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This essay is about broadening the perspective from which we view the origins of Christianity. The vehicle is a gospel by now perhaps as familiar to students of the New Testament as the canonical four, the Gospel of Thomas. It is well known among specialists that the content of this gospel overlaps with that of the synoptic tradition roughly by half. Also well known, perhaps, is that it presents this commonly-held content in a very different form, the sayings collection, and by consequence, under the supposition of a different theological paradigm: wisdom theology. So, here is a different gospel, a wisdom gospel, in which the words ([??]) of Jesus take center stage. Since Helmut Koester and James M. Robinson placed it within the context of Walter Bauer's theory about the diverse nature of earliest Christianity, (1) the Gospel of Thomas has become a prime illustration of that diversity. It can help us see the potential of the Jesus tradition to develop in directions we could scarcely fathom before. But can it tell us more?
When one compares the Gospel of Thomas with the much better-known canonical gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, one immediately notices some clear differences, long noted as absences in this new and unusual gospel: Thomas lacks a passion narrative and is almost completely devoid of interest in the death of Jesus. Thomas also lacks the great apocalyptic speeches from Mark and Q (which also find their way into Matthew and Luke), as well as the apocalyptic cast of much of the material common to both Thomas and the synoptic tradition. Finally, not often noted, and perhaps only true by a matter of degree, one might further observe the absence of the intense anti-Jewish rhetoric that characterizes the canonical gospels at certain key points. Why are these features absent from the Gospel of Thomas? In what follows I will offer what I believe is an answer to this question. In so doing, I will also raise another question that should be equally obvious and compelling to students of the New Testament: Why are these features present in the synoptic gospels?
It is the premise of this essay that the Gospel of Thomas is not simply a new focal point in the diversity of early gospel traditions. It can also be a vantage point from which to gain new perspective on other, more familiar early traditions. Much of what we see in the canonical tradition is taken for granted as original, natural, and normative. The canonical story is the Christian story because it is seen as the original story. Jesus is the messiah who comes into the world, is rejected and crucified, but in the end is raised from the dead. This is Mark's story, the synoptic story; and though John's details diverge widely from Mark and the other synoptic gospels, the broad strokes of its story are the same. But is this in fact the original, natural story? Mark's story was penned many years after the actual life and times of Jesus. It resembles John's story not so much because they both know the real story, but because they both knew how to write a martyr's story. (2) Paul, too, knows this tradition of the noble death and formulates his kerygma accordingly? But it is an interpretation, an effort to render meaningful the memory of Jesus in a particular cultural context and in light of a particular experience: the experience of living as a dissident within the Roman Empire. Jesus was in fact executed as a dissident in the Roman Empire. This was a fact to which his dissident followers could relate, and so, their stories focus on Jesus' martyrdom: his life, death, and redemption. But was it the only way Jesus might be remembered?
In this essay I wish to offer some observations first about the Gospel of Thomas and its geographic home--Edessa and the region east of the Euphrates River. The memory of Jesus that is cultivated through the Gospel of Thomas is very different. But, then, so was the cultural context in which it arose. Edessa, east of the Euphrates, was not a Roman city. It was an independent city-state, a caravan town, a place where people from across the Levant met, through which they passed, and where they sometimes settled. These differences--in text and context--are not incidental. The Gospel of Thomas turns out to be well suited to its environment and the questions that came with it. In what follows, I will explore this relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the context from which it emerged. But then I wish to use Thomas as a vantage point from which to gaze back across the boundary that was the Euphrates River, and ask whether Mark and the rest of the canonical tradition makes more sense now in its geographic home. In the end I hope to have shown that the relative absence of reflection on Jesus' death, apocalypticism, and anti-Jewish polemic in Thomas is not to be seen as a divergence from the more original, natural canonical tradition, but as a difference that exposes the canonical tradition as contingent in its own way.
* The Gospel of Thomas: Assumptions
My argument is predicated on certain assumptions that cannot be defended fully in this limited context. I enumerate these assumptions below. None is idiosyncratic, although, as is the case with most historical premeses, none is beyond dispute.
1) The Gospel of Thomas represents an autonomous development of the Jesus tradition that is more or less independent of the synoptic tradition. This is not to say that our present Coptic manuscript is devoid of all influence from the synoptic texts--either at the later stages of scribal transmission, or even at earlier stages where "secondary orality" might have resulted in cross-influence between the synoptic gospels and the text of Thomas. Still, it is becoming clearer to students of this gospel that it was not composed by an author who went about extracting sayings from one or another of the synoptic gospels. (4) In other words, in the Gospel of Thomas we have fundamental evidence for the potential of the Jesus tradition to develop differently, rather than evidence for the once-cherished assumption that non-canonical traditions tend to corrupt canonical ones.
2) The Gospel of Thomas is a list, and therefore was likely written in many stages over many years. (5) This makes it very difficult to date. Some of its sayings probably originated with Jesus, and could well come from early collections of Jesus sayings that were later gathered together into the Gospel of Thomas; others will have been added relatively late, even as late as the fourth century, when our sole surviving complete copy of the text was created by an anonymous Coptic scribe. Nonetheless, as I have argued elsewhere, the relative paucity of influence from the synoptic texts, together with the relative simplicity of many of its synoptic parallels, probably indicates that the collection we know as the Gospel of Thomas generally originated relatively early, before the synoptic gospels had reached their eventual ascendant status, and when oral tradition was still the dominant mode of communicating the Jesus tradition. A reasonable guess would be that the Gospel of Thomas originated in the closing decades of the first century, or perhaps the early second--in other words, that it was roughly contemporaneous with the canonical gospels. (6) For the purposes of the present argument, more precision than this is unnecessary.
3) The Gospel of Judas Thomas, as it should properly be called, comes originally from the region of Osrhoene or eastern Syria, and more specifically from Edessa, the major town there. This position, which is widely held, rests on the identification of Judas Thomas with Edessa, a connection that appears to be very old. (7) This is not to say that parts of the collection may not have originated elsewhere--perhaps Jerusalem, where James "the Just" (Gos. Thom. 12) was likely a key figure. But the Gospel of Thomas as a whole appears to have been at home in Edessa, both in its apostolic claim and in its theological orientation. As we shall soon see, it shares with other early Christian texts from Edessa a tendency to read the Jesus tradition in a "Platonizing" way.
In these basic assumptions the initial course of this essay is suggested. First, we shall ask about the distinctive theological voice of the Gospel of Thomas. Second, we shall ask what is distinctive about Edessa in the family of ancient cities that played host to early Christian communities. Finally, we shall see if the answers to these first two questions are illuminating when considered together.
* What is Distinctive About the Gospel of Thomas?
Thomas is a very different gospel. It is a wisdom gospel. (8) Formally this is seen in the focus on Jesus' wise and revelatory words: Thomas is a sayings collection. The first saying in the collection asserts this orientation: "Whoever finds the meaning of these words will not taste death" (Gos. Thom. 1). (9) As with many sayings collections, Thomas invites a certain hermeneutic of sustained reflection, (10) admonishing "the one who seeks to continue seeking until he finds" (Gos. Thom. 2). It is within this framework that Thomas includes dozens of aphorisms and parables of Jesus, many of them familiar: "Love your brother like your soul" (Gos. Thom. 25); "When you cast the beam out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to cast the speck from your brother's eye" (Gos. Thom. 26); "Do not be concerned from morning until evening about what you shall wear" (Gos. Thom. 36); "Grapes are not harvested from thorns" (Gos. Thom. 45). The form of these aphorisms is well-suited to the wisdom genre, as they invite reflection. So do the parables: a fisher who releases his entire catch only to retain a single large and beautiful fish (Gos. Thom. 8); a sower who sows carelessly and yet still reaps an abundant harvest (Gos. Thom. 9); a rich farmer who dies before he can enjoy his wealth (Gos. Thom. 63)--the parables are stories designed to spark the imagination and encourage deeper thought.
But there is more to Thomas's theological framework than the simple sayings collection form would suggest. The wisdom theology espoused in the Gospel of Thomas was steeped in the thought of Plato, especially as it reemerged in the late Hellenistic renaissance of Platonic thinking known as Middle Platonism. (11) In this gospel the search for Jesus' kingdom of God begins with the self: "The kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, you will become known and you will realize you are children of the living Father" (Gos. Thom. 3). "Know thyself"--one marks in this restatement of the Delphic Maxim the influence of Platonism, which is manifest not only in saying 3 but throughout this gospel. …