Saturday, July 18, 2009

Gospel of Thomas: Three Recent Books

Some recent and decent books on the Gospel of Thomas that have come out in recent days include the following:

Uwe-Karsten Plisch
The Gospel of Thomas: Original Text with Commentary
Stuttgart: Bibelgesellschaft, 2007.
Available in the UK and Europe at Alban Books.

This is a fine introduction and commentary on the Gos. Thom. and its associated literature. Plisch is very circumspect about dating and though he recognizes that logia 68 is post-Bar Kochba revolt, it does not mean that the whole document is. He regards the transmission of Gos. Thom. as preserving a mixture of traditions that are earlier and later than the Synoptic Gospels and some independent traditions too, though he provides no argument for this in actuality. But he does raise a good point that the case for Thomasine dependence on the Synoptics only applies to about half of Gos. Thom. which parallels the Synoptic accounts. What I did find interesting was Plisch's suggestion for how the Gos. Thom. emerged and he uses the analogy of a box filled with ostraca. He writes: "In studying the Gospel of Thomas, I was thinking about a box filled with ostraca. Without making too much of it, this image can still be applied to the aporias in the Gospel of Thomas. One the one hand, the size of an ostrakon is limited; on the other hand, it is big enough to allow recording of several excerpted proverbs that can even come from different sources. Yet it can also happen that there is not eough room on the ostrakon (or other writing surfaces) for the entire text of the last excerpted logion, so that the rest of the text has to be recorded on the next writing surface." It is this variety of sources that best explains the disparity of the Gos. Thom. in his thinking. That means that the tradition-history of each logion should be evaluated on case-by-case merits. Plisch follows mainstream commentators by identifying the roots of the Thomasine tradition in Syria. He thinks the use of doublets might indicate the influence of lectionaries on the collection of logia as well. Plisch also provides one of the best short introductions to the theology of Gos. Thom. that I've read where he notes its distictive perspective on Jesus, the kingdom, salvation, ethics, and ecclesiology. The presentation of the text in the commentary contains the Coptic text of each logion, followed by a Greek retroversion of the logion whenever it has a parallel in the NT or in the P.Oxy materials. An English translation is also included and in the commentary Coptic and Greek words are helpfully transliterated.

Enno Edzard Popkes
Das Menschenbild des Thomasevangeliums: Untersuchungen zu seiner religionsgeschichtlichen und chronologischen Einordung
WUNT 206; Tuebingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2007.

This is Popkes' published version of his Habiltationsschrift which is distinguished from some approaches to Gos. Thom. by its refusal to try to excavate layers of redaction and tradition underneath the text. Popkes provides a study of the anthropology in Gos. Thom. and especially the concept of "image". Popkes will also be contributing an essay on "Paul and the Gospel of Thomas" to a collection edited by myself and Joel Willitts in the future so keep an eye out for his essay there.

Christopher W. Skinner
John and Thomas - Gospels in Conflict? Johannine Characterization and the Thomas Question
PTM; Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2009.
Available through Wipf & Stock in the USA.

In this volume Christopher Skinner contests the notion that the Fourth Gospel was composed as a polemic against Thomasine Christians or the Gospel of Thomas due to certain readings of John 20.24-28 which are said to reflect and inter-community conflict. Skinner points out that Thomas is a fairly insignificant character in the Fourth Gospel, Thomas is simply one of many unbelieving and uncomprehending characters which provide a narrative foil for the literary and the theological designs of the Fourth Gospel, and interactions between Jesus and Thomas do not reflect interneccine strife anymore than the interactions between Jesus and Phillip.

He writes: "In their publications on the John-Thomas relationship, Riley, DeConick, and Pagels are concerned with the history of early Christianity and what they regard as its multiform development. All three scholars rely heavily upon source-, form-, and redaction-critical criteria to explain the conflict they envision. Elements of historical inquiry also factor into their discussions. Then, after developing a picture of the John-Thomas conflict using a complex set of different historical-critical elements, each scholar introduces a one narrative critical insight to vaidate their view - the characterization of Thomas. This leads to a truncated reading of the Johannine narrative that drastically overemphasizes the significance of one minor character. The hermeneutic that emerges is an amalgam of loosely connected methodological assumptions forced together to pain a picture that is unsupported by the available information. Through this approach they reveal that their greater concern is to mine the text for insights that will assist their revaluation of early Christianity and gospel origins. Or, to say it more succinctly, in the character of Thomas they simply find what they are looking for. Because of this they generate incomplete, superficial readings of the Fourth Gospel that subjugate the interests of careful reading to those of historical speculation and reconstruction" (pp. 231-32).

Skinner's arguments should be read beside those found in Ismo Dunderberg's volume, The Beloved Disciple in Conflict? since Dunderberg argues similarly against a John/Thomas community conflict. Overall, Skinner's monograph makes for a sound read and gives a good update on recent research on the Gospel of Thomas.


Brandon said...

Good post, Mike. Yesterday I started writing an annotated bibliography on the Gospel of Thomas commentaries, so this post came just in time. I'll also be reviewing Plisch's commentary on my site in the near future. All the best.

Mike S. said...

Hi Mike.

Thanks for this post. I've been semi-interested in extra-canonical gospels, and maybe this is a place to start?

M.W.Grondin said...

Just to let you know that I've publicized this blog entry (as I try to do all blog entries having to do with Gos.Thom.) to the scholars GThomas egroup. See