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Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels

March 21, 2012

I’ve just previewed a forthcoming book that mounts an impressive case for the view that The Gospel of Thomas reflects acquaintance with (and reaction to) the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke): Mark Goodacre, Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics (Eerdmans, forthcoming 2012).

Goodacre is known in NT circles, especially for his measured and firm advocacy of the view that the similarities in material shared by Matthew and Luke can be accounted for by positing dependence of Luke on Matthew, thus “dispensing with Q” (the sayings-source more widely regarded as the better explanation for this shared material). He occasionally refers to his “Q-skeptic” view, but it’s neither intrusive nor really significant for the issue that he addresses in this book.

Step by step, Goodacre considers several types of data that he offers as evidence that GThomas presupposes the Synoptics. He addresses verbatim agreements of GThomas and the Synoptics, what he calls “Synoptic shards” (indications of identifiably distinctive features of Synoptic Gospels taken over into GThomas), more extended indications of redactional features of Matthew and Luke in GThomas, and (offering an observation not to my knowledge made previously) what Goodacre calls “the missing middle” of Synoptic units in GThomas. These essentially are instances where a parable or other saying in GThomas seems to be an abbreviated version of a more complete version found in the Synoptics.

There is also an insightful chapter on modern scholarly fascination with (and, Goodacre alleges cogently, sometimes simplistic treatment of) ancient “orality”. His point is that GThomas isn’t a product of “orality”, but reflects an interest in writing and reading of its contents. Goodacre also proposes a second-century setting in which GThomas likely first emerged.

One of the features that I like about the book is Goodacre’s emphasis on, and use of, the early (albeit fragmentary) Greek manuscripts of GThomas. With Goodacre, I too have often been puzzled that scholarly discussion of GThomas (especially by advocates of its importance and early date) has typically been conducted with scant reference to this Greek evidence. A commendable exception is Richard Valantasis, The Gospel of Thomas (London: Routledge, 1997).

I judge Goodacre’s case very thorough, measured and persuasive. As he emphasizes, this by no means renders GThomas insignificant. It remains an exceptionally interesting early Christian writing. All the more reason to seek to place it accurately in time, situation, and relationship to other key texts such as the Synoptics.

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  1. Now I am feeling inspired to read the Gospel of Thomas before hunting down Goodacre’s new book. For that matter, I better read his Synoptic Problem work as well. I have a feeling that would have been very useful to me as an undergrad exploring the bewildering world of gospel studies.

  2. John Moles permalink

    I hope this doesn’t mean that your ‘preview’ will form a ‘preview’ ‘puff’ on the back jacket. I have always regarded this as a corrupt practice (widely practised, of course, in Classics as well as New Testament studies) and have always declined when publishers have asked me to agree to such ‘pre-puffs’. Book are published; they are then reviewed. That is the right sequence.

    • I’m afraid, John, that endorsements of books by scholars is a regular feature of academic publishing, esp. in North America, only latterly in the UK. It’s a cultural difference (that is, if you grant that there is a culture in North America!) I can only respond with the assurance that I do actually read the proofs that I agree to consider, and that I have then declined to endorse a few books.

  3. Thanks so much, Larry, for your comments. I am delighted that you found the case persuasive, and I think you summarize it very well.

  4. Bobby Garringer permalink

    As a non-scholar and a preacher, I read Robert Grant’s Secret Sayings of Jesus, in the 1960s.

    I have, since, lost the book, but recall that Grant was very clear on Thomas’ dependence on the Gospels, and was very balanced in his treatment of the Synoptic Problem.

    The book made a deep impression on me, so I’ve been surprised at the assertions made about the importance of Thomas as an independent source for the life of Jesus.

    I’ve got a feeling, Goodacre’s book could do the younger generations a lot of good if it will be read.

  5. jessedstone permalink

    Thanks for the summary and review, Dr. Hurtado. Goodacre’s new book will have to be on my summer reading list this year.

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