Recently, there has been some discussion on the list about the
presence of multiple strata in GTh that suggest the Gospel
Thomas is a composite document that was assembled over an
indefinite period of time.
Similar arguments have been made about the synoptic Sayings
Source (Q). John Kloppenborgs analysis is perhaps the most
visible. Whether or not one agrees with his assessment, the fact
remains that his work is highly influential (provided of course
that one believes in Q in the first place).
Bill Arnal has approached Thomas in a manner that is reminiscent
of Kloppenborg and Q. His article, The Rhetoric of Marginality:
Apocalypticism, Gnosticism, and Sayings Gospels, appears in the
Harvard Theological Review [88:4 (1995) 471-494]. The title of
the article betrays little about its content, but nevertheless it
is essential reading for anyone who aspires to a more complete
understanding of the Gospel of Thomas. Regrettably, this article
is practically invisible to people who do not have access to the
necessary library resources. As a partial solution to this
problem, what follows is a very elementary summary of the portion
of Arnals article that identifies the strata of Thomas.
Arnal postulates the existence of two distinct strata in Thomas.
The first, and most original, he designates as the Wisdom, or
The forms of the sayings contained in the Sapiential layer are
characteristic of Wisdom Literature in general. Included are
parables, imperatives, aphorisms and beatitudes. Argumentative
comparison and observations about nature, ordinary experience,
and common sense are regularly used devices throughout the forms.
The content of the Wisdom strata is also typical of Wisdom
literature. The sayings emphasize, for example, a proper
understanding of reality, appropriate ways of apprehending the
cosmos, and the proper response to life, as it is perceived.
Frequently, sayings in this stratum point out that the structure
of reality does not always coincide with the way in which it is
Besides the literary characteristics that derive from form and
content, the material in the Wisdom strata bears the imprint of
a particular social setting that is very similar to that of Q
(489). Evidence from this layer suggests that GTh originated in a
small non-urban community that existed on the margin of the
social and economic order. It shows signs of composition by a
lower level scribal group, moderately educated but with little
literary sophistication (489) that attempted to transmit an
ethos of wise - if counter-cultural behavior and perception,
and set themselves apart from the rest of the world on the basis
of this ethos.
To this early layer of Thomas, Arnal assigns at least 36 sayings
(about 241 lines). The layer includes, but may not be limited to,
3; 5; 6; 9; 14; 16; 20; 26; 31; 32; 34; 35; 36; 42; 45; 47; 54;
55; 57; 58; 63; 64; 65; 68; 69; 71; 74; 76; 86; 89; 96; 97; 98;
107; 109 and 110.
The second, later, and redacted, layer of Thomas exhibits a
gnostic orientation (478).
There are at least two formal and stylistic features that
characterize this layer. First, there is a tendency toward the
dialogue form. Second, there is a predisposition to arrange logia
in pairs (rather than to group them in clusters, as in the Wisdom
layer). Stylistically, this layer exhibits the use of intentional
obfuscation, extra-textual references and a idiosyncratic
relexicalization (use of words with transferred meanings,
frequently in juxtaposition in a single saying).
The content and themes of this layer are also distinctive. There
are repeated references to light. Salvation is understood as
the avoidance of death. Gnostic mythological motifs, metaphors of
consumption as the corruption of the material world, the idea of
the circularity of existence, a focus on living and on
repose, and the notion of a primordial unity are additional
thematic elements common to the second stratum. There is a
concern for personified Wisdom, with whom Jesus speaks and which
serves to ground Jesus authority id supermundane divine
Gnosticism seems to have appealed to a particular social stratum
that is characterized by being literate and well-educated (493 n
80). Therefore it may be said that the social setting of the
gnostic layer exhibits a strong sense of community identity,
group definition, and social cohesiveness, especially for
marginal persons (493).
Arnal assigns the following 27 logia to the gnostic strata (about
1; 7; 11; 13; 15; 18; 21; 22; 27; 28; 48; 49; 50; 51; 60; 61; 67;
82; 83; 84; 88; 101; 105; 108; 111; 113 and 114.
Clearly, the combined total of sayings from the first and second
strata of Thomas, as defined by Arnal, do not account for all
those in the gospel. This may be that I have not extracted all of
them from the article, but it also is because Arnal himself has
not included all of them. He offers two footnotes to explain:
First, regarding the sayings assigned to the Wisdom layer he
says, This list is not necessarily comprehensive, but rather
includes sayings which may be ascribed to this layer with some
confidence. Sayings left out of this list and not included in the
list of materials from the secondary redaction may represent
unclear instances, or later, perhaps scribal accretions (478 n
Second, with respect to the gnostic strata, Arnal offers, This
list is deliberately modest; I have deliberately excluded
instances in which emendations are made from this perspective to
material apparently from an earlier stratum (479 n 32).
The above summary does not do justice to the entirety of Bill's
article. For that I apologize to him. Perhaps, when he
re-surfaces he can provide further clarification.
- - - - - - -
Arnals article has many possible ramifications, many of which
are relevant to the nature of discussions on this list.
FIRST, the conventional practice of identifying literary
affinities between Thomas and other writings (e.g., the canonical
gospels) should be refined. Similarities in language, no matter
how exact, should be examined against the backdrop of the social
setting of the communities that produced each document, not just
their shared lexical inventory. In other words, Text and
Context should be placed on equal footing.
SECOND, the obsession with establishing a date of composition for
the Gospel of Thomas should be brought to rein. If Arnal is
correct in his analysis, any punctiliar dating is, by definition,
impossible. While it is almost certain that Thomas contains
traditions that are very early, this does not mean that its
redaction did not continue for many years, or even decades.
THIRD, efforts to understand one particular saying in Thomas by
contrasting it with another inside the same document should be
tempered with caution. The possibility that two different sayings
may involve two different social settings should always be kept
at the forefront.
FOURTH, it seems especially important to heed the observations of
scholars who characterize Thomas as subversive,
countercultural, inversionary, and unconventional. This
means that it is frequently in tension with not only our own
understanding of the structures of social and metaphysical
reality, but with the understandings of the dominant culture
which surrounded the Thomas community.
FINALLY, it is important to bear in mind that the conventions
followed for dividing the text of Thomas into discrete units are
modern inventions. Such divisions are not native to the original
text. Neither are the divisions sacrosanct. This means that the
customary segmentation should always be subject to revision and
that these artificial boundaries should not necessarily establish
the parameters of exegesis. It also means that recent editions of
Thomas that subdivide sayings into smaller units should be
received with favor.
Humble Maine Woodsman