Perhaps the two scholars who most exemplify this tendency, thereby lending their considerable reputations to this position, are James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester. Robinson continues to pursue his quest for what he terms a “trajectory” from Jesus to Gnosticism by endeavoring to locate similarities between Thomasand Q (“Quelle,” the hypothesized source lying behind the synoptic Gospels), especially in regard to the genre of both texts. For him, such indicates the primitive tradition behind both.^11
Koester appears to have steadily moved his dating for Thomasin a backwards direction. In his introduction to Thomasin The Nag Hammadi Library, Koester identifies the composition as dating from before AD 200, but possibly being as early as the first century.^12 Pagels, who was also involved in the project, recalls Koester’s position on this subject.^13
A few years later, Koester stated his view that Thomaswas probably written during the first century in either Palestine or Syria. His reasons for this early dating are the similarities to Q, that the Thomastradition is independent of and earlier than that of the canonical Gospels, the location of the Thomastradition in Syria, and the Thomas-James (the brother of Jesus) contrast in sayings 12 and 13.^14
That such conclusions may present a challenge to the orthodox understanding of Jesus might be indicated from several considerations. Besides the question of dating, it is also asserted that Thomasincludes a number of new teachings of Jesus not available in the canonical Gospel tradition, and that there is “no trace of the kerygma of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus” in Thomas, perhaps manifesting a different tradition from that of orthodox Christian theology.^15 This last claim, in particular, demands a more detailed response.
To be sure, a considerable number of influential critical scholars have reacted strongly to theses such as those by Pagels, Robinson, and Koester. It is generally
11 Robinson’s essay in Hedrick and Hodgson, Nag Hammadi, is a more recent statement of his continuing emphasis on this subject.
12 Helmut Koester in Robinson, Nag Hammadi in English, Vol. II, p. 117.
13 Pagels, Gnostic Gospels, pp. xv-xvi.
14 Koester in Robinson, Nag Hammadi in English, vol. II, pp. 150–154. On Thomasas a sayings source, see vol. II, pp. 4, 47, 68, 180.
15 Ibid., especially vol. II, pp. 152, 154.
thought that the claims on behalf of the Gnostic tradition in the early church are very much overstated. We will turn now to an evaluation of several of these contentions.
A Critical Evaluation
As we have already said, we need to be selective in our treatment of these issues. Accordingly, we will propose to just briefly address four central questions, all of which impinge on our understanding of the historicity of Jesus.
These four topics for consideration include some very preliminary thoughts on two issues: the comparative dates of the Gnostic writings and the authority of the Gospels. This will be followed by a somewhat more detailed response to the two charges that the New Testament canon was in a state of flux until the late second century AD, and the general question of the downplaying of the gospel facts of the death and resurrection of Jesus in these writings. It should be noted that the employment of this strategy is designed not just to respond to these four critical areas, but the convergence of the critiques will hopefully provide an overall case against the Gnostic thesis outlined here.