Monday, February 13, 2006

The Rolling Gospel of Thomas

If April DeConick is right about the gospel of Thomas, it belongs in the New Testament canon. Defying scholars who posit a late gnostic gospel, and liberals who identify an early source of wisdom sayings, DeConick proposes something radically new: that the earliest form of Thomas was thoroughly apocalyptic, and only later, in the face of failed expectations, did the gospel sayings become pressed into a mystical (though not gnostic) service, in an attempt to make the kingdom realized on earth.

DeConick sees the compositional history of Thomas as a "rolling corpus," in the same way William McKane has described that of the book of Jeremiah. A rolling corpus is based on the original words of a prophet received through oral tradition, with new oral material added over time to interpret, explain, and (most importantly) update the meaning of the sayings (p 61). She finds four layers in the rolling corpus of Thomas (see pp 97-98):
1. The Kernel gospel (30-50 CE) consisting of Jesus' apocalyptic warnings and his advice about preparing for the day of fiery judgment (80 passages)

2. Accretions (50-60 CE) dealing with relocation and a leadership crisis (2 passages)

3. Accretions (60-100 CE) accommodating Gentiles, and addressing the early eschatological crisis which resulted in a shift to the mystical dimension of apocalyptic thought (23 passages)

4. Accretions (80-120 CE) addressing new Christological developments and the continued eschatological crisis which resulted in incorporating primordial traditions pointing to paradise regained (41 passages)
The Thomasine Christians are thus seen to evolve from an apocalyptic community to an Edenic one, and by the second century, "their church was Paradise; they were Adam and Eve before the Fall" (p 240). The complete gospel dates no later than 120 CE, roughly contemporary with John's gospel and letters, and the Pastoral epistles. This "grounds Thomas' theology inside early orthodoxy rather than outside... Thomas represents a current in the stream of Christian traditions that ultimately became Eastern orthodoxy" (pp 240-242).

In an interesting anecdote, the author mentions the thanks she has received from a Greek Orthodox hieromonk for "discovering the origins of his religion" (see p 241). Neither a gnostic heresy, nor countercultural wisdom sayings, Thomas points to paradise regained after a failed apocalypse, readily conducive to Eastern Orthodoxy, which (unlike Western Catholicism) teaches the divine image still recoverable on earth. But is she right about all this?

Much of her analysis of the "Kernel" is fine on its own right. In these isolated passages Jesus comes across as a prophet of doom and judgment who is already casting fire on the earth. Jewish apocalyptic portrays the boundary between earth and heaven starting to collapse -- the "rolling up of the skies" (p 133) -- just like in Thom 111, where it's said that the heavens and earth will be rolled up in the very presence of believers (p 137).

Likewise, Jesus is identified with the fire of the heavenly realm: he promises that believers who draw near to him will experience a fiery epiphany (Thom 82); in apocalyptic literature fire is often associated with theophanies (p 137). Other sayings presuppose a time of apocalyptic chaos during which the powers of good and evil are battling for control of the world; calamity -- and key words like "sword, famine, fire, war" -- are common motifs in apocalyptic literature, just as in a saying like Thom 16 (pp 138-139). Jesus offers advice to prepare oneself for the end in various sayings (like Thom 98 and 103) (p 139). He offers the advice of I Enoch 62-63, telling kings to renounce their worldly power (Thom 46) as God's judgment draws near (p 140). A reversal of world order is expected (Thom 63 and 78) (pp 140-141).

All fine and well: from wherever these sayings come, they were surely apocalyptic in origin. But that the gospel of Thomas preserves their original grouping in a collection traceable to 30-50 CE probably amounts to wishful thinking.

For many of the sayings of this so-called Kernel gospel make just as much sense (if not more) as late reinterpretations of those found in the synoptic gospels. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus' pronouncement against the temple: "I will destroy this house and no one will be able to rebuild it" (Thom 71). DeConick offers a peculiar commentary on this passage:
"Unlike Mark, which is promoting the tradition that a divinely rebuilt temple will take its place, a temple 'not made with hands', this Thomas saying suggests that the temple will not be raised again. It is likely that this tradition is older than the synoptic variants, which tone down the harsh oracle by suggesting that there is hope, the temple will be rebuilt." (p 142)
This seems backwards. Originally, Jesus probably made a prediction about God destroying the temple and rebuilding it. When the temple was actually destroyed by the Romans (forty years later), there was less and less hope for its rebuilding as time went on; Jesus' prophecy became embarrassing. Mark and Matthew dealt with the embarrassment by placing the prophecy on the lips of false witnesses:
The chief priests were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, saying, "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'" (Mk 14:55-58/Mt 26:59-61)

They crucified Jesus... Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself and come down from the cross!" (Mk 15:29-30/Mt 27:39-40)
Luke simply censored the prophecy. John spiritualized it:
Jesus said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Judeans said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this. (Jn 2:19-22)
Thomas -- evidently as embarrassed as the above four -- revised the prophecy, by insisting that no one would be able to rebuild the temple after its destruction:
"I will destroy this house, and no one will be able to rebuild it." (Thom 71)
So whether by falsification, censorship, spiritualization, or revision, Jesus' original prediction was controlled so that it squared with what actually happened forty years later. But DeConick wants us to believe that Thomas' version is original and predates 70 CE. This is problematic for two reasons. First, how did the "wrong" idea of the temple's rebuilding enter the Christian tradition, thereby necessitating the damage-control in Mark, Matthew, and John?

Second, there is little if any precedent in Jewish apocalyptic for the destruction of the temple without being rebuilt. DeConick herself acknowledges the many passages in which the temple is expected to be rebuilt (Jub 1:29, 23:21; I En 14:8-25, 71:5-6, 89:73, 91:13; II Bar 4:2-6, T Levi 5:1, 18:1-14; 4Q266 3:20-4:3), and only one where it is not (T Moses 5-10) (p 142). In the last, moreover, the temple's actual destruction isn't made plain (any more than it usually is, even in cases envisioning rebuilding, save perhaps I En 90). The point is that no matter how we tackle it, Thom 71 reads like a glaring post-70 revision rather than the original prophesy itself.

But more general: How does one even attempt to stratify a gospel and determine its earliest layer (the "Kernel")? Sometimes DeConick's strategy appears to be as circular as those she criticizes (Patterson, Koester, Arnal, and others who identify non-apocalyptic wisdom sayings at the base). She says we can do this in the case of Thomas "because it wasn't rewritten into a narrative or theological discourse like the synoptics and John" (p 36). This is an argument we've heard repeatedly from those who love this gospel (and the phantom Q): it lacks narrative. Why are narratives precluded from "earliest tradition"?

Her best answer seems to be that this is just the way oral traditions unfold. Brief, conservative, and redundant speeches mark the earliest stage (p 27), with questions/answer units coming later as they clarify and update the meaning of these speeches. This, she says (following Vernon Robbins), is the typical pattern seen in orally transmitted "speech" sources (p 55). How verifiable this is remains unclear.

She ties this to what is described in the Pseudo-Clementine corpus: sayings of Jesus first collected into speeches used by the early Jerusalem church for proselytizing purposes, with James himself commissioning their use (pp 34-35). "Thus, the first written speech gospels must predate James' death and probably reflect Christian traditions prior to 50 CE" (p 35). But that the gospel of Thomas happens to preserve one of these mysterious "speech gospels" may owe to a fertile imagination more than actual history.

I doubt that DeConick has recovered the original gospel of Thomas, much I would love her theory to be true. Like her, I find it impossible that the gospel is based on an early collection of wisdom sayings (p 46). Like her, I believe that earliest Christianity was apocalyptic to the core, and if she were right, then Thomas would go a long way to proving this with an apocalyptic kernel traceable to 30-50 CE -- predating even Paul's letters. But I don't have confidence in this method of stratifying the gospel (the rolling corpus model), and I'm eternally suspicious of what Donald Akenson calls "downward dating creep":
"The scholarly work on the Gospel of Thomas is illuminating, for it illustrates a particularly invasive phenomenon among biblical scholars -- namely, downward-dating-creep. When one observes this pattern with any Christian document, it is a warning light to the observer: watch carefully and count the spoons... Within the scholarly community there is an almost magical belief in low numbers..." (Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, p 92)
... and particularly with this gospel! DeConick's methodology impresses only slightly more than those of Patterson, Koester, and Arnal. It's nice that she focuses on oral developments more than redactional ones; that's long overdue. But can oral history go so far as to unlock a priceless layer of this gospel anymore than literary criticism can?

At the end of the day, the traditional view of Thomas as a late gnostic document (derived and reinterpreted from various apocalyptic passages in the synoptics) commends itself as the most likely theory, as unexciting as that may be. I don't think scholars like Meier and Ehrman have been mistaking early Jewish esotericism for gnosticism, as DeConick claims (p 54). I think they've spotted an implied gnostic thought pattern where it's been all along. It would be conveniently nice if Thomas did the two things DeConick wants it to do -- show the apocalyptic character of earliest Christianity and the orthodox nature of the end result -- and that may be why I really don't trust her theory: it's just too damn convenient. But despite its failure to convince, the book is important for the way it forces crucial questions about the evolution of oral traditions, and for its proof that sappiential wisdom sayings neither inevitably, nor likely, lie at the core of the gospel of Thomas.

UPDATE: See Stephen Carlson's review of the book.


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

It's a nice review, Loren, and I thank you for pointing out the significance of Thom 71.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You say "why aren't narratives part of 'earliest tradition'?" But DeConinck would agree. On her blog, as part of her response to Perrin, she says she is quite happy with the notion that speech gospels and narrative gospels emerged side by side in the earliest days.


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