Reviews of

Simon Gathercole, “The Religious Outlook of the Gospel of Thomas”

In Durham, Gospel of Thomas, Justin A. Mihoc, Second century, Simon GATHERCOLE on November 2, 2011 at 8:39 am

This is a report on a paper presented by Dr Simon Gathercole, Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, at the New Testament Research Seminar, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, 31 October 2011.

The list of forthcoming papers in the NT Research Seminars at Durham University can be found here. RBECS is also on facebook, here.

Dr Gathercole insightfully tackled a very puzzling Christian writing of the second century, namely the Gospel of Thomas (to be subsequently referred to as Thomas), focusing on its theology. His presentation is drawn from a larger project on the composition of Thomas, which he prepares for publication in the SNTS Monograph Series.

In the opening of his presentation, Dr Gathercole briefly introduced some general information on this writing. In antiquity, especially in the Church Fathers, there are a lot of allusions to Thomas (beginning with Ps.-Hippolytus, Cyril of Jerusalem and Origen), and wrongly attributed to Manichees. It is certain that Thomas was used by Manichees, and therefore was treated with suspicion by the ‘orthodox’ groups. There are currently three Greek fragments and one complete Coptic manuscript extant of this book, their text being essentially the same. Thomas is comprised of 114 individual ‘sayings’ of Jesus, with no inter-connecting narrative. About half of it is paralleled in the Synoptic Gospels, but also contains different non-Synoptic material. Its genre is that of a Gospel in the form of an anthology of sayings, and it was originally written in Greek, in either Syria or Egypt. It is dated by scholars from 50 to 200, Dr Gathercole placing it in the first half of the second century (140-150) A.D. Among the central questions in modern scholarship regarding this writing, the two most important are related to the dependence of Thomas on the Synoptics and the type of theology that it employs (whether it is Orthodox, Gnostic, proto-Gnostic, etc.).

Among the earliest attempts to answer these questions by viewing Thomas as systematic is that of Bertil Gärtner (The Theology of the Gospel of Thomas, 1961), who regards it as Gnostic in theology. This is due to the presence of the many parables and myths, but also to a seemingly Gnostic tendency of salvation through knowledge. Other scholars have asked whether it is reflective of the Syriac asceticism (Grant/Freedman). But is it compatible with the Gnostic myths? This question further drew attention to the sources used by Thomas. A bipartite schema was proposed by some (Patterson, Arnal, Puig), according to which Thomas would be made up of two different sources, an initial Synoptic material and a later (proto-)Gnostic redaction. On the other hand, the question remains of whether the sources have anything to do with authority. Identifying compositional layers is always a hazardous enterprise, but this hypothesis has been suggested by April DeConick (Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas, 2005). DeConick explained the conflicting elements in Thomas (e.g. conflicting attitudes towards Jewish Christianity) by the series of source layers, but did not dismiss the existence of eschatological material in the text. A different approach was proposed by Elaine Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels, 1979), who sees Thomas as an esoteric, elite gospel, written for an elite Christian audience. This view is based on the idea that Thomas offers advanced teaching built upon the Synoptic material. Yet another proposal for a theology of Thomas was offered by Risto Uro (Thomas at the Crossroads: Essays in the Gospel of Thomas, 1998), who resisted the tendency of looking for coherence, and instead analysed the direction in which the writing is moving, its ambiguities and leanings. This approach reads Thomas as a whole, where there is no overarching argument or coherent narrative between the chapters.

Following this, Dr Gathercole began to analyse (1) the principal doctrines and (2) the ambivalences, tendencies and ambiguities of Thomas in order to reveal the theological outlook of the book.

(1)   The soteriology of Thomas opens with the belief of the pre-existence of the souls of the elect. The souls came from Paradise, and are also everlasting, eternal and originating in the ‘place of light’ (Th. 49, 50). The tragic reality of the present is due to the fall and the subsequent division (Th. 11), as opposed to the primordial unity of the person, and falling apart of the world and the humans. The second represents the falling of the soul down into matter, into the physical bodies (Th. 29). It is in this way that saying 28, which refers to the incarnation, can be understood. This does not obviously mean an incarnation in the Nicene sense, but is also quite different from the Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel of Judas and other Gnostic texts. One can argue that this is an allusion to the polymorphic Christologies, but there is no evidence to support this hypothesis. Christ is clearly seen as a heroic figure and represented as a Revealer (Th. 78). The reference to gnosis (Th. 3) must not be interpreted as a psychological process, but rather of knowing about oneself. Saying 70, a variant of a Synoptic saying, probably refers to the true human image that dwells within (see the parallels in the Gospel of Judas and the Treatise on the Resurrection from the Nag Hammadi Library). Saying 22 is a soteriological image of the kingdom, a remnant of Matt 19:13-14; Mk 10:13-15; Lk 18:15-16. Following this, in saying 46, at the end of the reference about John the Baptist, we find an image of a child-like figure, as being superior and closer to God because one was more recently born (cf. Th. 21). Dr Gathercole also drew attention to the asexuality that is involved in Thomas. It is clear that Thomas draws on the synoptic language, and its soteriology can be seen through the concept of the reunification of dualities (cf. the ‘self’ motif in Th. 22). With the cosmos having been split up in the fall, it must be made one again.

(2)   There are areas of ambiguity in Thomas. One of the ambiguities is the view on the world, which is negatively portrayed as a corpse (Th. 56). A probable solution would be to distinguish between the two different realms, the world and ‘the all’ (cf. Th. 77). There is also a tendency towards a negative valuation of the body or flesh, as contrasted (but not opposed) by the soul (Th. 29, 112). In saying 29, there seems to be much less of an opposition between the spirit and body, a mutual dependence or interconnection being implied. Elsewhere, different images between them can be found (e.g. physical and spiritual image in Th. 84; cf. Th. 56, 80). Dr Gathercole suggested that the tension that one sees here is, in fact, reflective of the concepts of the period (e.g. the Platonist ambiguity or the disagreements between Valentinian monism and Gnostic dualism). Another tendency found in Thomas is the direction of sexual asceticism and singleness, although there is nothing clearly condemnatory of marriage to be found. Two other ambiguous themes are the spiritualising of the Sabbath (Th. 27.2) and the rejection of prayer, which in some places is seen as harmful (Th. 14), whilst elsewhere as ambiguously positive (Th. 73, 104).

In the conclusion to his insightful paper, Dr Gathercole agreed with the view that Thomas existed in an earlier version, which was reworked and supplemented with an extra layer. The writing is undoubtedly dependent on the Synoptics. However, although there are structural similarities, the content is altered. Thomas contains a lot of parables from the Synoptics, some of them being redacted in the way that they become consistent with Thomas’ theology. Furthermore, Dr Gathercole substantiated the fact that the non-Synoptic material contributes more to Thomas than the Synoptic material. Also, a certain influence of popular Platonism is seen, though it is rather difficult to pin up the different influence because of the difficulty of dating the writing. The author also mentioned briefly that he does not believe that Q ever existed, and that there are no strong clues to believe that the whole book represents a parody. Also, unlike some of the Church Fathers who identify the main character with a Manichean Thomas, Dr Gathercole recognises him as being the Doubting Thomas of the New Testament.

(Dr Gathercole’s paper attracted many positive reactions, questions and remarks, among others, by Dr William R. Telford and Prof John Barclay.)

Justin A. Mihoc,
Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University

  1. […] [Thomas] Justin Mihoc (Biblical and Early Christian Studies) provides a report on the seminar given by Simon Gathercole on 31 October 2011 at the University of Cambridge, “The Religious Outlook of the Gospel of Thomas”. […]

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