Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron, Nicholas Perrin

Posted by on Feb 27, 2018 in Library | Comments Off on Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron, Nicholas Perrin

Robert F. Shedinger
Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron, by Nicholas Perrin. SBLAB 5. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002. Pp. xii + 216. $29.95.

Nicholas Perrin’s monograph Thomas and Tatian represents a revised version of his Ph.D. dissertation completed at Marquette University under the guidance of Julian Hills. As should be clear from the title, Perrin’s work has been inspired by Gilles Quispel’s similarly titled monograph, Tatian and the Gospel of Thomas (Leiden: Brill, 1975), a fact that Perrin himself asserts in his preface. But unlike the earlier work, Perrin’s monograph seems to me to be seriously mistitled for reasons that will become evident toward the end of this review.
In an introductory chapter, Perrin begins with a survey of scholarship on the relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels. Perrin finds that such scholarship has envisioned only two possible answers for this question. Either the Gospel of Thomas is dependent directly on the Synoptics for material they share, or Thomas is based on an independent tradition on which the Synoptics also drew. With scholars on the Gospel of Thomas split between these two positions it appears that the scholarship is at an impasse. For this reason, Perrin offers a third alternative, that of indirect dependence of Thomas on the Synoptics. That is, the Gospel of Thomas is influenced by Matthew, Mark, and Luke via their harmonized form appearing in Tatian’s Diatessaron. To move Thomas scholarship beyond its current impasse, Perrin hopes to demonstrate that the Gospel of Thomas is of late-second-century Syriac provenance, and that it was influenced by Tatian’s Syriac Gospel Harmony.
With his thesis before us, Perrin turns, in ch. 1, to a survey of scholarship on the Syriac origin of the Gospel of Thomas. In order for Thomas to be dependent on Tatian’s Diatessaron, it must be of Syrian provenance, it must have been written in Syriac, and it must have been written after ca. 173 C.E., the approximate date of origin of the Diatessaron. On the issue of date, Perrin argues that scholars have been unduly influenced by B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt’s opinion of a date ca. 140 C.E., which rules out any possibility of Diatessaronic influence. If uncritical acceptance of Grenfell and Hunt’s date has prejudiced scholarship on the Gospel of Thomas against the possibility of a first-century origin (as James Robinson argues), Perrin believes that it has equally prejudiced scholarship against a late-second-century origin. He then turns to the works of G. Quispel, A. Guillaumont, and T. Baarda among others to show that an Aramaic, and in some cases a specifically Syriac, substratum in the Gospel of Thomas has been successfully demonstrated even if it has been largely ignored by Thomas scholars, who, as Perrin points out, are more comfortable working with Greek and Coptic texts.
With these preliminary matters behind him, Perrin turns, in ch. 2, to his own contribution to the argument for a Syriac origin for the Gospel of Thomas: the analysis of catchwords in the composition of this sayings Gospel. It is Perrin’s contention that the Gospel of Thomas does not represent a random series of 114 logia of Jesus, but rather that this collection has been intentionally structured by a string of catchwords that link the various logia together into a coherent document. By catchword Perrin means “any word which can be semantically, etymologically, or phonologically associated with another word found in an adjacent logion.” The bulk of the monograph (encompassing pp. 57-155) is then given over to a tabulation of the catchwords that Perrin identifies in the Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas, the Greek text (represented by the Oxy-rhynchus fragments along with Perrin’s own reconstructions of the lacuna), and a hypothetical Syriac text. The results show that 269 catchwords appear in the Coptic text, 263 in the Greek, but 502 in the Syriac. This provides strong confirmation for Perrin that the Gospel of Thomas was composed in Syriac. But of course this raises the methodological question of how Perrin goes about creating this hypothesized Syriac original. Is it not likely that he will offer reconstructions that introduce the very catchword associations he is looking for?
To his credit, Perrin recognizes the difficulties inherent in his approach, and even raises the question himself of whether his reconstructions will be tendentiously skewed. He responds that since Syriac offers a limited range of lexicological options, this is not as big a problem as first appears. But he continues with the striking statement: “Since I am arguing that the Gospel of Thomas, like the Old Syriac, drew on the Diatessaron, I have restricted myself to reproducing, where applicable, the phraseology of the Old Syriac/Diatessaronic tradition. Where the Old Syriac clearly departs from the Diatessaron, I follow the latter.” There are two problems here. First, the argument seems circular. Perrin has not yet established the Gospel’s dependence on the Diatessaron. Until he does he cannot use this dependence as a way to reconstruct a hypothetical Syriac original. We do not yet know that a Syriac Gospel of Thomas would resemble the phraseology of the Old Syriac/Diatessaronic tradition. Second, if Perrin follows the Diatessaron where it clearly departs from the Old Syriac, where does he get this Syriac text of the Diatessaron? The original Syriac text of Tatian’s Harmony does not exist; it too must be reconstructed, a very difficult process in its own right and one fraught with many potential pitfalls that Perrin largely ignores. Perrin, however, continues undaunted with the rhetorical challenge that the onus falls on the one wishing to argue against his choice of Syriac words in his reconstruction.
Perrin’s argument from catchwords for a Syriac Gospel of Thomas is cumulative; it is based on an overall assessment of all the apparent catchword associations running throughout the entire sayings collection. Thus, I will refrain in this review from quibbling over just a few selected examples and leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions after working through the entire technical analysis. It is, however, worth noting Perrin’s observation that half the logia in the Gospel of Thomas that contain the word “fire” (nura in Syriac) are paired with logia containing the word “light” (nuhra in Syriac). Because these two Syriac words are homophones, Perrin feels it is not accidental that logia containing “fire” are frequently paired with logia containing “light.” This sounds like impressive evidence for an original Syriac Gospel of Thomas until one realizes that only four logia out of 114 actually contain the word “fire,” meaning that the confluence of logia containing “fire” and “light” occurs only twice, a phenomenon that could easily be coincidental. This is not to say that Perrin’s catchword analysis is of no value. The analysis is thorough and deserves a considerably more detailed assessment of the 502 Syriac catchword associations than can obviously be achieved in this short review. Perrin even invites such a detailed assessment when he writes, “The number of Syriac catchwords is considerable. Even if a third of the Stichwörter adduced in the chart were called into question (I believe the challenge remains for the one wishing to discount any one of them), the evidence would still favor a Syriac text.” Rhetorical statements like this seem to demonstrate Perrin’s intimate awareness of the fragile nature of his argument.
Following his catchword analysis, Perrin shows that paranomastic wordplay is a regular feature of Syriac literature and cites analogies of the word play he has adduced in a Syriac Gospel of Thomas with what occurs in the Odes of Solomon. He further asserts that the existence of wordplay in Thomas establishes the genre of this sayings Gospel as the ancient Near Eastern hermetic tradition known from both Egypt and Mesopotamia.
In ch. 3, Perrin finally turns to the main part of his thesis as established in his title, the relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron. He begins the chapter by arguing that Thomas is not just a compiler of texts, but rather “an active and at times intrusive editor of texts.” This assertion is based on an analysis of passages where the Gospel of Thomas includes unique elements in sayings otherwise similar to Synoptic texts. In each case Perrin argues that the element unique to Thomas introduces a Syriac catchword into the logion that links it to preceding and/or following logia. Thus, Thomas edits his sources to create the catchword associations that Perrin argues form the structural framework of the text. This argument seems valid and the evidence presented is interesting. However, having established the Gospel of Thomas’s dependence on earlier written sources, Perrin then argues that Tatian’s Diatessaron is that source for material shared by the Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels. The problem is that this dependence is merely asserted, but never established. Perrin writes, “If Thomas did use Tatian one might expect to see this borne out in future historical, text-critical and source-critical studies of the two texts. While a comprehensive investigation along each of these lines remains outside the scope of my inquiry, these remain promising fields of exploration.” How can such an investigation be outside the scope of inquiry of a monograph of which the stated thesis is to establish the dependence of the Gospel of Thomas on the Diatessaron, and thereby to solidify the argument for an original Syriac Gospel of Thomas? Perrin instead falls back on a default argument. Since Thomas was written in Syriac in the late second century, and since it is based on earlier Syriac Gospel texts, it must be based on the Diatessaron, because as far as we know this would have been the only Syriac Gospel source available at this time. While this may be true, it seems highly problematic that a monograph that advertises itself as an investigation into the relationship between two documents then excuses itself from engaging in a detailed text and source-critical comparison of those two documents!
In fairness to Perrin, he is dealing with two very challenging texts that both have produced an enormous secondary literature. He could not be expected to be an expert in both, and throughout the work it is clear that he is far more conversant with scholarship on the Gospel of Thomas than with work on the Diatessaron. For example, when Perrin lists Syriac writings believed to have been influenced by the text of the Diatessaron he fails to mention the Gospel citations in the Demonstrations of Aphrahat, one of the more significant eastern witnesses to the text of Tatian’s Harmony. Moreover, when surveying scholarship arguing for a Greek original for the Diatessaron, he ignores Carl H. Kraeling’s monograph on the Dura Fragment (A Greek Fragment of Tatian’s Diatessaron from Dura [London: Christophers, 1935]), perhaps the premier argument for an original Greek Diatessaron. Finally, Perrin attempts to show that in Gos. Thom. 45, elements from Matthean parallels appear in a saying that seems to be based on Luke 6:44-45. Perrin argues that the harmonization of Matthean and Lukan elements in Gos. Thom. 45 is consistent with the harmonized form of this text in Diatessaronic witnesses. Unfortunately, he does not reproduce the text of even a single one of these witnesses so that the reader might be able to assess his argument. Had he done so, the reader would be able to see that in the Arabic Harmony, a Diatessaronic witness that is considered an accurate source for the sequence of the Diatessaron, Luke 6:44 and 45 are separated by Matt 7:17-18, a text omitted in Gos. Thom. 45. Moreover, this same sequence is attested also in Aphrahat’s Demonstrations. It appears that Gos. Thom. 45 does not in fact harmonize Synoptic materials in the same way as the Diatessaron. Since this is the only piece of textual evidence Perrin cites in support of the Gospel of Thomas’s dependence on Tatian, the principal thesis of the monograph remains largely uninvestigated and completely unsupported. For Perrin, the Gospel of Thomas is dependent on the Diatessaron by default; such dependence is not established via the presentation of positive evidence, which raises the question of why this work bears the title that it does.
Finally, far too many errors have gotten past the copyediting process. For example, on p. 25, we read, “In conceiving GT as an tightly woven …,” on p. 42, “witnesses to Luke 17:20 is ambivalent,” in n. 27 on p. 61, “repetition of whole phrases and sentences in not out of character …,” and on p. 171, “no manifest connection appears between GT 57 and 57 [sic], 88 and 89, 104 and 105.” By analogy we can suppose the first pair should read 57 and 58. On p. 180, we read, “Jesus enjoins giving to Caesar what is Caesar [sic].” Finally, in n. 6 on p. 173, “the” is omitted in the phrase “This is way in which,” while on p. 186, “is” is omitted in the clause “how does one account for the fact that GT 45 generally closer….” Obviously, the manuscript of this monograph deserved a much closer reading before going to press.
Despite the considerable problems with this work, it is generally well written, and it is worth engaging the arguments put forth. While Perrin does not come close to delivering on the stated thesis of the work–demonstrating the dependence of the Gospel of Thomas on the Diatessaron–he has revived the theory of Thomas as a Syriac composition and extended it through his analysis of catchwords. Though most Thomas scholars will probably not find this argument convincing, the evidence Perrin presents should not be ignored. It deserves closer scrutiny and an informed response. Perrin explicitly lays down the gauntlet. Will Thomas scholars accept the challenge?
Robert F. Shedinger
Luther College, Decorah, IA 52101

Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron,