Thomas and the Gospels: The Making of an Apocryphal Text
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: SPCK Publishing
Date: 18 Oct 2012
When I was growing up, if people talked about the fifth gospel, they meant you yourself. How you took the message of Jesus and expressed it to those around you. These days when I hear the term it's invariably referring to the Gospel of Thomas.
Mark Goodacre's new book "Thomas and the Gospels: The Making of an Apocryphal Text" is the latest in a series of recent books to examine the fifth gospel. Goodacre is somewhat torn as to whether it deserves its special status. On the one hand he points out that "privileging of Thomas has several damaging effects on the way we pursue our scholarship" (p.194-5), not least because it "encourages a kind of ahistorical privileging of one noncanonical gospel over many others" (p.195). Yet on the other hand, he himself has written a complete book on this one text, but has not yet published a great deal on other noncanonical texts.
However, those worried that Goodacre has lost his sense of direction can rest easy. Goodacre simply recognises the "genius" of the work, whilst wanting to bring an end to the discussion as to whether Thomas pre-dates the canonical gospels. His opening chapter "First Impressions" begins to do precisely that, marking out the territory by looking at the arguments of "genre" (p.9), "order" (p.14) and "Tradition History" (p.17) that are used by those in favour of an independent Thomas. Finding them unpersuasive he turns to John P. Meier's brief observations "that Thomas apparently has parallels with every type of Synoptic material" (p.21) and spends the rest of the chapter outlining what those are and what this means for the question of familiarity vs independence.
One of the things I have always admired about Goodacre is his desire to start by introducing the reader to the evidence before drawing out his conclusions and "Thomas and the Gospels" is no exception. Having set the stage with Meier's observations he spends the next six chapters exploring the significant quantity of material that Thomas shares with the Synoptics.
This is detailed work, offering the reader, at every turn, the original wording in either the Greek or Coptic (as well as English translations for those of us without the necessary language skills). But then Goodacre's point is precisely that our problems have arisen precisely because theories have flooded in before a careful and thorough examination of the evidence. Having read the book in between BBC broadcasts of G.K. Chesterton's "Father Brown" stories I'm struck by an interesting parallel. Time and again the police inspector draws instant conclusions, bending the evidence to fit his theories, whilst Brown strives for a deeper grasp of the evidence before solving the mystery long after the inspector's initial arrests have been released without charge.
Those familiar with Goodacre's work on the Synoptic problem will feel very much at home in these middle chapters. He starts by looking at the places of significant "verbatim agreement" (ch.2), moves on to what he calls "diagnostic shards" (ch.3) and then to examples of the kind of redaction that would be typical of Matthew (ch.4) and Luke (ch. 5) with a particular focus on the "Special Case" of Thomas 79 and Luke (ch.6). The section ends with a look at the places where Thomas's sayings lack seemingly critical details which the Synoptic Gospels include, what Goodacre terms "The Missing Middle" (ch.7).
In approaching the subject this way Goodacre continues the process, tools and vocabulary he uses in analysing the way the writers of the Synoptic Gospels may have used the others. It's the core of the present work and whilst it lacks the Dan Brown-esque zing of other works on the subject it more than makes up for them with a consistent, rational an detailed examination of the evidence. Replacing attention-grabbing conspiracy theories with a solid reappraisal of the evidence is surely a good thing.
Chapter 8 tackles the issue of orality. Thomas has been classified as a "sayings gospel" and so has played a part in gaining greater scholarly appreciation of the need to consider the fact that most people in Jesus' day were unable to read. Whilst Goodacre acknowledges that literacy was indeed significantly lower in the first and second centuries and that this should be remembered, he considers that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. The consensus seems to forget that many people in the first century were literate, and that whilst most people today are literate, a good deal of interaction occurs orally.
As a result he finds himself unpersuaded by the claim that Thomas was an oral gospel - "The appearance of orality is a product of Thomas' genre, the sayings gospel" (p.153). The gospel's preface, the degree of verbatim agreement and its lack of quotations from the Hebrew Bible all suggest that the author was seeking to adopt the saying's gospel genre, rather than forming an oral gospel.
Personally I felt this chapter was a little light on detail in the crucial places. Having made a strong case for re-examining the way scholars handle the question of orality, the evidence suggesting Thomas made a deliberate choice is discussed too scantly to be fully convincing. Could the opening preface not be a later addition, added by the scribe who was finally committing the gospel to papyrus? The degree of verbatim agreement does suggest, to me at least, that Thomas was familiar with the Synoptics but I'm still unsure as to why this means the gospel must have been created first in written form. The case for genre adoption is well argued, but perhaps a little circular. I suspect Goodacre has more reasons to support this theory, so it's disappointing that there's no more detail here: it laves the chapter feeling a little curtailed.
Similarly the penultimate chapter (ch.9 "Dating Thomas...") also ends a little hurriedly. Having made a good argument against early dates for Thomas and Mark he settles on a post 70AD date for Mark, with Matthew and Luke appearing over the next couple of decades and Thomas not arriving until after Bar Kochba's rebellion in 135 AD. This based on Thomas 68 and 71 in which Goodacre finds suggestions that the temple has now been levelled. But again, I'm unconvinced. 71's redaction of the Marcan/Matthean prediction of the temple's destruction might be linked to Thomas' apparent disdain for Judaism, the OT and its practices. 68 might translate in such a way, but its meaning still seems too ambiguous to carry the weight of what is being proposed.But these are minor quibbles over what is overall an interesting, enjoyable, and largely convincing, read.
The final chapter looks at "How and Why Thomas Used the Synoptics" (ch.10) and is the best in the book. Here it is proposed that Thomas "conveys its radical difference from the Synoptic Gospels by hiding its theology in the words and images it derives from them." (p.192) By using Jesus' words in forms broadly similar to those in the Synoptic Gospels, Thomas gives his gospel a level of credibility and authenticity, but, like the later Synoptic writers (only to a greater extent) he brings to bear his own particular theology by which salvation is found through understanding Jesus' secret sayings. For Goodacre Thomas' opening self description, and the way it is expanded in the exchange in Thomas 13, are central to understanding the work. It's convincingly argued to the extent it makes me wonder why this isn't already the prevailing view.
Finally there is a brief conclusion reaffirming Goodacre's central thesis that not only was Thomas not an independent oral gospel written down at a later stage, but that it was a written Gospel which deliberately used the Synoptic Gospels to authenticate its subversive message.
There's evidence to suggest that Goodacre amongst others are starting to gain a greater following for the Farrer theory and it will be interesting to see to what extent his latest work encourages scholars to rethink the prevailing views about the Gospel of Thomas. It's to be hoped that they at least engage with the depth of scholarship here as fifth gospel or not, discussion about Thomas is to remain popular for a long time.
As is often the case, for reviewing purposes I received a free copy of this book. No other financial or material gain was received.