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Interview with Simon Gathercole on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

February 13, 2012
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Here’s part two of my conversation with Simon Gathercole on the Gospel of Thomas:

(CWS) 4. I am looking forward to reading your forthcoming book, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences. Since this subject is addressed in your book, I would like to explore your understanding of Thomas’s compositional language. As you know, over the past decade Nick Perrin has sought to advance the position that Thomas was originally composed in Syriac and is dependent upon the Diatessaron. What are your thoughts on his thesis?

(SJG) One of the things I tried to do in my book was to take a very large sample of the “semitisms” that some have argued point in favour of a W. Aramaic or a Syriac origin for the book and show that they are basically all useless as evidence for a Semitic original. In terms of Nick Perrin’s thesis in particular, one of the difficulties is that we have hardly any Syriac literature from the first and second centuries CE, and so we can’t reconstruct the grammar and vocabulary of Syriac in that period with any degree of confidence. On the specific matter of Nick’s argument about the Diatessaron, the problem is compounded further, as we don’t have the Diatessaron in anything like its original form – not a word of the original Syriac (if that even was the original language of the Diatessaron) survives.

(CWS) 5. I know you’ve got a book to sell….so please don’t give away too much. But can you briefly provide an exposition of your view on Thomas’s relationship to the Synoptic Gospels?

(SJG) Part of it I’ve already given away in what I said about about Luke. I expand the argument to include Matthew as well. Matthew is an interesting case because the disciple Matthew is referred to in GTh 13 as an authoritative spokesman (alongside Peter) for a view contrary to that of Thomas. So I think it’s very likely that this in an attempt to undermine the Gospel of Matthew.  There are also instances where, as with Luke above, Matthew’s redaction of Mark is clearly incorporated into Thomas. Overall, my view is that Matthew and Luke shaped the oral tradition upon which Thomas drew, and there is a substantial degree of influence upon Thomas from the Synoptic gospels.

(CWS) 6. What is your view on the compositional history of Thomas? In other words, do you regard Thomas as a compositional unity or are you persuaded by the piecemeal, “multiple accretions” approach advocated by April DeConick? Do you find either of these approaches convincing?

(SJG) I don’t find it too much of a problem to conceive of it as a relative unity. There are obviously a number of sources, and these haven’t necessarily been combined into a seamless whole. But I suppose I go slightly against the consensus in thinking that the Greek fragments are not too different from the Coptic version. It doesn’t seem to me that the text is very fluid and constantly open to extra accretions.

(CWS) 7. Another interest that I have, and one that I hope to promote on this blog, is research on the historical Jesus. In your opinion, is there anything in the Gospel of Thomas that goes back to the historical Jesus? If yes, what? If no, explain why not.

(SJG) I think that there is a lot in the Gospel of Thomas that – at least in broad general terms – goes back to the historical Jesus. The parable of the sower and the parable of the wicked tenants, for instance! One of the difficulties with this question is the demise (of which I approve) of the criteria of authenticity. How can you tell if something like Thomas’s parable of the assassin is authentic? I don’t know. My own preference is to look at the works as a whole for their portrayal of Jesus. In this respect, I think Thomas is miles away from the historical Jesus – rejecting the prophets and circumcision (GTh 52-53) and speaking in semi-Platonic language about the true image within (GTh 83-84). Thomas seems to me a far cry from the milieu reflected in the canonical gospels which fixes Jesus much more clearly in a real first-century Jewish world.

I’m sure Simon could have said a great deal more about these issues had it not been for time constraints. I do want to again offer my thanks to Simon for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. His book, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences, is due to be released at the end of March. We look forward to the conversations that will surely take place at that time.

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