Thomas: The Other Gospel of Judas

A review of Thomas, the Other Gospel by Nicholas Perrin (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007).

The Gospel of Thomas, attributed to “Didymus Judas Thomas”, is the extracanonical Gospel whose contents are taken most seriously in historical Jesus studies, as potentially connecting us in some way with the historical figure of Jesus. Nicholas Perrin’s recent book is an argument that this Gospel in fact is most naturally regarded as a composition produced in late 2nd century Syria.

I do not intend to engage in a detailed analysis of this main point for two reasons. First, the treatment in this book is a more popularized form of a case made in a more detailed, academic fashion elsewhere. As such, I intend to evaluate the case made here on its own terms, rather than the case made elsewhere (I hope to return to Perrin’s more scholarly publications on some other occasion). Second, the question of whether the Gospel of Thomas, in the earliest version that corresponds to the ‘complete’ form we know from Greek fragments and Coptic manuscripts, was written in Syriac in the late second century, is not the only question, or even the most fundamental one in relation to the questions other scholars have been focused on, although clearly it is not irrelevant. But even if the author of Thomas used Tatian’s Diatessaron, the extremely interesting question of what other sources may have been used remains unaddressed in this book.

There is much in Perrin’s book that is useful, such as the summary of the positive aspects of the work of other scholars, the presentation of the evidence for the date of the complete Gospel of Thomas.

Some weak points include the following:

1) When it comes to the possibility that Thomas was harmonized with the other Gospels at a late stage of copying, this can in no way be said to be implausible (cf. pp.23-24). In manuscripts of the Synoptic Gospels, harmonization regularly occurs, e.g. in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, where scribes often ‘fixed’ it to agree more closely with Matthew’s.

2) Perrin claims that the Synoptic Gospels viewed Jesus as divine, and then goes on to quote Paul – and Simon Gathercole! See pp.44-45. Sometime I must work through Gathercole’s claims in detail, but that will have to be a separate post.

3) Perrin fails to appreciate the way in which it would have served John’s aims to have Thomas acknowledge the bodily resurrection in an appropriate Johannine confession. He also assumes that Thomas’ statement about going to die with him is ‘heroic’, which is possible but by no means obvious.

4) Although it remains to be seen whether there was in fact a clear tradition associated with the name of Thomas or Judas Thomas in the first or even early second century, texts like GThom 13, rather than indicating a completed canon known to the author of Thomas, or his use of the Diatessaron, would most naturally fit a time before the Gospels of Luke and John were widely circulated. I will be the first to admit that this is slim evidence, but if one is going to look for evidence not only of a document’s final date but other important dates in the development of its contents, then such evidence needs to be taken seriously, as does the reference to James’ leadership.

5) Perrin’s argument against DeConick on p.60 is clearly on the wrong track. Luke was not an eyewitness, whatever one may wish to say about other Gospel authors. To say that Luke was…more comfortable relying on others’ written accounts than simply scribing down his own remembrances” (p.60) overlooks this most elementary consideration. (His use of Papias is also open to criticism, since the rabbis also expressed a preference for discipleship to book learning, not because of a preference for orality or the authority of eyewitnesses, but for a preference for lived examples).

6) Perrin uses a rather ridiculous argument from a literate society, and even here it does not fit particularly well (p.68). The example of stories about squirrels and Bruce Metzger that have circulated, and were discussed at SBL this year, is a better example – particularly if, in spite of its apparently not being based in fact, the old form of the story continues to circulate, as often happens.

7) There is only a ‘pregnant silence’ in the pre-Tatian period if DeConick is wrong, which is what Perrin needs to demonstrate, and therefore should not assume (p.103).

8) Perrin is rightly appreciative of the connection that DeConick and others have made between Thomas and Hermeticism. But when Perrin points to Acts 19 as evidence that the early Christians uniformly rejected such influences in an earlier period, he ignores the possibility that Acts 19 tells the story it does precisely to counter an existing tendency in that time.

I am certainly in favor of exploring possible scenarios in which the Gospel of Thomas could be connected with the Syriac language and a Syrian setting, and a closer examination of whether it influenced the Diatessaron or vice versa. Certainly the very name suggests that Tatian was not openly and consciously drawing on one or more additional Gospels. But this seems, in the end, to be beside the point, since the question of whether the final form was produced in late second century Syria is only one important question. Many who might agree that it was would still wish to seek to investigate earlier stages, and this Perrin largely neglects.

Perrin is willing to acknowledge that ideas can last a long time (p.132), when those ideas support his argument. Yet he earlier criticized other scholars for drawing on comparably later sources to illuminate their own hypotheses and scenarios.

Other reviews of and reflections on Perrin’s book have been offered by Michael Bird, Mark Goodacre, and last but far from least April DeConick (mentioned last simply to facilitate adding this note about Nicholas Perrin’s reply to April on the Euangelion blog). See also Parker‘s review of Perrin’s earlier book Thomas and Tatian.

See also April DeConick’s article in the New York Times today about the other Gospel of Judas.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16977985447972987579 Frank McCoy

    In Thomas The Other Gospel, p. 95, Perrin points out, “If Thomas were imitating the sequence of Matthew 12 this would explain Gos. Thom. 44 and 45.2-4, but would not explain the insertion of 45.1 (= Matt. 7.16).” He apparently thinks this is an indication that Thomas didn’t use Mt 12 as a source but, rather, the Diatessaron, shortly thereafter stating, “The best explanation is that the hand behind Gos. Thom. 44-45 drew on a harmonization of Matthew and Luke as reflected in the Diatessaron, where judging by the witness of Ephraim and the western witness of the Middle Dutch harmony, the words of Matthew 12.32-35 seem to have attached themselves precisely at this point of the Sermon on the Mount.”But, if we hypothesize that Matthew used Thomas as a source, then, conversely, we can not only explain the collation of parallels to Th 44 and 45 in Mt 12:32-35 but, in addition, explain why a parallel to the beginning of Th 45 is found in Mt 7:16.Note that:1. In Mt 12:25-31, Matthew successively has a parallel to Mk 3:22-26 in Mt 12:24-26, a parallel to Mk 3:27 in Mt 12:29 and a parallel to Mk 3:28-29 in Mt 12:31. Thus, he appears to be using Mk as a source and using it in sequential order. Further, he uses Mk as his sole source, so that there is no apparent influence of Th 35 on Mt 12:29.2. In Mt 12:32-35, Matthew successively has a parallel to Th 44:2-3 in Mt 12:32 and a parallel to Th 45:2-3 in Mt 12:34b-35. Thus, he appears to be using Th as his source and using it in sequential order. Further, he uses Th as his sole source, so that, in Mt 12:32-35, there is no parallel to Mk 2:29-30 or any other Markan passage.As a result, it appears, Matthew created Mt 12:25-35 in such a fashion as to make Mt 12:25-31 his version of Mk 3:22-29 and to make Mt 12:32-35 his version of Th 44-45.Indeed, we can even see how he managed to make a smooth transition between Mt 12:25-31//Mk 3:22-29 and Mt 12:32-35//Th 44-45 by deliberately omitting a parallel to the last part of Mt 12:31 and a parallel to the first part of Th 45:Line 1Mt 12:31a Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven menMk 3:28a Amen. I say to you that everything will be forgiven the sons of men, the sins and the blasphemies they may blaspheme.Line 2Mt 12:31b But blasphemy (against) the Spirit will not be forgivenMl 3:29a But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit does not have forgiveness into the (final) age——————————–snip————————————-snip————————–Mk 3:29b But is guilty of an eternal sinTh 44:1 Whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven——————————–snip————————————-snip—————————Line 3Mt 12:32a And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man it will be forgiven himTh 44:2 And whoever blasphemes against the Son will be forgivenLine 4Mt 12:32b But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit it will not be forgiven himTh 44:3a But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgivenLine 5Mt 12:32c Neither in this age nor in the coming oneTh 44:3b Either on earth or in heaven.So, the hypothesis that Matthew used Th as a source can explain the collation of parallels to Th 44 and 45 in Mt 12.Even more remarkable, it can explain why a parallel to Th 45:1 occurs in Mt 7:16.To begin with, Mt 7:16-20 and Mt 12:33-35 can be put into a common pattern consisting of five lines: Line 1—The Fruit of a Tree Reflects What it IsMt 12:33 Either make the tree good and the fruit of it (will be) good, or make the tree rotten and the fruit of it (will be rotten. For by the fruit the tree is known.Mt 7:16a By their fruits you will know them.Line 2—Based on the Beginning of Mt 3:7-10 or of Th 45Mt 12:34a Offspring of vipersBeg. of Mt 3:7-10 Children of vipers!Mt 7:16b Thorns are not gathered from grapes or thistles from figsBeg. of Th 45 Grapes are not harvested from thorns, nor are figs gathered from thistles.Line 3—So Something Cannot Produce What It is Not But, Rather, Produces What It isMt 12:34b How are you able to speak good, being evil?Mt 7:17-18 So every good tree produces good fruits, but the rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree is not able to produce bad fruit, nor a rotten tree to produce good fruit. Line 4—Based on the End of Th 45 or of Mt 3:3-10Mt 12:34c For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.End of Th 45 For out of the abundance of the heart he brings forth evil things.Mt 7:19 Therefore, every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and into fire is thrown.Line 5—Therefore, Something is Known by What It ProducesMt 12:35 The good man out of the good treasure brings forth good and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil.Mt 7:20 Therefore, by their fruits you will know them.As can be seen, Matthew interlocks these two passages in two important respects:1. Mt 7:16-20 has an earlier line based on the beginning of Mt 3:7-10 and a later line based on the ending of Th 45, while Mt 12:33-35 has an earlier line based on the beginning of Th 45 and a later line based on the ending of Mt 3:7-10.2. They have a common line of argumentation in lines 1, 3 and 5: (1) The fruit of a tree reflects what is it, (2) So, something cannot produce what it is not but, rather produces what it is and (3) Therefore, something is known by what it produces.What this means is that Matthew apparently was aware of Thomas 45. This is demonstrated in two ways:1. He links (a) the beginning of Th 45 and the beginning of Mt 3:7-10 in Line 2 and (b) the ending of Th 45 and the ending of Mt 3:7-10 in Line 42. The ending of Mt 12:33-35 (i.e., “The good man out of the good treasure brings forth good and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil.”) is very closely related to the center portion of Th 45 (i.e., “A good man brings forth good from his storehouse, an evil man brings forth evil things from his storehouse, which is his heart, and says evil things.”). Further, and this is the key point, we now understand why Matthew placed his parallel to Th 45:1 in Mt 7:16 rather than in Mt 12:33-35. He did so as part of his careful inter-locking of Mt 7:16-20 and Mt 12:33-35!The bottom line: The hypothesis that Matthew used Thomas as a source not only explains why there is the collation of Th 44 and 45 in Mt 12:33-35, but also explains why there is a parallel to Th 45:1 in Mt 7:16. So, it is unnecessary and perhaps even implausible to argue, as does Perrin, that the collation of Th 44 and 45 in Mt 12:33-35 and the parallel to Th 45:1 in Mt 7:16 is due to the author of Thomas using the Diatessaron as a source.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16977985447972987579 Frank McCoy

    A correction is needed to line 4 of the five lines re Mt 12:33-35 and Mt 7:16:20.I wrote:Line 4—Based on the End of Th 45 or of Mt 3:3-10Mt 12:34c For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.End of Th 45 For out of the abundance of the heart he brings forth evil things.Mt 7:19 Therefore, every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and into fire is thrown.It should read:Line 4—Based on the End of Th 45 or of Mt 3:7-10Mt 12:34c For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.End of Th 45 For out of the abundance of the heart he brings forth evil things.Mt 7:19 Every tree not producing good fruit is cut off and fire is thrown.End of Mt 3:7-10 Therefore, every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and into fire is thrown.


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