An enduring question in biblical studies is the Synoptic Problem, which is the puzzling relationship of the New Testament gospels. Mark is regarded as the earliest, which was copied and modified in the creation of Matthew and Luke. While this direction of dependence has found essentially unanimous agreement, what has never been settled is how Matthew and Luke relate to each other. These latter two gospels contain a large amount of content that is often identical, but is entirely absent from Mark: sayings, parables, proverbs, etc. Instead of positing that Matthew copied Luke for this additional content, or vice versa, New Testament scholarship has broadly argued for about two centuries that Matthew and Luke both, independently, copied from Mark and a now-lost written source labeled Q (from German quelle, source). Q may be reconstructed by comparing these three gospels, and keeping only the content shared by Matthew and Luke. Q was regarded as the simplest solution to the Synoptic Problem, but its detractors argued against the existence of a document which contained no narrative, only teachings from Jesus.

The mid-twentieth century saw the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas within a collection of other lost ancient writings. The surprise was that Thomas is, very similar to the hypothetical Q, a narrative-less collection of teachings from Jesus—proverbs, riddles, dialogues, instructions, prophecies, etc—which the book calls ‘secret words’. These ‘words’ are traditionally divided into one hundred fourteen units called Sayings, though the actual count is a little more than one hundred twenty. There is virtually no narrative structure to the book as a whole, though some passages provide context for certain teachings. Instead, Sayings are arranged primarily by similar topics or shared keywords.

The relationship between Mark, Matthew, and Luke is still debated, as well as the place of Thomas in this relationship. One potential explanation will be entertained in interpretive comments: Matthew used Mark, and Luke used Mark and Matthew. These authors used existing written sources and oral traditions, but were also creative writers in their own way. After they were written, later scribes edited parts of them to harmonize better with each other. Alongside this, the Gospel of Thomas originated as one such early written source, and was added to over the following decades. Many of the additions reimagined earlier Sayings in the book according to later theological developments, or were simply invented to legitimate the authors’ own beliefs by putting them in Jesus’ mouth. Like the three synoptic gospels, Thomas received some harmonizing alterations after its growth had slowed or stopped. The Gospel of Thomas now survives only in Greek and Coptic. The Greek is mostly lost, and the surviving text does not entirely agree with the Coptic. If the Greek text of a saying has survived enough to make a meaningful comparison with its Coptic equivalent, I have used [brackets] to indicate when a portion of the text is found in only one of the two versions.

The Sayings, in no chronological order, appear to derive from three general eras of theological development by the book’s keepers. The earliest ones come from the first few decades of the Jesus Movement. These include many of the parables, and a broad emphasis for the end times and final judgment. Sayings from this stage may plausibly go back to Jesus himself, though there is no way to firmly determine which those would be. In the intermediate stages, from the next several decades, the book’s community was wrestling with questions of Torah observation and the apparent failure for God’s kingdom to arrive during the originally-expected time frame. Several Sayings were invented during this period, reflecting the direction the community was moving to answer their questions: a general antipathy for the Torah and rituals, and an attempt to reinterpret the end times into something less material, more spiritual, and therefore more accessible in the present. The final additions to the book, over yet another few decades, indicate that this community of Christians—now identifying Thomas as the source of their traditions—followed this last point to what they felt was its logical conclusion: salvation, resurrection, and God’s kingdom had, in fact, already arrived, and could be found through wisely reflecting on the self and its failings.

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