Retrospective/Review: Q, Thomas, and Killjoy Scholarship
Spring 2002: "If we were to dispense with Q, it would not be without tears. For Q has been all over the world, loved by everyone, feminists and liberation theologians, the sober and the sensational, the scholar and the layperson, a document with universal appeal. Indeed one of the keys to its success has been its ability to woo both conservatives and radicals alike. While conservatives, for example, are drawn by its early witness to the sayings of Jesus, others have seen its lack of a Passion Narrative as witnessing to an alternative stream of early Christianity, one not based on the proclamation of a crucified Christ. For those at one end of the theological spectrum, Q can give us a document of Jesus material from before 70, written within a generation of the death of Jesus. For those at the other end of the spectrum, Q aligns itself with the Gospel of Thomas to form a 'trajectory' in early Christianity that contrasted radically with emerging orthodoxy." (The Case Against Q, pp 16-17)
Fall 2012: "The idea that Thomas is familiar with the Gospels can seem unwelcome. If Thomas derives much of the material it shares with the Synoptics from the Synoptics themselves, then... no longer would Thomas be an early, independent witness to primitive Jesus tradition or to early, variant Christian ideologies. It is easy, in such circumstances, for a case in favour of Thomas's knowledge of the Synoptics to be seen as something of a recalcitrant, spoil-sport attempt to hark-back to a position that is now passé. Unless there are new arguments, and new perspectives, the case for an autonomous Thomas remains a highly attractive one to anyone interested in exploring the diversity of early Christianity. Given the difficulty in making progress in scholarship, some might feel that the last thing we want is to undo the fine work of the last generation and to set back the clock to a bland, monochrome view of Christian origins." (Thomas and the Gospels, p 3)
Mark Goodacre has become something of a killjoy in biblical scholarship, and that's cause for rejoicing. If historical criticism is supposed to be about scientific inquiry, or where evidence leads, then its results shouldn't necessarily please us. Yet it would seem that the field is often a playground for those who don't move beyond conjectures and deductions in efforts to paint things more complicated or arousingly different than they really were. The work done on Q and Thomas falls in a particularly unflattering spotlight, as the existence of one and early dating of the other enjoy remarkable followings, even by those who can only vaguely explain why they even believe such things.
I'm not exempt from this charge. I once believed in Q, for over a decade in fact, despite fleeting initial misgivings. As an undergrad in '91 I remember being taught the way Luke faithfully preserved Q as contrasted with Matthew's spiritualizing agenda, the classic point being "blessed are the poor" (Lk 6:20) which became "blessed are the poor in spirit" (Mt 5:3). Yet I had also just been taught that Luke had a social agenda for the poor and outcasts. Doesn't it make better sense, I asked, that the agenda worked in the opposite direction? That Luke socialized a spiritual saying? Well, came the answer, Q was concerned about the poor too.
And that was that. On the strength of scholarly consensus, assurances from a professor I held (and still hold) in high regard -- and because my introduction to the New Testament didn't even seriously entertain the idea that Luke could have known Matthew -- I accepted the phantom Q: a mysterious lost source which Matthew and Luke used independently of each other. I bought into this business with ease, and wouldn't seriously confront the Farrer theory1 until Goodacre's user-friendly defense of it in 2002.
I was not, however, on fast friendly terms with The Case Against Q. I was nonplussed by it at first, admiring its aesthetic (Goodacre is a good writer) while hating its content. It was an irritation and meant the great historical-Jesus scholars of the '90s -- and I mean the mighty ones like Meier and Allison as much as fantasists like Crossan and Borg -- were speaking the wrong language. It meant that so much scholarly labor on early Christian origins relied on a mirage. True, there was always Sanders, and yes, many a thesis would have pressed home the same with or without Q to lean on, but for purposes of academic dialogue, Q had been (and I think still is) a major common denominator. And I liked Q, or the idea of it: a tantalizing "gospel behind the gospels", which hinted at more primitive ideas.
Thomas is a different matter. I never bought into ideas about its early dating and literary independence, and so Goodacre's sequel is an immediate validation of what I always knew: that Thomas was familiar with the Synoptics, he used Matthew and Luke quite clearly, and his gospel is significantly gnostic (though Goodacre avoids the term: see further below) and can be comfortably dated to around the 140s. Lest I wax too smug, Goodacre does include a chapter on orality that gives me pause, as I've been somewhat guilty of caricatures he complains about when contrasting oral and print cultures. But more on that in a later post.
Back to Q: On second reading of Goodacre's book (in 2004), it emerged for me as what it is, becoming -- not to sound too dramatic -- a summons. What would happen, I asked myself, staring dully at the blue-and-white cover with its overbloated "Q", if I did not skim the uncongenial arguments this time, but gave myself to them, if I truly lowered the plow through the surface crust? Chapter seven's "How blessed are the poor?", in particular, pointed an accusing finger; it voiced my own nagging objection from way back in '91. But it wasn't just the specific point about Luke's social agenda that began turning me. The Case Against Q is one of those books that compels on every page with its even-handed candor and muscled interdisciplinary approach. Like the hot-off-the-press Thomas and the Gospels, it shows how the science of historical criticism can truly be at one with the humanities, when employed by aesthetic writers and shrewd thinkers.
Today, in retrospect, it actually stuns me how flimsy the basis for Q is. Its defenders have manufactured problems where none exist. That Luke doesn't reproduce Matthean elements within the triple tradition is unsurprising, as Goodacre notes, since those elements conflict with Luke's interests;2 we don't suddenly pretend we've never heard of redactional criticism in trying to prove a case for Q (p 51). More importantly, this claim isn't even true; there are very clear cases in the triple tradition where Luke looks more Matthean than Mark does. Yet when this happens, the Q advocates appeal to "Mark-Q overlaps", an astounding heads-I-win-tails-you-lose argument (p 54). Even worse is the "argument" that Luke doesn't reproduce Matthean elements only found in Matthew (M material), silly at the most basic level, since that's the way M material is defined, but even on a more detailed level doesn't hold up to scrutiny (p 55). As for the so-called "distinctive character of Q", which favors issues of poverty, the Gentiles, debates about the law, Jesus' relationship to wisdom, and the spirit, these are (of course) precisely the sorts of "Luke-pleasing" issues we would expect to see co-opted from Matthew on the assumption that Luke copied him (p 68). It's the same reason that M material, by definition, was ignored on grounds of it being "Luke-displeasing" (p 70).
A better argument is the one of alternating primitivity: that if Luke were copying Matthew, we'd expect Matthew more often to preserve the more original form of the saying. But this only spotlights how Q advocates have gone about assessing original forms (p 60), based in no small part on the assumption that Matthean expressions are typically not primitive, nor distinctive of "Q", which Goulder long ago showed to be false. Assuming its existence, Q's style is in fact quite Matthean at times (p 61). But more generally, the whole befuddlement over alternating primitivity ignores the oral dimension to the way texts are handed down and received. No reasonable scholar denies that Luke was aware of oral Jesus-traditions -- he tells us himself that he was working with both oral and literary sources in Lk 1:1-4 -- and we should obviously "distinguish properly between direct use of a prior text and knowledge of oral traditions, both of which are key in the composition of Luke's Gospel" (p 66). "Alternating primitivity" is one of those hands that seem monster but show air when the cards are flipped over.
Goodacre is at his best, however, in demolishing assumptions about order and rearrangement. Three whole chapters of The Case Against Q are devoted to the question of Matthew's implied aesthetic. Far from the disorderly scattering charged by Q-advocates, Luke's reworking of Matthew is a huge improvement. The reason Luke's gospel has the biographical verisimilitude appreciated by all scholars owes precisely to his "unscrambling" of Matthew which makes the material flow more smoothly. For those who have any doubts about what is obvious -- or what should be obvious when we look at the gospels literarily as much as theologically -- Goodacre's "bonus" chapter on the celluloid Christ pays dividends. Modern filmmakers evidently agree with Luke that Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is too long and unwieldy -- too much to keep the audience interested, compromising the narrative flow, and weakening the literary impact of the gospel narrative (p 126). Even Pasolini's slavishly faithful Gospel According to St. Matthew abbreviates, truncates, and rearranges the sermon with a vengeance (pp 125, 130). It doesn't take a literary genius to see that Matthew's discourses interrupt his narrative all around, while Luke cleans him up so that the sayings complement and grow out of the narrative (p 129). Put bluntly, Matthew's sermon is not the masterpiece implied by some Q-enthusiasts, and indeed his literary skills are a liability -- the clever five-block infrastructure notwithstanding.
Fast-forwarding to today, Goodacre is still on target about ordering. Thomas' rearrangement of the Synoptic sayings are no more a problem than Luke's rearrangment of Matthew. This is especially true in view of his agenda aiming at shock, surprise, even disorder. "It is not just the sayings themselves that shock and surprise, but also the bizarre juxtaposition of apparently contrasting ideas, side by side... Thomas' Gospel is aiming at enigma, and this is why it announces itself as an enigma from the beginning (Incipit, 1), and why it orders sayings in this apparently incomprehensible way. If there is one thing that is clear about Thomas, it is that it is not clear. Modern interpreters with their bright ideas about Thomas's arrangement run the risk of attempting to explain what the author wishes to leave unexplained." (Thomas, p 16) There are bizarre ideas that take on near axiomatic status in biblical scholarship, and the one which assumes gospel writers are so unlikely to scramble and reorder their source material is among the most bizarre.
But you could almost throw all of this out. The most imperative point relates to realistic expectations about verbatim agreement. In the case of Q, Goodacre echoes Goulder: the minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark (which are at least acknowledged by Q advocates, unlike the major ones which are circularly attributed to Mark-Q overlaps) remove the very reason to postulate Q (Case, p 168). After all, Q's existence is predicated on the assumption that Luke didn't know Matthew at all. All that is needed to demonstrate Luke's knowledge of Matthew is exactly that. The minor agreements aren't so "minor" when you stop and think about what constitutes evidence for familiarity, and to ignore this point is to also ignore Occam's Razor.
In the case of Thomas, Goodacre invokes the "plagiarist's charter" against those who similarly demand unreasonably large amounts of verbatim agreement. Stephen Patterson's standards would excuse a lot of unethical behavior:
"When students are accused of plagiarism, it is no excuse for them to point to the amount of material that they have not taken over. No reasonable disciplinary body would accept the lack of copying in parts of the paper as an excuse for the copying in other parts of the paper, or as evidence that the copied parts are not copied. Nor is this just the case in relation to student plagiarism. The relevant legal judgement on the topic is clear: 'No plagiarist can excuse the wrong by showing how much of his work he did not pirate.'" (Thomas and the Gospels, p 55)Again, all that is needed to establish Thomas' use of Matthew and Luke is exactly that. Goodacre establishes this beyond a reasonable doubt. The Greek fragment of Thomas shows the same kind of verbatim agreement with the Synoptics (as between P. Oxy. 1:1-4 (Thom 26) and Lk 6:42/Mt 7:5), as the Synoptics do with each other; and no one seriously thinks that agreement between synoptic texts like Lk 6:42 and Mt 7:5 are due to oral tradition (pp 30-33). That Thomas knew both Matthew and Luke is pretty clear.
His dependence on Matthew is seen most clearly by the phrase "kingdom of heaven" (Thom 20, 54, 114), which is not, as has been claimed, an avoidance of the term "kingdom of God" -- for that phrase is found in the early Greek fragments of Thomas if not the complete Coptic version (pp 66-69). Then there is the "out of the mouth" phrase (Thom 14), in which Thomas follows Matthew's redaction of Mark about what truly defiles a person (pp 70-73). There is also the curious case of Thomas' reworking of the Tares (Thom 57), which in turn is probably a redactional expansion of Mark's Seed Growing Secretly, which Thomas also knows (Thom 21). Goodacre underscores the missing antecedent in the missing middle of the parable, as well as the glaring apocalyptic allegorical Mattthean residue which opposes Thomas vision; indeed, the only reason Thomas seems to have used this parable at all owes to his love affair with everything in Mt 13 for the agricultural imagery (pp 73-80).
His dependence on Luke is also evident. In the "nothing that is hidden that won't be made manifest" saying (Thom 5), he parallels the Lukan rephrasing of Mark (pp 82-84). And the saying about a prophet in his home country (Thom 31) follows Luke's theme of acceptability in place of Mark's theme of honor (pp 84-86). There is also special Lukan material: the Rich Fool (Thom 63) and the "womb and breasts" passage (Thom 79), rather glaring instances of dependence, even if it's not as easy to see redactional work when there are no parallels in Matthew and/or Mark; we don't suddenly suspend redactional-criticism when we run into Sondergut material (pp 87-96).
Then there is the classic "blessed are the poor" saying (Mt 5:3/ Lk 6:20/Thom 54). What we have -- and what I glimpsed immediately in '91 but wouldn't see until a second reading of Goodacre's Q book in 2004 -- is a spiritualized saying in Matthew, which got truncated to a social one in Luke, and then both of them co-opted by Thomas. The common wisdom that Q (preserved in Luke) and Thomas both preserved the early form of the saying independently of each other, and that Matthew, knowing Q, spiritualized it, is not only an unnecessary complication invoking phantoms and unwarranted downward dating, but embarrassingly ignores both Thomas' use of the distinctly Matthean "heaven", and Luke's glaring agenda for the poor and outcasts. "Perhaps," says Goodacre, "we are all too eager to discover a message more palatable in a secularized society, in which 'spiritualizing' represents a secondary, negative development of material originally more conducive to a social gospel." (Case, p 147; cf. Thomas, p 51) There is simply no solid objection to the idea that Luke used Matthew, and that Thomas used both of them in turn; these schemes offer the most plausible and economical solutions; they are completely believable.
Unlike Q, Thomas existed; it is real. But it doesn't testify to some primitive variant of Christianity grounded in wisdom. If some of us can't whiff its gnostic fragrance (I can), the nose isn't necessarily at fault:
"That some insist on Thomas' Gnosticism while others vigorously deny it illustrates the success of Thomas' project. Thomas reinvents Jesus as the mysterious, enigmatic Living One who sometimes sounds suspiciously like the Synoptic Jesus but who, in the end, is not the same man. He preaches but he does not heal; he speaks in parables but he is not the Son of Man. He uses familiar metaphors but he does not quote Scriptures; he speaks of the kingdom but he does not expect the end. Thomas' Jesus does not speak about the passion, and his disciples do not witness the resurrection. The Gospel of Thomas' genius is that it conveys its radical difference from the Synoptic Gospels by hiding its theology in words and images it derives from them." (Thomas and the Gospels, pp 191-192)But eschewing the term gnosticism altogether (see p 176) is perhaps overly cautious on Goodacre's part. Everything he demonstrates in his last chapter confirms essentially what scholars like Meier and Ehrman have been saying all along. Thomas uses Synoptic sayings to invest his new esoteric material with an older authenticity (p 172), and that esotericism certainly reads as gnostic, and is confirmed as such by Goodacre's own dating of the gospel to around the 140s.
That dating is based on secure data -- the witness to the temple's destruction (Thom 71) and presupposition of the Bar Kochba revolt (Thom 68) (see pp 166-171) -- and makes perfect sense of not only a strategy that relies on co-opting the Synoptics rather than audaciously replacing them, but the striking mention of Judas Thomas. Goodacre underscores a trajectory in the gospel traditions which moves from no authorial self-representation (Mark and Matthew), to hints of authorial self-representation (Luke and Acts), to a definite but unnamed authorial presence (John), to finally an explicit self-representation (Thomas) (p 176). It's a trajectory which reflects increased claim of apostolic authority in a world of unusual gospels. A world, in other words, where the likes of Irenaeus and Valentinus warred on each other through their own writings.
It's also a trajectory which results in a fairly traditional, even boring, picture of early Christianity. But scholarship demands a bit of the killjoy, and we should be thankful for those like Goodacre who don't fear a "spoilsport" branding. I think there's a tendency to expect too much out of historical criticism, that our biblical experts can somehow unlock arsenals that will arm us against the orthodox and open progressive paradigms. The New Perspective on Paul is exhibit A in this regard, for having turned Paul into a modern anti-apartheidist. There's no denying that Judaism has been woefully misrepresented, and the Gentile issue underappreciated (if not ignored), by the Lutheran scholars of old, but the specter of nationalism can be just as intrusive as legalism. Paul's Christology was a radical and complex and harshly alien one that isn't done justice by simply praising ancient Judaism, criticizing Luther, and emphasizing the apostle's concern for Gentile rights.
The scholarly love affair with phantoms (Q) and late heresies made early (Thomas), not to mention hoaxes (Secret Mark), owes to the same kind of romance. It's exciting to tunnel into the past and find countercultural surprises. Sometimes this even genuinely happens. But it requires more than loosing our imaginations and concocting scenarios. Part of me would enjoy setting Calvin on the devotees of Q and early-Thomas, with his famous diatribes against "vain speculation". The other part of me -- the wiser part, I hope -- prefers light over heat, or the radiance of a cold uncaring scientific method which simply takes us where the evidence leads. And as Goodacre has demonstrated, there is no good evidence for Q or an early Thomas.
1. For complete details on the Two-Source Theory (which depends on Q) and the Farrer Theory (which dispenses with Q), see Stephen Carlson's website on the Synoptic puzzle.
2. John Kloppenborg ("On Dispensing with Q?: Goodacre on the Relation of Luke to Matthew", New Testament Studies 49, pp 210-236), unfortunately, doesn't always have the best handle on Luke's interests. He objects to Goodacre's treatment of Matthew's additions to Mark in Mt 3:15 and Mt 16:16-19 as follows: (a) Regarding Mt 3:15, he says that Luke would have had no reason to alter Matthew by putting John in prison at the time of Jesus' baptism, since Matthew solved the problem implied by Mark, by having John call Jesus his superior and by having Jesus describe his baptism as fulfilling righteousness rather than eliminating sin. I can't believe this objection, for Matthew has not in fact solved these embarrassing problems. Jesus is still being baptized by John, as in Mark, and everyone knows what that implies, declarations and appeasements notwithstanding. This is precisely why Luke (like John after him) came up with a better solution. It's very easy to see why Luke altered Matthew in this case, and that's the whole point behind the criterion of embarrassment: there is a trajectory from Mark->Matthew->Luke->John, each of whom controls the damage better than the one before. (b) Regarding Mt 16:16-19, Kloppenborg provides an arsenal of passages which show that Luke holds Peter in higher esteem than Goodacre allows; Peter is sanitized in Luke's gospel and a key preacher and apologist in the first half of Acts, and only recedes in the second half because of the shift of focus to Paul, not out of any low regard for Peter; so had Luke used Matthew and seen Mt 16:16b-19, we would expect to him to have rephrased some of it. It is perhaps true that Goodacre has underestimated Luke's esteem for Peter, but that esteem is a complicated point. The most obvious response is that in Acts the leadership of the church passes from Peter to James, so that no matter how high Luke's esteem is for Peter, Mt 16:16b-19 simply goes too far. But there's more. Luke's esteem is for a fantasy Peter: he has co-opted the historical Peter (who is no friend to Luke) against those like Matthew who were (correctly) invoking him as an authority against certain law-free practices. That Luke felt compelled to claim the support of Peter by reversing his historical role says a lot about this opposition (see Philip Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts). Given the ugly tension between the two images of Peter, it's not at all surprising to see Luke claiming Peter's glory on his own terms rather than on the terms of the source who holds him in high regard for the wrong reasons. Luke's censorship of Mt 16:16-19 is thus not only again understandable, but wise.