A few weeks ago, I caught myself reading Helmut Koester’s important book “Anicent Christian Gospels” (1990). After having read the Gospel of Philip, I was confused enough (both academically and as a Christian) to feel compelled to surround myself with literature concerning ‘apocryphal’ gospels and the like. Although this reaction didn’t necessarily ease my confusion (it only gets worse after a certain point [for me that point was differentiating between different forms of Gnosticism without enough source material, but for you it might be the intricate relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the different layers of Q]), it did wake me up to some harsh exegetical realities.
It seems to me that the unspoken rule behind the majority of theories surrounding (suffocating?) the relationship between the canonical Gospels, “Q”, and Thomas is that the shortest text is the most original. As if ancient authors were incapable of summarizing, as if they had some sort of innate need to expand on everything they copied – as if the first person to write about an event or a Jesus saying was always the most succinct. I don’t know about you, but if I witnessed a crucified guy stepping out of a grave dressed as a gardener (there must have been some reason Mary confused her ‘Rabbouni’ with a carer of plants) I would find it hard to organize my thoughts to the point where I could produce a succinct theological statement about it. I’m not saying that any of the texts in question were written by an eye-witness (I don’t want to be disowned by the academic community), I’m trying to use a hyperbolic example to illustrate that the assumption that the shortest text is the oldest might be what some would refer to as a logical fallacy. In many cases it seems that theological statements tend to get more stylized and succinct as time passes, when the need for them to be institutionalized and cohesion-producing emerges.
Reading Koester’s arguments concerning the relationship between the canonical Gospels, “Q”, and Thomas was a uniquely frustrating experience for me (probably because I feel so strongly about “Q”). It seemed to me that the main argument supporting the claim that “Q”, a text which we have not found and which might not even be entirely textual (yes, the differentiation between textual and oral Q is a real thing), was more faithfully copied by Luke than by Matthew, is that Luke is often more succinct than Matthew. The same logic is applied when comparing Thomas to the canonical Gospels (something which is somehow even more frustrating than the above-mentioned). Back to Luke and Matthew: the Sermon on the Mount (Plain) is often used as an example, and it’s easy to see why. It looks as though Matthew expands very evenly on the Lukan version. But, I repeat my earlier musing: could it not just as well be the case that Luke is very evenly summarizing Matthew’s version? Just for fun, I decided to go through my lovely little book of Gospel Parallels (a godsend on boring train rides, even though it does tend to produce some perplexed stares from fellow travellers) to see if there were any examples of the reverse. Turns out I found one on the very first page I opened. If one compares Matt 6:22-23 with Luke 11:34-36, it seems to me that Luke is very clearly expanding on and explaining what exactly Matt means when he (excuse the generic masculine) writes “if then the light inside you is darkness, how great is the darkness”. Thus, even if I, by some nineteenth-century liberalistic miracle (oxymoron intended), decided to accept the theory that the shortest version is the oldest, I would still be left with the disconcerting realization that Luke sometimes expands on Matt anyway. The shortest way to Jesus isn’t always as straight as it sometimes appears in scholarly literature; there are a lot of confusing twists and turns on the way even here.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the longest version necessarily has to be the oldest. I’m just saying that the assumption that the shortest version is the oldest is an empty assumption – empty of force and function, unrelated to how things tend to work outside the safe embrace of a university office.