|A biologist checked the species|
and sex of fish brought on board the
Russian trawler on which I worked
in the 1980s. If he'd found an anarchist
philosopher in the nets, how
would he know it wasn't a fish?
I concentrate most of my fire on the so-called "Gospel of Thomas," because it is given greater pretensions by secular humanist scholars. (For instance, the Jesus Seminar's most famous book, The Five Gospels, is predicated on the conceit that Thomas should be treated as at least as good a source for Jesus' life, and as intrinsically valuable, as the"other Gospels.")
This is a charade, I argue, for six or so reasons:
(1) Most dictionaries define Gospel, in its literary sense, in relation to the four canonical stories of Jesus.
(2) They do so because that is the earliest and most common use of the term, in its literary sense.
(3) Some dictionaries allow one to extend the term to other texts, provided that those texts resemble the original four Gospels.
(4) As I show in detail, even more in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, but also in The Truth About Jesus and the "Lost Gospels," Thomas does not resemble the real Gospels in the slightest. In fact, many ancient books totally unrelated to the Gospels, like Confucius' Analects, Tacitus' Agricola, Homer's Iliad, or even the kung fu epic, Journey to the West, resemble the Gospels in more ways than even this, the "best" Gnostic text. There is, therefore, no sensible reason to call Thomas a Gospel. Doing so is more likely to obscure than to enlighten the issues.
(5) One can also define "Gospel" etymologically, by the root meaning of the word, or at least tie its meaning to that root. Euangelion is the Greek word, and it means "good news." This makes sense in relation to the canonical Gospels, because they all offer purportedly and apparently historical tidings about hopeful events that had recently happened in this world. It makes perfect sense to call them "good news."
(6) This same logic does not make a lick of sense with any Gnostic text, including Thomas. Thomas does not contain "news" at all, still less "good news." It is a grab-bag collection of 114 supposedly wise sayings, some clever, some tedious, and none sounding at all like Jesus, except for those that were borrowed (as most scholars seem to agree) from the real Gospels.
My friend and long-time sparing partner, Dr. H, begs to differ. He thinks my definition of "gospel" is circular, and that the four in the Bible should be given no special consideration.
Hiawatha, or "Dr. H," is a man of many gifts. He has studied or worked in marine biology, philosophy, and social science (don't know which the "Dr." comes from). He's a musician, has read a lot of political theory, has a good sense of humor, and can talk amusingly on dozens of topics. But like many people with extraordinary talents, Dr. H is also capable of making extraordinarily bad arguments.
But (with some minor editing) I'll let the reader judge for himself or herself.
Dr. H: Your grand circular argument that defines "gospel" exclusively by the characteristics of the four canonical Gospels, and then uses that definition to "prove" that only those four Gospels fit the definition.
DM: There's nothing "circular" about it. The standard dictionary definition of "gospel" does, in fact, begin with the canonical four . . . I also explain etymological reasons why that standard is sensible, and offer analogies from zoology, where the same practice that I use for defining "gospel" -- begin with characteristics shared by admitted members of a class, then see if disputed members share those characteristics -- is followed. All three procedures -- dictionary, etymology, characteristics -- ensure that I am not "arguing in a circle" -- in fact, any one would. It is not arguing in a circle just to say, "The dictionary defines gospels this way, so Thomas is not a gospel" . . . If you begin with an accepted class of objects, and want to know whether a newly discovered or disputed object belongs to that class, (this method) is the method you ought to follow.
Dr. H: LOL. If you make the circle big enough, I suppose that makes it harder to notice. The canonical gospels are an /example/ of the definition, not the definition itself:
"gospel : (n) 1) the message concerning Christ, the kindom of God, and salvation; 2) an interpretation of the Christian message; 3) a book telling of the life, death, resurrection, and sayings of Jesus Christ /as/ one of the first four New Testament books /or/ a similar apocryphal book; 4) the message or teachings of a religious leader; 5)something accepted as infallible truth or as a guiding principle; 6) gospel music.
-- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (emphasis in the original)
If there are 100 items in a class, the class is defined by the characteristics which the /most/ items have in common. To define the entire class by a minor subset is like saying "only trout are -real fish".
DM: You seem to have an incredible mental block on this subject. Your own quote affirms my position:
"gospel : (n) 3) a book telling of the life, death, resurrection, and sayings of Jesus Christ /as/ one of the first four New Testament books /or/ a similar apocryphal book; -- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (emphasis in the original)
A gospel, in the sense we are using the word, means a book. Containing what? The life, death, resurrection, and sayings of Jesus. The first three of which, most of the Gnostic "gospels" do not do!
That enough, by itself, is sufficient to demonstrate (that) the Gnostics are not "gospels" at all, the word "gospel" is just attached to them, to make them sell better. And yet for some reason, this is the authority you want us to go by! Fine! Let's go on:
"As one of the first 4 NT books OR a similiar apocryphal book."
That is precisely the methodology I use in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels," and . . . describe above! Begin with those four books, whose character define the genre, as wolves, foxes, coyotes, and dingos define "dog." Then see if some other book is "similiar," shares the same family of traits . . .
There is no "news" in Thomas at all. That's the etymological definition, I mentioned above, which combined with the other two ways of defining "gospel," all exclude Thomas and the other gospels. (Calling Thomas a gospel is a) kind of shell game . . . It's like saying, "Dr. H, like other fish, is poor at logic."
Dr. H: Wrong, David. Begin with /all/ the books collected under the label and define the genre. /Then/ examine whether some of them may be outliers, or refine the definition.
What you suggest is akin to taking _only_ Finnegan's Wake, Joyce's Ulysses, and Trout Fishing in America, and using them to define "the novel". Then of course you're free to claim that "Moby Dick," "Huckleberry Finn," and "Anna Karenina" aren't "real" novels.
It's like saying, "Dr H, Martin Luther King, Charles Manson, and Dizzy Gillespie define the extremes of humanity; since David Marshall isn't like any of these, therefore David Marshall isn't human . . . "
I gave you a dictionary definition -- since you interduced the dictionary in your argument. That dictionary definition clearly shows that "gospel" is much broader in scope that "the four canonical gospels." It uses the canonicals as /one example/, NOT as the defintion. It uses the apocryphal books (which includes Thomas) as another /example/ of the definition.
DM: (That definition) clearly says the term MAY be extended from the canonical gospels to other books inasmuch as they resemble the canonical gospels:
"gospel : (n) 3) a book telling of the life, death, resurrection, and sayings of Jesus Christ /as/ one of the first four New Testament books /or/ A SIMILIAR apocryphal book." (emphasis added)
Crystal clear. The four canonical gospels are the standard for what the word means, and that can be extended if an apocryphal book is found to be . . . similiar to them. If it is not similiar to the canonical gospels, by this definition, it is NOT a Gospel.
Come on, Dr. H. I know you hate to admit error. But nothing could be plainer.
And that is as far as the conversation has taken us, thus far.
Am I missing something? Or is the word "gospel" applied to books like Thomas for the same reason that one nation at war with another may counterfeit the currency of its enemy, in an attempt to devalue that currency? No serious scholar really claims that any Gnostic book tells us much of anything new about the historical Jesus, though some skeptical scholars try to make it sound that way, as I also show in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.' So it seems to me calling Thomas and later Gnostic writings "gospels" is quite a poker bluff . . . One that Christians have generally played along with a lot of the time, for the sake of courtesy, perhaps.