Ulterior Motive in Gospel of Thomas Article?
I write with fear and trembling since I’m merely a minister. But I strongly disagree with the renowned Helmut Koester and coscholar Stephen Patterson concerning the Gospel of Thomas (“The Gospel of Thomas—Does It Contain Authentic Sayings of Jesus?” BR 06:02).
I fully agree with their conclusion that the Gospel of Thomas contains several sayings that go back to the earliest Church, possibly even to the historical Jesus, but I believe the authors overextend themselves when they say that “the early Church was not unanimous in making the resurrection the fulcrum of Christian faith. For both Q and Thomas, Jesus’ significance lay in his words, and in his words alone.”
This sweeping conclusion is based merely on the fact that Q and Thomas are collections of sayings rather than narratives of Jesus’ ministry or passion. Does the one necessarily exclude the other? Source criticism has shown that the miracle stories in the Gospels once circulated as a separate collection. Are we to deduce from this that for some early Christians Jesus’ significance lay in his miracles only, at the expense of his resurrection?
The fact that Q and Thomas are collections of sayings only gives evidence that Jesus’ words were treasured by many early Christians for their own sake, but not that these same Christians disbelieved or saw no significance in Jesus’ resurrection. On the contrary, the fact that the Gospel of Thomas refers to Jesus as “the living One” seems to assume some son of belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
Earliest Christianity certainly contained great diversity in theology. Paul’s letters amply prove this. But to claim that one branch of the earliest Church disregarded belief in Jesus’ resurrection (in favor of his words alone) seems highly unlikely.
Perhaps I am mistaken, but their article appears to have an ulterior motive. The authors seem to be catering to those people seeking justification for calling themselves Christians even though they do not believe the message of the resurrection. Such people should be honest enough to stop calling themselves Christians and use a more accurate label, such as “people who Like Jesus’ Sayings.”
Peoria-North Mennonite Church
Jerusalem and Athens
I read with relish the excellent article on the Gospel of Thomas (Helmut Koester and Stephen J. Patterson, “The Gospel of Thomas—Does It Contain Authentic Sayings of Jesus?” BR 06:02). But I was brought up sharply by conclusions that seemed to contradict some of my faith-convictions:
“The early Church was not unanimous in making the resurrection the fulcrum of Christian faith. For both Q and Thomas, Jesus’ significance lay in his words, and in his words alone.”
And again: “[D]uring the very first years after the death of Jesus, [there were some] Christians for whom the words of Jesus had exclusive saving power.”
Or: Some early Christians “believed that these very words of Jesus were the source of life and salvation.” (Emphasis in quotations is mine.)
We do not have enough information about the early Church to put much reliance on statements like these.
I believe the words of Jesus are important, and without some of these words Jesus would not be “The Word.” For me, the statement “Jesus is the Word” more accurately represents the meaning behind the Gospel of Thomas than “relying on his words alone.” Knowledge is understanding of words, but knowledge alone will not, nor cannot, save.”
The Gnostic understanding of Jesus was where the early church had its major struggle, and this is evident in the Nag Hammadi codices. Valentinus and others were sliding into the trap of “knowledge” that was their heritage from Athens. We must not and cannot mix up Jerusalem and Athens. They are talking about two different things.
Koester and Patterson Go Too Far
“The Gospel of Thomas—Does It Contain Authentic Sayings of Jesus?” BR 06:02, by Helmut Koester and Stephen J. Patterson is both timely and thought provoking. However, I believe the authors carry too far their argument that the early Christian community depended on the recalled words of Jesus alone for their faith. It is their 007contention that these followers found sufficient for their salvation the sayings of Jesus, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the presumed Q, without later embellishment with accounts of the life of Jesus. The authors say these early Christians had no interest in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the very cornerstone of Paul’s faith and letters in later years.
Upon studying all 113 Sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, I find the above most unconvincing. These unconnected sayings, although very often supportive of the New Testament Gospels, could not of themselves be a source of the intense faith required for these Christians to endure and grow under the persecutions of the first decades. For such people, these sayings must have been augmented by other knowledge of Jesus—through remembered personal contacts, oral tradition or possibly other writings.
Canyon Lake, Texas
Why Thomas’ Gospel Was Excluded from the Canon
I have just finished reading the article on the Gospel of Thomas (Helmut Koester and Stephen J. Patterson, “The Gospel of Thomas—Does It Contain Authentic Sayings of Jesus?” BR 06:02). I now understand why God never allowed Thomas’s sayings to be included in the New Testament.
Thank you for this amazing experience.
Royal Oak, Michiagan
The Gospel of Thomas and the Jews
I find Koester and Patterson’s article on the Gospel of Thomas (see “The Gospel of Thomas—Does It Contain Authentic Sayings of Jesus?” BR 06:02) fascinating. I also find myself wondering whether within the sayings of Jesus that Thomas cites are polemics against “the Jews” such as those contained in the canonical Gospels and Acts. If they are not present, I think that would argue for a very early date, before the “political” struggle between the early Church and the Pharisees had begun.
Koester and Patterson have done an extremely important piece of work here. I look forward to their reply with the greatest interest.
Professor Helmut Koester replies:
There are very few references in the Gospel of Thomas to the Jews. In Saying No. 43, Jesus answers a question of the disciples, “Who are you that thou should say these things to us?” by saying “[Y]ou have become like the Jews, for they either love the tree and hate its fruit or love the fruit and hate the tree.”
The Pharisees are referred to twice. Saying No. 39 speaks about the “Pharisees and scribes who have taken the keys of knowledge”; Saying No. 102 pronounces a “woe” against the Pharisees, “for they are like a dog sleeping in a manger of oxen, for neither does he eat nor does he let the oxen eat.”
There is certainly no systematic polemic in the Gospel of Thomas such as we find in Matthew 23. The Gospel of Thomas belongs to an early stage of the development of the tradition of the followers of Jesus, in which the controversy between Christianity and the new establishment of Judaism after the Jewish Revolt against Rome (which ended in 70 A.D.) had not yet developed. On the other hand, the Gospel of Thomas does reflect some debates between the followers of Jesus and some leaders of the Jewish community, albeit still within the framework of the community of Israel.
Sharp-eyed Reader Sees Parallels
In their article, “The Gospel of Thomas—Does It Contain Authentic Sayings of Jesus?” BR 06:02, Helmut Koester and Stephen J. Patterson state: “There is a cluster of parables in Gospel of Thomas Sayings 96–98 that have no canonical parallels.” The first example they give, that of a woman who conceals some leaven in some dough and makes it into large loaves, bears a suspicious resemblance to Matthew 13:33, which says, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.”
By stretching the imagination the third example, that of a man who wants to kill a powerful man but first tests his strength to determine if he is capable of it, sounds a bit like Matthew 12:29: “Or else how can one enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house.” (KJV)
Was there a particular reason why the authors saw no parallels here?
I love your magazine. Keep up the good work.
Professor Helmut Koester replies:
The sentence should have read: “There is a cluster of parables in Gospel of Thomas Sayings 96–98 of which two have no canonical parallels.”
To Express Her Joy
I write to express my joy in reading Bible Review. The April issue was a special delight. Wow!
I found the article by Helmut Koester and Stephen J. Patterson (“The Gospel of Thomas—Does It Contain Authentic Sayings of Jesus?” BR 06:02) especially provocative.
Keep up the good work!
New Insights on Leah
Thank you for the article on Rachel/Leah (Samuel Dresner, “Rachel and Leah—Sibling Tragedy or the Triumph of Piety and Compassion?” BR 06:02). It was wonderful. I do a 45-minute drama called “Leah”; I tell the story from her perspective. Your article contained several details that I disagreed with, but there were a couple of thoughts that were new to me. Thank you.
San Antonio, Texas
I usually read your articles with a “pinch of salt.” However, your article on Rachel and Leah (Samuel Dresner, “Rachel and Leah—Sibling Tragedy or the Triumph of Piety and Compassion?” BR 06:02) takes the cake. Dr. Dresner gives us Jewish tradition and talmudic wisdom as fact and expects us to swallow them. I am sure that I have never read any greater tall-tales nor seen anyone play any looser with fact. We are expected to believe that Leah cried so much her eyes were damaged and that the fetus of Dinah was passed from mother to mother. You folks must be very desperate for articles to have printed this one.
Samuel Dresner replies:
Dr. Brown is quite correct in his criticism. The article should have included the distinction the talmudic rabbis made between peshat, the plain meaning of the text, and derash, the freer interpretation. I explain this in the introduction to my forthcoming book, as follows:
“At times Jewish tradition deepens and illumines the literal understanding of the text; at other times, it takes on a life of its own, spinning tales and meanings not in the biblical text, which the sages may use for their own agenda. Thus, when the Midrash tells us that in his search for God, the young Abraham smashed the idols of his father’s shop, it does so knowing full well that there is no biblical source for it. The scriptural tale was simply too terse and too important to be left as it was. It became the launching pad for a thousand retellings.“
Wasted His Money
While there have been several articles in Bible Rebuke [ sic-Ed ] that have seemed rather absurd to me, your April Perspective (Perspective, BR 06:02) is funny enough to finally provoke me into writing a letter.
While BR does print some interesting articles, others, I can’t help but think, are there for no other purpose than to rile people up. This provides you with a lively and entertaining column of letters to the editor. It provides me with the sincere wish that I had never wasted my money on a multiyear subscription to BR. Luckily my subscription will run out soon.
If I were to compare, some of your articles with other magazines, I’d be much more inclined to match up BR with the National Enquirer than with your sister publication Biblical Archaeology Review.
The April Perspective that describes these articles as engaging or enriching is a load of foolishness. Were you really enriched by contemplating whether Paul committed suicide or not? (Arthur J. Droge, Perspective, BR 06:02). Here we have a collection of books that talks about God coming to earth and dying on a cross to redeem mankind, and you’re enriched by some bozo speculating that Paul might have committed suicide!
Your Perspective states, “Did you ever stop to think about the fact that the Bible doesn’t tell us how Paul died? What a contrast to Jesus!” Are you serious? Did you expect the Bible to treat the death of Paul as if it was in any way as significant as the death and resurrection of Jesus? If so I feel comfortable in saying that you have really missed the entire point of the New Testament.
If you wish to go on with an occasional article to provoke or irritate your readers, fine. But if you think these things are doing anyone’s faith any good, please, leave the comedy to the stand-up comedians.
At the very least, please forgo the presumptuous summary of saying that these articles “strengthen our faith, regardless of what that faith is.”
Troy, New York
I want to express my appreciation for your April Perspective (Perspective, BR 06:02). Persons with any interest in scholarship should want to pursue truth wherever it may lead. It is stimulating to have a magazine centered on our common heritage of the Bible that is free from ecclesiastical control and doctrinal bias.
I regard myself as a universalist and a philosopher even in ministry. I think I love the Bible even more than those who look to it for authority.
Thank you for the wide scope of BR.
Green Valley, Arizona
How the Bible Speaks to Us
Bible Review is one of the most important magazines delivered to my house. It is educational, informative and thought provoking. I delight in reading the letters of righteous anger when you dare to print an article that challenges people’s tightly held beliefs. Apparently the only magazine that leads you in cancelled subscriptions is Sports Illustrated, immediately after their annual swimsuit issue.
I agree with the comments, in your April Perspective (Perspective, BR 06:02). The Bible speaks differently to different people. That is its mystery, and its gift to us who seek answers to the meaning of life. It even speaks differently to the same people over a period of time.
There is little in life to give us comfort from our anxieties and our doubts. There are times when the world seems to reject everything that is decent and compassionate. But there is a comfort in the freedom to explore—with honest questions—our relationship with our creator. Your magazine serves as a beacon for that exploration.
Every publication should have a little humor in it—something to show that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Letters from indignant readers fulfill that need in BR.
St. Paul, Minnesota
Can You Ask for More?
Contrary to the recent disclaimer in your April Perspective (Perspective, BR 06:02), I have no doubt that at least some of your articles (or their titles) are intended to provoke people. But one should ask, how can a person do any serious thinking unless he is provoked? Bible Review has roused and provoked many a serious thought in me. What more can one ask?
The Exciting Task of Independent Thinking
Regarding your April Perspective (Perspective, BR 06:02):
My opinion is that Bible Review is geared to disturb, as well as inform, the stereotyped thinking of many in Christendom, but also to induce some to undertake the difficult but exciting task of independent thinking regarding the holy Scriptures. May you not become weary in this noble undertaking
Bring Back Bible Quiz
I am a fairly new reader of Bible Review and I think It Is. excellent. I often find it helpful in my Bible study—or Just for answering my own personal questions. Many times I have found an answer to the corner I have backed into.
Regarding your April Perspective (Perspective, BR 06:02), why not “deliberately” try to provoke and irritate? There are a lot of brain cells out here that need a little provoking.
Our church (Calumet Presbyterian Church) is currently reprinting your Bible quizzes in our monthly newsletter. In the April issue you seemed to replace the Bible Quiz with The Book of Numbers, BR 06:02. No! No! No! Bring the quiz back.
We plan to alternate—Ed.
Ulterior Motive in Gospel of Thomas Article?