Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Meier on Parables: His Second Blunder*

New Testament Scholarship is divided on the question of the relationship of the Gospel of Thomas to the synoptic tradition.1 Meier, however, says that “it is more likely than not” that Thomas is dependent on the synoptic tradition in some form (46). This way of stating the relationship seems to suggest that while he (Meier) is personally convinced that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptic Gospels, he recognizes that good arguments have been made for Thomas’ independence of the synoptic tradition. He bases his judgment on an investigation of fifteen sayings in Thomas that, he argues, reveal direct literary dependence or indirect dependence “through literary dependence or secondary orality, through Gospel harmonies, catechetical summaries, or mere memorization, however faulty.”2 The sayings he studied in his view reflect similar conflating, meshing, and harmonizing tendencies found in certain Patristic works of the second century. Thus he argues that the burden of proof shifts to anyone who claims the independence of Thomas from the Synoptic Gospels (47). Meier argues that “the default assumption should be dependence [on the synoptic tradition in some form] unless the opposite can be proved in a particular case” (47). In pages 89-188 Meier seeks to demonstrate that the parables and the sayings in Thomas “evince knowledge of and influence from the Synoptics.”3

Default dependence on the synoptic tradition in some form is not the issue, for it is clear that Thomas is in part similar to the Synoptic Gospels and at the same time quite different from the synoptics. The issue is specifically how does Thomas come by the similarity. Meier argues for both direct and indirect dependence by which he seeks to eliminate oral tradition as a possible source of Thomas. At bottom, however, to prove that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptic Gospels one must show that Thomas preserves instances of distinctive editorial activity from all three of the Synoptic Gospel authors.

            Three of the sayings that Meier analyzes are preserved in the Greek fragments of Thomas, which theoretically are earlier than the Coptic version.4 Here briefly as an example of his argument as to why he thinks these three sayings reflect dependence on the Synoptic Gospels. Meier asserts that saying 5 is a “fairly strong case” for dependence (96). Saying 5 is a two-stitch saying in Thomas as it is also in Luke 8:17. But each shares only part of Thomas’ second stitch and Luke’s first stitch; otherwise the sayings are different. What they share in Thomas, however, is mostly in lacunae. Of the 36 letters in Thomas shared with Luke 19 are restored using Luke 8:17 as a model. In fact, Thomas shares only three un-restored Greek words with Luke in a Lucan saying of 18 Greek words and a Thomas saying of 27 Greek words. Hence the argument for dependence is based on the certainty of restorations that are patterned on Luke. One should always bear in mind, as Meier himself notes in the case of his third example: any restoration of such a highly fragmentary text “must labor under some degree of uncertainty” (154, note 33).

            Meier’s second example of Lucan influence on Thomas is found in the Greek fragments of saying 31. Saying 31 is a two-stitch saying whose first stitch is similar to a single stitch saying in Luke 4:24. Meier’s principal observation is that Thomas and Luke use the Greek word dektos (acceptable) rather than atimos (without honor) as it appears in Matthew and Mark. Meier says, but does not argue, that Thomas’ tendency to mesh sayings may be reflected in the fact that Thomas’ second stitch appears in Luke 4:23 immediately preceding 4:24. Lucan influence on the Greek of Thomas saying 31 boils down to the shared use by Thomas and Luke of the Greek word dektos, and the theory that Thomas may have drawn his second stitch from Luke 4:24.

In the third example (Thomas 39 = Matt 10:16b) Meier finds what he claims is a clear case of material drawn from Matthew’s special source (M) since it is not in Mark, but he opines that it “seems more probable that either Matthew 10:16b as a whole or at least its precise Greek wording stems from Matthew’s redactional hand” (101). Although the Coptic text is well preserved, and uses two of the Greek words he names, Meier argues from the highly fragmentary Greek of Thomas 39. The Greek fragment of Thomas (as restored) and Matthew share a similar Greek vocabulary: phronimos (shrewd), ophis (snake), akeairos (simple), although only [a]keairos is extant in the Greek, the rest are in lacunae but restored by the editors of the text. He concludes that because Matthew is earlier than Thomas, saying 39 as represented in the restored Greek fragment (and naturally in Coptic Thomas) “shows dependence on Matthew’s Gospel” (101). His argument that Matt 10:16b is Matthean redaction rather than M traditional material hinges on the fact that it is singularly attested and hence could not be independent special material otherwise available to Matthew and Thomas. On the other hand, if it were M traditional material, then Thomas could have come by the saying independently of Matthew.

In this brief sampling the arguments appear to be based on Meier’s assumption that Thomas has conflated, meshed, and/or harmonized sayings from the Synoptic Gospels. But if one were to assume that Thomas might be based on oral tradition, at least in part, then Meier’s assumed “conflations, meshing, and harmonizing” of the Synoptic Gospels take on the character of independently received oral tradition that reflect Thomas’ own editorial revisions and/or rewriting in a similar way that Matthew and Luke treat Mark (for example, Mark 8:11-12; Matt 12:38-42; Luke 11:29-32).

Oddly Meier does not think he has proven that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptic Gospels. He states: “After examining [the fifteen sayings from Thomas] we have decided that every case we have probed shows dependence on one or more of the synoptics.”5 And on this basis he concludes “the default assumption should be dependence unless the opposite can be demonstrated in a particular case.”6

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Blunder: A word used by Meier to describe those with whom he disagrees; Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, 40.

1Hedrick, “An Anecdotal Argument for the Independence of the Gospel of Thomas from the Synoptic Gospels,” pp. 113-14 in Bethge, et al. eds., For the Parables Children, Perfect Instruction (Brill, 2002).

2Meier, Probing., 46-47. This is actually an assumption on his part; see page 95: “the influence of the Synoptics could have been exercised by means of a Gospel harmony or catechetical…” (the italics are mine.) So far as I know we have no early exemplars of gospel harmonies or catechetical summaries to test this hypothesis, or that they even existed early enough for Thomas to have made use of them.

3Meier, Probing, 90. For an argument that Thomas preserves synoptic-like material independent of Thomas, see Hedrick, “An Anecdotal Argument,” 113-26.

4Attridge, “Greek Fragments” in Layton, Nag Hammadi Codex II, 2:96-128.

5He says decided rather than proven. The italics are mine. See Meier, Probing, 146.

6Ibid., 147.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Meier's Three Crucial Blunders* in Analyzing the Parables: One

John P. Meier has published five books under the general title A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991- 2016). Each book is given an independent title. The independent title of his fifth book in the series is Probing the Authenticity of the Parables (Yale, 2016). The challenge of this book is that it charges the guild with largely assuming the historicity of the parables attributed to Jesus (p. 56). Meier, on the other hand, has come to the conclusion “that most of the parables lacked solid arguments for authenticity” (p. 20). And this in turn leads him critically to sift the parables as to whether or not they originated with Jesus, and he finds that only four parables originated with Jesus. By my count there are forty-one individual narrative parables in all (others count them differently); fourteen exist in multiple versions and twenty-seven exist only in single versions.1 Meier’s four authentic parables are: the Mustard Seed, the Evil Tenants of the Vineyard, the Great Supper, and the Talents/Pounds (p. 231). His prime criterion for sorting the parables is the criterion of “multiple attestation of sources” (pp. 16, 48, 49, 55, 56), which states: “when a motif or teaching attributed to Jesus appears in more than one literary form or more than one independent literary source, the possibility of its originality is increased, provided it is not characteristic of the early church or Palestinian Judaism.”2 Meier applies this criterion only with respect to independent strands of the tradition (that is, literary texts), and in the sorting does not address the ideas reflected in the parables. This enables him to relegate all the singularly attested parables (27 in all) to a category of what he calls non liquet; that is, they must be discounted from consideration because they appear in only one literary text (p. 8). There are, however, more parables that appear in multiple independent sources than just these three3 but he eliminates those texts from consideration for various reasons.

Here briefly is a critique of his first blunder permitting him to draw the conclusions he does. Meier excludes all singularly attested parables, although he admits that some of them may have originated with Jesus (p. 8). Nevertheless, the multiple-attestation criterion does not prove that a parable originated with Jesus. It only proves that a particular parable did not originate with the writer in whose text it appears, since it appears in at least one other text not literarily related to the first. The criterion only proves that the parable was accessed independently from the tradition by each writer rather than from each other, and only takes one “back to early elements in the tradition, not necessarily to Jesus himself.”4 An additional step is required to show that a given parable probably originated specifically with Jesus. For this proof Norman Perrin preferred the criterion of dissimilarity, which states: “Sayings and parables may be regarded as original with Jesus if they are dissimilar to characteristic emphases in Palestinian Judaism and early Christianity.”5 Perrin found the multiple-attestation criterion to be “less effective” and “restricted”; hence he used it in only a limited way, because “it will not often help with specific sayings but rather with general motifs.”6 Perrin states that “the application of the criterion of dissimilarity enable[s] us to reconstruct major aspects of the teaching of Jesus beyond a reasonable doubt: [they are:] the parables, the kingdom of God teaching and the Lord’s Prayer tradition.”7 Meier takes no second step in arguing authenticity.

The parabolic form was not used by the earliest Christians. They used other literary forms.8 The parables are principally realistic narrative fictions whose content was expressed in terms of the peasant culture of Palestinian antiquity.9 The early church, however, was able to make use of them particularly by interpretive introductions and conclusions, the literary settings in which they were placed, and by allegorical glosses or allegorical rewriting, among other things.10

Here is what leads me to the conclusion that Jesus is probably the originator of the parables. Parables appear in multiple independent strands of the Jesus tradition: Mark, Thomas, Secret James, and Q. The fact that we have forty-one separate parables for which no authorship other than Jesus has ever been asserted argues that Jesus is the putative author. Not that all are from Jesus but responsibility shifts to those who wish to deny that a particular parable did not originate with Jesus. Jesus popularized the parabolic form but the form was not unique to Jesus since it also appears in ancient Israelite texts.11 The fact that the stories attributed to Jesus bear the stamp of Palestinian culture rather than the Hellenistic culture of the authors of the gospels who preserved them and who had so much difficulty understanding them argues that they did not originate them.12 The gospels abound with allegory and Christian theology, but the stories of Jesus themselves as a whole do not, and that makes them strikingly different from the sources in which they appear.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Meier accused the Jesus Seminar of a “major blunder” in describing Jesus as sage (p. 40).

1 Hedrick, “Parable,” NIDB, 371. 
2 Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide, 141-42. See in particular: N. Perrin Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus, 46-47 and M. E. Boring, “The Historical-Critical Method’s ‘Criteria of Authenticity’: The Beatitudes in Q and Thomas as a Test Case,” Semeia 44 (1988): 12-14.
3 Hedrick, “Parable,” NIDB, 4: 371.
4 Boring, “Criteria of Authenticity,” 14; see also Perrin, Rediscovering, 46.
5 Hedrick, History and Faith, 139-41. See in particular Perrin, Rediscovering, 39-43 and Boring, “Criteria of Authenticity,” 17-21
6Perrin, Rediscovering, 46.
7 Ibid., 47.
8 Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus, 31-43.
9 Perrin, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, 104. Compare Meier, Marginal Jew, 42.
10 These insights are only possible because of the writing of the parabolic tradition by Jeremias, Parables of Jesus, 23-114. Perrin, Rediscovering, 47.
11Hedrick, Many Things in Parables, 17-18.
12Ibid., 26.