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GTh and Counter Culture

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  • Rick Hubbard
    Virtually every attempt by scholars, and others, to identify one single thematic pattern in the Gospel of Thomas has been conspicuously unsuccessful. Now,
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 18, 2002
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      Virtually every attempt by scholars, and others, to identify one single
      thematic pattern in the Gospel of Thomas has been conspicuously
      unsuccessful. Now, scholars seem to be moving toward the conclusion that
      Thomas indeed exhibits multiple thematic interests (but that these themes
      are not necessarily unifying and are sometimes in conflict with one
      another).

      As an example, some early Thomas scholars (notably Grant and Freedman, 1960)
      concluded that GTh was purely Gnostic in character and that it should be
      understood exclusively in that context. After the appearance of James
      Robinson’s seminal article, _LOGOI SOPHON_ (1964) the notion that Thomas was
      fundamentally Gnostic began to recede. Robinson’s conclusions were gradually
      accepted by the recognition that the gospel indeed does fit within the genre
      of Wisdom literature (cf. especially S. Davies, 1983). It seems to me,
      however that the pendulum shifted again after 1993 when S. Patterson
      postulated that there are undeniable elements from BOTH gnosticism AND
      Wisdom present in Thomas.

      One of Patterson’s most intriguing suggestions is that the “bridge” between
      the Wisdom movement and Gnosticism lies in the social ethos from which the
      sayings collection emerged. Thomas is not just “Wisdom Literature.” It is
      also “Un-Conventional Wisdom Literature” [my term, not Patterson’s]. It is
      emphatically counter-cultural. In his book The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus,
      Patterson identifies 6 recurring themes in GTh that give it a distinctly
      counter-cultural character. According to Patterson, these broad concerns are
      present in the following logia:

      [1] Wandering and Homelessness
      (GTh 14; 42; 86)

      [2] Rejection of Family
      (GTh 31; 55; 58; 66; 68; 101)

      [3] Adoption of Willful Poverty and Begging
      (GTh 8; 36; 54; 63; 64; 65; 76; 95; 100; 107

      [4] Relativization of Piety and Purity
      (GTh 6; 27; 52; 53; 89)

      [5] Deprecation of Officialdom
      (GTh 71; 100)

      [6] Minimalization of the Values of “Organization” and Social Order in Favor
      of Individualism
      (GTh 12; 16; 30; 49; 75)

      What we have then, in the existing Coptic text of Thomas, is evidence of a
      social ethos that was at odds with “the establishment” and its values.
      Patterson postulates that the connection between this anti-establishment
      mentality and what is conventionally described as “Gnosticism” with this
      statement: “Gnosticism provided the framework in which the social protest of
      leaving family and village behind could be re-imagined in theological terms.
      Within a gnostic framework, social radicalism [Patterson’s special technical
      term for counter-culturalism] could become something more that radical
      *askesis* designed to raise questions about the social world. …it has become
      a matter of identity and the basis of a claim to life.”

      In my opinion, Patterson has correctly observed that Coptic GTh represents
      the views of a group of people (but not necessarily a “community”) who have
      abandoned the dominant social order. The question I think needs to be
      examined next is where and how that same sentiment can be identified in the
      use of language in the GTh text.

      Comments are encouraged.

      Rick Hubbard
      Humble Maine Woodsman
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