The Common Sayings Tradition is a hypothetical early collection of sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. It has been proposed by Stephen Patterson, Professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, and John Dominic Crossan, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. Both are among the world’s leading scholars on historical Jesus research.
This sayings tradition has been hypothesized based on two very early Christian sources: The Gospel of Thomas and the Q Gospel.
The dating, reliability, and legitimacy of these two sources have themselves been topics of frequent debate among New Testament scholars.
The Gospel of Thomas was long known only through references by Catholic Church fathers. St. Hippolytus of Rome is the first to mention the text, writing around 220 C.E., and Origen of Alexandria mentions it a few years later, around 230 C.E. The text, however, was long lost until the late 19th century, when a few fragments of one copy were discovered in Egypt. Later, in the 1940’s, a complete copy was found, also in Egypt, among dozens of other early Christian texts.
Those first few fragments discovered in the late 1800’s have been dated to around 200 C.E. Since those fragments certainly did not come from the original copy, this means the original composition took place long before that.
In past decades, many scholars had dated the text’s original composition to around 180 C.E. In recent years, however, as scholars have continued to study and examine it, the consensus has generally moved toward an earlier date. At present, there are generally two camps on the dating of Thomas: early and late. Those in the early camp argue for a date as early as 60 C.E. (well before the Gospels of the New Testament), and no later than roughly 80 or 90 C.E. Those in the late camp argue for a date in the first part of the 2nd century, no later than 140 C.E., and probably no earlier than 90 or 100 C.E.
The dating issue is complicated by the fact that the existing text shows signs of heavy editing by Gnostic Christians of the 2nd century – called “redaction” in scholarly language. Folks like Crossan and Patterson argue that while the Gospel of Thomas as we have it in its current form may date to the late 1st century or even later, its original form is much earlier – around 60 C.E., which makes it a contemporary of Paul.
As for the Q Gospel, this is a text that – like the Common Sayings Tradition which is derived from it – is hypothetical in its own right, although its existence in early Christianity is widely accepted by New Testament scholars.
The theory of the Q Gospel is based on the material that is common between Luke and Matthew, but not found in the Gospel of Mark. It has been widely accepted for several centuries that Mark was a primary source for the writers of Matthew and Luke. Matthew, in fact, regurgitated something like 90% of Mark’s Gospel, much of it word for word. However, there is a significant amount of material found in Matthew and Luke that is not present in Mark. This has essentially led to two theories, one of which is almost certainly the “right” answer: either Luke used Matthew as a source for this secondary material, or Luke and Matthew had another source in common – one which is no longer in existence. This second, no longer existing, source is referred to as the Q Gospel (Q stands for the German word “quelle,” which simply means “source”).
While there are still many scholars doubtful about the Q hypothesis, most modern New Testament scholars accept it as accurate. Even if one assumes that the Q hypothesis is wrong, the fact remains that we know (with as much certainty, of course, as we “know” anything in ancient history) that Matthew used Mark as a source. Yet we know the writer of Matthew used a lot of material not found in Mark. He must have gotten that information from somewhere, unless one supposes that he simply made it up. So whether one accepts the Q hypothesis or not, it is almost without question that Matthew had some second source which no longer exists – a source that by definition must have been written much earlier than Matthew.
(A side note: Church tradition has long held that the disciple Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew – hence the name – thus his “source” would have been personal experience; but this is an argument almost universally rejected by modern scholarship.)
We can’t know, of course, everything that was contained in the Q document. We only know stories from Q when both Matthew and Luke repeat them.
Patterson and Crossan argue for an early date for the original version of the Gospel of Thomas. They also presuppose the existence of the Q Gospel and date it around the same time – roughly 60 C.E., give or take a few years. Furthermore, they make cogent arguments for why these two documents are independent of one another (in other words, Thomas didn’t simply use Q and vice versa). I won’t go into those arguments here, but will simply state that Patterson and Crossan assert these two texts are not only early, but also independent.
Both of these documents – the Gospel of Thomas and Q – are made up totally of “sayings” of Jesus. They don’t describe scenes or give biographical information. They don’t contain miracle stories. There is no instance of Jesus making divine claims for himself. There are no resurrection accounts or predictions of resurrection. Instead, the stories simply present Jesus speaking and teaching, giving his vision of how to live and act in regards to the kingdom of God.
The eschatology of these two documents is opposing. “Eschatology” is a fancy philosophical term that simply refers to one’s belief about the ultimate destiny of humankind and the end of the world. In Q, the eschatology is apocalyptic; that is, Q foresees the kingdom of God as an event still in the future, but coming soon. Q’s theology is one of warning – straighten up, as it were, because the time is near. The Gospel of Thomas, on the other hand, has what Crossan calls an “ascetical” eschatology. Instead of warning that the end of the world is coming, the Gospel of Thomas asserts that the kingdom of God is already here and the way to find it is through rejecting society and its norms.
With their arguments established that Q and Thomas are among our earliest sources for the sayings of Jesus, Patterson and Crossan have proposed the Common Sayings Tradition (Patterson actually first proposed it, and Crossan has added to it). The collection is simply made up of those sayings that are common to both Q and Thomas. Since those two sources are believed to be independent, the existence of these common sayings indicates an even earlier textual or oral source. Thus, the argument asserts that the Common Sayings Tradition, made up of sayings common to both Q and Thomas, is a very early tradition in the Christian movement – perhaps going back to the first few years after Jesus’ death.
While Q tends to redact its material toward apocalypticism (“The kingdom is coming soon, so straighten up if you want to be part of it”) and Thomas tends to redact its material toward asceticism (“The kingdom is here, so reject worldly pleasures if you want to be part of it”), they sometimes don’t redact their material.
Among the sayings of the Common Sayings Tradition, nearly half (49% of 37 sayings) are not redacted in either direction. Furthermore, only 7 of the 37 sayings are redacted in both Q and Thomas. This has led Patterson and Crossan to assert that the earliest Jesus material was neither apocalyptic nor ascetical. Instead, Crossan in particular has argued that this early material had an “ethical” eschatology; that is, it sought to make the kingdom of God a reality in the present by “actively protesting and nonviolently resisting a system judged to be evil, unjust, and violent.” That system, of course, was the systemic evil of Roman oppression against the Jews.
Since this material is the earliest Jesus material available, and since it describes Jesus as negating systemic evils (as opposed to warning people about coming wrath, or encouraging asceticism), Crossan has argued that the historical Jesus is best described as asserting that the kingdom of God can be a reality if and only if human beings make it happen by coming together to fight injustice, systemic evil, and oppression in society. This was the mission of Jesus, Crossan argues, and it was the mission of the earliest Christians, whose actions and teachings gave rise to the Common Sayings Tradition in the few years after Jesus’ death.
Whether you ultimately agree with these eschatological conclusions or not, Patterson and Crossan make compelling arguments for the existence of this early sayings tradition of Jesus. Crossan specifically notes that it is impossible to say whether this collection was written or oral, but in either case it seems to have directly influenced the writers of both Thomas and Q.
The obvious ultimate conclusion is that the 37 sayings of the Common Sayings Tradition may well be the closest thing we have to knowing what the historical Jesus actually said and taught.
I haven’t been able to find any sources online that publish the proposed contents of the Common Sayings Tradition, so my next blog post will be a recreation of the text, based on the references cited by Crossan. Read it here.