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.


Bob Dylan Career Path

It’s Spring Break for me, so I figured it would be appropriate to depart from the regularly scheduled program.

This my attempt to sketch out a/my career in biblical studies via 14 Bob Dylan Songs (cf. The New Testament in Bob Dylan song titles)

The selection may seem a bit cynical at times, but for me some of these songs really have been a source of strength along the way.

Still, you may want to balance this sketch with my more constructive Roadmap for Aspiring New Testament scholars!

For ease of reference all songs are taken from “The Essential Bob Dylan” (see here)

1. On not losing the best of one’s beginnings

Forever Young (for full lyrics, see here)

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

2. On (re)reading the primary sources

Mr. Tambourine Man (for full lyrics, see here)

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you

3. On trying to find your niche

Subterranean Homesick Blues (for full lyrics, see here)

Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
’Cause the vandals took the handles

4. On trying to get into a PhD program

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (for full lyrics, see here)

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense
Take what you have gathered from coincidence
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

5. On being ignored (or ignoring people) at conferences

Positively 4th Street (for full lyrics, see here)

You got a lotta nerve
To say you are my friend
When I was down
You just stood there grinning

You got a lotta nerve
To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that’s winning

6. On trying to publish one’s research

Rainy Day Woman # 12 & 35 (for full lyrics, see here)

They’ll stone ya when you’re at the breakfast table
They’ll stone ya when you are young and able
They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to make a buck
They’ll stone ya and then they’ll say, “good luck”
Tell ya what, I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned

7. On (trying to finish) the PhD

Maggie’s Farm (for full Lyrics, see here)

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
Well, he hands you a nickel
He hands you a dime
He asks you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time
Then he fines you every time you slam the door
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more

8. On realizing your PhD might not land you a job

Like a Rolling Stone (for complete lyrics, see here)

Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

9. On the unrelenting pressure to publish (what others say is important)

It Ain’t Me, Babe (for complete lyrics, see here).

Go melt back into the night, babe
Everything inside is made of stone
There’s nothing in here moving
An’ anyway I’m not alone
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who’ll pick you up each time you fall
To gather flowers constantly
An’ to come each time you call
A lover for your life an’ nothing more
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

10. On (contemplating the possibility of) not making tenure

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (for full lyrics, see here)

I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road, babe
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
But goodbye’s too good a word, gal
So I’ll just say fare thee well
I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right

11. On (contemplating the possibility of) making tenure

Quin the Eskimo  (The Mighty Quinn) (for full lyrics, see here)

Ev’rybody’s building the big ships and the boats
Some are building monuments
Others, jotting down notes
Ev’rybody’s in despair
Ev’ry girl and boy
But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
Ev’rybody’s gonna jump for joy
Come all without, come all within
You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn

12. On trying to interpret the Bible for one’s time

The Times they Are a Changin’ (for full lyrics, see here)

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

13. On realizing that “every decent theology was, is, and will be a theology of liberation” (E. Käsemann).

Blowin’ in The Wind (for full lyrics, see here)

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

14. On remembering one’s teachers and mentors

If Not For You (for full lyrics, see here)

If not for you
Winter would have no spring
Couldn’t hear the robin sing
I just wouldn’t have a clue
Anyway it wouldn’t ring true
If not for you