Thursday, December 06, 2012

Goodacre, the Synoptics, and the Gospel of Thomas

I just finished Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas's Familiarity with the Synoptics (Eerdmans, 2012), Mark Goodacre's initial foray into Thomasine scholarship and an eloquently argued and cogent case for the Gospel of Thomas's literary redaction of the synoptic Gospels (especially Matthew and Luke). In the last three or four years I have only read a handful of academic books that were as clear (and clear-headed) as Thomas and the Gospels; the only two that come immediately to mind are Steve Mason's Josephus and the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2002 [2nd ed.]) and Chris Keith's The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus (Brill, 2009).

This slim volume (less than two hundred pages of text) offers ten chapters that move progressively from "first impressions" (chapter 1) to a catalog of verbatim agreement between the synoptics and Gos. Thom. (first in the Greek Oxyrhynchus fragments of Gos. Thom., then in Greek retroverted from the Coptic manuscript from Nag Hammadi) and a recalibration of what we should expect if Gos. Thom. is in fact familiar with the synoptics (viz., we should expect "diagnostic shards"; chapters 2 and 3). The next three chapters identify Matthean (chapter 4) and Lukan redaction (chapters 5 and 6) in Gos. Thom., followed by a general summary of Thomas's most salient redactional feature (which Goodacre calls "the missing middle"; chapter 7).  The next two chapters explore important issues in Thomasine scholarship: orality and literacy (chapter 8) and the date of Gos. Thom. (chapter 9). The last chapter raises the questions of how and why GThom used the synoptics (chapter 10), and a brief conclusion appreciates Thomas for what it is (a mid-second century CE text) rather than attempts to force Thomas into the mold of the first-century CE synoptic Gospels.

Goodacre provides a formidable argument that takes account of the primary texts involved (the Greek texts of the synoptic Gospels, the Greek fragments of Gos. Thom. from Oxynrhynchus, and the Coptic text of Gos. Thom. from Nag Hammadi). But if you're original language skills are rusty, you will still be able to grasp the finer points of Goodacre's case. I want to stress this point: Goodacre does not avoid the complicated and technical issues; instead, he provides accessible and clear discussions of these issues. This is a rare skill, but those familiar with Goodacre's work will recognize it as characteristic of him.

A couple other points, in potpourri fashion:

  • Goodacre expends a relatively lengthy discussion (twenty-six pages) on orality and literacy; he even references [*cough *cough] my 2009 JSNT article, "Reading and Hearing in Ancient Contexts." And his intentional use of "familiarity" instead of "dependence" to describe GThom's relationship to the synoptics moves in a helpful direction to help us appreciate how texts might function in antiquity and how they might influence other texts. And he is rightly skeptical, in my view, of many of the current discussions of "orality," "oral cultures," and "oral mentalities." However, the function of both orally and textually expressed tradition in early Christianity and the relationship between these expressions of tradition and Gos. Thom. still requires some attention.
  • If any of the chapters of Thomas and the Gospels is disappointing, it would be chapter 10 ("How and Why Thomas Used the Synoptics"). Goodacre's main point is that Gos. Thom. weaves in redacted sayings from the synoptics among his new, non-synoptic sayings in order authenticate the new by means of association with the (almost) traditional voice of Jesus. "The Synoptic material legitimizes the strange new material, interweaving the familiar with the unique, so providing a new and quite different voice for Jesus that at the same time is plausible enough to sound authentic to Thomas's earliest audiences" (2012:180). I have three problems with this line of argument:
    • First, Goodacre began chapter 10 by noting that "it is by no means a given that early Christian sayings collections should feature extensive parallels to the Synoptic Gospels. Thomas's multiple cases of Synoptic sayings contrasts with works like the Gospel of Mary and the Dialogue of the Savior, which are relatively poor in such material" (2012:172). In other words, later Gospels did not feel the need to echo the canonical Gospels in order to legitimize their portrayal of Jesus' life and/or teaching. Therefore, even if the result of Gos. Thom.'s redaction of synoptic material is to legitimize its image of Jesus, we still need to explain why Gos. Thom. chose this (apparently unnecessary) route to enhance its presentation of Jesus.
    • Second, I do not think Goodacre grants sufficient attention to the very different reception Gos. Thom. received vis-à-vis the synoptic Gospels. While the Thomasine author must have hoped his Jesus struck his readers as "plausible enough to sound authentic," he (if I may) either conceived of his audience in rather narrow terms (not Christianity more generally) or he failed to be persuasive. As far as I am aware, we lack any direct evidence that Gos. Thom. enjoyed any broad-based popular reception. If I am right, then Goodacre needs to take more seriously that Thomas's view of Jesus was sufficiently idiosyncratic (= odd) that we cannot assume he would have perceived the synoptic Jesus as an appropriate source of authority. In other words, given the implication of Gos. Thom. 13, in which both  Peter (= Mark?) and Matthew put forward inadequate views of Jesus (see Goodacre 2012:178–79), it is by no means obvious that our author should then appeal to these texts in order to persuade his audience of the veracity of his Gospel.
    • Third, Goodacre's explanation of Gos. Thom.'s use of the synoptics avoids the question of why the Thomasine author should choose and redact the specific synoptic texts that Goodacre has so persuasively demonstrated bore influence over their parallels in Gos. Thom. At points throughout the volume Goodacre raises precisely this question (e.g., see 2012:94–95, on Gos. Thom. 72 and Luke 12.13–14). However, in chapter 10, it would have been helpful for Goodacre to draw these strings together and to explore not just why Gos. Thom. redacted the synoptics but why specific parallels from the synoptics appear in Thomas (and not others). In other words, rather than casting the synoptic parallels as augments to the legitimacy and plausibility of the non-synoptic sayings, this chapter ought to have spent more energy explaining the synoptic parallels' own contribution to the peculiarly Thomasine vision of Jesus.
  • Unlike a number of other scholars in recent days (including David deSilva [mentioned here], Samuel Byrskog, Tom Thatcher, and perhaps Christopher Tuckett, among others), Goodacre rightly eschews the influence of NT scholarship's form-critical heritage over our understanding of the development of tradition (oral as well as written). Some of the best moments of this book are when Goodacre attempts to break the discussion free of a form-critical paradigm and into a redaction-critical paradigm.
  • However, there are problems with a redaction-critical paradigm, and the most salient one (for me) was the attempt to construct evolutionary (or simply redactional) trajectories between texts. Goodacre does well to demonstrate the inadequacies of the influential Koester-Robinson model of trajectories, which assumes a form-critical view of tradition. However, his own literary trajectory (e.g., 2012:195, but in other places besides) suffers similar problems as any construction of linear developmental models. For example, the increasing authorial self-representation in Mark and Matthew to Luke to John to Thomas might look nice, but its correspondence with the relative dating of these texts should not lure us into supposing that earlier Christian texts (Gospels and otherwise) always avoided authorial self-representation and later texts increasingly featured the authorial voice. Our earliest Christian writer, Paul, overtly emphasized his identity in his texts, and that emphasis was not merely a function of the genre of his texts (viz. letters). In light of Paul's references to "my gospel" [εὐαγγέλιόν μου; euangelion mou (Rom. 2.16; 16.25; see also Gal. 1.11)], it is not much of a stretch to suppose that Paul's preaching of the gospel would have included a measure of self-disclosure, and if he had written a Gospel we might have even expected him to engage in authorial self-representation.
I could provide a few more critical comments. More importantly, I could go on and on (and on) in praise of this book. If you have any interest in Christian origins, Jesus, and the Gospels (even if not in the Gospel of Thomas), and especially if you are interested in the Gospel of Thomas, you should pick up this book.

One last thing. At first blush there's nothing audacious or provocative about Goodacre's title: Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas's Familiarity with the Synoptics. However, we might take seriously the definite article: "the case." I found Goodacre's case compelling, and I am now even more emboldened to describe Thomas as late and familiar with (I might not say "dependent on," but then again I might) the synoptics when I discuss this text with my students. Those who disagree and consider Thomas an independent text now have a formidable challenge in the face of this, the case for Thomas's familiarity with the synoptics.

1 comment:

arcadium said...

a great review of an excellent book

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