Syriac origins for the Gospel of Thomas? Not convinced, I think

Paleobabble is a useful blog on some of the factual mistakes that go around.  He’s suspicious — as I am — of the idea that the Gospel of Thomas is “obviously” earlier than the canonical gospels; the way in which this idea is asserted and disseminated has that characteristic smell of a bit of paleobabble.

The Gospel of Thomas: Is it Really Earlier than the Canonical Gospels?

Many scholars think so, especially those trotted out by the Discovery Channel, PBS, etc.  A lot of scholars disagree, and for good reasons, but that isn’t as media-sexy.

Here’s a good article on recent re-consideration of the “earliness” of Thomas. It’s by Nick Perrin of Wheaton College, whom I know. Nick spoke as part of a lecture series I coordinated in Bellingham, WA a couple years ago on this topic. The article is a bit technical, but I think non-specialists in biblical studies will follow it.  I post it since there is so much paleobabble surrounding the Gospel of Thomas. You all ought to know that it’s not so neat a picture as the popular media would have it.

The article by Nick Perrin is interesting.  But in truth it is merely a summary of research, reflecting its origins as a paper given as an address.  I think to be happy with the thesis made, we would need to see all the supporting evidence.  Bits of this paper make me feel unhappy with the argument.

The first bit to do this appears on p.69, where a table of Matt. 8:20 with its version in the GoT and the Diatessaron appears.  This is given to show that the GoT agrees with the Diatessaron.  But … the table is in English!   We need, instead, the original languages, albeit with an English gloss.  I feel deeply uneasy relying on quite as many layers of translation as this table must involve!

The general argument seems to be that there are more “link words” between the sayings if we translate the text into Syriac than if we do into Greek, or in the Coptic.  The reason is that the same Syriac word may represent more than one word in Coptic, thereby creating links not visible in the other two languages.  Likewise the fact that in Syriac families of words all derive from one tri-literal root naturally creates links that won’t exist in other languages.

But … won’t the same apply to every translation into Syriac?  I’d like to see a control test; look at one of Chrysostom’s sermons, extant in Greek, and its Syriac version, and see if exactly the same thing happens, and how often.  It seems to me that it must do.  Because, after all, both things are features to the language.  If so, the statistics quoted may be simply meaningless, unless adjusted for a possible general feature.

The other issue that will come to mind is to ask why the Diatessaron is not, then, using GoT?  If the latter was composed in Edessa (? why?), surely such a thing is likely?  We’re not told this.

In my bones, the paper feels forced.  It feels clever rather than convincing.


8 thoughts on “Syriac origins for the Gospel of Thomas? Not convinced, I think

  1. I have not had time to look into this article, but as someone who is familiar with both Coptic and Syriac,I feel they have some syntactic similarities, so one should be careful in cases such as this…

  2. He’s written a book, THOMAS AND TATIAN, listing all the catchwords. It has not been reviewed very favorably by Syriacists, though.

    The Diatesseron is an argument independent of the catchwords. We are all hampered from the loss of the (Syriac) original for it.

  3. Nicholas Perrin contends that Tatian could not have used Thomas as a source. See Thomas the Other Gospel (p. 96, footnote 40), “Tatian’s use of Thomas is unsustainable. This amount to saying that although Tatian was indebted to the four gospels for almost his entire harmony, at these more than half-dozen places he inexplicably left off from the canonical gospels and depended instead on Thomas, but only where Thomas happened to match the order of the synoptic gospels.”
    Still, it is to be noted, in none of these more than a half-dozen places does Tatian follow a uniquely Markan order. Rather, where Tatianic order tracks with Markan order it also tracks with Matthean and/or Lukan order. So, it is incorrect to say that he that, if Tatian used Th as a source, he used it only where it happened to match the order of the synoptic gospels. What is correct to is to say is that, if he used Th as a source, he used it only where it happened to match the order of Mt and/or Lk. Further, this is readily explicable under the hypothesis that Matthew used Mark and Thomas as sources and Luke used Mark, Matthew and Thomas as sources. In this case, all we need assume is that, Tatian knew, both Matthew and Luke had used Th as a source. So, at the more than half-dozen times when Matthean order and/or Lukan order tracks with Thomasine order, Tatian knew for certain that Matthew and/or Luke had been using Th as a source and, so, felt free to use Th as a source himself.

  4. I’ve never understood why we jump on the claims of later Church Fathers that Tatian necessarily ‘created’ the Diatessaron. I am not even convinced that the existing ‘Diatessaron’ which survives in Arabic is the original text that Tatian used. As such I don’t understand what people claim is Tatian’s role here. There is very little light in this cave so to speak to make any conclusive judgments.

    Indeed Tatian himself must have argued that he inherited the text from his association with Justin. Justin certainly used a harmonized text but again very little is known about how that text differs from our surviving Arabic manuscript. Why don’t we at least suspend judgement until more evidence is uncovered? It is curious that Irenaeus does not mention Tatian’s alleged ‘creation’ of the so-called Diatessaron (it was not originally identified by this title among the churches of Syria and the Middle East; I suspect it was simply known as ‘the Gospel of Jesus’ from the first words of its title but that can’t be proved either). The accusation that Tatian authored the text comes from a later period when indeed all ‘harmonies’ are attributed to him.

    Our need for certainty sometimes leads us to go beyond what can actually be said with any degree of certainty. It is our inherited presupposition that the the Diatessaron solely derives from a mixing of the four canonical texts. Yet why are the earliest manuscripts of the NT inevitably from the Diatessaron? (Ehrman The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research p. 77 “[i]n raw chronological terms, the Diatessaron antedates all MSS of the NT, save that tiny fragment of the Gospel of John known as P52.”) I personally don’t understand why for instance P52 is identified as proof for the early existence of John when the same material is found in the Diatessaron word for word (check it out for yourself).

    Much NT scholarship is recklessly developed from inherited presuppositions. The Diatessaron is a thorny issue and we should take the advice of Wittgenstein who once noted “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

  5. Most of the argument in favor of the gospel of Thomas strem form anti-christian prejudice.peace

  6. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that; we can tell because of the sheer lack of evidence for the wild claims tossed around. It does no harm to point up the possibility of a late origin.

    But I don’t see any reason why an early 2nd century text shouldn’t incorporate material from the oral tradition, whose existence is witnessed by Papias. Why not? Every good fake does this. But in truth, in the absence of the original text of the GoT, it’s quite hard to know what we’re looking at.

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