Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book review

Thomas, The Other Gospel

Author: Nicholas Perrin
Publisher: Westminster John Knox
Paperback: xii + 160 pps.

Westminster John Knox

Much appreciation to Emily Kiefer from WJK for this review copy!

Due to time constraints with other work I have to do, I will divide this book review into two parts. Nicholas Perrin is an associate professor of NT at Wheaton College, with a PhD from Marquette who wrote his dissertation on the relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron, so I don't think he's a slouch when it comes to scholarly discussions on GThom. He divides the book into two 'Parts' (which will be the way I have decided to divide my reviews): Part 1, he chose three Thomasine scholars to discuss what others are saying about the GThom and Part 2, which he titled, 'What Should be Said About The Gospel of Thomas.'

From just reading the first part last night, I can understand why the book comes so highly praised regardless of its length and relatively sparse footnotes (Part 1 ends on pg. 69 and the footnote # is at 47, averaging less than 1 footnote/page). From the Preface, Perrin makes clear, "I have written this book for two reasons. First, I write because there needs to be a scholarly yet accessible treatment of what researchers have been saying lately about the Gospel of Thomas" (emphasis mine). I appreciated the fact that Perrin does not beat around the bush discussing an endless list of journal articles and monographs with half the page filled with footnotes, at which point the reader must then wade carefully through the heavy material to decide how to best understand the current topic at hand. His points are clear and succinct. So onto the chapters:

Chapter 1 (Stephen J. Patterson)
Patterson sees GThom as telling "a story of community in social and theological flux, one that was transitioning from primitive Christianity as it was taught by Jesus into Gnosticism" (Perrin, 27). Perrin affirms Patterson's conclusion that asceticism is a central "self-defining activity" of Thomasine Christians (though he does list a few problems with Patterson taking Theissen's view that the Jesus movement was characterized by deep asceticism), but deems Patterson's source-critical analysis to be inconclusive in proving Thomasine independence of the Synoptic tradition. In addition, he criticizes Patterson for too quickly jumping on the Koester-Robinson bandwagon of seeing the logoi sophon (or a sayings genre) to which GThom belongs as being primitive, and therefore independent from and possibly have primacy over the Synoptics.
Perrin credits Patterson for successfully establishing a few points: (1) the order of GThom "cries out for explanation", (2) Thomasine Christianity was thoroughly ascetic, (3) this community adopted realized eschatology, and (4) there are analogies between Thomasine Christianity and Syriac Christianity.

Chapter 2 (Elaine Pagels)
Her main argument is seeing the fourth gospel as a response to the Thomasine community. Perrin states, "at bottom, Pagels's goal is to show that in the first three hundred years of the church's existence, certain notions attached themselves to Christian traditions, notions which, insofar as they unduly circumscribed legitimate spiritual expression, were alient o earliest Christian belief" (Perrin, 38). Perrin does not seem to be convinced of the argument that the fourth gospel casts Thomas in a negative light, especially in light of John 11:16; 14:7; 20:28.
Perrin concludes that "whatever our judgments concerning the dating of the core of the Gospel of Thomas, the evidence compels us to conclude that the collection could not have been compiled in its final form much earlier than 150 CE. This is simply because we know that at least two of the sayings, Gos. Thom. 7 and Gos. Thom. 102, are traceable to mid second-century contexts."

Chapter 3 (April DeConick)
Perrin states, "if Patterson has been the most influential within the academy and Pagels has been the most influential amidst the broader public, April D. DeConick... is poised, simply on account of her productivity, to have more long-term influence than either." DeConick offers a fourth and alternative model to three major ways scholars viewed the origins of the GThom [(1) literate model - Thomas using written gospels as sources, (2) oral-literate model - Thomas drew on both oral and written traditions, (3) redaction model - Thomas drawing on oral/written with subsequent redactions]: it is called 'rolling corpus', that the GThom evolved over time, "through multiple reperformances in an oral medium".
In response, Perrin (in chapter 6) will agree with certain parts of her argument, but in this present chapter, lists a few problems with her thesis: (1) DeConick's equivocation when it comes to the question of the historical Jesus, (2) her support of "authorship-by-commitee" of the gospels we possess, (3)her dependence on a text from Pseudo-Clementines (Recognitions), a third-century writing to illuminate her view of the transmission of the Jesus tradition.

I think it's safe to say that this merely prepares the table, so to speak, for the second half of his book, at which he will then take a stab at understanding the nature of the Gospel of Thomas. I think the brief survey in 'Part 1' was an excellent review of just what the scholars are saying about Thomas and his community in a way that is not overly technical nor biased. I didn't really mention it in the above sections, but Perrin does give credit to many of the arguments put forth by the three scholars, and he is not dismissive (in my opinion) in any way of their own attempts at understanding the question of the canonical gospels against GThom.

So far, recommended! (For those of you that are interested in the Gospel of Thomas)


Ben said...

wow... getting more and more PhD styles... but not yet!

Mike S. said...

Ben: Yes, thanks for pointing out that I'm not a doctoral student yet!

Ari said...

Nice review. I started reading Perrin's Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron just a few days ago. I am impressed so far and would love to see his interaction with Pagels and DeConick especially.

Mike S. said...

Ari: Thanks! I just finished the rest of the book, I'm gonna assume the 2nd half that I just finished is probably a concise version of his argument in the book that you are reading. His arguments seem pretty persuasive to me, but I'm not very familiar with the discussions on Thomas right now, so it might just be the novelty getting the best of me...