Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Review of Perrin: Thomas, the Other Gospel

I have (finally) had the pleasure of reading through Nicholas Perrin's book Thomas: The Other Gospel. The pleasure was heightened by reading it on a sunny beach on the east coast of Australia and also reading it in a small country town located amidst 65 wineries and sipping the local produce as I slowly read over the pages.

Perrin's objective is to give an accessible but scholarly introduction to the Gospel of Thomas especially admidst many (often outrageous) claims about its significance in one corner of North American scholarship. Chapters 1-3 give an overview of the Thomasine scholarship of Stephen J. Patterson, Elaine Pagels, and April DeConick. His analysis here is mostly critical, but sympathetic at certain points. The questions that these scholars seek to address provides the agenda for Perrin's own study of the Gospel of Thomas. Those questions include: (1) what accounts for the strange sequence of sayings in Thomas? (2) How might we explain the ascetical elements in Thomas? (3) Why is Thomas so interested in creation themes? (4) Why is Thomas "according to Thomas"? (5) What accounts for the disparate substance of the sayings? (6) Why are all these sayings connected with Jesus, when most of them cannot be attributed to the historical Jesus? (7) Is there a single hypothesis that accounts for the above questions in a single stroke?

For Perrin, the Gospel of Thomas is not Gnostic, rather it is a late second-century document from Syrian Christianity that exhibits features of Encratism, Hermeticism, and realized-eschatology via the influence of Tatian. To this end he draws on several areas of evidence including: evidence for the misunderstanding of sounds from a Syriac original in translation of the text into Greek and Coptic; evidence for Syriac catchwords and redaction; most Thomasine sayings follow the order in the Diatessaron; Thomas reflects Syrian asceticism associated with Tatian; Thomas draws on Tatian's logos theology; and the soteriology of Thomas reflects Tatian's own view of salvation as something essentially internal. Viewed in this light, the Gospel of Thomas should be viewed in Christian origins as part of the puzzle deriving from late second century Syrian Christianity.

This is a good introduction to the Gospel of Thomas for anyone interested. I find Perrin's proposal quite attractive, but confess that I remain agnostic about his overall thesis. I think the strength of Perrin's argument is that he makes a strong case for a Syrian provenance for Thomas, the Diatessaron may have been the first or only Gospel-like piece of literature available in Syriac at the end of the first century, the reconstruction of common catchwords in Syriac is suggestive of a Syriac original for Thomas, and perhaps the order of the sayings in the Diatessaron in comparison with Thomas is a plausible indication of dependency. On the other hand, an original Greek text for Thomas is not impossible esp. since we do have Greek fragments. Composition in Greek would have also made the document easier to spread to different environments outside of Syria as well. Basically there are simply too many unknowns in the equations to be decisive about the original language of Thomas, esp. when we are talking about texts which we do not have access too. Like many others, I am simply not qualified to be able make an informed decision about matters pertaining to Syriac, Coptic and the Diastessaron in order to be able to either affirm or disagree with Perrin's proposal in full. I also wonder about the possibility of Thomas echoing intra-Jewish debates of a former period given the reference to James and circumcision which occur in polemical contexts. Likewise, I am unconvinced that in logion 13 that Simon Peter is a cipher for the Gospel of Mark. I think Matthew and Peter both represent Jewish Christianity. Also ascetic practices were not limited to eastern Syria as vegetarianism was an issue in Romans and sexual abstinence in 1 Corinthians. The Gospel of John and its relationship to Thomas remains a burning issue that any theory on Thomas must account for, e.g. are Johannine traditions found in Thomas (R.E. Brown), is there a John vs. Thomas polemic going on (G.J. Riley), if Thomas cites the Diatessaron why the absence of Johannine material (Mark Goodacre). That being said, if Perrin is correct then there's a lot of North American scholarship that can be taken to the trash-can for good. I think Perrin's most enduring contribution will be his arguments for a Syrian origin for Thomas in the last quarter of the second century and he has made Tatian and the Diatessaron a plausible source for Thomas as well.

Mark Goodacre coveniently lists the reviews of Perrin by David Parker, Paul-Hubert Poirier, Robert Shedinger, Peter Williams, and see also the in-depth critical interaction from April DeConick.

1 comment:

minternational said...

Mike, I think it would be most appropriate (and helpful) if in future book reviews you suggested an approrpiate wine to accompany the reading of the book, with tasting notes to explain why that particular vintage would suit the volume - like they do in all the best cookery programmes these days (in fact, you could have a regular column - 'volume & vintage').

I realise your vision will be limited to the southern hemisphere but any thoughts you can offer would, I'm sure, be appreciated.