Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Ascension of Isaiah and the Gospel of Thomas

John A.T. Robinson's Redating the New Testament is one of those books whose footnotes are often mini-essays in their own right. Over the holidays I've had the chance to pore over his notes, and in so doing been well-rewarded. I want to consider two notes: one in which he addresses the Ascension of Isaiah, the other in which he addressed the Gospel of Thomas. Perhaps not surprisingly, given his general tendency, Robinson argues that the Ascension of Isaiah (which is frequently dated to the 80s through 110s) might well date to the late 60s. His reasoning is expressed briefly, and he does not reach as firm a conclusion as he does with the texts that he considers in the main body of the monograph, but his argumentation is quintessentially "Robinsonian." Most notably, he argues that the descriptions of persecution within the book fit well the details that we know about the Neronian persecution. Certainly, the description of Beliar-in-the-flesh in Ascension 4 sounds a lot like contemporary descriptions of Nero, especially the emphasis upon matricide in 4.2; and it is stated in 4.3 that this incarnation of evil would kill one of the Twelve, a quite plausible reference to Peter's death under Nero. This, and a few other details in 4, incline me to think that the identification of Nero as the king in this chapter is probably strong. Robinson suggests also that 4.13 refers to the flight of the Jerusalem church into Pella as a contemporary event, something that I'll grant as possible but a bit on the speculative side. All considered, Robinson makes a convincing argument that a late-60s date for the Ascension of Isaiah is at the very least plausible. I would be inclined to say the following: if one dates Revelation to the 60s, then one will have a hard time arguing that Ascension must date much later.

A second footnote of interest is his off-hand statement that he is open to considering the possibility that the Gospel of Thomas is earlier than often supposed (late-first through mid-second century). He gives no explanation as to why he is thus open: are their particular details in the text that lead him to suspect an earlier date, or he is just in principle open to such possibilities? This has led to me rereading the Gospel of Thomas, with an eye to the sort of thing that might have caught Robinson's intention and made him suspect an earlier date. In so doing, I am struck by logion 12, wherein Jesus states that after he dies, James the Just will take his place in leading his disciples. As it stands it does seem to be concerned with post-dominical succession; of course, one could come up with all sorts of other rhetorical purposes for this logion, but one suspects that they might be closer to eisegesis than exegesis. Now, it is highly unlikely that Jesus uttered anything like these words, as James appears not to have been one of his followers during his lifetime. Indeed, it is not clear that James took on a leadership role before the early 40s. Yet, if the author of Thomas, or his sources, felt sufficient freedom to place upon Jesus's mouth instructions regarding the succession of leadership after his passing, then one is struck by the absence of comparable instructions regarding James's death. I find it difficult to imagine that the logion, in its present form, could have been written after 62.

Now, of course, it has been argued that Thomas is the product of a long period of development, extending certainly into the second century; indeed, this notion of development is usually used to justify a first-century date, by arguing that there was effectively a proto-Thomas in the first century that developed into the Thomas that we now have. Thus, it could be argued, logion 12 could represent an early stage in the development of Thomas, while much of the balance of the text dates much later. I am uncertain if this resolves the chronological problem posed by logion 12 however, for two reasons. One, although such hypothetical developmental theories are often carefully argued, they tend towards the speculative, especially given the relative dearth of textual material that we have for Thomas. We do not even have a complete copy in the original language, which leaves me with less-than-complete confidence in our ability to clearly define the text's literary development. Two, and I think more crucial, such a developmental theory would in fact serve to make more acute the question of why logion 12 either has not dropped out or has not been elaborated to address post-Jacobean succession. The more that one emphasizes Thomasine fluidity, and the more one emphasizes that the text was a perpetual work-in-progress that was responsive to external conditions potentially well into the second century, the more conspicuous the fact that it gives instructions that could be followed no later than 62. And further indications of a date for Thomas in, say, the 50s might be adduced. For instance, the text is concerned with the necessity of circumcision, and our extant evidence would seem to situate intra-Christian debates over the necessity of circumcision primarily in the the late-40s through 50s. That's where Acts would seem to place such debates, and the texts otherwise most directly concerned with the matter and readily dated,, i.e. the core Pauline epistles, all emerge from this decade or so. If Robinson had been so inclined, I think that he could probably have made a solid argument for a Gospel of Thomas in the 50s.

A possible objection: does not Thomas include doctrinal material that could not reasonably preexist the second century? I'm not altogether convinced that this is the case, and I doubt that Robinson would have been also. He tended to be very rigourous when it came to such arguments from development, seeing them as generally circular in nature: development theories are used to date the texts, and then the sequence of texts is used to confirm the development theories. And in any case, there seems to be a growing consensus that Thomas' gnostic character has been much exaggerated. Certainly, it does not contain much in the way of hints of the more elaborated systems of gnostic speculation that emerge in the second century. And already in the Corinthian literature Paul is addressing what has often been described as a sort of "proto-gnosticism." I don't see anything in Thomas's theology that requires second century date, or even one later than c. 60.

That having been said, let it be emphasized, I am not arguing that we should date Thomas prior to 62. Rather, I am considering the sort of argument that Robinson might have advanced in favour of an earlier dating for the text, given his general approach to such questions and had he been so inclined to present such an argument.

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