Compared with the first decades after the publication (1959) of the Gospel of Thomas in modern languages, now we can experience in this superb and insightful publication a new phase in the academic study of this gospel, and not only of this one. At first sight not very different from other comparable publications, it is the result of colloquia about a subject from which the papers are now published. But then we have to mention the qualities of this group of academicians, working on more or less the same fields.They not only have incorporated all the work done at the Gospel until yet, but they bring its study further to an unbelievably large degree. This because of their new methodological frameworks (which as such I will not deal with here further) which not only are very promising but even now already bringing thrilling new perspectives and probable interpretations. And as we know, from the beginning of the publication of this Gospel the stakes were high: possible new views and insights about the historical Jesus being the most visible of those.
Interesting is that many of the articles begin with a history of the research and then follow up with the new methods and results that now become visible, not only applicable in this field of study in those of many texts and scriptures in Hellenistic times. I do however mention the article of April DeConick in which she illustrates her hypothesis that the Gospel of Thomas is built from the composition of “sayings of Jesus” into five speeches with a common pattern of begin and end, with the probability that later reworkings of the different sayings can be traced. From which also follows that she can offer a hypothetical ‘original Gospel of Thomas’, in which the later redactions are removed. Ofcourse implicit in this hypothesis is the possibility that new views can be traced about the intentions of the sayings and the Gospel as a whole. She argues that clearly an opposition can be traced to the Pharisees, and explains the famous saying 42 in this context meaning “Stay away from the teachings of the Pharisees” (meaning: the representatives of the ‘old’ Jewish rituals, traditions and scriptures). Surely insightful at first sight is her hypothesis that this Gospel represents the tradition of followers of Jesus who changed their intentions from Jesus’ and his early followers’ apocalyptic as well as “realizing-eschatological” and mystical views to less apocalyptic and more mystical views, because after the fall of Jerusalem and its temple in about 70C the expectation of the near end of the world changed into more emphasis on the role of Jesus as teacher of wisdom and enlightenment (already present from the first phase of the tradition of sayings of Jesus).
Another article I want to mention is the one by Vernon K. Robbins, which uses examples of the way of reasoning within Mediterranean wisdom texts, which way is also clearly used by the Gospel of Thomas, as well as for example in the synoptic gospels. An important notion of ‘contrawisdom’ comes to bear much fruit. For example in his analysis and explanation of the saying 14 that fasting, praying and giving alms will harm the disciples, of saying 13 that Jesus is not their teacher. What comes to light is that conventional wisdom will be surpassed by this contrawisdom without comparison. The secret knowledge to be found, is only found by seeking and finding (saying 2), that is by leaps of insight which a person can have if letting her- or himself awake by the words and inspiration of Jesus, and can not always be expressed in logical language. Because it opens up the totally new, uncomparable with the experience of this world, that is when one returns to the beginning before the beginning. The method examplified and used by Robbins again seems to be very promising to me. As very important I see his note at the end that this method should not be restricted to this small field or even that of Hellenistic texts but should be used to find a basis for analysis of and comparison with text from other cultures of the world, not only from different times in the West but also different times and places in the rest of the world and of history.
My restriction here to only these two articles is not justified in comparison with the rest of the book. There is not one article which is not very interesting in one or another way, often more ways. To give at least some hints, I have noted a few details from here and there, to get some appetite:
1. “Thomas does not need a story, a myth of origins … Those who made use of this gospel were convinced that the insights they enjoyed from the living Jesus (Prologue) could now pour forth from them just as authentically as it did, or does, from Jesus himself (13, 108).” (Patterson, p. 8)
2. “When Jesus urges the readers of Thomas to become passers-by, he tells them not to linger in this world, not to be caught up in the trap of conversation, or better, relations with the “living dead” all around them. … to reach their heavenly home above in the realm of light. … to return to the place of their beginning and their end, …” (Sellew, p. 73)
3. “So prominent are the parallels between Timaeus and the Gospel of Thomas in the context of the question about origins and creation … that it practically takes an effort to overlook them or ignore them. … The Gospel of Thomas does, indeed, share many features with philosophical texts of the Hellenistic age … Why not also the Greek and Hellenistic epic traditions? … What is “old” for the scribe in Matthew has a completely different reference than what is “old” garment in the Gospel of Thomas: two separate and distinct epic worlds.” “Thus, while the Gospel of Thomas certainly shows knowledge of the Hebrew epic and indeed, argues against it, it uses Greek epical motifs for its very own presentation.” (Asgeirsson, pp.169-171, 174)
4. “I agree with the approach of Richard Valantasis, who calls the theology of the Gospel of Thomas a performative theology. This theology, Valantasis affirms, emerges from the active response of readers and interpreters to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, as these readers “construct their own narrative and theology linking the individual sayings into a cohesive text.” Hence, there may be no single authoritative interpretation of Gos. Thom. 42. Readers of the Gospel of Thomas are to discover for themselves what it means to become passersby.” “I suggest, like Dewey, that the historical Jesus spoke of passing by in aphorism … he also lived in those terms, as a Jewish preacher of wisdom with an itinerant lifestyle and a challenging rhetorical style. … Jesus encouraged listeners to encounter his words creatively, so that a call to passing by could entail a fundamental challenge to various aspects of everyday life.” (Meyer, pp. 265, 270)
One can say that in this book we see the outline of the new frontiers of the academic research in not only the Gospel of Thomas and the Thomasine traditions, but also in the history of Christian Judaism as the forerunner of more and more Hellenized Christian movements, traditions and cults (including the scriptures contained and carried further in the emerging “New Testament”) eventually of the establishing of catholic Christianity – only one of those traditions, albeit politically the most powerful one – as official religion of the Roman state, end 4th century. And not only in these areas of research but also in other Greek and Latin texts and traditions, including a variety of mystery religious texts, gnostic religious texts, philosophical and epic texts etcetera. To me it seems that the history of the birth of Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism, Manichaeism as well as Islam from their pre-Christian Judaistic and / or from their Hellenizing Judaistic and /or Greek and / or other roots needs to be written anew, now not from the perspective of later dominant traditions but from a thorough new study of the original texts and other data themselves. It seems that the role of Christian Judaism will be seen as more prominent within this context than thus far has been recognized generally, although at the same time the differences between the traditions will be described in other terms, if not the traditions themselves will be divided or subdivide otherwise or anew. For example the role of Jesus as “the only true prophet” in Thomasine traditions has much in common with comparable traditions in Manichaeism (relating to Mani) and Islam (relating to Mohammad), the last probably building further on, because influjenced by the Christian Judaistic traditions. And this will not be the only example.
Ofcourse this is a major achievement, to give insight in the new frontiers of these academic studies. But that these authors and their colleagues in the first part decided to organize their work together and come to so a fruitful collective effort, has to be applauded greatly. Hats off.
Apart from excellent notes, bibliography, and indexes this book contains a lot of references to important literature (recent) as well as new views of what was important literature in the century behind us. These are entailed in the notes and in the introductions of several articles. Remarkable is that many authors are very positive about recent studies of Richard Valantasis on place and meaning of asceticism in the first centuries of our era (see indexes and bibliography).
To my joy the sensitively and intuitively research of my teacher and promotor Gilles Quispel, who died this year at the age of 89 years in Egypt, still full of interest in the Gospel of Thomas, is mentioned in this publication with respect and sympathy and several times with confirmation (among others from April DeConick, who will have learned from his work through one of her teachers, Jarl Fossum, also a pupil of Gilles Quispel), together with the other pioneers in this field. The seed of the Thomasine spirituality which he sowed and took care of within me, is enlivened very much through this enormously interesting publication. I also see with joy that my former teacher Tjitze Baarda, well known for his learnedness, modesty and wit, has been a partner in the work of this important forum of researchers as a member of the steering committee. We joyfully have (had) a lot of information and inspiration available also within the Netherlands, it seems. So let’s carry on!
Summarizing this review I only can repeat: superb, important, giving direction for future research and interpretation, with unmissable insights for the academic researcher as well as for the general reader of the Gospel of Thomas interested in its historical context and (spiritual) meaning.