Wednesday, May 9, 2007

What is the Kernel Thomas?

I have been discussing the Kernel Thomas with my students this semester and also with some of my readers. The feedback I have been getting has been quite fascinating, but there has also been the tendency for some to simplify my hypothesis in such a manner that I cannot support.

The Kernel Thomas is a name that I use to indicate the earliest material in the Gospel of Thomas. I suggest that this early material was an early collection of sayings in a speech format and that it was used by the Thomasine Christians as a storage cite for Jesus' sayings. Preachers and teachers used it as a platform for their orations. However, as I write on page 113 of Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas:
"My translation and analysis, in this monograph and in the companion volume The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, should not be mistaken to suggest that I understand the Kernel sayings I have isolated to be a complete coherent document."
Accretions is the name I use to indicate later material in the Gospel of Thomas, material that accrued due to a range of forces that impacted early Christianity generally (as we can see from other early Christian writings) and specifically for this community of Christians living in Edessa.

I resist describing this text in terms of layering and stages and phases. If my work is described or deconstructed as such by others, it is not representative of my position. I am arguing the opposite position, that this text was created in a dynamic and organic environment. For the sake of convenience only, I included in Recovering a chart to show how and when I understand the accretions to have come into the Gospel of Thomas (pp. 97-98). But I label the chart "Gradual Accural of Logia," and I introduce the chart by writing:
"The chart should not be read as representing three stages of 'redaction' (literary or oral) of Thomas. Such a reading would represent a complete misunderstanding of my argument. The accrual occurred mainly within the field of oral performance and was gradual."
The goal of my method was simple: to identify the later material, the accretions. I worked conservatively, and I worked backwards, beginning with the identification of the sayings I was 100% convinced were secondary.

Once I did this, I could examine the earlier material to see what it generally looked like, and to analyze how it had been reinterpreted by the accretive material which had their own concerns and hermeneutics.

What I found was quite similar to what had happened to earlier traditions in other late first and early second century literature - the early apocalyptic material had been reinterpreted to handle the fact that the End did not come as had been expected; the Jewish material had been reinterpreted under the pressure of Gentile concerns; the understanding of Jesus shifted from that of a Prophet and the coming Angel of Judgment, to Yahweh incarnate; an encratic lifestyle developed; and so forth.

If you wish for a straightforward summary of my hypothesis, I have written one for Expository Times. I believe is comes out in June or July.

Update 5-10-07: other posts on other blogs (with my comment)
Mark Goodacre


John Shuck said...

This is very interesting. Can you use a similar method with Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John? What might be some differences between those texts and Thomas for your method? said...

With both the New Testament and some texts attributed to Josephus, I look for what I believe is the later material, on the instinctive basis that the earlier material was Jewish, prophetic, and probably apocolyptic (in the sense that the Lord was expected). I try to either eliminate the later material if I believe it has been added, or reverse edit where I believe earlier text has been changed to suit the later agenda. A friend of mine calls this eisegesis. But I am convinced that my method works consistently for much of the New Testament and for some of the texts attributed to Josephus.

However, just because a section of text has been inserted by an editor, it does not necessarily mean that it contains no useful information regarding the earlier material. For example , the editor who inserted Acts 1.20: ' “For”, said Peter it is written in the book of Psalms, ..." 'May another take his place of LEADERSHIP.’" is subliminally telling us that the early Christians were about to appoint a new leader to replace their original leader Judas.


April DeConick said...


Another good question you raise. The method works well for Thomas because we are dealing with one type of material - sayings - which I think are the easiest to spot secondary developments. I explain why in my book.

Once we hit narrative material, that gets more difficult. I haven't thought it through.

I would however like to apply the same method to Quelle and see what the results are. I haven't tried this yet for the sheer fact that I just don't have the time right now.

ARobinsonization said...

Why don't you publish it online?