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.


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  2. Hi Charlie,

    Looking at Goodacre's Thomas and the Gospels (see previous posting), he notes the following evidence for Thomas' knowledge of the synoptics:

    1. Discusses 8 instances of word for word agreement, including a 13 word Greek example: P.Oxy. 1:1-4 [Thom 26](Lk 6:42/Matt 7:5) "...and then you will see clearly to cast out the speck that is in your brother's eye."

    2. Discusses 3 instances of Thomas' awareness of Matthean redaction: "the kingdom of the heavens" (Matt 5:3, 13:31/Thom 54, 20); "into the mouth" and "out of the mouth" (Matt 15:10-11/Thom 14:5); imagery, thought, and language of the "Wheat and Tares" (Matt 13:24-30/Thom 57) parable.

    3. Discusses 5 instances of Thomas' awareness of Lukan redaction; e.g., "nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest" (Luke 8:17; Thom 5:2), and then devotes a full chapter to Thom 79 Luke 11:27-28; 23:27-31) "Blessed are the womb that bore you and the breasts..."

    4. Discusses 6 instances of Thomas leaving out the middle of a story that he is telling: e.g. Rich Fool (Luke 12:15-21/Thom 63). Citing a number of examples in Justin Martyr, he offers, "They incline us against the view that Thomas' frequent brevity with respect to the synoptics is related in any way to primitivity....it is editorial tendency." (127, 148)

    5."The relative lack of parallels in order between Thomas and the Synoptics suggests that the author was reularly accessing the Synoptic materials from his memory of the texts he was using...links may often be the the result of memory association." (151)

    6. Thomas goal: use the Synoptic Jesus to give Thomas' view of Jesus broader legitimacy. (196)

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. I also thought it important that Goodacre made a distinction between "dependence" as opposed to "use" or "familiarity," since "dependence" would imply that Thomas was a derivative writing, noting that about half of Thomas has no Synoptic parallels. Positing that the non-Synoptic halves might be the "most important" material, he notes, "It could be that Thomas uses the Synoptic Gospels as source material, but that the author does so critically and creatively, and not in a 'dependent' or derivative way" (p. 7). (I also found the "missing middle" parallels in Justin to be intriguing.)
      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

    2. Good Morning Gene and Dennis,
      I have not read Goodacre's book so I cannot comment. I have, however, just ordered the book and will read it in the next month or so. But that will not be soon enough to engage your current comments.

  3. Good Evening Charlie,

    Who coined the term "synoptic" gospels? And who gave them the definitive authority that supersedes all other gospel accounts?

    It's very confusing to think about all the many gospel accounts and try to figure out who wrote them and when.... How many Christians are even aware that there are so many different gospel accounts? I certainly wasn't aware- I do wish that this knowledge was made more public by priests and pastors. As to why the gospel of Thomas did not make it into such a list, I still have no earthly idea.... Other than there had to be a cut-off at some point.

    Finally- has anyone ever definitively proven that Thomas DIDN'T have any knowledge of the synoptic gospels? Very intriguing as usual! Elizabeth

    1. Hi Elizabeth,
      I do not know when the use of "Synoptic Gospels" started. It is a technical term to describe the first three gospels over against the fourth. Matt, Mark, Luke, take a similar view of the career of Jesus: their optic is synonymous!
      Thomas at least in one of its versions was thought even in antiquity to be heretical by those who called themselves the Orthodox and who also gave us the biblical canon.
      The answer to your last question depends on who you ask. There is not yet a general view of scholarship on the issue.