Monday, August 12, 2013

Irenaeus, Apostolic Testimony, and the "Original Text"

Michael J. Kruger, is professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (see his webpage here). In the recently publish work The Early Text of the New Testament, Dr. Kruger provided a chapter in which he examined early Christian attitudes towards reproducing their texts, that is, copying what they viewed as scripture. Kruger examined "how they would have understood the transmission and preservation of these texts, and how they would have responded to changes or alterations in the text" (Kruger, 63). In the chapter, several lines from the Old and New Testaments are discussed as well as the many statements in the writings of the Church fathers which might be viewed as warnings against altering the text while copying. On page 78, Kruger points to a colophon at the end of one of Irenaeus' letters which is mentioned by Eusebius in his Church history. Kruger only gives the colophon a passing mention. But what is interesting is that Eusebius happens to make mention of the colophon in context of a letter which Irenaeus wrote to a friend Florinus who lapsed into Valentinian Gnosticism (Hist. eccl. 5.20). I find it interesting that Eusebius appears to be connecting Irenaeus' appeal to eyewitness/apostolic testimony with altering the text during transmission. Therefore, it seems that Dr. Kruger's conclusions about early Christian attitude towards the copying of the text is shared, at least, by Eusebius. Here is the passage from Eusebius in full;
Irenaeus wrote several letters against those who were disturbing the sound ordinance of the Church at Rome. One of them was to Blastus On Schism; another to Florinus On Monarchy, or That God is not the Author of Evil. For Florinus seemed to be defending this opinion. And because he was being drawn away by the error of Valentinus, Irenæus wrote his work On the Ogdoad, in which he shows that he himself had been acquainted with the first successors of the apostles. 
2 At the close of the treatise we have found a most beautiful note which we are constrained to insert in this work. It runs as follows:
“I adjure thee who mayest copy this book, by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by his glorious advent when he comes to judge the living and the dead, to compare what thou shalt write, and correct it carefully by this manuscript, and also to write this adjuration, and place it in the copy.” 
3 These things may be profitably read in his work, and related by us, that we may have those ancient and truly holy men as the best example of painstaking carefulness.
4 In the letter to Florinus, of which we have spoken, Irenæus mentions again his intimacy with Polycarp, saying:
“These doctrines, O Florinus, to speak mildly, are not of sound judgment. These doctrines disagree with the Church, and drive into the greatest impiety those who accept them. These doctrines, not even the heretics outside of the Church, have ever dared to publish. These doctrines, the presbyters who were before us, and who were companions of the apostles, did not deliver to thee. 
5 “For when I was a boy, I saw thee in lower Asia with Polycarp, moving in splendor in the royal court, and endeavoring to gain his approbation.
6 I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. For what boys learn, growing with their mind, becomes joined with it; so that I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and the manner of his life, and his physical appearance, and his discourses to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the ‘Word of life,' Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures.
7 These things being told me by the mercy of God, I listened to them attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. And continually, through God’s grace, I recall them faithfully. And I am able to bear witness before God that if that blessed and apostolic presbyter had heard any such thing, he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, and as was his custom, would have exclaimed, O good God, unto what times hast thou spared me that I should endure these things? And he would have fled from the place where, sitting or standing, he had heard such words.
8 And this can be shown plainly from the letters which he sent, either to the neighboring churches for their confirmation, or to some of the brethren, admonishing and exhorting them.”
Thus far Irenæus. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 1)
Kruger, Michael J. "Early Christian Attitudes Towards the Reproduction of Texts." Pages 63-80 in The Early Text of the New Testament. Edited by Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Gospel of Thomas and the Secret Jesus

In the introduction to the English translation of the gospel of Thomas in The Nag Hammadi Library edited by James M. Robinson, Helmut Koester wrote that "The Gospel of Thomas is more akin to one of the sources of the canonical gospels, namely the so-called Synoptic Sayings Source (often called "Q" from the German word Quelle, "source"), which was used by both Matthew and Luke" (Robinson, 125). A few paragraphs earlier in the the introduction Koester also wrote that,
The Nag Hammadi Codices
"If one considers the form and wording of the individual sayings in comparison with the form in which they are preserved in the New Testament, The Gospel of Thomas almost
always appears to preserve a more original form of the traditional saying (in a few instances, where this is not the case, the Coptic translation seems to have been influenced by the translator's knowledge of the New Testament gospels), or presents versions which are independently based on more original forms." (Robinson, 125)
A superficial reading is enough to see that there is an underlining assumption made by Koester, that Thomas preserves primitive Jesus sayings when compared to the canonical gospels. How should one take this claim? Is Thomas an independent, reliable, extra-canonical source, for Jesus' sayings?

Synoptic Familiarity

In his recent work Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics, Mark Goodacre argued (as the title suggests) that the author of Thomas was familiar with the redacted, completed form of the synoptic gospels, see especially his chapter discussing saying 79 (Goodacre, 97-108). Goodacre spends considerable time working with the early Greek fragments of Thomas found at Oxyrhynchus as they predate the Coptic version found at Nag Hammadi by one hundred years or more and (most likely) represent an earlier form of the document. These are P. Oxy. 1 ca. 200 CE, P. Oxy. 655 ca. 200-250 CE, and P. Oxy. 654 ca. 250 CE (Ricchuiti, 196).
Goodacre points to several lines of evidence in order to draw attention to Thomas’s familiarity with the synoptics, but this post will highlight only two features in particular. First, there are several word-for-word agreements between the synoptics at several places suggesting that the author(s) of Thomas referenced the completed text of the gospels while writing (see especially saying 26, Goodacre, 30-33). And second, the author(s) of Thomas left out important elements of Jesus’ pericopes which indicates the author(s) had an intimate familiarity with the sayings as they appear in the synoptics (Goodacre, 109-127). For example, because everyone is familiar with the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” most anyone can simply say “When in Rome . . . “ with out finishing the sentence because most anyone will immediately recognize the saying and be able to finish it in their minds. The same can be said concerning the author(s) of Thomas and Jesus' sayings. They were so familiar to the author(s) that they attempted to make the saying more cryptic but failed to include important details that were essential to the story and plot of the pericope.

Scribal Alterations

A second major clue that testifies against the credibility of Thomas as a source concerns the transmission of its vorlage. Timothy Ricchuiti compared the earlier Greek fragments of Thomas with the much later (by one hundred years at least) Coptic translation of the gospel. He noted that at several places there were significant variations between them. Note especially a comparison of P. Oxy. 655 at logion 24, which reveals a very large section of the Greek text that has been edited out by the redactors of the Coptic Thomas for most likely theological reasons (Ricchuiti, 221-223). There are several other places that could be mentioned that involve theological redaction in the Coptic text when compared with the earlier Greek fragments, such as logion 2,3,5, and 6 (Ricchuiti, 210). Overall, Ricchuiti’s study concluded that “[i]t does indeed appear that the Coptic scribe altered Thomas in such a way as to make it more amenable to the community that eventually decided to include it in the Nag Hammadi writings” (Riccuiti, 228).

The Secret Jesus

Many scholars are eager to search Thomas for primitive material in reconstructing the historical Jesus because there are so many familiar sayings of Jesus intertwined throughout the work (Robinson, 124-125). It appears that the author(s) of Thomas were keen to present sayings of Jesus that were familiar to the readers of the canonical gospels. But why?

Mark Goodacre suggested that the most likely reason the author of Thomas used the synoptics in composing Thomas was to "authenticate" the "newer, stranger material" (Goodacre, 172). He continued:
"It is no accident, in other words, that Thomas interlaces Synoptic and non-Synoptic material, two or three sayings at a time, always keeping the sound of the Synoptic Jesus close at hand while interweaving sayings from Thomas's enigmatic, secret Jesus." (Goodacre, 172)
Therefore, it appears that the author(s) of Thomas were dependent on the synoptics in order to theologically alter the appearance of Jesus as an enigmatic Gnostic figure. Couple this with the apparent theologically motivated scribal alterations from the Greek to the Coptic version, and one must come to the conclusion that Thomas is not a reliable source for authentic sayings of Jesus.

Echoes of the Historical Jesus

Despite the apparent theological tampering by the author(s) of Thomas, there are clues that suggest Thomas contains echoes of extra-canonical Jesus sayings. One intriguing clue concerns saying 22 which is quoted (albeit loosely) in 2 Clement 12.2, a second century sermon, as well as several other early Christian sources (Holmes, 102).[1] Because there is wide and early attestation to logion 22, it is very likely that there are authentic echoes of Jesus contained in this saying.
Therefore it is not wise for scholars to dismiss Thomas out of hand, but rather, Thomas should be approached as any other ancient document, on its own terms as the author(s) originally intended the work to be read (Goodacre, 174).


[1] For an excellent summary of the ancient sources concerning this logion see

Goodacre, Mark. Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.
Holmes, Michael W. ed. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Updated Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.
Ricchuiti, Tim. “Tracking Thomas: A Text-Critical Look at the Transmission of the Gopel of Thomas.” Pages 189-228 in Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence. ed. Daniel B. Wallace. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011.
Robinson, James M., and Richard Smith. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988.

This post was adapted from a response I made to a forum discussion question in one of my classes.