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.