Perrin Thesis

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Dear friends,

There's been a new book published by Nicholas Perrin on the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron.





Perrin seems to have found a lot of connections between Thomas and the ancient Aramaic textual tradition. He argues that Thomas was originally written in the Old Syriac Aramaic, because he found a lot of new Syriac catchwords that connect various Thomas sayings.

Of course many of these connections have already been known before. But it sure seems to me that in the general climate in NT studies today, when Greek is always privileged over the Semitic languages, these Aramaic connections in Thomas don't have so many fans.

I have been reading Perrin's book recently, so here are some comments.

I find most of Nick's arguments in regard to the GT quite persuasive. He builds well on the work of other scholars who've explored the possibility of a Semitic Vorlage to GT before. He does a good survey of scholarship in this area, and introduces quite a few new interesting arguments of his own.

His work on the Syriac catchwords in GT is especially impressive. Surely finding more than 500 of them in such a short text is highly significant. He also adduces quite a few interesting parallels between GT and the Syriac ODES OF SOLOMON in the way the catchwords are used in both texts. He certainly builds a very strong case in this whole area. So these are already very significant achievements IMHO.

Also, of course, Perrin argues that the Gospel of Thomas is dependent on the Diatessaron. Whether or not this was the case, there seems to be a far more persuasive case that, indeed, GT is dependent on some sort of a textual tradition of the gospels in Syria. And Perrin likewise does a good survey of existing arguments in this area.

As to his specific arguments for GT's dependence on the Diatessaron, they comprise only a very small part of his book. And there does seem to be a bit of a weakness there.

Of course, the Diatessaronic area is a notoriously difficult territory. There's currently no consensus among DT specialists (of which there are only very few in the world) about the most important question of all in this area, namely, Which surviving text of the DT is the closest to the original? So there are wide disagreements even about the very basics.

There are very substantial differences, of course, between all surviving versions of DT. So then what should be meant by that very elusive "original" of DT, and what was its real textual character? This should be known with some certainty, I would think, before this "original DT" can be imputed as the source of GT.

And then, there's the vexing problem of the relationship between DT and the Old Syriac gospels... Which is dependent on which? Again, nobody seems to know for sure. And in such a case, who knows how might GT fit into all this? This really begins to look more and more like that famous chicken and egg dilemma; which came first?

In any case, Perrin's argument in this area seems to be entirely based on the analysis of GT sayings 44 and 45. He claims that GT 45 harmonises Matthew and Luke "in precisely the same manner" as the Diatessaron, thus the dependence of GT on the Diatessaron is established.

According to Perrin,

"Although GT 44 and 45 follow Matt 12:31-32 and Luke 6:43-45, respectively, this does not mean that the two sayings come from separate texts. On the contrary, it is in the _Diatessaron_ that these two passages of scripture are brought together." (p. 188).

Generally, this GT sequence is based on Mt. So, according to Perrin's logic, if GT also harmonises there with Lk, these harmonisations may have already been in GT's source.

Specifically, Perrin outlines 3 points of comparison for this passage, as follows.

1. The phrase "for out of the abundance of the heart" (Mt 12:34b/Lk 6:45) is placed both in Lk and in GT at the end of this saying, rather than in the middle of it, like in Mt. Thus, it's an agreement in sequence between GT and Lk against Mt, which might indicate the dependence of GT on DT.

2. Mt 7:16 has "For figs are not gathered from thorns" in the form of a question. But in GT 45:1 the same phrase is put in the form of a statement. And Lk 6:43 also puts a similar phrase in the form of a statement. Thus, another harmonisation in GT that might indicate a dependence on DT.

3. "Another rather important point of comparison lies in the fact that GT seems to follow Luke with the inclusion of "in his heart", a phrase widely recognised as Lukan." (Perrin, p. 187; this is in reference to GT 45:4 "For out of the fullness of his heart he brings forth evil things", and to Lk 6:45)

Thus, here, according to Perrin, we have three agreements between GT and Lk against Mt -- the agreements that had presumably been borrowed by the author of GT from the DT.

But there seem to be a few problems with Perrin's analysis. So let's go item by item.

1. As it turns out, the Arabic DT doesn't place the phrase "for out of the abundance of the heart" in the same way as Lk. Rather, Arabic DT follows the Matthean order.

(Arabic DT, Section XIV) 33 Ye children of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? _from the overflowings of the heart_ the mouth speaketh. 34 The good man from the good treasures which are in his heart bringeth forth good things; ...

So here we see that the Matthean order is being followed pretty closely by the Arabic DT. Thus, the dependence of GT on DT seems unlikely in this case. (Assuming, of course, that the Arabic DT accurately preserves the original DT sequence, an assumption that seems reasonably uncontroversial.)

2. While the canonical Mt 7:16 indeed has "For figs are not gathered from thorns" in the form of a question, this is actually not the case in the Old Syriac Mt. In the Curetonian MS, this same phrase is put in the form of a statement, just like in Lk 6:43 (Sinaiticus is not extant here).

This means, of course, that GT could have just as easily depended on the Old Syriac Mt as on DT.

3. The inclusion of "in his heart" in GT 45:4 is indeed parallel to Lk 6:45.

(Luke 6:45 RSV) The good man out of the good treasure _of his heart_ produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil;

(Matthew 12:35 RSV) The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.

So we see there that the standard text of Matthew 12:35 lacks the phrase "of his heart".

But when we look into the Old Syriac Mt, we find that both the Curetonian and the Sinaiticus MSS in fact do feature the same "Lukan" phrase; they even do it twice!

(Matthew 12:35 Aramaic) And the good man from the good treasures _in his heart_ brings forth good things, and the evil man from the evil treasures _in his heart_ evil things does speak.

Thus, just like with the previous item, this one can just as easily be attributed to the dependence of GT on the separate Old Syriac gospels as on the Diatessaron.

All the best,


Baqqesh shalom veradphehu -- Seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:15)

Yuri Kuchinsky -- -- Toronto


Greetings, all,

As I understand it, Perrin's new study is seen in some quarters as quite controversial. Especially those scholars who wish to date the Gospel of Thomas early, i.e. in the first century, will tend to see his conclusions as unsettling.

So, above all, this seems to be part of the ongoing battle about the Gospel of Thomas, and about the true dating, and the Sitz of this quite mysterious text.

But also, the Diatessaronic scholars will be sure to get involved in this controversy, which seems like a whole different cup of tea -- a completely different dispute.

In his RBL review, Robert Shedinger points out that Perrin's book doesn't really prove that GT is dependent on the Diatessaron, and I will have to agree with him on this. Perrin's study is really for the most part about Thomas, and the amount of time spent on the analysis of the Diatessaron per se, and on various ongoing disputes in this area, appears to be insufficient. So these seem to be the main criticisms that Shedinger directs at Perrin. At the same time, Shedinger agrees that Perrin' rather startling findings in the area of Syriac catch-words in Thomas deserve serious consideration, and again I agree. So, all in all, it can be noted that the connection of GT to the Syriac textual tradition seems to be far less controversial than its connection with the Diatessaron per se.

Still, there's of course the "default argument", as used by Perrin in regard to the Diatessaron. This is how Shedinger describes this "default argument",

"Since GT was written in Syriac in the late second century, and since it is based on earlier Syriac Gospel texts, it must be based on the Diatessaron because as far as we know this would have been the only Syriac Gospel source available at this time."

And then Shedinger even admits that "this may be true". So, indeed, Perrin's basic thesis seems reasonably well based, after all, in so far as he doesn't really stray too far from the generally held views in the area of Syriac textual tradition. It's a separate matter if these conventional views are, in their own turn, well based, but, if they aren't, Perrin could hardly be the one to be blamed for it.

In any case, as Perrin points out, the idea that GT is somehow related to the Diatessaronic textual tradition is hardly new, and it has already been investigated in some detail by Baarda, Quispel, and others. In the long appendix of his TATIAN AND THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS (1975), G. Quispel had assembled massive textual evidence to demonstrate this connection. And this is what Perrin writes in regard to this very important study,

"By this reckoning, some 161 variants against the standard Greek NT text are reported as being common to GT and the Diatessaron. Here, 51 of the 114 logia -- roughly the number of sayings directly paralleled in the synoptic tradition -- contain at least one variant also attested by at least one Diatessaronic witness." (Perrin, THOMAS AND TATIAN, p. 30)

So these 161 variants certainly represent a very important datum, indicating that the two documents are probably in some way related. These important findings really needed some further investigation, and this is what Perrin tried to do in his book nearly 30 years later... And, in my humble opinion, he should receive sincere thanks for this from every responsible NT scholar. Why has this area received so little attention recently on the part of Thomas scholars? Is it just the lack of competence in Syriac, or maybe there's something more to this?

The fact remains that Quispel's extensive evidence, alone, all but proves that GT is in some way related to the Syriac textual tradition more generally. And now Perrin adds to this some more hard evidence of all these Syriac catchwords. Thus, the connection of GT to the Syriac textual tradition receives some new and important confirmation. Once this is understood -- so Perrin' logic goes -- the "default argument" can take it over from there; since it's widely assumed by textual scholars that the Diatessaron was the main Syrian gospel up until the 5th century, then it should spring to mind as the most likely source of Thomas, if indeed Thomas was secondary to the mainstream Christian gospels.

And so, it seems like the validity of Perrin's "default argument" will now have to be settled in the area of the Diatessaronic studies, rather than in the area of Thomasine studies (and I somehow suspect that it will be a long time a coming).


But what about all these ongoing disputes about the Gospel of Thomas? The way Shedinger sees it in his review, Perrin' thesis will be a challenge to the Thomas scholars, especially to those who prefer to date Thomas early, one presumes. But, speaking for myself, I don't really see why this should be such a challenge for them at all...

Indeed, why should the Aramaic Thomas be a problem for anyone interested in the study of the Historical Jesus, rather than a great opportunity? After all, we know that Jesus was Jewish and he spoke Aramaic. It is also widely believed that Christianity arrived to Syria directly from Israel, and very early on, at that. Thus, logically, an Aramaic Thomas is more likely to stand closer to the original Aramaic teachings of Jesus than a Greek Thomas! (Unless one has some sort of an a priori commitment to seeing Jesus as Greek, I suppose?)

Now, to make my own commitment clear in all of this, it is my considered opinion that the Old Syriac textual tradition is overall more primitive than our canonical Greek textual tradition. This is not only my own view, of course, but a one that has been held by many great masters of Textual Criticism. And so, as seen from this perspective, Perrin' linking of Thomas to the Old Syriac textual tradition is actually _good_ for Thomas! It increases the chances that GT preserves early Christian traditions, rather than diminishes it.

And, generally speaking, I would also like to add here that, in some important areas, I actually happen to agree with the early daters of Thomas... Yes, I do happen to agree with them that many of Thomas' sayings precede the canonical Greek text of the gospels. I do see Thomas as preserving some important early Christian traditions.

Thus, in the final analysis, I think there are some important areas of potential agreement in this whole area that Perrin broached. In a way, everyone can still be satisfied in the long run. Perrin can have his Syriac Thomas, and can have his achievements in this area recognised. The Thomas scholars can still have their early Thomas. And the Diatessaronic scholars can have their concerns about the Diatessaron addressed adequately (although, admittedly, Perrin hasn't done this as yet).

But, ultimately, all this might depend on solving the most important dispute of all in this whole area -- the big textual dispute. Yes, it seems to me like there's actually quite a simple explanation for why there are still so many bitter disagreements both about the Gospel of Thomas and about the Diatessaron...

Indeed, the disagreements in this whole area of early Syriac textual tradition are legendary, and the consensus is still extremely elusive -- even about the very basics. How else to explain all these unending controversies about the dating of Thomas? Why no agreed-upon "original Diatessaron" has been reconstructed yet -- not even close? But, actually, all these controversies can be solved in one fell swoop if it is recognised that the Western (Syro-Latin) text is the earliest text of the gospels -- something that had already been quite obvious to Griesbach way back in the late 18th century, and something that had been supported by great many highly competent experts ever since.

If this is recognised, and since it's quite clear that both Thomas and the Diatessaron belong to the Western textual family, then here we have the Thomas and the Diatessaron that both precede the canonical Greek text.

Thus, Thomas will be seen as a good witness for the early Jesus traditions. And the mystery of the Diatessaron will be solved, which will clear the way for a reasonable reconstruction of the earliest harmony of Christian gospels. By this logic, this will be a text that is the closest to the early shape of Western text -- or, in other words, something that would be very close to Justin's Harmony.

So perhaps the biggest dispute that I, personally, have with Perrin is about something that is found right on the back cover of his book,

"The book argues for a late second-century c.e. dating of Thomas, [and] rules out Thomas as a meaningful source for Historical Jesus research..."

No, I certainly don't think that an Aramaic Thomas does this, i.e. rule Thomas out as a meaningful source for HJ research -- certainly not any more so than the Greek Thomas.

In this article, I've tried to be fair to everyone, and to point out the pluses and minuses in the positions of all the parties in these controversies. It really seems to me like, all in all, there is far more that should unite Perrin and Shedinger than divide them. After all, both are the students of Western text (Shedinger already has quite a respectable bibliography in this area and, as for Perrin, he now finds himself there by default), thus members of a tiny minority in today's world of TC studies. As for the academic mainstream, it will be slow to react to any of this, one may suspect.

I will confess that, upon first reading Shedinger's review, I found his tone a bit harsh. (While Perrin's argument may indeed by "fragile", as Shedinger puts it, in one particular area -- i.e. the connection of GT with DT per se -- in many others it is far from being so.) But then again, perhaps some of the promotion for Perrin's book didn't reflect adequately the actual contents of his thesis. In any case, I now humbly plead for moderation on all sides, and for more efforts to address the central issues in all this, rather than spending time on the peripherals. All of these areas are complex enough as it is, so let us all try to address these real complexities together, as opposed to trying to find fault in small things.

All the best,


Baqqesh shalom veradphehu -- Seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:15)

Yuri Kuchinsky -- -- Toronto