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Interview with Mark Goodacre (Part II)

February 28, 2013
Goodacre 2

Here is the second installment of my interview with Prof. Mark Goodacre on the Gospel of Thomas (see part one here):

(CWS) 4. Awhile back on your blog, you provided a list from your index of the most cited scholars in your book. You also indicated that the frequency of a given scholar’s appearance in the book is unrelated to your extent of agreement with him/her. What scholars have you found to be the most helpful for your own Thomas research and why?

(MG) I really like the work of Stephen Patterson.  He is a clear thinker and a clear writer. Although I disagree with many of his conclusions, he analyzes the evidence with fairness and clarity. And in general I like scholars who lay out their case clearly. I am less keen on what I think of as “shifting sands” scholarship, where you simply cannot be sure how the case overall is panning out. You shouldn’t have to re-read a scholar’s work multiple times in order to work out what they are saying.

For my case on Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptics, I found myself frequently in agreement with Christopher Tuckett and Klyne Snodgrass, both of whom write with clarity and force. Given that I had disagreed with Tuckett in my Q book, it was nice on this occasion to be joining him in battle. And now too I find that I agree with Simon Gathercole’s views on Thomas to a major extent. Although we wrote our books independently of one another, like Matthew and Luke on the Two-Source Theory, it turns out that we agree on most of the issues.

(CWS) 5. I know you have a forthcoming article in which you discuss the Nag Hammadi discoveries. Other than that, are you planning any future projects on the Gospel of Thomas?

(MG) The Nag Hammadi article arose out of my research on Thomas. I wanted to write about the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices but when I researched the topic, I found that there is not one version of the story but several. And the more I looked at the different versions, the more worried I became about how much we can really know about the circumstances of the discovery.  The article, “How reliable is the story of the Nag Hammadi discovery?” should come out later this year in JSNT.

I don’t have anything else currently planned on the Gospel of Thomas but I have a piece on the Gospel of Peter that I hope to get published before too long, and I am also doing some work on the Gospel of Mary and related texts.

(CWS) 6. You are one of the most outspoken opponents of the “Q” hypothesis. Many scholars see “Q” and Thomas as early examples of the wisdom genre applied to Jesus’ sayings. Obviously, since you reject the notion of Q, you would also reject this line of thinking. To your mind, what theological outlook do we find in the Gospel of Thomas and why?

(MG) I think the comparison between Q and Thomas has been pretty damaging and in several ways it has thrown us off the scent. The comparison is largely an accident of our own social location.  Q was one of the biggest and most successful hypotheses in twentieth century research on Christian origins, but its hypothetical nature always caused scholars some residual anxiety. One way of dealing with the anxiety was to align the hypothetical Q with the newly discovered Thomas. Coptic Thomas was discovered in 1945, but only began to seep into scholarly consciousness in the seventies and eighties, at the same time that Q was taking on a life of its own.

The difficulty for those who want to align Q and Thomas is that these works are only superficially comparable. Anyone who has done any actual research on either realizes that the differences are far more striking than the similarities. I have argued that reflection on the differences helps us to see how the true Sayings Gospel (Thomas) differs from the hybrid scholarly reconstruction (Q).  The latter makes much better sense as a scholarly extraction of parallel material from Matthew and Luke, not as a discrete work.

Moreover, and to get to the heart of your question, Thomas’s theological outlook could hardly be more different than Q’s. To take two really obvious examples, Thomas differs from Q on the Old Testament and on eschatology.  Thomas disdains the Old Testament – it only refers to Adam, it never explicitly quotes the Old Testament, and it thinks of the prophets as “the dead”. Q, on the other hand, loves the Old Testament, cites its heroes, and quotes many key texts.  Similarly, Thomas and Q differ on eschatology. Thomas has a protology rather than an eschatology, and is looking to get back to Eden, to the singular human being before the fall. But Q is driven-through with eschatology at every turn, and repeatedly talks about the kingdom, the future, and the Son of Man.

I do not, of course, accept the existence of Q, but I point out these contrasts in order to show how some of the clear problems with making them representatives of the same trajectory in early Christianity.  To put it another way, Thomas is a “sayings gospel” because it really believes that salvation lies in interpreting Jesus’s words, whereas Q is only a “sayings gospel” insofar as it represents scholarly efforts to extract and over-emphasize some of the sayings material in the Synoptics.

(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.

(MG) I share your interest in the Historical Jesus and I suppose to some extent this also comes back to your first question about one’s initial interest in Thomas. I began by hoping that perhaps it could provide us with some extra material on the historical Jesus, and I was disappointed when I found otherwise. I do think that there are likely to be historical Jesus traditions in Thomas, but I think that they are found in the Synoptic parallels that make up half of Thomas rather than the new material that makes up the other half of Thomas. I don’t rule out the possibility that historical Jesus traditions occur in the newer, unparalleled materials, but I find it unlikely. Bear in mind that even the Jesus Seminar, which tended to favour Thomas as a source for historical Jesus research, struggled to find much historical Jesus material in the unique material. Broadly speaking, they were using Thomas as a means of corroborating parallel Synoptic traditions about Jesus.

My reading of the earliest materials persuades me that the Historical Jesus is likely to have been a Jewish eschatological prophet who valued the Hebrew Scriptures, quite unlike the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas, who disdains eschatology and the Hebrew Bible.

Many thanks to Prof. Goodacre for taking the time to answer our questions!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. branimir andjelkovic permalink
    March 4, 2013 9:20 am

    Quote;”My reading of the earliest materials persuades me that the Historical Jesus is likely to have been a Jewish eschatological prophet who valued the Hebrew Scriptures, quite unlike the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas, who disdains eschatology and the Hebrew Bible.” I must say I agree with this although my thinking is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Things are complex and confused so one could find arguments for any idea he supports. Anyway, interview is correct but tendentious.
    With best regards, Branimir Andjelkovic, Serbia.

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