Book Review: The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary

gospelthomasgathercoleTitle: The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary

Author: Simon Gathercole

Series: Texts and Editions for New Testament Study, 11

Bibliographic info: 723 pp.

Publisher: Brill, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon or direct from the publisher.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings (logia) of Jesus that are extant in a single Coptic manuscript (from Nag Hammadi) and three Greek papyrus fragments (from Oxyrhynchus). In this volume, The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary, Simon Gathercole, Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge, provides a comprehensive commentary on this extra-canonical text of early Christianity. Gathercole has actually published a couple other volumes on non-canonical texts, including The Gospel of Judas (OUP, 2007) and The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas (CUP, 2012).

This volume is split into two main parts. The first section is comprised of twelve chapters (pp. 1–186), covering issues such as manuscript evidence, provenance, dating, genre, religious outlook, its relationship to the canonical Gospels, and so forth. This section is then followed by a thorough commentary (pp. 187–618) on each of the 114 pericopae or logia. The volume finishes with a 54-page bibliography, and indices of citations, modern authors, and subjects.

There have been several notable studies and commentaries already published on Thomas, including those by DeConick, Pokorný, Hedrick, Nordsieck, Ménard, Valantasis, and Grosso. Gathercole interacts with these throughout, though naturally he departs from these other commentaries on various issues, such as its compositional history, its relationship to the Synoptics, and so forth.

As in Gathercole’s earlier volume on this gospel, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas, he sees Thomas as being originally composed in Greek (instead of Syriac or Aramaic), as well as being dependent on the Synoptic Gospels. He dates Thomas to sometime between 135-200 CE and sees it an unknown author in possibly Egypt or Syria (“it is probably best to admit our ignorance about Thomas’s provenance, while acknowledging that Syria and Egypt are reasonable possibilities” pp. 110-11). Interestingly, Gathercole does not see Thomas as being especially Gnostic in the conventional sense of the term (“it is hard to make a case for Thomas as Gnostic, principally because it does not have a clearly demiurgic account of creation” p. 173), but rather sees it as being quite an adaptable piece of literature. He says:

Part of the fascination of Thomas is that it was apparently acceptable to such a wide variety of different groups (Gnostics, Manichees, etc.), and yet is so difficult to pin down in terms of its origins and of any genuinely close alignment with other known works and movements. (175)

A feature I found particularly helpful was chapter three in which the author discusses the ancient testimonia to Thomas. Gathercole provides forty-eight testimonies to Thomas, of which he sees thirty-nine of them as referencing Thomas and the other nine being a bit more dubious. This is followed in chapter four by about thirty more references to the contents of Thomas found in later writers, from Hippolytus in the third century to the later medieval writers. Another chapter I particularly enjoyed was chapter ten, in which the author provides a thematic theological outlook on Thomas.

Chapter eleven discusses the usefulness of the Gospel of Thomas for historical Jesus studies. While granting the possibility that Thomas may preserve agrapha of Jesus, Gathercole sees it as being dependent on the Synoptics and thus not particularly useful for historical Jesus studies. He says:

Overall, the prospects for the use of Thomas in historical Jesus research are slim. As scholarship currently stands, and with the primary sources that are available to us at present, the Gospel of Thomas can hardly be regarded as useful in the reconstruction of a historical picture of Jesus. (p. 184)

The commentary proper occupies the bulk of the volume and consists of the text of the extant Coptic and Greek text, and a threefold commentary on it: textual comment, interpretation, and verse-by-verse notes. Gathercole dialogues with what other commentators have said about the logia and provides convincing reasons for his own interpretations, or just simply admits the meaning is unclear and refrains from making determinations that go beyond what the evidence may suggest. For example, in the infamous final saying of Thomas, Gathercole provides a detailed look (pp. 607-16) at this difficult saying and, in regards to Mary’s transformation and maleness, he says:

How then should this reference be taken? Given the difficulty of the dialogue, it is easier to criticise the views of others than to come up with a constructive alternative. One path to avoid is to take a rather dewy-eyed view of Thomas which attempts to rescue GTh 114 from any suspicion of unfashionable ‘sexism’. (p. 612)

All in all, Simon Gathercole’s The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary will likely be the key commentary on Thomas for some time to come. Thomas is an intriguing remnant of early Christianity and Gathercole’s volume exhibits great lucidity and depth, providing a compelling commentary on the gospel.

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