No Man's Land: The Meyer-Patterson Family of Thomas Translations

Most English translations of the Gospel of Thomas in use today were published in the period 1987-1998, beginning with Bentley Layton's in The Gnostic Scriptures and ending with the Patterson-Robinson adaptation in The Fifth Gospel. Of the translations published in this twelve-year period, the names of Marvin Meyer and Stephen Patterson are prominent, being attached to a family of translations appearing in the following publications:

Q-Thomas Reader, Kloppenborg, Meyer, Patterson, Steinhauser (1990)
The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, Meyer (1992)
The Five Gospels, Funk, Hoover, The Jesus Seminar (1993) - designated 'T5G'
The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus, Patterson, 1993
The Complete Gospels, Miller, ed., (1992, 1994) - designated 'TCG'

With the exception of Meyer 1992 (Harper-Collins), all of the above were published by Polebridge Press, which is associated with the Westar Institute and the Jesus Seminar. The versions that appear in T5G and TCG were (misleadingly) denoted as "The Scholar's Version" - a title that makes sense when applied to the JSem versions of the canonical gospels, but not when applied to the JSem versions of non-canonical works, because the latter don't have a history of ecclesiastical translational control - which is the rationale for the title "Scholar's Version". (It should also be noted that there are differences between the Thomas translations in T5G and TCG, such that one might well ask "Which Scholar's Version?")

The remarkable feature of the Meyer-Patterson family of translations that separates them from others is that they don't contain the words 'man' or 'men' - in spite of the fact that the Coptic word for 'man' (rwme) occurs 35 times in the text! That word is instead translated usually as 'person', sometimes 'human being', etc., but never as 'man' or 'men'. In contrast, the M-P family never translates the Coptic word for 'woman' as 'person'. A variety of reasons have been offered for this unusual translational policy, but it will be argued below that none of them are sufficient to justify it. First, though, the M-P family needs to be seen in the context of other Thomas translations.

The Thomas translation with the most authoritative backing is that of Thomas Lambdin, as published in the 1988 edition of The Nag Hammadi Library, and appearing also in Bentley Layton's critical edition of Codex II, and in Ron Cameron's The Other Gospels. Ignoring a handful of superfluous occurrences of the Coptic word rwme, Lambdin translates 30 of them as 'man/men'. Similarly, the translation attributed to Beate Blatz in New Testament Apocrypha (1991) contains 29 instances of 'man/men' in those places.

A third class of translations is the result of attempting to minimize gender-bias in Thomas, which shares the characteristic of other ancient writings of using 'man' in two senses: sometimes as a male individual, sometimes in a non-gendered way to designate any person at all, or humankind in general. Members of this class of translations would include the afore-mentioned Layton translation (1987) and one of the few recent English translations, that of April DeConick in The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation (2006).

The surveyed translations fall into three general groups, based on the number of occurrences of rwme which are translated 'man/men', and employing some fanciful category-names:

"Manful": Lambdin (30), NTA-Blatz (29)
"Mansome": Layton (12), DeConick (15)
"Manless": Meyer, Patterson (0) [TCG has two, apparently due to scribal error]

"Mansome" translations are justified by their attempt to distinguish the two senses of rwme, but what about the extremes of "manfulness" and "manlessness"? Both have the arguable virtue of translating rwme the same way in every occurrence, but "manfulness" has rather gone out of style, while "manlessness" poses as the new paradigm. Is it any better than "manfulness" as a translational technique (not, mind you, as a style of writing), or does it go too far in the opposite direction? Three justifications have been offered:

1. In print, an appeal is made to gender neutrality, but if that's the reason, the result is over-compensation. The elimination of gender bias isn't achieved by the deletion of every 'man' and the retention of every 'woman'.

2. A closely-allied rationale is to point out (as above) that the word rwme had two senses. But again, look at the results. It's simply impossible to believe that no instance of rwme in Thomas designated a male individual. There are, for example, five sayings which compare the kingdom to a person doing something-or-other. Two of these compare the kingdom to a woman, the other three compare it to ... what? A person of unspecified gender? Clearly not. The intended balance between men and women in these sayings is lost in the M-P translations.

3. A linguistic rationale sometimes given is that the Coptic word rwme corresponds to Greek anthropos, which is said to be gender-neutral, as opposed to anhr/andros, which designates a male. The claimed correspondence simply isn't true, however. Rwme was used to translate both anthropos and anhr/andros in Coptic translations of the Greek NT. Evidently, then, the word rwme included both meanings. Nor can we tell which Greek word lay behind each instance of rwme in the Coptic version, for only one instance is extant; in all other cases, we're guessing. Furthermore, even if everything this rationale assumes were true, it still doesn't follow that 'man' should disappear from Thomas. It hasn't, after all, disappeared from the Scholar's Version of the canonical gospels, and even in several parallels to Thomas sayings where the Greek has anthropos, SV has 'man' instead of Meyer-Patterson's 'person'. Meyer and Patterson were apparently unable to persuade their JSEM colleagues of their point of view.

If nothing else, think of it this way: Is it at all likely that the originators of Coptic Thomas intended to refer to a woman from time to time, but never to refer to a man? If not, then the Meyer-Patterson family of translations, whatever their virtues, should be downgraded for the way they handled this aspect of the Gospel of Thomas.

Mike Grondin, Jun, 2008, rev Jan 2015

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