A Review of Mark Goodacre’s “Thomas and the Gospels”

Mark Goodacre, well-known in biblio-blogging circles as the voice behind the NTBlog and in Synoptic Problem circles as a vocal advocate of the Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis, forwarded to me a copy of his latest book Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics (Eerdmans/SPCK, 2012). Much like Goodacre’s The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (2010), Thomas and the Gospels addresses a complex topic in an economy of space (only 226 pages) and with highly readable and lively prose. No-one but Mark Goodacre could get away with slipping a Doctor Who reference into a scholarly work (see p. 122; note also his amusing mention of the Beatles on p. 194); his appeal to pseudonymous blogger N. T. Wrong is testament also to Goodacre’s lack of pretention (p. 140). I hope readers will forgive me for the length of this review, but Goodacre's arguments demand substantial discussion (and even this review is somewhat cursory in places). To learn more about the book from Goodacre himself, watch this video trailer at NTBlog. 

Goodacre brings a different perspective to the question of Thomas’s dependence on (he prefers “familiarity with”) the Synoptics. For one, as a critic of the Two/Four Source Hypothesis, he does not believe in the existence of Q; without this other sayings gospel, Goodacre’s arguments about the genre, dating, and sources of Thomas are bound to be different. And second, though he joins North American apologetic scholars in arguing that Thomas is secondary to the Synoptics, he does not share their polemical point-of-view; indeed, he takes great pains to point out that his views on Thomas do not proceed from “a conservative or apologetic scholarly stance” (p. 4-5) and I concur with John Kloppenborg’s back-cover testimonial praising Goodacre for “taking Thomas seriously as a literary work rather than merely dismissing it as a secondary compilation.” I may not agree with Goodacre’s reasons for believing Thomas to be secondary to the Synoptics but at least he comes by his position honestly.

Goodacre’s introduction (p. 1-25) lays out and challenges the “popular-level” assertions of independence often seen in cursory treatments of the issue. These assertions include: Thomas must have been composed around the same time as the other sayings gospel Q (Goodacre sees more generic similarities in second-century works, and sees no reason to believe that sayings gospels precede narrative gospels); the order of shared material in Thomas and the Synoptics is very different (Goodacre counters that, just because the Synoptic are so similar in order, we shouldn’t expect Thomas to have the same degree of agreement; also, Thomas’s haphazard order is a result of his desire to be obscure); and if Thomas used the Synoptics then the parallel material should include, in Stephen Patterson’s words, “all of the accumulated tradition-historical baggage owned by the Synoptic text” (but Synoptic writers do not always take all of the “baggage” from their sources). Goodacre mentions also in this context Meier’s often-overlooked argument that, if independent, Thomas had available to him a wide assortment of early Christian traditions, including single, double, and triple tradition Synoptic materials and possibly the Johannine tradition. I remember making the same argument many years ago in my doctoral examinations; I was (and still am) open to the argument for the independence of Thomas but I said at the time, “He must have had one hell of a library.”

The second chapter examines verbatim agreement between Thomas and the Synoptics. Examining five logia from the Greek fragments of Thomas, Goodacre finds sufficient verbatim agreement to establish dependence. It is because of “exactly this kind of evidence,” he says, that “we know that there is a literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels” (p. 32). But the evidence is actually very small and, not surprisingly, it is the same amount of evidence that Goodacre and other Q critics use to establish Luke’s dependence on Matthew.  Of nine sayings in Greek Thomas with Synoptic parallels, Goodacre looks only at five (neglecting log. 31|Mark 6:4-6 par; log. 32|Matt 5:14; log. 33|Matt 10:27/Luke 12:3; and log. 36|Matt 6:25-27/Luke 12:22-27); none of these have significant verbal agreement. Why would Thomas follow closely one or more of the Synoptics roughly only 50% of the time?

But even for these 50% of the cases, the argument for dependence is not very strong. In log. 3, Goodacre finds a “seven-word agreement” between Luke 17:21 and Thomas, in a single phrase at the end of an approximately 40-word passage. But this agreement relies on a reconstruction (Thomas has “and the king[dom of God] is within you”) though, admittedly, Thomas’s use of a “very rare expression” (p. 36) is noteworthy. Words are missing also in log. 4:2-3 (three from the nine-word agreement with Mark 10:31 or seven with Matt 19:30), log. 5:2 (three words missing in Goodacre’s eight-word agreement with Luke 8:17), and log. 39:3 (too little of the Greek text is extant to make a case for verbatim agreement with Matt 10:16). Goodacre’s arguments rely too heavily on the “standard and uncontroversial reconstructions” (p. 38), particularly since these undoubtedly draw upon the Synoptics or Coptic Thomas to fill in the missing text.

Goodacre relies too much also on reconstructions of the Synoptics. In log. 26, Goodacre sees a 13-word verbatim agreement with Luke 6:42, but with one of these words (ekbalein) transposed (as in Matt 7:5). Comparison with other Mss of Luke show more and less verbatim agreement than the critical text of NA27, due, it seems, to harmonization with Matt 7:5. Goodacre acknowledges this complexity in the problem, but does not consider seriously that the rare occasions of verbatim agreement between Thomas and the Synoptics could result also from harmonization. Attention should be paid also to the fact that our Greek Thomas is extant in three separate manuscripts, each of which could demonstrate differing degrees of familiarity with the Synoptics. Goodacre spends some time also looking for verbatim agreement between the Synoptics and Coptic Thomas, via the retroversion of Hans-Gebhard Bethge. Goodacre himself urges caution about making arguments based on retroversions; nevertheless, he sees in his “representative selection” of logia (14:15; 73; and 86) confirmation of “the impression made by the Oxyhrynchus fragments, that there are frequent and extended verbatim parallels between Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels” (44).Goodacre finishes the discussion of verbatim agreement with an appeal to what he calls the “plagiarist’s charter,” expressed in legal parlance as, “No plagiarist can excuse the wrong by showing how much of his work he did not pirate” (p. 55). In other words, “If there is evidence in Thomas of familiarity with one or more of the Synoptics, it is no counterargument that in many other places Thomas shows no traces of familiarity” (p. 45). Still, the case for dependence must be made on more than a few cases of minor verbal agreement (minor because they represent a small amount of words, and because some of the cases rely on reconstructed or retroverted readings). We must take care, too, not to allow preconceived conclusions determine our interpretation of the evidence; consider Goodacre’s quotation of Klyne R. Snodgrass, “I would suggest that the appearance of hapax legomena or other rare words from one of the canonical Gospels in a parallel saying in Thomas should be considered as proof of dependence on the canonical Gospels” (cited p. 34 n. 31)—actually, it can also be proof of scribal harmonization or the use of shared written sources.

Goodacre’s own methodological short-sightedness comes in his frequent statements that verbatim agreement demonstrates that Thomas’s Synoptic parallels cannot result from oral transmission and must be due instead to “direct contact between texts” (p. 32; see also p. 37, 122). But there are other possibilities, particularly when the evidence shows that Thomas, at least in the Greek fragments, more often than not disagrees with the wording of the Synoptics. As for scribal harmonization, Goodacre raises the issue with regards to the Coptic text. He demonstrates that Coptic Thomas is less prone to scribal harmonization than the Greek fragments; therefore, Coptic Thomas is not “a text that aligns itself with the harmonization theory” (p. 59). But this also may indicate that the copyists of the Greek fragments were more prone to harmonizing than the branch of the tradition behind the Coptic text; the Greek text is certainly older than the Coptic, but, in places where it shows contact with the Synoptics, it may not be more primitive.

The next three chapters (3-5) examine evidence for Synoptic (primarily Matthean and Lukan) redaction in Thomas. Much of the evidence amounts to the common use of single words, though these words are particularly meaningful—the Matthean “kingdom of the heavens” in log. 54, Luke’s dektos (accepted) in log. 31 (used only here in the entire New Testament), Matthew’s “mouth” in log. 14 (though this is hardly redactional and could be explained as a parallel effort to clarify Mark’s text), and the “eight-word agreement” (p. 83) between log. 5 and Luke (which, as noted above, relies on a lot of reconstruction). Another example, log. 57 and Matt 13:24-30, relies on Goodacre’s ability to demonstrate that Matthew’s Parable of the Wheat and Tares is a major reworking of Mark’s Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly (and thus contains Matthean redaction) rather than an independent parable known only to Matthew. Similarly, log. 63 is so different from Luke that it is difficult to believe that Thomas must have used Luke as his source. Finally, Goodacre devotes an entire chapter to log. 79 and Luke 11:27-28; 23:27-31. He says of the parallels here, “If we were looking at this degree of agreement among the Synoptics, we would incline toward literary relationship of some kind” (p. 99). But this overstates the value of the evidence—in Luke, the material occurs in two different contexts split by 12 chapters, while the two thematically-related sayings are combined in Thomas; also, the saying is only extant in Coptic, thus verbatim agreement is not measurable. Clearly this is not the same degree of agreement as we find in the Synoptics. Nevertheless, Goodacre notes some significant elements in Thomas 79 that are common in Luke’s gospel (e.g., sayings of Jesus elicited by anonymous individuals, the presence of a “crowd,” Luke’s interest in “hearing the word of the Father and truly keeping it”).

Goodacre then turns to the discussion of a new phenomenon in the argument for dependence: the missing middle. This refers to the times when “Thomas fails to narrate the middle part of a given parable or saying” (p. 109) and thereby renders the parable unintelligible. A similar phenomenon is observed three times (in parallels to Matt 5:34-37; Matt 7:15-20; and Luke 12:48) in the First Apology of Justin Martyr. But many of Goodacre’s examples from Thomas (log. 26, 63, 89) are not unintelligible at all. For those where the meaning does seems obscured (log. 36,  57, and 100), at best Thomas can be said to be sloppy with his sources, not that these sources are the Synoptic Gospels. Goodacre says the sloppiness is due to Thomas working with the texts from memory (p. 126) but his arguments on verbatim agreement depend on Thomas using written texts. Goodacre cannot have it both ways. But he does try. In his discussion of orality and literacy in ch. 8, Goodacre states that, “the relative lack of parallels in order between Thomas and the Synoptics suggests that the author was regularly accessing the Synoptic material from his memory of the texts he was using” (p. 150-151) but that he used copies of the texts to check and be sure of verbatim wording. If Thomas is so concerned about verbatim agreement, why is this phenomenon so rare? As for Justin, scholars are not certain what text or texts Justin uses for his quotations from “the gospel” or the “memoirs of the apostles”—it’s possible he drew upon a harmony, perhaps even one of his own creation. The shared tendencies between Justin and Thomas—harmonization and missing middles—demand further exploration.

In the final two chapters, Goodacre draws upon his evidence to establish a date for Thomas and to present an argument for why Thomas used the Synoptics. Thomas’s use of the Synoptics, of course, places the composition of the text after, not before, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Goodacre adds also Hans-Martin Schenke’s argument for composition post 135 based on possible references to the Bar Kokhba revolt in log. 68 and 71, and that Thomas’s “authorial self-presentation” is a phenomenon of second-, not first-, century texts. As for why Thomas used the Synoptics, Goodacre calls it an “authenticating device,  a means by which the author can charge his newer, stranger material with an authenticity it derives by association with older, more familiar material” (p. 172).

In sum, Goodacre has worked well to amass the evidence for Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptic gospels. He also presents some interesting theories for why Thomas would transform the Synoptic material so radically. To me, however, the case is far from settled. We still know so little about the transmission of Thomas; three pages from three different Greek manuscripts and a complete Coptic translation, all of which demonstrate significant variation, are hardly enough to determine the form and wording of the original text.  I cannot ignore the parallels where they exist, but I question whether they are enough to demonstrate dependence at the time of the text’s composition rather than at points along the path of its transmission. I still find the breadth of Thomas’s sources suspicious, and the observable second-century phenomena (such as authorial self-presentation) should be taken seriously, but the shallow depth of Thomas’s Synoptic parallels makes me pause. This is why I find April DeConick’s “rolling corpus” theory so useful, because it has the potential to account for all the evidence, allowing Thomas to be both dependent and independent at different stages of its transmission.

It is no surprise that Goodacre finds the hints of Synoptic dependence so compelling. The same level of evidence is used by critics of Q (Goodacre among them), to show Luke’s dependence on Matthew. Looked at individually, the points of evidence look rather insignificant, and defenders of Q try to account for them with appeal to scribal harmonization and other explanations; but Goodacre and like-minded scholars see the evidence, in William Farmer’s words, as a “web of minor but closely related agreements.” I suspect that, despite Goodacre’s efforts, those who argue for the independence of Thomas will have difficulty seeing a similar web in Thomas.

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8 Responses to A Review of Mark Goodacre’s “Thomas and the Gospels”

  1. Helena Constantine says:

    According to the Farer-Goulder Hypothesis, where would the material in Matthew but not in Mark come from? Wouldn’t he have to have a second source that he was following just as he is following Mark? And wouldn’t that be Q, irrespective of whether or not Luke ever laid eyes on it?

  2. Many thanks for your appreciative, detailed and fair review, Tony. There are a couple of points I’d like to comment on in due course as soon as I get the chance, but many thanks for taking the time not only to read the book but to offer your helpful reflections.

  3. The question of the origin of the non-Marcan material in Matthew is important, I agree. But the non-Marcan material in Matthew does not equate with Q; it is a larger set of material. In fact, advocates of the Farrer theory often point out how similar in theme, style and imagery the unique Matthean material (so called “M”) can be to the double tradition (so called “Q”).

    Some advocates of the Farrer theory are minimalists about this material. Michael Goulder, for example, thought that Matthew essentially worked with Mark and the Old Testament only (see Midrash and Lection in Matthew, 1974).

    Others, like me, suggest that Matthew did have access to other sources for this material, which he used creatively, just as Mark had access to sources for his material, and Luke too for his unique material.

    That’s a very brief answer; further thoughts in the epilogue to Case Against Q.

  4. Tony Burke says:


    Matthew’s special material, whether it is all non-Markan material as in the Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis or non-Markan/non-Lukan material as in the Four-Source Hypothesis, certainly comes from his own source or sources. But Q is invoked only for material that he shares with Luke–in other words, Q is a hypothetical source for material found in Matthew AND Luke that is not derived from Mark. Farrer-Goulder states that this material was first employed by Matthew and then copied/transformed by Luke. Four-Source Hypothesis states that Matthew and Luke both added it to Mark working independently from a common source (Q).

  5. Helena Constantine says:


    I think the important idea concerning Q is that it was a written source that was the source for the material common to Mt & Lk, and thus is an Early Christian document older than anything else except mark and Paul. Whether Luke knew it independently or only through MT seems to me interesting but ultimately trivial compared to establishing the existence of an otherwise lost document.

  6. I don’t need to say that Mark Goodacre is an intelligent and informed expert on the early gospels. He writes well. He is a great public speaker and he has a real passion for the subject matter.

    With that said however it is disappointing that his views are so predictably reinforced by what one can only view are his guiding theological presuppositions. A friend of mine who happens to be a doctor once told me that sixty percent of the information he learned in medical school is now out of date. How can it be that every new gospel discovery that comes along only serves to provide Goodacre a new vehicle for reinforcing the status quo? At least with medicine we began with science.

    How can it be that Goodacre is so consistent in his efforts to uphold the traditional cultural truths of our civilization? Why does he feel the need to subordinate the new to what we’ve always had available to us – and which was probably the beliefs of his ancestors?

    I am not suggest that he has to jump on every new bandwagon. It may even be possible that truth was established at the very beginning by the ancient guardians of faith. But it is interesting that he is willing to jump on new bandwagons if – despite shoddy methodologies and the most implausible of premises – serve to further his predictable interest in upholding the status quo?

    I hope his God is good to him for all his service in favor of the old wine. Maybe, just maybe he should consider the possibility the new wine is better – at least sometimes.

  7. Helena: “Whether Luke knew it independently or only through MT . . .”: On the Farrer theory, there is no “it”, at least not the same “it” that you have on the Q theory — have another look at Tony’s and my comments.

  8. Thanks for your kind remarks in your first paragraph above, Stephan!

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