Book Review: Christopher W. Skinner, What Are They Saying about the Gospel of Thomas?

Back in the summer, Christopher Skinner sent me a copy of his book, What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas? (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012). It is a slim book (around 120 pages), so it did not take long to read, nor did it take me long to make some notes on its contents. What did take a long time is for me to get around to finally blogging about it!

At first I was a bit leery about the book. I have read a number of discussions of the Christian Apocrypha from what one might call “conservative” scholars writing for presses with denominational affiliations. I have been critical about the authors’ polemical/apologetic aims and the shortcomings in their knowledge of the field. I was ready to place this book within that group. It didn’t help that the testimonials on the back cover were from scholars whose work veers close to the conservative end of the spectrum of thought on the text—i.e., they hold to the opinion that Gos. Thom. is late (second-century) and dependent on the NT texts. So, I expected to be unhappy with Skinner’s examination of Gos. Thom.

I found instead that the book is a fair and balanced treatment of a broad range of scholarship on the text. Skinner, currently based at Mount Olive College in North Carolina, is no stranger to Gos. Thom. He has contributed a monograph—John and Thomas–Gospels in Conflict? Johannine Characterization and the Thomas Question (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 115; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009)—and co-authored with Nicholas Perrin a survey article on “Recent Trends in Gospel of Thomas Research (1989-2011)” for Currents in Biblical Research. Also notable is the series of interviews with Gos. Thom. scholars that Skinner has posted to his Crux Sola blog.

The aim of WATSA Gos. Thom. is “to help the nonspecialist successfully navigate the maze of Thomas scholarship” (p. 4). But not all of it (he only has 120 pages, after all). Skinner focuses on the period beginning in the 1980s, when the initial consensus on the text broke into a variety of arguments and interests. He limits himself further by looking principally at the text’s relationship to the NT material, “mainly because these form the basis of much scholarly speculation about Thomas’s origins” (p. 5).

Each chapter focuses on an aspect of this subset of scholarship on the text. Chap. 2 looks at the date of composition, chap. 3 at Gos. Thom.’s relationship to the canonical gospels, chap. 4 at its theological outlook, and chap. 5 on what it may or may not tell us about the Historical Jesus. Some advanced readers may take issue with how much Skinner focuses on English (particularly North American) scholarship, but this may be dictated by the prominence of the particular scholars who deal with these topics, and perhaps by the assumed facilities of the series’ projected audience.

Skinner rarely interacts with the scholarship he summarizes. He presents views from a selection of writers on each topic—e.g., for date he discusses Perrin as an advocate of late second-century composition, and then contrasts Perrin’s arguments with those of Patterson, Pagels, and DeConick—but does not indicate which position he favours. The only time Skinner really places himself within the scholarship is, unsurprisingly given his own interests, in a section on the relationship between Gos. Thom. and John. Even then, he maintains an irenic tone and gives each scholars’ work its due. That said, it may strike readers as odd that Perrin’s position on Gos. Thom.’s relationship to the Diatessaron gets so much attention throughout the book; to his credit, however, Skinner presents also critiques of Perrin’s argument.

I particularly appreciated Skinner’s acknowledgement that positions on Gos. Thom.’s relationship to the canonical Gospels are influenced by confessional interests—i.e., the belief by some that the NT Gospels must be the earliest and thus more reliable (p. 30). And he rightly states that criticism of the Jesus Seminar’s use of Gos. Thom. in its reconstruction of the sayings of Jesus has been overstated (p. 82). Strangely, it is not until the section of the book on the Historical Jesus that we finally see some mention of the work of John Dominic Crossan, who Skinner says, “more than any one individual within historical Jesus studies, … has been an advocate for viewing the Gospel of Thomas as one of our earliest Christian documents” (p. 83).

Skinner has done a great service in compiling this brief overview of some of the more dynamic areas of research on Gos. Thom. The volume of scholarship on this text is staggering; so this book can be very helpful, particularly for undergraduate students, for orienting oneself within this corner of the field.

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One Response to Book Review: Christopher W. Skinner, What Are They Saying about the Gospel of Thomas?

  1. Thanks for this helpful review of this work. I have been thinking that I should get it at some point and this review is helpful in confirming my impression that I probably should!

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