Francis Watson, Jens Schröter, and the Sayings Collection Genre of the Gospel of Thomas

I recently completed Francis Watson‘s impressive book Gospel Writing, which is rightly receiving much attention (see here). I profited much from this stimulating work, and I especially enjoyed seeing the many ways in which it converged with and diverged from Jens Schröter‘s perspectives in From Jesus to the New Testament and Christoph Markschies‘s perspectives in Christian Theology and its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire.

Against this background, I hope to devote two (or more?) blog posts to comparing Watson’s book with the aforementioned works, namely as examples of the “I’d like to see someone else write about this” genre. In other words, these posts will flag up areas of inquiry that I will probably not write on but that I hope someone else might be motivated to investigate in greater detail, i.e. in the form of a blog post, conference paper, or article.

This week’s post will focus on the the different ways that Jens Schröter and Francis Watson deal with the sayings tradition and its development with special reference to the place they assign to the Gospel of Thomas. I’ll begin with a quotation by Watson, follow it with a quotation by Schröter, and then add a few words of analysis.

Francis Watson (Gospel Writing, pp. 249-250): “A closely related issue has been less intensively discussed, and it concerns the format of GTh. This text consists of a series of sayings, whether shorter or longer, single or composite, normally introduced by the formula “Jesus said…” While Thomas is apparently dependent on Matthew and Luke for parts of its content, it is independent of them as regards its format. Nor does this format conform to the (now discredited) Q Gospel. … There is no basis for the common assumption that Thomas closely resembles Q, and that it thereby strengthens the case for Q. … In terms of format, Thomas is unique, the single surviving instance of a sayings collection to set alongside the narrative gospels. The question is whether GTh was always unique or whether it attests the existence of a Sayings Collection genre, a class of writing whose existence ran parallel to that of the narrative gospels and that might conceivably have predated them. That is not to say that GTh itself may be earlier than the narrative gospels. If it contains early elements at all, predating the canonical evangelists, these can be identified only tentatively; they cannot be assembled into an ‘original core’ to which a mid-first-century date may be assigned. Even within the more self-consciously literary genre of the narrative gospels, there is considerable fluidity as stories pass from unknown sources into Mark and from Mark into Matthew and Luke. Within an initially preliterary Sayings Collection genre, that fluidity is likely to have been greater still. It is therefore impossible to recover from GTh the text of a primitive sayings collection along the lines of reconstructions of Q. What may still be possible is to recover from GTh a primitive genre, one in which sayings of Jesus were simply listed one after the other with an introductory formula attached to each. This genre would be at least as old as the oldest written sayings in GTh. If Thomas preserves even a single saying or parable in a form that predates the synoptic versions, it most probably owes its preservation to an unbroken chain of written transmission. The links in the chain are beyond recovery—although, as we have seen, Clement of Alexandria’s Gospel according to the Hebrews may have been one of them. Yet, if the Sayings Collection genre can be traced back behind GTh into the presynoptic era, it is plausible to suppose that texts of this kind may have been available to the synoptic evangelists. Before as well as after the composition of their gospels, Jesus’ sayings were transmitted by way of Sayings Collections (SCs). To the L/M hypothesis, which replaces Q, a Thomas-based SC hypothesis may be added. the two hypotheses are independent yet mutually reinforcing. If there is a Sayings Collection genre that predates the narrative gospels, then there is no need to envisage an extended period of purely oral transmission of Jesus’ sayings. The writing of a saying would be an original rather than a secondary feature of the traditioning process.”

Jens Schröter (From Jesus to the New Testament, p. 110-111 + note 49): “The one-sided preference for Q and the Gospel of Thomas—which in the process are also incorrectly assigned to the same genre—in Jesus presentations such as that of John Dominic Crossan or the methodologically completely untenable plea for the historical preference for a supposedly oldest layer of Q by James M. Robinson are indebted to a perspective that disregards the historical concretion and is not adequate to the sources. By contrast, every historical presentation of the person of Jesus has to take its orientation from the fact that his sayings were spoken in concrete situations to concrete human beings, that they only present one aspect of his activity and stand alongside the others—such as the constitution of a circle of followers, his healings and meal-fellowships, and the controversy [123] with opponents, to name only a few—and that in the sources that are available, whole pictures of his activity and fate are provided and not collections of sayings.” Note 49: “This is not altered at all by the fact that with the Gospel of Thomas we have a writing concentrated on the presentation of isolated sayings and parables. Such a collection is an artificial product that already presupposes the narrative presentation of the activity of Jesus and takes this path in contrast to another path in order to explicate the significance of Jesus. The thesis of the ancient character of such a collection is refuted by observations pertaining to the secondary character of the Gospel of Thomas over against the Synoptic Gospels, as well as by the fact with the philosophical biographies of Diogenes Laertius and the Apophthegmata Patrum we have parallel works from about the same time or even later in which the collection character of the material has just as little to do with antiquity. On this cf. also Hezser 1996, 393.”

Analysis: As mentioned at the outset, this post belongs to what I am calling the “I’d like to see someone else write about this” form/genre. In other words, although (or because!) I don’t plan on researching this topic further myself, I would be delighted if my presentation of these two quotations would provoke some bright, industrious scholar to compare and contrast the ways in which Jens Schröter (e.g. in From Jesus to the New Testament, chapters 5-6, and 12) and Francis Watson (in Gospel Writing, perhaps esp. in chapters 5 and 7) discuss the character and development of the sayings tradition, which would obviously not be limited to their treatment of the Gospel of Thomas.

My impression is that both scholars have developed extremely impressive models for how to understand the overall development of the sayings tradition, which makes it all the more interesting to observe areas of sharp disagreement (e.g. placing the sayings collection genre reflected in the Gospel of Thomas at an earlier or later point in the development) alongside many notable agreements (e.g. their shared view that Q and the Gospel of Thomas do not belong to the same genre and that the Gospel of Thomas is familiar with the Synoptic Gospels). While this post obviously does not go very far in showing how such an investigation might prove fruitful, perhaps it will prove sufficient to motivate someone else to pursue the matter further. If so, Schröter’s multiple exchanges with James Dunn could also prove relevant for this task (see here and here), since it seems to me that there are some points in which Watson and Dunn stand over against Schröter (e.g. in placing the sayings tradition in the context of recollection about Jesus from the beginning rather than seeing it initially located in a paraenetic context that was not focused on biographical recollection) and others in which Dunn and Schröter stand over against Watson (e.g. in the fact that they are inclined to appeal to oral tradition to explain much of the material that Watson explains with reference to the Sayings Collection Genre).

If anyone does wish to develop this topic, I recommend beginning with chapter 5 of From Jesus to the New Testament and pages 249-285 and 347-355 of Gospel Writing.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! Unfortunately, I have found it increasingly difficult to write a new post each Monday, but I hope to be able to write at least one or two Monday blog posts each month. We’ll see. Best, Wayne.