the vegan case. Once you have taken your subset and created an interpreted ideology out of it, you can then take other sayings, maybe even all of the other sayings if you are clever enough, and interpret them allegorically as having something or other to do with the ideology your subset contains. But what you end up with isn’t clearly more Thomas than it is you. This procedure, more generally, is what all interpreters of Jesus’ sayings traditions have always done and is the rock on which hundreds of millions base their faith. But I digress.
I’m not sure that Thomas has a theological outlook. It doesn’t have a lot to say about God, and that is what a theological outlook should be expected to do. It isn’t trying to create a theological outlook or program, it is a list. Evidently the compilers of the list, or other people soon thereafter, realized that they didn’t know what the theological outlook of the Gospel of Thomas was or, indeed, what these sayings were about. They had a list of things they thought were Jesus’ sayings. Also they had a sort of Christianity that assured them that they could obtain life everlasting, although they were not the least bit clear as to how this would happen. It follows, they assumed, that the sayings of Jesus would reveal how to obtain life everlasting and so, if you were clever enough to figure them out, you would not taste death (saying 1). This does not mean to me that the Thomasine community believed that they did in fact have the key and the proper ideology to avoid tasting death, but that they hoped that such a key and ideology did exist. It is enough, it appears from today’s New Age concern with mysteries and secrets, to have mysteries and secrets; knowing exactly what the mysteries and secrets are takes away their best qualities.
The Gospel of Thomas isn’t entirely opaque. Its question-answer sayings are set up to feature misguided opinion in the form of disciples’ questions and correct opinion in the form of Jesus’ answers. The questions seem to reflect the general ideology of Q, which came to be the foundation of Jesus-orthodoxy through Matthew and Luke, as you know. The questions ask about the end, evidencing an apocalyptic eschatological perspective. They ask about Jesus as the focus of attention rather than about the message of Jesus or about the divine indwelling of self and world about which Jesus spoke. They ask about the best ways to follow Judean law. Jesus’ answers condemn eschatology, deflect attention away from himself and show distain for Judean law and, for that matter, for their prophets too (saying 52).
Mark similarly used the disciples as foils to represent the wrong way of thinking about Jesus, perhaps not purely coincidentally. Can one conclude that the disciples, who are historically the earliest followers of Jesus, in the two Gospels that hold them in contempt represent historically earlier points of view than the corrective texts of Mark and Thomas that argue respectively for the centrality of the suffering and rising Son of Man and for protology? I’ve always suspected so. But, on the other hand, in both cases the authors are putting forth the position that prior to the disciples’ ideas of Jesus came Jesus’ ideas of Jesus and so Jesus corrects the disciples in Thomas and Jesus lectures them plainly in Mark, to no discernible good effect. Historically speaking Jesus is an earlier source for Jesus than his disciples are. Paul too, come to think of it, believed his views took precedence over those of the disciples and family. The fundamental teachings of Jesus from the earliest sources we know of, Paul and Thomas and Mark, deny that the disciples and family of Jesus are reliable sources. This is peculiar. And John doesn’t think much of them either, as Christopher Skinner has argued at length in his 2009 book on John and Thomas.
I find all of this remarkably odd. It might be fair to say that we have in the New Testament a collection of texts attacking the views of Jesus if we make the reasonable assumption that the disciples and family of Jesus represented his views more accurately than did their opponents Paul or Mark or John or, for that matter, Thomas.
Thomas’ gospel attacks Jesus’ disciples’ supposed views and, according to my preferred subset of sayings, particularly 3 and 113 the frames of the text, it substitutes the corrective view that the Kingdom (i.e. mythic state of perfection) has been on the earth since Genesis chapter 1 and that man has been in God’s image since then, but thanks to the nastiness of Genesis chapter 2 ff. the presence of the Kingdom and the Image have been obscured ever since. Thanks to Jesus’ teaching we can rediscover the Kingdom and the Image that are here now and have been here from the beginning providing a substratum for the world (a profoundly non-Gnostic idea) and ourselves (Gnostics would be OK with that). But people don’t know the nature of Kingdom and Image without seeking and finding, and how to do that isn’t given in the text so we are, alas, out of luck.
Thanks again to Professor Davies. Stay tuned for parts two and three of my interview with him. . . .