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Ivan Miroshnikov on the Gospel of Thomas, Part I
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[We apologise for the digital glitchiness of the interview. It’s all pretty comprehensible, but æsthetically not up to the beauty and insights of Miroshnikov’s perspectives on the Gospel of Thomas.]
We discuss the Gospel of Thomas – the ‘fifth gospel’, one of the most important pieces of early Christian non-canonical (in retrospect) writing, and a very cryptic work. The Gospel claims to be a collection of ‘secret sayings of the living Jesus’; the sayings vary from parables known from the synoptic gospels, often in intriguingly-altered versions, to properly-inscrutable gnomic utterances dealing with ‘becoming alone’ or ‘one’, with the earthly and heavenly realms, with the personæ of early church history and their interactions, and much more. Since the discovery of a complete Coptic translation of the text in Nag-Hammadi Codex II, the Gospel of Thomas has been at the centre of a buzzing scholarly industry as researchers try to figure out what kind of Christianity this text represents, how early it is (or how early the earliest strata of the text are), what kind of theology and salvation-history lie behind the cryptic utterances of Jesus found therein, and even to what degree these sayings might represent the actual ipsissima verba of the historical Jesus. The text’s self-proclaimed status as a collection of secret sayings, the interpretation of which will grant the hermeneut eternal life, adds a layer of the esoteric to the text which has made it irresistible to scholars of early esoteric Christianities.
Miroshnikov lays out an insightful and careful approach to the subject. Topics discussed include:
- The discovery and identification of all the pieces of the textual puzzle of the Gospel of Thomas as we know it, and some of the many critical problems facing anyone who wants to read this complex text,
- Some discussion of the circumstances surrounding the Nag-Hammadi discoveries , and why the received version might not be exactly right,
- Some discussion of the genre of the Gospel of Thomas (sayings-collection or gnomological book) and the recension-history of the text (as far as it can reliably be reconstructed),
- The question of how early the earliest stratum of the Gospel of Thomas really is – our interviewee thinks it likely to be very ancient indeed, but points to the work of e.g. Gathercole (see below) as taking a sceptical line here –
- The Gospel of Thomas as a tool for ‘sapiential research’ (Kloppenborg’s term, see below), a text which is meant to draw the reader into a kind of spiritual hermeneutic of living with the text and being transformed by it,
- The use of ‘catchwords’, homophones, and chiasmus as organisational principles in the text, and the possible use this may have served for the internalisation and hermeneutical exploration of the text,
- The significance of the name ‘Didymus Judas Thomas’ found in our Coptic MSS , and the ways in which this name has been used to link the Gospel of Thomas with a Syriac milieu,
- The question of a ‘Thomasine Christianity’ or ‘Thomasine Community’,
- Distinctive features of the Gospel of Thomas, including the absence of the title ‘Christos’ (Christ, meaning ‘anointed one’, a title which, in the canonical gospels, identifies Jesus with the Jewish messiah of prophecy), a lack of narratives of Jesus’ life-story (no miracles, probably no crucifixion), the question of the possible docetism of the Thomas-author, and
- Consideration of the Gospel‘s ‘Gnosticism’ and a number of other scholarly readings of the text.
Ivan Miroshnikov is Pro futura scientia Fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Egyptological Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. A coptologue, student of early Christianities, and man of parts. His book The Gospel of Thomas and Plato: A Study of the Impact of Platonism on the ‘Fifth Gospel’ is well worth a read, and is available free in digital form through open-access.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- Stevan Davies. The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom. Seabury, New York, NY, 1983.
- April D. DeConick. Seek to See Him: Ascent and Vision Mysticism in the Gospel of Thomas. Number 33 in Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae. Brill, Leiden, 1996.
- Simon Gathercole. The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences. Number 151 in Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/New York, NY, 2012.
- Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt. Sayings of Our Lord from an Early Greek Papyrus. Frowde, London, 1897.
- Idem. New Sayings of Jesus and Fragment of a Lost Gospel from Oxyrhynchus. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1904.
- Larry Hurtado. The Greek Fragments of the Gospel of Thomas as Artefacts: Papyrological Observations on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 654 and Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 655. In Jörg Frey, Enno Edzard Popkes, and Jens Schröter, editors, Das Thomasevangelium: Entstehung—Rezeption—Theologie, volume 157 of Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, pages 19–32. De Gruyter, Berlin, 2008.
- John S. Kloppenborg. The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Fortress, Philadelphia, PA, 1987.
- Antti Marjanen. Thomas and Jewish Religious Practices. In Risto Uro, editor, Thomas at the Crossroads: Essays on the Gospel of Thomas, Studies of the New Testament and Its World, pages 163–82. T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1998.
- Hans-Martin Schenke. On the Compositional History of the Gospel of Thomas. In Gesine Schenke Robinson, Gesa Schenke, and Uwe-Karsten Plisch, editors, Der Same Seths: Hans-Martin Schenkes Kleine Schriften zu Gnosis, Koptologie und Neuem Testament, volume 78 of Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies, page 875–95. Brill, Leiden, 2012.
- T.C. Skeat. The Lilies of the Field. In J.K. Elliott, editor, The Collected Biblical Writings of T.C. Skeat, volume 113 of Supplements to Novum Testamentum, pages 243–46. Brill, Leiden, 2004.
In addition to Davies 1983, Schenke 2012, and Skeat 2004, all cited above, see:
- Simon Gathercole. The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary. Number 11 in Texts and Editions for New Testament Study. Brill, Leiden, 2014.
- John S. Kloppenborg. The Tenants in the Vineyard: Ideology, Economics, and Agrarian Conflict in Jewish Palestine. Number 1.195 in Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2006.
- Jacobus Liebenberg. The Language of the Kingdom and Jesus: Parable, Aphorism, and Metaphor in the Sayings Material Common to the Synoptic Tradition and the Gospel of Thomas. Number 102 in Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft. De Gruyter, Berlin, 2001.
- Ivan Miroshnikov. The Gospel of Thomas and Plato: A Study of the Impact of Platonism on the ‘Fifth Gospel’. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2018.
- Stephen J. Patterson. The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus: Thomas Christianity, Social Radicalism, and the Quest of the Historical Jesus. Polebridge, Sonoma, CA, 1993.
- Uwe-Karsten Plisch. The Gospel of Thomas: Original Text with Commentary. Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, 2008.
- Risto Uro, ed. Thomas at the Crossroads: Essays on the Gospel of Thomas. T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1998.
- Idem. Thomas: Seeking the Historical Context of the Gospel of Thomas. T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 2003.