Francis Watson, Christoph Markschies, and the ‘Canon’ of Clement of Alexandria

Like my post on Francis Watson, Jens Schröter, and the Sayings Collection Genre of the Gospel of Thomas, today’s post belongs to the “I’d like to see someone else write about this” genre. In other words, I am writing it with the hope that it will stimulate someone to explore the matter further in the form of a class paper, conference paper, or article. In short, I think it would make an interesting project to compare what Francis Watson and Christoph Markschies say about Clement of Alexandria’s ‘canon’ in Gospel Writing and Christian Theology and its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire with a view to the place assigned to Clement in their overall conceptions. As an invitation to explore this topic further, I have chosen one quotation relating to a specific point that they interpret differently and one quotation that sheds light on how Clement fits within their overall conception. And I’ve now added an extra quotation from Markus Bockmuehl for good measure!

Quotation 1: Clement’s Knowledge of the Gospel of the Egyptians

Markschies (CTaiI, 240-41): “If one reviews the citations from this writing in Clement of Alexandria, then it is conspicuous that Clement hardly has a detailed knowledge of the content of this text and thus evidently has not even read it in its entirety: φέρεται δέ, οἶμαι, ἐν τῷ κατ’ Αἰγυπτίους εὐαγγελίῳ; “But (these words) stand, so I believe, in the Gospel of the Egyptians”.

Markschies (KcTuiI, 271): “Mustert man nun die Zitate aus dieser Schrift bei Clemens Alexandrinus, so fällt auf, daß Clemens kaum näher kennt und ihn daher offensichtlich gar nicht zur Gänze gelesen hat: φέρεται δέ, οἶμαι, ἐν τῷ κατ’ Αἰγυπτίους εὐαγγελίῳ; “(Diese Worte) stehen aber, wie ich glaube, im Ägypterevangelium”.

Watson (GW,  425-426): “Clement’s allegorical interpretation is occasioned by his opponents’ similarly allegorical interpretation of another saying derived from the same source … It is, however, Clement, not Cassianus, who identifies GEgy as the source both of the Salome passage cited earlier and of the independent but thematically related saying cited here… In spite of his modest disclaimer, “I believe,” Clement has independent access to GEgy and can therefore cite the remainder of the Salome dialogue on his own initiative and not in response to Cassianus”

Bockmuehl (Ancient Apocryphal Gospels, 211): “Clement’s awareness and use of at least excerpts of the text necessitates a date before the 190s, but it is difficult to be more specific. Because every one of Clement’s eight quotations from this work expresses the theme of a distinctly ascetical hostility to sexuality and procreation, he himself may only have known this work in the form of a thematic (and possibly already antiheretical?) collection of such excerpts, rather than as now preserved. (Cf. similarly Markschies 2012d, 666, 672).

Quotation II: Clement’s Place in the History of the Canon

Watson (GW, 435-436): Clement’s citational practice represents a moment of transition between the earlier nonspecific appeal to “the gospel” and the emergence of four “gospels” differentiated by the names of their purported authors. Yet there is no consciousness of innovation in his single Irenaeus-like reference to “the four gospels handed down to us,” nor is it explained how this “handing down” has taken place or how it differentiates one set of gospel texts from others. One factor may simply be relative familiarity… As  ever some books achieve a wide circulation whereas others are known only within limited circles or areas. If, hypothetically, two gospel texts are popular in Alexandria whereas only one of them is known in Rome, then the consensus about the one will seem to give it an ecclesial sanction that the other lacks. The fourfold gospel is an attempt to articulate, formalize, and enforce a convergence around a common usage. Clement himself articulates this perceived convergence, but shows no interest in formalizing or enforcing it. Indeed, he refers to it only in passing and in a single passage that does not reflect his citation practice as a whole. Nevertheless, an emerging trend may retrospectively be identified in this single passage, especially if we look back at Clement and his contemporaries from the perspective of Eusebius, the first great historian of the Christian canon.

Markschies (CTuiI, 245; cf. 246): We can now summarize our observations on Clement of Alexandria: it can scarcely be disputed that this highly educated free teacher used a ‘canon,’ a normed collection of authoritative biblical texts, as the corpus from which he derived his fundamental axioms. Therefore, it appears to be precisely not the case that Clement represents a vague concept of the biblical and New Testament ‘canon.’ Rather, he deals in a relatively great scope with divinely inspired writings but distinguishes once more from these a narrower ‘canon’ of especially inspired biblical texts. One should not designate such a concept of graded canonicity as “vague” but exactly the opposite, as particularly considered.

Markschies (KcTuiI, 276; cf. 277): Nun können wir unsere Beobachtungen zu Clemens Alexandrinus zusammenfassen: Es läßt sich schwer bestreiten, daß dieser hoch gebildete freie Lehrer einen ‘Kanon’, eine normierte Sammlung autoritativer biblischer Texte als dasjenige Corpus nutzte, dem er seine fundamentalen Axiome entnahm. Es scheint daher gerade nicht so, daß Clemens ein vages Konzept des biblischen und neutestamentlichen ‘Kanons’ vertritt, sondern einerseits in relativ großem Umfang mit göttlich inspirierten Schriften rechnet, davon aber noch einmal einen engeren ‘Kanon’ besonders inspirierter biblischer Texte unterscheidet. Ein solches Konzept gestufter Kanonizität sollte man nicht als “vage”, sondern gerade im Gegenteil als besonders reflektiert bezeichnen.

For my other Watsonposts, see here.

For my other Markschiesposts, see here.

For a complete list of my blog posts, please see here.

Facebook Page: To receive notifications of future blog posts, please subscribe to this blog and/or like my facebook page here.

German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne

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.

For a complete list of my blog posts, please see here.

For tips on how to use this blog, please see here.

Facebook Page: To receive notifications of future blog posts, please subscribe to this blog and/or like my facebook page here.

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.