Thursday, February 1, 2007

Is the Gospel of Thomas Dependent on the Synoptics?

Michael Grondin, the moderator of the Gospel of Thomas Yahoo list serve, has asked me to comment on the question of dependence of saying 79 on Luke. Professor Mark Goodacre has kindly provided the list serve with a paper that he has written on the subject. He is absolutely correct. If there is a case to be made for dependence, saying 79 is one of them. The others are sayings 5/6, 31, 39, 45, and 104. All are Lukan parallels. The arguments in all cases are based on the presence of words that some scholars regard as traditionally redactional, that is words that are thought to be from the Lukan hand. This has been recognized for some time, going back to the work by Professor Schürmann, "Das Thomasevangelium und das lukanische Sondergut," BZ (1963), and Professor Schrage, Das Verhältnis des Thomas-Evangeliums zur synoptischen Tradition (1964). Professor John Sieber, who makes a case for the independence of the Gospel of Thomas, allows for the possibility of dependence in these cases too in his often-quoted unpublished dissertation, A Redactional Analysis of the Synoptic Gospels with regard to the Question of the Sources of the Gospel According to Thomas (Claremont, 1966).

What these parallels mean exactly is the real story in my opinion. If you want these parallels to support a case for an either/or scenario - either Thomas is dependent or independent - you probably won't like what I have to say. I have a full discussion of this on pages 15-24 of The Original Gospel of Thomas In Translation, 2006. The issue is very complex, and suggests a little of both. I think the most likely scenario (that makes sense of all the evidence) is that as time went on, versions of the older, independent sayings came to be influenced by memories of the sayings in other gospels, particularly Luke. Also it is quite likely that there were later sayings added to the Gospel of Thomas as it developed as a text, accretions based on the gospels as I think may be the case with sayings 3 and 113 (//Luke 17:20-21). Was Luke a favorite gospel in eastern Syria? I had a private conversation with Professor Vernon Robbins at the SBL meeting in Washington, D.C., and he is working on this question right now. I am really looking forward to reading about his findings because, from what he told me, I think they will go a long way to help us sort this question out.

Another factor we have to take into consideration is that the ancient world functioned within the parameters of an oral consciousness. This means that written texts weren't actually read by all that many people. People would hear things and then rely on their memories in order to pass on the information that they had heard. So this suggests that issues like dependence and independence become very complicated. The notion that we have a fixed synoptic tradition at this time just cannot be supported by the evidence. The sources of these gospels (if not the gospels themselves) developed within an oral environment, so what we have traditionally earmarked "redactional traces" might instead be evidence of source variation. What if the Gospel of Thomas and Luke were familiar with certain locale variants of some of the sayings of Jesus and are preserving those independently? So we have to be cautious about the redactional argument.

The big question for me is how do we distinguish between independent oral variants, and variants influenced by secondary orality (where an old independent version is adapted to the memory of another version of the saying), and secondary scribal adaptation (where an old independent version is modified by a scribe to fit his memory of the saying in another gospel or liturgy), and direct literary dependence (where Thomas took it directly from another written gospel). If anyone has any ideas, I'd love to hear them. I have run a pilot experiment within a controlled environment to try and determine whether there are certain markers or indicators or patterns characteristic of different modes of transmission (from oral to oral; from oral to written; from written to oral; from written to written). This semester I've put together a team of my students to collate the data and hope to be writing the results this summer. The experiment was occasioned by my observation that the parallels between Thomas and the synoptics are far far less verbatim than those we find in the triple or double tradition in the synoptics (see the appendix, "Verbal Similarities Between Thomas and the Synoptics" in The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, 2006). I'll report back on this as the data comes in.

So it's complicated, but I hope by moving the discussion away from an either/or literary dependence argument, we might actually make some progress on the problem.


Mark Goodacre said...

Many thanks for this very helpful piece of feedback. I hope to comment on my blog later today. In the mean time, for those who wish to access my pre-publication article, it is posted temporarily at

Mark Goodacre said...

You wrote, "If there is a case to be made for dependence, saying 79 is one of them. The others are sayings 31, 39, 45, 56, and 104. All are Lukan parallels." I don't think you mean 56 and 104, do you? I agree that 31, 39 and 45 are good examples, though I think that there are many others.

April DeConick said...


104 // Luke 5:33-35 has been used to explain Thomas' reference to prayer. See my response though on page 282 of The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation.
56 should read 5/6.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for the clarification, April. The typo re. 56 is also in Original Gospel, p. 18, I'm afraid. Agreed on 104 as a candidate for dependence. You mention on Original Gospel, p. 282 that "Luke 5.35 clearly has modified retrospectively the tradition to refer to Jesus' death". The reference to the bridegroom being taken away is, I think, taken over by Luke from Mark 2.20, but it doesn't surprise me that Thomas lacks the reference given the document's thought patterns elsewhere, which avoid reference to Jesus' death.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

How is your experimental setup going to be different from the study described in a recent JBL by McIver and Carroll?

April DeConick said...


I set it up in a very different way. I have specifically used a saying, a parable, and a miracle story. I have four different groups who used the same material in different modes of transmission. I ran both short term and long term memory experiments, as well as an experiment to get at secondary orality. Absolutely fascinating project. It is just a pilot and I am only now putting the data into stats format. I want to see if there are certain patterns or tendencies in the way that material is transmitted from oral to oral, oral to written, written to oral and written to written environments. We will see how it stacks up to what McIver and Carroll concluded. But keep in mind that I am going after a different set of data with different questions. So I am not replicating what they did.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Thanks. It sounds interesting and I am looking forward to it. As John Poirier pointed out in a critical note published in a later JBL, some of their conclusions didn't follow from their experimental setup, so there's room for improvement.

April DeConick said...


Thanks for this note. I do have very specific questions that I am asking, and I have tried to design (with the help of a psychologist colleague) the experiments to get at those questions. Once I start seeing the results tabulated, I can go back and design even more specific experiments to test for the specific responses.