Q & Thomas: Teaser Tracts?
This note was originally posted to XTalk and has been posted to GThomas as
well at the request of Mike Grondin. Please feel free to respond in either
I have just finished reading Philip Jenkins's _Hidden Gospels_. Most of the
book is dedicated to delineating the mythic fascination with the quest for
uncovering previously unknown gospels and exterminated heresies. This is
interesting in its own right, even though it constitutes a sort of
meta-scholarship rather than a discussion of the evidence proper concerning
early Christian history. However, there is one extract in which Jenkins
proposes a theory that would have consequences for our understanding of the
sources concerning Jesus and the early church, the stated subject of this
list. So I thought it would be appropriate to reproduce this passage for
the comments of the knowledgeable participants in this discussion group.
It has often been noted that the reconstructed Q and the Gospel of Thomas do
not have anything to say about the atoning nature of the death of Jesus and
his subsequent resurrection. Rather, the focus is on the sayings of Jesus
in these works. Assuming the existence of Q and an early date for Thomas,
which is certainly an issue itself, this has led some to theorize that the
earliest Jesus movement did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus but
rather remembered him as a wisdom sage and that the idea of a saving death
and resurrection developed as the church attracted Hellenistic constituents.
This is the basic theory presented by Burton Mack and others.
Against this conclusion, Jenkins proposes a different theory to explain the
silence of Q & Thomas on the death or resurrection of Jesus. I would like
to know what the list members think of his proposal, and so I will quote it,
although I hope I have not gone too far beyond fair use.
_Hidden Gospels_, pp. 73-78.
Mysteries of Faith
A reluctance to put key ideas in writing may explain some of the puzzling
ebsences from sayings documents such as Q and Thomas. Perhaps these
collections were intended as an instructional or evangelistic device, for
proselytes who would later be instructed into the deeper mysteries of the
emerging faith: they were intended to intrigue rather than explain. These
texts might even have been intended to be as cryptic and superficially
nonthreatening as possible in order to disarm the suspicions of potential
persecutors. Anyone who reads the New Testament book of Acts finds
first-century Christians portrayed as evangelizing openly in the streets,
but there was a fudnatmental difference between such preaching and the fact
of writing down the core doctrines of the faith.
To a modern audience, it is incredible that a gsopel or any writing about
Jesus would fail to mention the essential doctrines of the religion, even an
idea as basic a the Resurrection, but such a gap would not have surprised an
ancient reader. Religious scriptures of all types had a very different role
in ancient times from what we consider normal today. The notion that the
essential doctrines of a religion can or should be plainly laid out for
everyone in scriptural form, as opposed to liturgy and oral teaching, is a
distinctly modern and Protestant view. The idea that cheap editions of
sucha precious text as the Bible could be freely distributed on the
streets, or left in hotel bedrooms, would have seemed quite bizarre, not to
say blasphemous, to early Christians. Jesus' followers lived in a world
when the most ambitious and successful religions only gradually revealed
their innermost secrets to believers, after a lengthy process of initiation:
these were the mystery religions, formed by devotees of Mithras, Isis, and
other divine figures, usually movements from the East.
Patristic writers show that some Christians shared this reluctance to
broadcast the great truths of the faith. Around 200, Clement of Alexandria
wrote that "it is requisite, therefore, to hide in a mystery the wisdom
spoken, which the Son of God taught. . . . And even now I fear, as it is
said, 'to cast the pearls before swine, lest they tread them under foot, and
turn and rend us.' For it is difficult to exhibit the really pure and
transparent words respecting the true light, to swinish and untrained
hearers." Believers were to "receive the secrete traditions of the true
knowledge, and expound them aloft and conspicuously; and as we have heard in
the ear, so as to deliver them to whom it is requisite; but not enjoining us
to communicate to all without distinction, what is said to them in
parables." For Origen, as for other Alexandrians, Jesus' parables were
laden with secrete meanings that were only gradually to be realeased to the
multitudes: Jesus himself had told his apostles that to them alone was it
"given to know the mysteria of the kingdom of God," the mysteries contained
in the parables. Origen defended the church's right to restrict the
realease of "gospel truths": "But that there should be certain doctrines,
not made konwn to the multitude, which are (revealed) after the exoteric
ones have been taught, is not a peculiarity of Christianity alone, but also
of philosophic systems, in which certain truths are exoteric and others
esoteric." The evangelists, he argued, had been cautious about which of
Jesus' teachings "were to be committed to writing, and how this was to be
done, and what was by no means to be written to the multitude, and what was
to be expressed in words, and what was not to be so conveyed."
Alexandrians were notoriously fascinated by the idea that Christianity was a
religion of "mysteries," but other Christians demonstrated a taste for
presenting doctrines in cryptic form, to the extent that modern scholars can
debate whether a given text is indeed Christian. We can illustrate this
with the famous tombstone inscription of one Avircius Marcellus, "a disciple
of the pure shepherd" who died in Phrygia (in modern Turkey) around 180.
This allusive text records how Avircius had traveled "with Paul before me .
. . and Faith everywhere led the way and served food everywhere, the Fish
from the Spring - immense, pure, which the pure virgin caught and gave to
here friends to eat for ever, with good wine, giving the cup with the loaf."
Like any text froma mystery religion, the inscription is intended to baffle
outsiders, while preaching to the initiated. But even in this disguised
format, there are no references to some of the most potent doctrines of the
faith, including the incarnation, death, or resurrection of Christ, absences
of a sort we repeatedly note in written texts.
Gospels played a critical role in the process of revealing the "mysteries"
of Christianity. These scriptures contained the most cherished treasures of
the faith, namely, the words of Jesus and an explanation of the significance
of his death and resurrection. These holy truths were not to be lightly
shared, and at least some churches prevented converts to Christianity from
hearing the gospels and their mysteries until after they had been formally
initiated into the new religion, by means of baptism. Prior to this, they
held the probationary status of catechumens, and in the early centuries,
catechumens were barred from participating in many parts of the service,
including, it seems, the reading of the gospel. Even today, Orthodox church
services admonish catechumens to depart before the saying of the creed and
the beginning of the sacred eucharistic mysteries.
In various third- and fourth-century texts concerning church order, we hear
that prospective Christians were required to fulfill lengthy periods of
candidacy and teaching before they were finally permitted to hear "the
word," "the gospel," whatever that may have meant exactly. While undergoing
instruction, most of their scriptural lessons apparently came from the Old
Testament, not the New. Paul Bradshaw notes that the fourth-century
document known as the Apostolic Constitutions may "reflect the two stages of
teaching, since it indicates that the catechumens first learn about
creation, the Old Testament saints, etc., and only after baptism do they
learn about Christ's incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension." As
late as the fifth century, church councils had to specify "that catechumens
are to hear the reading of the gospel," showing that this practice was new,
and perhaps controversial. It is a matter of debate how much of those inner
secrets had spread to become public knowledge, at least in general form, yet
the church remained cautious about exactly how these "mysteries" were
presented at large.
The Sayings in Which You Have Been Instructed
With these church practices in mind, it is useful to look again at Q and
Thomas, with a view to the religious mysteries that they do not mention,
which conspicuously included "Christ's incarnation, death, resurrection and
ascension." The common explanation for these lacunae is that the early
communities either did not know these doctrines or else set no store by
them, but we can now see that a quite different explanation is possible.
Perhaps Q and Thomas reflect a time in the early church when evangelists
aroused the interest of potential recruites, especially gentiles, by
promoting the image of Jesus as a provocative teacher, who in some
infuriatingly unspecified way could promise victory over the grave. In
modern terms, these texts could be seen as teasers or recruitment brochures.
New seekers would gradually be tuaght the fuller version of the truth, and
ultimately the core doctrines of Jesus' saving death and resurrection.
This gradual method has implications for the process of committing Christian
ideas to writing. Initially, the community might write the actual words of
Jesus, which were too enigmatic to reveal much to the casual observer, but
it would be some years or decades before they would venture to write down
the still more sensitive doctrines of the new faith. (Paul and others did
write such doctrines, but only when communicating with fellow initiates.) A
record of sayings like Q could have circulated for years independently of
the more theologically elaborate materials, without this meaning that these
latter doctrines were unknown or undeveloped. Matters would have changed
after the 60s, with the death of important early leaders such as James and
Peter, and the disasters of the Jewish revolt, which cumulatively threatened
to cut the community off from its roots and to obliterate native traditions
about Jesus. This apparently provoked a decision to write the community's
beliefs and history more fully. By the end of the first century, the
canonical gospels supplied the complete instruction and enlightenment
promised to those converts who had originally been intrigued by something
In this context, we find special significance in the opening passage of
Luke, the gospel which includes Q in the form closest to the original.
Writing to a certain Theophilus, Luke describes how he had decided to
"write an orderly account . . . that you may know the truth about the things
(logoi) of which you have been informed." But logoi can also mean words or
sayings rather than things, and the fourth-century Lating translation in the
Vulgate renders logoi as verborum, "words." The word logoi also appears in
the opening of the Greek text of Thomas, "these are the secrete sayings
which the living Jesus spoke." If logoi has this meaning in Luke, then the
passage might be translated rather differently. Luke is actually promising
to write the fulll truth about the sayings in which Theophilus has been
katechethes, "instructed," a word related to catechumen. A century ago,
Kirsopp Lake made the ingenious suggestion that the logoi referred to here
might have been "a series of sayings used for the instruction of converts,
which Luke is providing with a historical framework." Perhaps Theophilus,
like other converts of the late first century, had received his instruction
by means of the sayings in Q, but now he had been fully initiated, he had
earned the right to know the full story, of which Q formed only a suggestive
Once narrative gospels like Luke were in existence, Q had entirely lost its
original function, and it is not surprising that the text ceased to exist as
a separate document. (Some years later still, at least some churches
decided that even the words of Jesus were too sacred to be wantonly
displayed before the uninitiated, and began to exclude catechumens
altogether from hearing any part of the gospel.) Related sayings gospels
survived in various forms, and were adapted by Gnostic and other groups for
their own purposes. Perhaps around 140, one of these became our present
version of Thomas. Q and Thomas did not become hidden gospels because they
exemplified an alternate tradition of early Christianity, but rather
vanished because they represented an outmoded literary genre. There never
was a "Q community" or a group of "Thomas people" distinct from the
mainstream Jesus Way, that is, the incipient Christian Church.
These documents look as strange as they do to us because they were never
intended to offer anything more than a partial or suggestive introduction to
the faith. The communities which created these texts would have been
appalled to find that anyone, whether contemporary heretic or later scholar,
could have taken these documents as entire or rounded statements of the
Jesus movement, which stood or fell on the truth of those core ideas, the
Cross and the Resurrection. Alternatively, they might have been pleased
that their subterfuge had been so effective.
- [Peter Kirby Wrote:]
[Phillip] Jenkins proposes a different theory to explain the
silence of Q & Thomas on the death or resurrection of Jesus. I would like
to know what the list members think of his proposal
OK Peter, since you asked.
It is my personal opinion that Jenkins' _Hidden Gospels_ makes no worthwhile
contribution to research on the history of Christian origins. The author is
not a specialist in the discipline and, as near as I can determine, has
never published any peer-reviewed work relating to it. While he is a
prolific writer (15 books since 1979)and a credentialed scholar (PhD
Cambridge 1979) I can see nothing in either of those accomplishments that
commends the credibility of his assertions. Peter's remark that Jenkins
engages in "meta-scholarship" is understated, at best. Why Oxford U press
published _Hidden Gospels_ is a mystery of the Nth degree. My bias against
_Hidden Gospels_ should now be clear, and my following remarks should be
read in the context of this bias.
First of all, it seems to me that this particular proposition suggested by
Jenkins is absurd on its face: "In modern terms, these texts could be seen
as teasers or recruitment brochures. New seekers would gradually be
tuaght[sic] the fuller version of the truth, and ultimately the core
doctrines of Jesus' saving death and resurrection."
This remark seems to presume that Xty was a cohesive and organic movement
that began, if not even before Jesus was executed, immediately after the
crucifixion. It seems to me that it is almost beyond doubt that what we call
"earliest Christianity" was incredibly diverse during the mid-to-late
decades of the first century. The suggestion that either GTh or Q were
"recruitment brochures," allegedly composed to lure "new seekers" close to
"the fuller version of the truth," reflects a practice that is
characteristic of certain flavors of Evangelical Christianity; there is no
evidence of which I am aware that similar practices were followed in the
first century. It is simply anachronistic to make this suggestion.
Second, Jenkins seems to presuppose that the literature of the early
communities was composed as "scripture." While the gospels are now regularly
assigned to this category, it is preposterous to imagine that any early
Christian writings (including Paul's letters) functioned in similar fashion
immediately after their composition. It is widely acknowledged by most
reputable scholars that the only "scripture" that was in use by these early
communities were the religious texts of what we call Judaism. The notion
that that early Christians consciously created scripture is the product of a
prolific imagination, not a conclusion of responsible scholarship.
Third, Jenkins asserts that, "Q and Thomas did not become hidden gospels
because they exemplified an alternate tradition of early Christianity, but
rather vanished because they represented an outmoded literary genre. There
never was a 'Q community' or a group of 'Thomas people' distinct from the
mainstream Jesus Way, that is, the incipient Christian Church." I'll concede
that the popularity of sayings gospels fell out of favor with the advent of
narrative versions. On the other hand, the validity of Jenkins' conclusion
that there was no "Q community" or "group of Thomas people" depends
**entirely** on the two propositions that the "incipient Christian Church"
was homogenous AND that Qdoc and GTh were "recruitment brochures." The
former proposition is, as I've already said, indefensible against the
majority of scholarly opinion and the evidence of the NT text itself.
Similarly, the idea that Qdoc and Gth were first century "teaser tracts" has
no basis for support (as far as I can determine).
Jenkins' book is probably on the required reading list for certain
reactionaries, conservative evangelicals, and other members of the Flat
Earth Society, but my opinion is that it has little value for any one else.
Humble Maine Woodsman
PS: A fairly balanced review of _Hidden Gospels_ can be found at this link.
To assess how this book panders to members of the Flat Earth Society, here's
You'll note here that the book can be purchased at this site for the
entirely appropriate price of $1.00.