Book Reviews

Thomas and the Gospels

The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics

Mark Goodacre Grand Rapids 2012-09-24

The relationship between Thomas and the canonical Gospels is at the heart of many debates over Christian origins. Critics who argue that Thomas is early and independent maintain that it reflects a strand of Christianity within the first century and shows the varied nature of early Christianity. On the other hand, if Thomas relies on the canonical Gospels, then it would probably best be situated within the second century. In short, did orthodox Christianity (or what some call “proto-orthodoxy”) emerge out of a number of alternative Christianities within the first century? Or does it predate the varied segments of second-century Christianity, of which Thomas is a part? Following Walter Bauer’s thesis that orthodoxy was a second-century response to the diverse Christian context of the first century, many critics have argued that Thomas represents a distinctive form of first-century Christianity that is independent of the Synoptic Gospels. Goodacre presents one of the more robust responses to this popular position.

Scholars offer three arguments for the independence of Thomas. The first argument is that it lacks genre. It shows similarities to how many have envisioned Q, which predates the canonical Gospels. The problem with this is that both Q, as the International Q Project has constructed it, and Thomas contain basic but distinct genre features. The features in Thomas align closer to second-century saying sources. The second argument is that the order of the sayings in Thomas seems to be older than the canonical Gospels. However, as a sayings document it did not need to retain a specific order. The author could have had a certain agenda for the order he chose. The third argument is that the Thomas sayings that are found in the Synoptic Gospels do not reflect the same redactional development that is seen in Matthew and Luke. Those who make this argument assume that sayings tend to expand over time, that shorter sayings are earlier. In reality, each Gospel writer both omits and retains material.

These arguments for Thomas’s independence are attractive at first blush, but the argument for Thomas’s dependence is much more conclusive. The basis of Goodacre’s argument is that “there are broad parallels to many different strands in the Synoptic Gospels (and John) in Thomas” (p. 20). Goodacre points out that Thomas contains material found in all three Gospels (triple tradition), material found in both Matthew and Luke (double tradition), and material that is unique to all three Gospels. Furthermore, Thomas contains Matthean and Lukan redaction. The variety of contact between Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels is remarkable and suggests that the author of Thomas was familiar with the Synoptic Gospels.

The remainder of the book shows where Thomas retains the distinct editorial activity of Matthew and Luke, even when it falls out of step with his own context. Goodacre calls this evidence “diagnostic shards,” or a distinctive writing style that a later author might inadvertently incorporate in a newer document. Generally these elements are minor and easily overlooked. For example, Thomas picks up Mathew’s distinctive phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” (Thom. 20, 54), which became popular only in the second century. It is doubtful that Thomas as an independent first-century document would have used the peculiar phrase.

One of the more striking examples is Luke 11:27–28 and 23:27–31 and Thomas 79. Thomas includes features that make sense within the Lukan context but do not cohere with Thomas. First, Luke regularly makes use of anonymous comments as a foil for Jesus’ own teaching (cf. Luke 11:27). Except for the current context, this device is absent from Thomas. Second, Luke’s reference to the crowd (Luke 11:27) is expected within the context, but in Thomas the presence of a crowd is out of place, particularly since the author values secret sayings. Third, in both Luke and Thomas Jesus states that those who both hear and do the word of God will be blessed. Elsewhere, Thomas focuses only on hearing the secret sayings of Jesus (cf. Thom. 1). These distinctively Lukan elements are out of place in Thomas and suggest that the author of Thomas is familiar with the Gospel, not just a shared source.

A major value of a book like this is in the evidence, but a danger for such a book is losing the reader in the detail. Goodacre’s analysis of the evidence is excellent, and he does not lose sight of the larger question of Christian origins. As a result, he is able to investigate the small and seemingly inconsequential details that specialists will require and also engage students new to the topic. Throughout the book readers of both sorts will find Goodacre’s sustained argument that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptic Gospels. Scholars who argue that Thomas reflects an independent and early strand of Christianity will have to contend with this volume.

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