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.