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.