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
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
Robinsons seminal article, _LOGOI SOPHON_ (1964) the notion that Thomas was
fundamentally Gnostic began to recede. Robinsons 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 Pattersons 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 Pattersons]. 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:
 Wandering and Homelessness
(GTh 14; 42; 86)
 Rejection of Family
(GTh 31; 55; 58; 66; 68; 101)
 Adoption of Willful Poverty and Begging
(GTh 8; 36; 54; 63; 64; 65; 76; 95; 100; 107
 Relativization of Piety and Purity
(GTh 6; 27; 52; 53; 89)
 Deprecation of Officialdom
(GTh 71; 100)
 Minimalization of the Values of Organization and Social Order in Favor
(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 [Pattersons 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.
Humble Maine Woodsman