- The Gospel According to Philip: The Sources and Coherence of an Early Christian Collection
The “chaotic arrangement” (R. M. Grant) which is the form of the Gospel according to Philip is intriguing in itself, but also raises basic questions about the content and meaning of the work. Martha Lee Turner’s new book argues for the formal issue of collection, rather than the construct of Valentinian Gnosticism or the specifics of other Nag Hammadi tractates, as a basis for comparison and interpretation.
The book is in two interdependent parts; the first (15–131) is centered on a re-examination of ancient collection genres, but begins with Turner’s survey of previous approaches to Gos. Phil., which serves to illustrate both the pervasiveness and the fragility of prior interpretive assumptions of a unity of purpose. The second (135–235) examines Gos. Phil. itself, attempting a partial source analysis. A shorter third part (239–61) brings these concerns together, comparing the organizing practices in Gos. Phil. with those of ancient collections and finally speculating briefly on the interests guiding its compilation.
In the first part Turner considers the characteristics of “notebooks” from the second and third centuries, such as the Attic Nights, Egyptian sapiential collections, the Garlands of Greek epigrams, sayings collections such as Pirqe ‘Abot, and other early Christian works with similar features: Clement’s Stromateis and Excerpta ex Theodoto, and also the Sentences of Sextus. This is an interesting exercise, not without its puzzles; the inclusion of the Instruction of Anksheshonqy and of Papyrus Insinger among “material from the second and third centuries” because they were “still being edited and revised in the first centuries of the common era” (80) seems dubious in Turner’s own terms; a more professedly cross-cultural approach could have been defended (cf. Claus Westermann’s recent work on Proverbs).
The results (presented schematically only much later ) are not especially conclusive, but Turner finds room for the organizing principles of Gos. Phil. along the “continuum” (115–16) of approaches among these other collections. If the features shared by Gos. Phil. and some of these do not include the more easily-discernible and well-defined ones (narrative frame, authorial attribution, chronological or geographical organization etc.), this does not weaken the critical side of Turner’s case; this collector does not seem especially authorial. In such dim light as these comparisons allow, Turner suggests that the process responsible for Gos. Phil. may be understood as bricolage, reflected in the “provocative juxtapositions” (117) of a gnostic recombinant mythography comparable to that bemoaned by Irenaeus, rather than in the construction of a system as such.
Beginning the source analysis of Gos. Phil. itself, Turner takes care to establish criteria which suggest “accumulated probabilities” (138) about different sources. These work less by discernment of aporiae than by identifying mutually [End Page 333] incompatible terms or ideas. Strong and/or multiple affinities with other documents or traditions are also seen as significant. In the following section the cost of Turner’s care becomes evident in necessarily modest and incomplete conclusions (new emphasis on the already-recognized disjuncture after 77.14; suggestions regarding “‘primitive’ Valentinian,” “Thomas” and “Sethian” traditions in other instances). Her conclusion is that this is a “sourcebook for speculation” (257) which addresses the problem of evil and the question of human potential through the paradigm of emanation.
This book will be of interest to students of other ancient literature, and especially of collections; the value of extending these comparisons to the biblical Wisdom books in particular may well be considerable. So too, the discussion of source-critical use of terminology and theology has wider implications. As far as Gos. Phil. is concerned, Turner contributes substantially to the critical examination of earlier approaches, and her thesis about Gos. Phil. as a collection seems sound; but a hermeneutic for dealing with collections is still to be established, despite suggestive beginnings in the fifth and eleventh chapters.
It is hard to...