Gospel Perspectives—volume 5: The Jesus Tradition outside the Gospels

Written by David Wenham, ed. Reviewed By William G. Morrice

This fifth volume of Gospel Perspectives considers the tradition about Jesus found outside the canonical gospels with the special object of discovering what light is shed on these four by other material both inside and outside the NT.

There are two contrasting contributions on Paul, one by the editor of the collection, who examines three passages (1 Cor. 7:10–11; Rom. 12; Gal. 1 and 2) in order to discover whether or not they confirm his previous conclusion on the basis of 1 and 2 Thessalonians that Paul was familiar with a pre-synoptic form of the gospel traditions. Having through detailed scholarly examination of parallel passages reached a positive conclusion, David Wenham shows that such Pauline use of the pre-gospel Jesus-tradition points to its antiquity and to the trustworthiness of the gospels.

The second chapter—on the logia of Jesus in 1 Corinthians—takes a less optimistic view of the amount of knowledge that Paul had of the life and ministry of Jesus. The two authors admit that Paul had access to gospel traditions. Nevertheless, they believe that there are surprisingly few explicit recollections about Jesus in Paul’s letters.

There are two contributions on the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. Bruce Chilton disagrees with the view that this is the eastern branch of the sayings tradition whose western branch we know as Q. He therefore cannot accept the hypothesis which he attributes to Helmut Koester that this is an independent recension of Q. Instead he sees it as a harmonizing version of Jesus’ sayings copied in the fourth century. However, my reading of Koester is that he regards the Gospel of Thomas as belonging to the same literary genre as Q, not as an eastern edition of it. Furthermore, even if the present document was copied in the fourth century, that does not preclude the possibility that the original goes back into the second or perhaps even first century. Chilton does admit that it is in substance a second-century work.

The second contribution on the Gospel of Thomas is entitled ‘Tradition and Redaction in the Parables of the Gospel of Thomas’. Craig Blomberg declares that there are thirteen parables of Jesus, eleven of which have clear parallels in the New Testament. The present reviewer has counted up to fifteen, of which twelve have parallels in the New Testament. He also disagrees with the author when he says that the arguments for independence are not persuasive. I think they are more so than he allows and that the Gnostic influence has still to be proved. It may rather be tainted with Jewish-Christian encratism such as was prevalent in Edessa in the early centuries of the Syrian Church. I cannot therefore accept Blomberg’s final conclusion that ‘as for the likelihood of Thomas having preserved pre-synoptic forms of these parables, the probability seems slim’.

It is not surprising, therefore, that I find myself more in sympathy with the positive attitude to the Gospel of Thomas tantalizingly given only briefly and in passing in the introduction to a chapter on apocryphal gospels. David Wright states that it is probably the judgment of a clear majority of scholars that Thomas may preserve traditions of the teaching of Jesus independent of, and perhaps more primitive than, the synoptic gospels. While the sayings of Jesus in the apostolic fathers turn out to be dependent on oral tradition rather than written gospels, Justin Martyr made it clear that written sources—‘the memoirs of the Apostles’—were available to him as well as oral tradition.

It is obviously impossible to do justice to a collection of essays in a short review. Only brief mention can be made of other chapters. It is shown that the allusions to sayings of Jesus in James are focused on the ethical material contained in the sermon on the mount/lain. However, the extent of such material in James and 1 Peter, and the use of Daniel in the synoptic eschatological discourse and in the book of Revelation point to pre-synoptic tradition. Thus it is useful to be reminded that there was common knowledge of, and reference to, blocks of Jesus tradition even before the synoptic gospels were written. The value of this volume lies therefore in the support it gives to the trustworthiness of the material which came to be incorporated into the New Testament.

William G. Morrice

St. John’s College, Durham