Thursday, March 11, 2010

About Patterson's review

I have been asked by some of my blog readers to respond to Stephen Patterson's recent RBL review of my book, The Original Gospel of Thomas In Translation. It is a review, and normally authors don't respond to them. It represents one scholar's opinion of another's work. There is not much more to say than that. Some scholars have highly praised my works. Others do not. Patterson is among the latter.

Why the difference in scholarly assessment? When reading reviews of books, I always try to keep in mind that every scholar comes from a particular position, and that position likely has impacted how he or she reviews a book. In the case of Professor Patterson, he is a strong supporter and member of the Jesus Seminar and its new project on Christian Origins. Central to that project is the position that the earliest Christians were non-eschatological wisdom folk, as was Jesus. They use their earliest literary stratification of Quelle, and the Gospel of Thomas to demonstrate this thesis.

Where do I differ from Patterson? I argue that the Gospel of Thomas does not all come from the same period. And if we make a full literary-critical analysis of the gospel that we will see that the oldest materials in the Gospel of Thomas are eschatological, and these have been softened over time to focus on more mystical traditions as the gospel grows and develops within a church setting.

Patterson wrongly calls my method "form-critical". It is not. A form-critical approach, as we all know, is an approach whereby variant readings of a saying are compared and through this comparison a primary oral originating version is projected. I never do such a thing in my book. I am not comparing versions of sayings to come up with an oral originating version of the sayings or of the Gospel of Thomas. In fact, I think that the form critical project is defunct. I have included an entire three chapters on my method in Recovering, which I call a new tradition-historical method, and include within it a strong critique of form criticism in light of studies in orality and rhetoric.

What do I do? I begin with an observation that the form critics make and with which I do agree. The form critics have successfully demonstrated that the sayings tradition has been reworked with communal interests in mind. In other words, it has been secondarily developed. One of the places where we can see this development most prominently is in the passages where sayings have been worked into dialogues between Jesus and the disciples, especially when those dialogues are about issues that were concerns for the church, but likely not concerns for Jesus' followers during his lifetime. This is my starting point to identify material in the Gospel of Thomas that has been secondarily developed by the church.

There are a number of such dialogues we can identify in the Gospel of Thomas. And the issues raised in them are post-resurrection concerns. The disciples are asking Jesus when they are going to see him again, when the new world is going to come, what diet they should follow, whether or not they should be circumcised, and so forth. All of these issues are easily traced to issues that were facing the church in its formative years.

My method proceeds by analyzing these dialogues, their themes and their vocabulary. From there I continue a structured literary analysis of the rest of the sayings, identifying those which contain similar themes and vocabulary.

After making this analysis, I examine what sayings are left, and what I discovered is that the sayings left have an imminent eschatological outlook and a christological outlook that is remarkably similar to the first Christianity that was associated with Jerusalem and the tradition of James. I also noticed that the sayings I could identify as secondary were of another variety altogether, focused on encratic and mystical traditions that were readjusting, tempering, taming, whatever you want to call it, the earlier eschatological perspective.

The long and short of it is that Professor Patterson and I are never going to see eye to eye on the Gospel of Thomas. So Patterson's review should come as no surprise to any of my readers. It certainly does not come as a surprise to me. My thesis does not fit the Jesus Seminar model, and in fact, if taken seriously by the Jesus Seminar, would uproot it. I am never going to support the program of the Jesus Seminar which has a particular version of Jesus and the early church which it wishes to promote even when the evidence points in another direction as is the case with the Gospel of Thomas, and also in my opinion Q.

The questions that one should ask of Patterson is why a literary-critical analysis (and even form-critical if one wanted to) is possible and successful for the synoptics and Quelle, but not for Thomas? Why is it possible to make a full literary-critical analysis of a text we don't even possess, and yet not so with the Gospel of Thomas? Thomas is exactly the kind of text that Bultmann would have loved. It is as close to an "oral" text as we are going to get. We have the brains and the tools to do this as I have demonstrated in my book, and yet it is resisted. Why? Is it because we will see that the early tradition was eschatological? That Bultmann was right after all?!

I continue to object to being read as someone who wants to "stratify" the Gospel of Thomas. This is Patterson's model and language not mine. I am not identifying layers, something I repeatedly state in my work. I see the text as a rolling text, as shifting in its contents gradually as it was performed and copied. I hope if I repeat myself enough perhaps I will soon be quoted properly on this subject and that the secondary literature that will be written in the future will speak about my position accurately.

I also want my readers to know that my two volume work was originally a single volume and the publisher broke them up because of the length. So they really are companion volumes written together. This means that the second volume, the commentary, was written as an appendix to support my arguments in the first volume. It is like an extensive footnote system for my own analysis of the Gospel of Thomas (see p. xi Recovering; p. ix Original). The commentary was never intended to be a full commentary representing all material that was ever written on each and every saying. I write in the introduction that I am not including in my commentary references to the Gnostic hermeneutic but instead have focused on an alternative hermeneutic which sees the Gospel as an example of Syrian religiosity, which is the argument I am making in Recovering.


Unknown said...

The attempt to find the historical Jesus by eliminating eschatological and other texts that are too close to Judaism is a distinct failure. If one removes places where Jesus fits into Judaism one cannot find the historical Jesus because he WAS Jewish. The removal of eschatological texts is part of the removal of the Jewishness of Jesus.

One has to wonder if this method is not a part of the antisemitism in Europe.

Boudewijn Koole van Brigdamme said...

Thank you Pastor Bob for your entrance. By "is not" in your last sentence you mean "(in the time it was developed and perhaps even later) has not been"? :-)

PAULYR said...

I've read both reviews of DeConick's, 'The Original Gospel of Thomas ...', in 'RBL' by Patterson and Witetschek, and both reviewers have positive things to say about the book and recommend it as an important contribution to scholarship. Patterson is at odds with Prof. DeConick in that he does not support her methodology. Witetschek too criticizes DeConick's method, but not to the extent that Patterson does; Patterson trashes her hermeneutic when he says. "DeConick's method ... is too deeply flawed." Prof. DeConick, in this post, says that people aren't properly understanding her approach to Thomas. They are using old categories, old labels, to describe her work, which she repudiates. What is the upshot of this debate about GTh? Wisdom and apocalyptic are not mutually exclusive areas of thought or language and writing (von Rad showed this with respect to OT religion). Both forms of spirituality are present in Gth and many early Christian writings, and both were united in the mission of Jesus.

Mark Goodacre said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your comments, April. Cf. some similar comments in my blog. A couple of quick comments:

(1) "I continue to object to being read as someone who wants to "stratify" the Gospel of Thomas. This is Patterson's model and language not mine. I am not identifying layers, something I repeatedly state in my work." I agree that you repeatedly state this, but I wonder if the end result of your analysis is something that does resemble the stratification of Q quite closely. Although a rolling corpus, with multiple stages, redactions, instantiations, movements, interactions, performances, re-performances etc., you nevertheless do have a couple of particular major instantiations of Thomas, viz. the Kernel Gospel and (broadly) the Thomas that we have witnessed in the Coptic. Is this very different from Q1 and Q2 of Kloppenborg's model, supported by Patterson? I suspect that that kind of analogy is behind his seeing literary stratigraphy in your work -- the result of your analysis resembles what is present in some Q scholarship with respect to Q.

(2) "The questions that one should ask of Patterson is why a literary-critical analysis (and even form-critical if one wanted to) is possible and successful for the synoptics and Quelle, but not for Thomas? Why is it possible to make a full literary-critical analysis of a text we don't even possess, and yet not so with the Gospel of Thomas?": I think Patterson does want to engage in literary analysis of Thomas, but he wants to do it on the basis of literary analysis rather than using methods that feature elements adopted from form criticism. In other words, he is not objecting to literary stratigraphy of Thomas in principle but rather to literary stratigraphy that borrows from form-criticism.

But I am with you on the mild Q scepticism implied by "a text we don't even possess". I am tempted to say that it is a text that possesses those who try to interpret it :)

Christopher W. Skinner said...

April, I have read quite a few of your interchanges and responses across the web and it seems to me that every time someone disagrees with one of your positions you accuse them of either (1) misrepresenting you, or (2) misunderstanding you. Could it be that they understand you and simply disagree? Just a thought. . . .

April DeConick said...


I find your comment to imply that I do not know my own work. There are many scholars who characterize my work perfectly. But when it is clearly not understood, I have no problem whatsoever saying so.

My position is clearly stated in my books for all to read. I start with a simple form critical observation, but this does not make my entire approach form-critical. And anyone who bothers to read the full three chapters I have written on my method, will see that that is the case. From that observation I move to make a very detailed presentation of a literary-critical approach. Why this is difficult for some scholars and not others to understand is quite hard for me to conceive.

April DeConick said...


I appreciate your comments.

1. It is hard for new models to take hold when old models continue to dominate our view. It is a very different thing to say that we are not looking at distinct literary redactional moments when a text is altered to become another text, and to say that we have an old gospel that is reperformed and over time accumulates materials until we have it in the form we do. I do not know what the different literary stages of the text looked like or if there ever were any distinct stages. I project that it was once a smaller gospel and that the accretions crept in some earlier and some later, but not under one redactional hand, and not in any way that I could determine what the gospel of Thomas might have looked like in 70 or in 90. All I can tell is what looks, after a detailed literary analysis, to be earlier and later.

2.As for your observation about literary analysis of Thomas. It HAS to be done or the text cannot be integrated into the work of understanding Christian origins. Of course the observation that form critics have made about secondarily developed traditions can be applied, and should be applied to the Gospel of Thomas. It is done to Quelle, which doesn't exist. It is done with the synoptics. So yes it can be done with Thomas. To treat this text any differently from the others is to not be historically or methodologically fair.

Ed Jones said...

Earliest "Christian" origins were not Christian. Earliest oigins were origins of the Jesus tradition which occurred in the apotolic period 30 CE - 65 CE, properly named the Jesus Movement. According to the likes of scholars Ogden, Robinson and Betz, the Scriptural source for this apostolic period is the oldest layer of the Synoptic tradition. Betz and Robinson identify this source to be the Sermon on the Mount which came from the Jerusalem Jesus Movment, dating it mid !st Century,
before Christianity and before the Gospels. Thomas is not a Scriptural source, thus it is secondary.

steph said...

Mark - although we do possess, thanks to the extraordinary imaginative powers of the IQP, "the" critical edition of "Q", there is still not only "a" text, but as many texts as there are "Q" scholars who each add their own flavours and variations. But yes, then they each become possessed by the magic of their creations.

Just thought I'd say... said...

Ed Jones wrote: "Earliest "Christian" origins were not Christian."

Thats right. The earliest "Christian" movement was Jewish. There was no mid first century Jerusalem Jesus movement. But there was a prophetic movement that rejected animal sacrifices and sought to follow the Spirit. The movement was in effect a split or a sect of Judaism. Some of them went to Rome when Jews from the diaspora joined. Anyone joining that movement would have been seen as Jewish. Pliny the elder described them as "flourishing" around 70 CE. This was a time of peace when land was being bought and sold (the Land Sale Documents), and coins were being minted that depicted the joyous worship of the sanctuary (the so called coins of the 'revolt'). said...

It was a movement that had its beginnings with a Judas, Judas Maccabeus. said...

Bob wrote:

"If one removes places where Jesus fits into Judaism one cannot find the historical Jesus because he WAS Jewish."

Jesus was created (invented) as a character removed from Judaism by Flavian authors. There was a movement of Gentiles that had become Jewish - Nero, for example, had converted to Judaism of a prophetic nature, the christianos or anointed ones. The Flavians corrected that, introducing their own brand of Christianity with a human saviour. And Vespasian had destroyed the Jewish symbol of the
Spirit, the Jewish sanctuary. said...

Just imagine what history would have been like if Hitler had dominated the rest of the world. What view of Hitler would we now have? Well, Vespasian did what Hitler could not do. He had his own history written for him. And a large part of it was the 'history' as we have it in the writings attributed to Josephus - a high proportion of which is a fabrication.

Ed Jones said...

In defence of the Real Jesus I am compelled to take issue with your eschological Jesus. Just as much as with Patterson you come from a particular position. With full confidence you discount the form-critical approach which has served the 200 plus yrs. quest, declaring it defunct, as you apply your "new tradition-historical method" to the Gospel of Thomas finding "an imminent eschotogical Jesus" (in primary sayings), while seeing (in secondary) sayings that "were of another varity althogether focused on encratic and mystical traditions" developed by later redactors (sayings which identify with true revealed religion -Ultimate Reality). Jesus is thus let go of as but another mistaken misguided end of the world prophet, whether he lived is of no moment. I point to another position which ironically you share with Paterson as well as with the Jesus Seminar: the failure to recognize the primary source for the Jerusalem Jesus Movement which began with the key disciples Peter, James and John, later led by James the brother of Jesus: The Sermon on the Mount (Apparently following the wide consensus that the Sermon was authored by the Evangelist Matthew. This says that you also let go of the works of three of our top longest standing critical histrical theologians: Ogden, Robinson and Betz. The Jesus of their works is precisely the stark opposite of your eschatological Jesus. For them the Sermon on the Mount is the primary Scriptural source while the Gospel of Thomas is non-scriptural, a secondary source. Letting go of the likes of these three scholars enevitably opens one to a critical judgment.

., said...

Ed Jones wrote:
"I point to another position which ironically you share with Paterson as well as with the Jesus Seminar: the failure to recognize the primary source for the Jerusalem Jesus Movement which began with the key disciples Peter, James and John, later led by James the brother of Jesus:"

The primary source for the Jesus movement was the fertile imagination of its Flavian authors. But the source of the original "break-away" New Testament movement of the Spirit was undoubtedly James, who in your statement is obfuscated in two James's.

Simon was James' brother, and the Flavian writers had the latter turned into Peter "the rock" for their story, may be because he and some others were prevented from escaping by the rock they tried to tunnel through. Simon was taken captive after Vespasian decided it was time to ransack the temple and burn the evidence. The prophets had revolted. The prophets (approximately 800) that were left alive were led in a fake triumph through Rome.

M.W.Grondin said...

April -
Sorry to be late here, and this may not be the best place to ask this question, but my attention has just been drawn to the fact that you translate the lacuna in L65 as 'creditor' instead of, say, 'honest/good man'. Doesn't this play into the hands of the JSem's picture of Jesus?
-Mike said...


Instead of sending his son, the logic of the story tells you that it was originally, "he (that is God) came himself (by his Spirit), they will respect me". The story has been got at, and the one sent has been changed to Jesus. (Mk.12). G of Thomas is later, and dependent.

"He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others" was God getting rid of the priests and replacing them with the prophets. This was all in the context of the enmity between priests and prophets. The Jesus Seminar is wrong to think that Jesus existed, even if they like to think of him as a Jewish prophet.

M.W.Grondin said...

Your opinion was as uncalled-for as it was worthless. said...

I couldn't resist it Mike. That of course is your opinion, as it may well be the opinion of others. At best Jesus can only be an eschatological, probably Flavian image, not a historical Jewish character. He was invented shortly after the Jewish war, partly as a parody of Nero who was murdered. The G of Mark was adapted by Flavians from an earlier prophetic document.

M.W.Grondin said...

You're apparently quite right that you can't resist trotting out your groundless speculations at the least opportunity, Geoff. Even after I indicated that I wasn't interested in your views, you gave still more! Incredible. said...


Izates, groundless speculation? Have you ever read the story of Izates? It occurs at a point in Josephus exactly where one would have expected to find something to do with the young Nero. It is in fact a garbled story about Nero and his mother Agrippina adopting the Jewish prophetic ways. (Ant.20.2) The story concludes with the young emperor Nero (Izates) giving "a great sum of money to the principal men of Jerusalem" (the poor prophets who were being persecuted by the priests).

Nero (changed by Flavian editors to Titus, probably taking the michael) took gifts of money to the Judean prophets ('Corinthians'). He was accompanied by, of all folk, Epaphroditus, his secretary, who was a brother. And the 'Corinthians' were apparently "in fear and trembling" of Nero (Titus).

More than groundless speculation, I think.

M.W.Grondin said...

You're quite right. I should have said 'theories' instead of using a judgmental term. No theory is perfectly groundless, only more or less so. But the point is, you're like a boorish uncle who button-holes you at a family gathering and won't let go until you've heard his theories for the umpteenth time. said...


Each person to his own taste.

I happen to think that the earliest Christianity came from Flavian influence on a Jewish prophetic movement of the Spirit. That influence extended to the rewriting of history in the New Testament and the writings attributed to Josephus, and even Philo. Winners wrote the 'history'.

You can carry on in your own little world of G of Thomas. But as soon as you mention the NT, I feel I have the right to comment, and shout it from the rooftops, WHEN I AM ALLOWED.

As far as I am aware, most commentators on Josephus are Christian or Jewish scholars. Steve Mason is a Christian, isn't he? What else would you expect to hear from such, but literalist interpretations? Martin Goodman is probably another. They just repeat the lies presented to them.

M.W.Grondin said...

I hear you, Geoff. You're practically begging to be stopped before you preach again. Sorry I can't help you with that. Maybe April can when she gets back. said...


You probably remember that you kicked me off your site.

M.W.Grondin said...

You mean the GThomas list, I take it. No, I hadn't remembered that, but maybe this would be a good point at which to wind up our conversation. Thanks.