Whilst I have read the enigmatic, so-called 'Gospel' of Thomas I have not read many books about it. It is most certainly a topic WAY out of my zone of knowledge. But one of the books that I did read I found to be absolutely exhilarating. It was April D. DeConnick's Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth (T&T CLark, 2005).
I love the sheer iconoclasm of her work. Almost everyone seems to think that Thomas was an early, non-eschatological document from a proto-Gnostic Christian group that saw Jesus in the mode of a philosophical Sage. But DeConnick says, in brief, "Rubbish! It is rooted in the mission of the early Jerusalem Church and, in its earliest versions, it was thoroughly eschatological!"
Her thesis is that Thomas was an oral 'text' that was developed and expanded in oral reperformance even after written versions were scribed. She thinks that we can tentatively delineate the contours of a kernal Thomas - the first attempt to capture in writing material from the oral pool. As the community faced various crises it developed new 'prophetic' material and Thomas was expanded and expanded. So for DeConnick this 'gospel' is not a collection of Jesus-sayings written down at one moment in history but an aggregate text.
DeConnick's radical thesis is that the earliest material from Thomas is conservative Jewish-Christian material from the mission of the Jerusalem Church with a strong apocalyptic and eschatological tone (not a mere collection of Jesus' 'wisdom' sayings as the current fashion has things). She thinks it likely to date from 30-50 AD making the hypothesized kernal a very early witnesses to the words of the historical Jesus.
But, thinks DeConnick, Jesus did not return as the community had expected so they began to reinterpret the material in less eschatological and more mystical directions (a mysticism inherent in its original apocalyptic impetus). Between 80 and 120 AD the community came to advocate a fully present kingdom - a new Eden - created in the midst of the utopian community. This later oral material, incorporated into Thomas, reinterprets the eschatological teaching in non-eschatological ways creating the mysitcal gospel known and loved by all modern day Gnostics (and the Jesus Seminar).
For DeConnick the scholarly consensus that Thomas is an early Christian non-apocalyptic gospel preserving the message of Jesus-the-Sage is mistaken. She locates Thomas within early orthodoxy rather than outside it - the voice of eastern Syriac Christianity in its earliest form with roots back to the founding Church in Jerusalem. She even suggests that the roots of eastern Orthodox spirituality are found in it.
Is she right? I have no idea. To my mind she made a pretty strong case for her position. I love the idea that kernal Thomas was eschatological and may have roots in Jerusalem.
However, I must confess though that I find the sayings in Thomas very hard to confidently make much sense of. It is so flipping ambiguous! Reading DeConnick's commentary on Thomas (The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation. T&T Clark) I keep finding myself thinking, "Yes ... maybe."
From an orthodox Christian theological perspective I find that parts of Thomas to be theologically helpful (if I have understood them right - which I may not have), but I find the theology of the finished text to be in need of
(a) supplementing, and
(b) pruning (there is material in it which orthodox Christians will not agree with)
'Handle with Care' rather than 'avoid at all costs' is the theological health warning.
Give me Matthew, Mark, Luke and John any day! But perhaps Thomas can now come to the picnic and bring some paper hats for us to wear.
- Robin Parry
- Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).