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Four Views on Thomas: Thomas as Gnostic Text (Part II)

September 15, 2010

Despite the trend in understanding Thomas as something other than gnostic, a handful of scholars still regard Thomas as such. In his revised dissertation, Das Thomasevangelium: Einleitung, Kommentar, und Systematik, Michael Fieger (1991) includes an 11-page introduction that rehearses many of the standard issues, including date, provenance, and theological outlook. Fieger argues that Thomas is a second-century gnostic gospel that is largely dependent upon both the Synoptics and gnostic traditions available to the community in which it was composed. Fieger identifies two types of material in Thomas: synoptic-like sayings and gnostic sayings, the latter of which provides the interpretive grid through which the entire gospel can be understood (cf. pp. 3-6).

The process by which Fieger approaches Thomas is somewhat circular. Fieger reads every logion in Thomas through the lens of gnosticism, resulting in gnostic interpretations that further reinforce his premise that Thomas is gnostic. In his review of Fieger’s monograph, Stephen J. Patterson (JBL 111 [1992]: 361-63) criticizes the book’s approach, suggesting that a large number of Fieger’s gnostic readings are not demanded by the text but are imposed by the gnostic grid with which he begins. Patterson’s critique echoes an assertion that is commonly voiced by scholars today—for one to interpret Thomas as a gnostic text, one must import gnosticism into the text. Patterson also points out Fieger’s failure to recognize the presence of sapiential material in Thomas. How, he asks, have both wisdom traditions and gnostic traditions come to exist side-by-side in Thomas? Fieger’s gnostic model fails to address this question.

William Arnal also sees both sapiential and gnostic material in the Gospel of Thomas, though unlike Patterson he does regard some of the material in Thomas as genuinely rather than incipiently gnostic (cf. “The Rhetoric of Marginality: Apocalypticism, Gnosticism, and Sayings Gospels,” HTR 88: 471–94). Arnal argues that gnostic themes are part of a secondary redaction to the original, wisdom-oriented gospel. Through the introduction of gnostic material, a gnostic interpreter has co-opted the original and pressed it into the service of gnosticism.

The terms “gnostic” and “gnosticism” have also appeared in the titles of several books by Marvin Meyer, and in one volume, Meyer’s translation of Thomas is accompanied by a gnostic interpretation of each logion (with Harold Bloom, 1992). More recently Meyer has taken a more nuanced stand, acknowledging that “[w]hile the Gospel of Thomas has some features in common with gnostic gospels, it does not seem to fit the definition of Gnosticism. . . .to a significant extent. Thus I prefer to consider the Gospel of Thomas to be a gospel with an incipient gnostic perspective” (The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus, 2005). With this comment Meyer affirms what a growing number of scholars are recognizing. The use of Thomas by later gnostics is not enough for scholars to consider it a full-blown gnostic text.

Overall, recent scholarship on the Gospel of Thomas appears to be moving away from the supposition that Thomas is a gnostic text, while remaining aware of the interest Thomas held for later gnostic interpreters.

In our next few posts we will look at the view that Thomas is an example of Christian wisdom literature.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2010 3:35 pm

    A minor correction, Chris: Bloom’s 12-page essay in Meyer’s book doesn’t comment on each and every saying. The individual sayings-notes prior to Bloom’s essay are Meyer’s own.

    • September 15, 2010 3:36 pm

      Thanks for the correction, Mike. I didn’t mean to write that and I appreciate your attentive eye! I’m fixing it now.

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