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Interview with Stevan Davies on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

November 10, 2009

Here’s part two of my interview with Professor Davies. In this installment he shares, at length, his views on Thomas and the canonical gospels, dating the sayings tradition behind Thomas, issues related to orality, and the existence of anti-Thomas polemics in early Christian literature. Enjoy!

(CWS) 3. In an often-cited article (“The Christology and Protology of the Gospel of Thomas,” JBL 111 [1992]), you begin by writing,  “A consensus is emerging in American scholarship that the Gospel of Thomas is a text independent of the synoptics and that it was compiled in the mid to late first century. It appears to be roughly as valuable a primary source for the teachings of Jesus as Q, and perhaps more so than the Gospels of Mark and John.” Though your use of the term “consensus” is probably an overstatement, you are obviously convinced of Thomas’s independence from the synoptic tradition. Could you explain why you find this view most compelling?

(SLD) It’s hard to answer this set of questions because they are all part of the same package. The date question and the value as source question is tied up with the independence question and the genre question. I’ll address the matter, but I’m not sure I’ll do so in a well organized fashion. You are right about the “consensus” being overstatement.

I am OK with the idea that there was a Common Tradition defined as the paralleled sayings from Thomas and the synoptics, which then is bifurcated through made-up sayings into at least two separate texts: one, an eschatological plus other odd stuff track called Q, and a protological plus other odd stuff track called Thomas. I’m not so happy to think of the Common Tradition as a proto-manuscript of some sort, however.

I assume Thomas and Q are roughly the same date, and that that date is prior to Mark. Mark then came up with the idea that to make sense of any of this sort of stuff you have to have a biographical narrative context to put it in and so he had a fine old time making up that context as he wrote a narrative to prove his ideas right and the disciples and family of Jesus to be fools and failures. So he narrativized into context whatever sayings he felt like narrativizing. (Some came from Thomas and some didn’t.) But prior to this narrativizing of sayings there were lists of sayings, two of which we now have, both of which were written at about the same time, Thomas and Q. Was there a Common Tradition list before that? Maybe. More on this later.

The most common argument for Thomas’ dependence begins with the observation that a portion of a Thomasine saying-version is more like a version of the same saying that appears to have been redacted by Matthew or Luke from Mark than it is like the Markan original, which is a relevant observation. But I’m struck by the amount of effort it takes them to try and argue such a case, and I’m struck by the difficulty they have in recognizing that, while it is a reasonable hypothesis that a seemingly redactional element in e.g. Luke that is in Thomas derives from Thomas’ use of Luke, that it is not the only reasonable hypothesis that can account for such an observation. In fact a whole variety of things might have happened to produce the same result:

  • a) An earlier oral version was like the version in Luke and Thomas, but Mark changed it and then both Luke and Thomas separately reverted to the more original version.
  • b) There have been changes in the manuscript tradition of Thomas or Luke thanks to scribal harmonization in the process of copying or translation that has led the wording of the two to be more similar in our copies than they were in the autograph originals.
  • c) Coincidence or similar lines of thinking led independently to similar changes by two authors.
  • d) And so forth

It is foolish to conclude that “Luke, e.g., was a source for Thomas because Thomas contains what appear to be a few redactional elements” without disproving the various other possible mechanisms that could produce the same result. And one must bear in mind that there are very few places where one can argue for Thomasine adoption of redactional changes. The paucity of instances argues against the thesis, for if Thomas is in fact literarily dependent on written texts of the canonical gospels, as dependence theory concludes (by definition), then the manner by which Thomas proceeds so as to almost but not quite always avoid betraying any precise knowledge of those sources must be accounted for; but it is not.

The argument for dependence assumes a literary process that has somebody flopping back and forth between Mt and Mk and Lk and his new Thomasine manuscript picking out a saying here, revising it, and another from another source, and then one from Mark and then another from who knows where and another from who knows where and another from Mark and then one from Matthew but revised and then a version only vaguely like a Lukan saying and then one from who knows where, and then another from an unknown source, and then a saying copied from Matthew but with alterations, and then …. on and on. This never happened. No way.

Further, while Thomas’ sayings seem congenial to ideas found in the Gospel of John (e.g. Thomas 77) none of John’s sayings are in Thomas. There is no dependence or even evident knowledge between John and Thomas (and, incidentally, I don’t believe that John was written anti-Thomas). So does Thomas know all three synoptics and go through them taking out bits and pieces here and there seemingly at random while throwing in dozens of hitherto unknown sayings of diverse sorts while absolutely self-consciously ignoring John or failing to know of John? When could this have happened in Christianity that the three synoptics are used and John rejected by an author who is by and large more Johannine than Synoptic in his thinking? Much more likely that Thomas came into existence before John did, or at least at a time when complete ignorance of John was a reasonable possibility, which would be pretty much any time before 100… though the fact that there is a Johannine saying in Q gives one pause and makes a hash of the idea that John’s (or Thomas’) date can be related to its relative theological sophistication (cf. Luke 10:22).

Also, as scholars have remarked time and again, e.g.in Trajectories through Early Christianity, Thomas’ sayings, when they are parallels to synoptic sayings, often appear to be earlier and less elaborated. This line of thought cannot be pushed very far, but it does need to be kept in mind. The dependence theory not only has to explain why the person taking sayings out of Matthew, Mark, and Luke was so desperate to eliminate almost all traces of dependence, but also to explain why he engaged in an effort to make it seem that the Thomasine sayings are earlier versions.

The thesis that Thomas used the synoptics as sources must explain why it is that the order of Thomas sayings is wholly unrelated to the order of synoptic sayings and why Thomas changed synoptic sayings so frequently and so often produced a result that looks more primitive. In addition the dependence theory must give sustained attention to the fact that it is at least as likely that one of the synoptics, Mark, used Thomas as a source as vice versa or that the redactional touches found in common between a bit of Luke and a bit of Thomas isn’t better explained by Luke’s knowledge of Thomas. If X and Y show evidence that one of them used the other, you must still prove which one used the other and that won’t be easy. The dependence theory requires a great deal of elaboration beyond “here are a couple redactional touches in Matthew or Luke and behold they are found in Thomas, QED, end of discussion.”

It is prima facie unlikely to the point of impossibility to imagine how this literary process of borrowing is supposed to have happened physically. Flipping pages or unrolling and reunrolling a series of scrolls? Arguments that Thomas contains a redactional term or phrase from Matthew or Luke is a literary argument, not an oral tradition argument; it is an argument that author A copied from a manuscript of author B. You cannot argue that Thomas took a particular supposedly redactional phrase from e.g. Luke’s version of a saying without assuming that Thomas had a version of Luke in front of him to use. But with that version in front of him, which he did use in that instance, he continued on most of the time to ignore it as he wrote down in very different ways other sayings that are also to be found in Luke. Same for Matthew and Mark.

As for Klyne Snodgrass and his secondary orality argument, I don’t know what that is but a possibility without proof or evidence behind it. Lots of things are possibilities. It is possible that Thomas is a translation from a now lost Aramaic manuscript from a Syrian prophet of the Odes of Solomon community who pre-dated Jesus by two generations and whose teachings were mistakenly attributed to the sage of Nazareth. It is possible that the Thomas material was written first, then entered the great unknown of oral tradition, then was utilized by Q and the canonical authors; bear in mind that the secondary orality thesis works both ways and, since Thomas’ genre is more primitive, the likelihood is considerably greater that Thomas was secondarily oralized than that all of the synoptics were (but none of John) and then finally Thomas came into being.

Yes, the Gospel of Thomas is an independent source for the teachings of Jesus. Arguments to the contrary are convincing to those who are eager for them, but are otherwise remarkably weak. The issue hasn’t really advanced anywhere, in my opinion, since Stephen Patterson’s book The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus, which covered the issue about as well as it can be covered. There’s only so much you can say about rather weak arguments for dependence that advance no comprehensive thesis of their own and that leave aside the problem of imagining how an actual human writer in a room with physical scrolls or codices would have ever managed to write such a thing. The Gospel of Thomas is independent of the synoptic gospels in every sense but the relatively trivial sense that various monastic scribes and copyists and translators in the Thomas tradition were probably influenced by their knowledge of the canonical sayings so as to occasionally improve Thomas sayings versions by revising them toward the canonical versions.

(CWS) 4. Currently, scholarship is divided on the question of Thomas’s antiquity. Many argue for a date between 70 to 85 CE, while others argue for a date in the late second century. In two articles from Neotestamentica (“Mark’s Use of the Gospel of Thomas,” Part I and Part II) you set forth the somewhat controversial view that Thomas is from the 50s CE, and that Mark could have used Thomas as a source. Could you briefly explain how you arrive at this position? What sort of response(s) have you received on this position from others pursuing Thomas research? To your mind, where do late-dating theories fail?

(SLD) If I do anything more with Thomas ever it will start with a rewriting of those two articles. Well, I suppose I have to preface that with “I haven’t read them in years but I remember them as being better arguments than they are given credit for being and I should rework them” but then again maybe I’ll decide they aren’t. We’ll see.

As for the question of Thomas’ date, I begin with my theory of Thomas’ genre, i.e. that it is a simple barely organized list. In terms of the development of literary genre over time the list comes first and Thomas is less an organized list even than Q is. This is prima facie evidence of early dating. It may be that this prima facie evidence can be shown to be misleading, but Thomas must be given a presumption of quite an early date at the outset.

The sayings in the Gospel of Thomas that are unique to that text come strangely into the ear and seem quite inauthentic, giving rise to the immediate impression that they must therefore be later in date than are Thomas’ versions of sayings paralleled in the synoptics. This then gives rise to the theory that while Thomas may have had its origin in a list of authentic material, and that that list may be early in date, the strange new sayings are to be dated much later and so the text as we have it is to be dated into the later second century.

I note that everyone from a Christian background, which is almost everyone who bothers with Thomas, assumes, as if it were a fact of nature, that the sayings of Jesus with which they are familiar from Sunday School are earlier than sayings of Jesus that they have never heard of before in their lives. Some go on to argue that Thomas’ sayings that are paralleled in the synoptics  are certainly very early and may have constituted a proto-Thomas text while the odd sayings are a later addition from later times giving us a later date for the composition of the whole. They seem to reason that the unparalleled sayings are later in date because they evidence a more advanced, or at least a more weird, theological approach. Thus Thomas as we have it is a rather late text while hypothetical proto-Thomas is rather early. But dating a bunch of sayings into different chronological layers by speculating on the varying dates of the nearly incoherent religious views that the sayings seem to present seems to me to be a hopeless enterprise.

I’m pretty sensitive to the fact that our dating of all gospels is practically meaningless. People today are putting Luke ahead into the early second century and I still don’t know why it is so obvious that John isn’t from 60; John’s advanced theology isn’t so much more advanced than Paul’s, if anything it’s less advanced, basically just identifying Jesus as the holy ghost incarnate. Anyway, to use arguments from relative theological advancement to date documents seems to me to be flawed from the outset. Is Paul’s soteriology, from 50, so much less advanced than that of Acts, supposedly from 120? Is Mark so much less advanced than Luke?  It’s all a muddle, I think, a line of argument that really has nothing behind it and, when it comes to Thomas, where the views themselves are rather unclear, dating material on the basis of the chronology of those views is impossible. But is it the case that Thomas’ unique sayings, most of which are conceded by scholars of all ilks to be inauthentic, are of later date than Thomas’ paralleled sayings and so evidencing a relatively late final version? Is it the case that making up sayings for Jesus, or perhaps mistakenly attributing sayings to Jesus, is a relatively late Christian practice? I don’t think so.

I observe that the Gospel of John is complete fiction, made up by who knows who but evidently during the first century and possibly quite early in the first century (standard reasons for later dating are rather weak). Similarly, the Sermon on the Mount is entirely fictional as a lecture by Jesus himself even if it was fabricated out of existing fragments and pieces, for it was woven together into Matthew’s personal lecture by Matthew himself. In the opinion of many scholars Q contains a considerable number of sayings that were invented for Jesus to have said, especially the more shocking apocalyptic ones. Most of Mark’s gospel, especially chapters 8 through 10, is invented by Mark to express Mark’s ideas of what Jesus’ ideas ought to have been; in various places you can observe Mark transforming a saying into a narrative to contextualize the saying with (Thomas 31 into Mark 6:1-6, for a good example). And so forth. Thomas contains sayings that Jesus never said, but I don’t think it does so to a greater degree than the synoptics do. It’s not a better source, but it is an equivalent source, “as valuable a primary source” as the others. I didn’t reach that conclusion by an overvaluation of Thomas’ gospel but by a realistic evaluation of the canonical gospels.

When it comes to attributing special-Thomas sayings to Jesus I am pretty mainstream, i.e. I’m not convinced that he said very many of them even though I’m open to the idea that he might have. Although I observe that quite a few Thomasine sayings are not in accord with sayings known from canonical texts and that many were invented and didn’t originate from Jesus, this doesn’t demonstrate that they are therefore not as old as the material in the canonical gospels. Despite the general awareness in scholarship that remarkable amounts of the canonical Jesus tradition is completely fictional, scholars sometimes seem to conclude that some fictions are more fictional than others and Thomas is in that category. From that line of thought some seem to conclude that the Gospel of Thomas should be dated later than canonical fictional material that is somehow regarded as less fictional. This is absurd.

We know that even in the early literary times of Mark, Matthew, John, etc. Christians rejoiced in the prospect of making up stuff for Jesus to say. So if Thomas contains material that is unlike synoptic material, that does not mean that it is therefore less authentic or later in date than synoptic material. It’s just different. Our dating of “early Gnostic” or “proto-Gnostic” or whatever you want to label the sayings in Thomas that you didn’t hear in church is without evidentiary support as far as I know. Maybe there were people saying such things hanging around in Alexandria or Edessa or Sepphoris in 50 BC, maybe no such people existed until 50 AD, but who knows? What we appear to have in Thomas is a collection of stuff of diverse sorts that lacks a fully coherent ideology that was compiled by people who themselves probably didn’t think they fully understood it (saying 1).

People sometimes take the sayings of Jesus that they heard in Sunday school and put them in one pile (usually they deny that that was their methodology, but that is their result). They take the sayings they didn’t hear in Sunday school and put them in another pile. Then they date the first pile early and the second pile late. Not me, although it wouldn’t bother me if “late” were understood to be a matter of a dozen years or less. It doesn’t take much time to make things up.

Paul (ca. 45 AD)  is understood to have made up the whole Christian religion before any of our gospels were written. So putting Thomasine sayings into two piles and dating one pile late is OK as long as you aren’t dating late much past 60. Frankly I don’t much care, 50, 60, 70… except to avoid conceding that Thomas is later than Mark. It’s not later than the Markan invention of the use of narrative to give sayings meaning through biographical context.

I just don’t know why a bunch of sayings of Jesus, half or so paralleled in the earliest Jesus sayings sources we have, the synoptics, and the other bunch largely made up to express various ancient New Age ways of thinking, within an overall Christian tradition that was remarkably happy to make all sorts of stuff up about Jesus, isn’t earlier than anything. Maybe it’s not, but its genre is and that’s an actual argument for earliest dating. It’s not a probative argument, but it’s not nothing. Thomas is the most primitive type of text that we have.

I think Thomas should be dated somewhere early on, before the narrative format became normative, i.e. at the same general time as Q. From its content we don’t have datable anything except that it assumes James, who died in 62 AD, is still alive (cf. saying 12). The question-answer material makes me suspect that Thomas is a reaction against the Q ideology rather than just being an alternative list independent of Q but, for all I know, the Q list came into being to counteract Thomas with its claims that Jesus spoke against Q ideology. “No,” Q people may have responded through their own list, “he certainly did speak about the eschatological apocalypse and here’s your proof, we can quote him doing it!”

I appreciate how Professor Davies goes above and beyond the call of duty in answering my questions. I trust regular readers of my blog also appreciate his answers. Installment three is forthcoming. . . .

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Frank McCoy permalink
    November 11, 2009 2:41 am

    This is fantastic! Professor Davies’ views are very thought-provoking. I wonder why he doesn’t dispense with the purely hypothetical Q and adopt the attitude that Matthew used Mark and Thomas as sources and Luke used Matthew and Mark and Thomas as sources–the good old Occam’s razor. He seems open to the idea that Thomas influenced more of the Synoptic writers than just Mark at the close of his second part of his paper on the hypothesis that Mark using Thomas as a source, but in your interview with him, he doesn’t seem to be seriously entertaining this idea now. Did you get a chance to ask him about the possibility of Matthew and/or Luke using Thomas as a source–especially given that he deems it to be pre-Markan?

  2. November 11, 2009 1:43 pm

    The whole ‘science’ of dating these texts is so unbelievably speculative to those of us who work in the natural sciences. One scholar argues that thomas was written before Q. another argues Q never existed. One argues John is late, based on the conclusions of the guy who said Q came before Mark, another one says John has large sections of indenpedant work, and thus predates Mark. So what does this guy make of Q?

    As soon as conclusion A is reached, all the other dominos B-Z have to be reshuffled. Then someone questions conclusion F and vaiours other dominos G-Z get shufffled again, not realising that half of thoes dominos were only in the position they were in becasue of conclusion A.

    Who’s holding all this together in a matrix to keep track of it? Has anyone realised that the whole thing seems like a big mess? Or is it just me?

  3. November 11, 2009 1:48 pm

    Oh, and is there a literary law that states “lists of sayings must predate narratives”?

    How many historical examples do we have to prove this transition is normative?

  4. November 11, 2009 10:36 pm

    “From its content we don’t have datable anything except that it assumes James, who died in 62 AD, is still alive (cf. saying 12).”

    Saying number 12 merely ‘records’ Jesus telling poeple to go to James after he leaves. How does this assume James is still alive, at the time of composition of the document?

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