'Gospel' of Thomas debated at Midwestern
Posted on Mar 13, 2009 | by Tammi Reed Ledbetter
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)--With the Easter commemoration of Christ's resurrection only a month away, two Christian origins scholars took to the stage at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to evaluate the Gospel of Thomas as a means of better understanding the historical Jesus.
Most of the dialogue dealt with the date of the manuscript and the degree to which it parallels the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. However, the missing emphasis on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus left many in the crowd doubting Thomas.
Sharing the platform with Midwestern President R. Philip Roberts were Stephen J. Patterson, who sought to glean new insights into the life of Jesus by studying the Gospel of Thomas, and Craig A. Evans, who found little or no early or authentic material beyond what is preserved in the New Testament Gospels.
The opening night of the March 12-14 Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins Conference served as the inaugural event of the G. Richard and Judy Hastings Institute, begun a year ago. Hastings is president and CEO of Saint Luke's Health System in Kansas City, a member of First Baptist Church of Raytown, Mo., and serves on Midwestern's board of regents.
Additional conference sessions continued the theme by examining the scrolls in relation to the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Dead Sea community, interpretation of Scripture, the scribes and the Messiah -- drawing experts in those fields from across the country.
"There is no greater discovery than the Dead Sea Scrolls," declared Peter W. Flint in the first lecture on Friday. Flint holds the Canada Research Chair and is professor of religious studies and director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University.
"For Jews and Christians it is the greatest find of our time," Flint added, noting the phenomenal size of the crowds attending exhibitions, most recently 390,000 in San Diego. "It's like a Rolling Stones concert," he said.
That level of interest was reflected in the audience at Midwestern, which filled the hall and left an estimated 350 people listening from the foyer.
The text of what is known as the Gospel of Thomas was discovered by a farmer in Egypt in 1945. Quoting first from a passage that seemed to mirror Jesus' words as recorded in Matthew, Patterson then turned to a saying that described a human turning into a lion. "It is, as you can see, an unusual gospel -- not a narrative gospel like those in the New Testament," but simply a list of what Patterson described as "collected sayings of Jesus." Many are similar or virtually the same as sayings found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but others are not found there, he observed.
Patterson, who serves as professor of New Testament at Eden Seminary in St. Louis and chairs the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins, made his case for the Gospel of Thomas as an authentic witness to Jesus, composed relatively early by an author whose message was written independently of the canonical Gospels. Thus, it holds value as a witness to the Jesus tradition, he said.
Evans, who is a distinguished professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity School and a frequent source of interviews for the History Channel, BBC documentaries and Dateline NBC, agreed with many of Patterson's characterizations of the text, although he insisted on dating it later. Evans focused on characteristics of the text that seem to connect it to second-century Syrian Christianity, even perhaps the influence of Tatian, author of the Diatessaron and the Oratio.
Pointing to the lack of archaeological evidence validating the text, Evans asked: "If Thomas is early and accesses authentic Jesus tradition, why the absence of verisimilitude?"
The problem of dating the manuscript comes from its nature, Patterson said. "Lists are not like narratives -- the parts aren't woven into the narrative whole." Instead, he called for "educated speculation."
Evans noted Patterson's dependence upon "a reasonable guess" as a means of expressing the nature of their kind of work. "It's just the way it is. There are gaps in our knowledge."
Holding to the superiority of the synoptic Gospels that were included in the canon, Evans said: "At least we have a dateable person who's talking about the four of them in time. There isn't much doubt that Matthew, Mark and Luke were in the first century. I like to hang theories on pegs -- people who really lived and talked and tell us information and documents that we can find."
Allowing for the theoretical possibility of some of Patterson's assertions, Evans stated, "He could be right, in which case Thomas becomes an important fifth gospel, another access to some of Jesus' thinking, ethics, and worldview, perhaps not clearly present in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, or perhaps not there at all."
Patterson said he had become intrigued by the way the Gospel of Thomas fits into a picture of early Christianity in eastern Syria. The sayings provide no additional information about Jesus' suffering and death. "Instead we are drawn to Platonism as a way of interpreting the Jesus tradition," he said, and "engage in a measured asceticism and cultivate a certain aloofness" from the world.
He emphasized the contrast between the life of early Christians in cities that lay along ancient trade routes to the east and those in imperial lands further west. Mapping out a Gospel of Thomas that focuses on the counter-cultural wisdom of Jesus, Patterson offered an answer for the missing elements. "Salvation is not to be found in Jesus' atoning death, but in the interpretation of His words," he offered.
Laying a case for the life of Jesus as the focus of Thomas, rather than His death, which was the focus of the synoptic Gospel writers, Patterson said: "Stories of Jesus the martyr held little interest because they are in no danger of martyrdom [in the east]. How might one live in the hustle and flow of commercial crossroads?"
"Did the dissident status of the Christians in the Roman Empire affect the form their new religion took? Was their focus on Jesus' death simply the nature of Christianity or was their own concern about martyrdom leading them to focus on Jesus' death?" Patterson asked.
Countering that distinction, Evans asked, "Would you not agree [that] what ignited the Christian church, what turned Jesus' movement into what begins growing into the church, is the resurrection? Within it is the passion story. Or are we to think somehow that Jesus dies, the followers recover and the church grows up, surrendering His teaching?"
Patterson reasserted his belief that Paul's attention to the death of Jesus was motivated by "the context of reflecting on his own career as someone who's been arrested, flogged, and put in prison." He later described Thomas as composing a text more suited to Christians in the East, "so it didn't gain currency in the West."
"Our canon is a western canon, a Roman imperial canon, shaped by that experience," he insisted.
Roberts admitted to "biting my tongue," during the discussion on an emphasis on death in the West versus zeal for life in the East. "The reason Paul got kicked around was because he preached a crucified, Jewish, resurrected Messiah. That was the crux of the controversy," Roberts told Patterson.
"I don't think the fact that he got kicked around was why he preached the message," Roberts added. "He preached the message first and then he got kicked around."
After an opportunity for rebuttal arguments, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. One student asked why Thomas' writings are described as a gospel when the message fails Paul's test, as recorded in his first letter to the Corinthians, that the Gospel is centered around the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
"Why not call it "The Proverbs of Jesus According to Thomas" or "101 Things Thomas Said About Jesus," the student proposed. "To be called a gospel, it must talk about those things -- that Jesus died and was crucified. Thomas is left wanting of those."
Acknowledging that the apostle summarized the content of the Christian message, Evans said the term also is used for a genre of writing based on Mark's reference in the Greek text to "evangelion," or "good news." Patterson concurred that the text comes with a natural title.
"Your question is an interesting one," Evans added, "but I think that's part of the answer" ... [the] "summary of the gospel becomes a story about Jesus."
In addition to Roberts, Flint and Evans, other session speakers include George J. Brooke of the University of Manchester, John J. Collins of Yale University, William M. Schniedewind of the University of California at Los Angeles and Terry L. Wilder of B&H Publishing Group and research professor at Midwestern.
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is interim editor of Midwestern Magazine. Audio recordings of MBTS events are available at www.mbts.edu.