Other Thomas Scholar Interviews

I was reminded by André Gagné’s post in the Nag Hammadi Seminar Facebook group that Chris Skinner has conducted interviews with a number of other Thomas scholars over the years since he started blogging. He has moved them across from PEJE IESOUS to Crux Sola and you can find them here. He has interviews with Nicholas Perrin, Stevan Davies, Stephen J Patterson, Ismo Dunderberg, Risto Uro, Marvin Meyer, Simon Gathercole and Mark Goodacre.  The Nag Hammadi Seminar group is also worth looking at and joining, although it looks at more than just Gos Thom of course.

Bill Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas

Chris Skinner, over at Crux Sola, has recently posted the last of a series of three interviews with Bill (or more formally – but it seems that he rarely is – Dr William) Arnal from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. Bill’s paper,  “The Rhetoric of Marginality: Apocalypticism, Gnosticism and Sayings Gospels” (Harvard Theological Review, v. 88, n. 4, p. 471-494, 1995) was part of my early reading around Thomas and one of the things that really sparked my interest – so I was interested to read where he had moved to in the twenty years since he wrote it.  Since Chris blogs with Nijay Gupta, the posts aren’t adjacent to one another so here are the relevant links:

He makes some very interesting points about the nature of the Gospel of Thomas and areas that need (and don’t need) to be explored which are really worth reading. The highlight of my night, however, is this (yes, I know, I need to get out more):

…it seems to me that there is very little in Thomas that we could (were we so inclined) trace back to the historical Jesus with any confidence. I’m pretty sure the name “Jesus” (or rather, its equivalent) is historical. And I imagine Jesus said stuff, sometimes, so that’s probably accurate too. I’m not especially confident about anything else.

Bill doesn’t blog (at least not that I’ve found), but you can follow him on Academia.edu and get to see a lot of  his papers collected in the one place. :-)

Kenneth Neller’s GosThom thesis

Some years ago, I became aware that in 1983 Kenneth Neller had gained his doctorate from St Andrew’s University, Scotland, with a thesis entitled “The Gospel of Thomas and the Earliest Texts of the Synoptic Gospels”. When my library contacted the St Andrew’s library about accessing it, the conditions for getting it on an inter-library loan were just too restrictive for it to be worth accessing. A few weeks ago, I decided to ask again, and St Andrew’s library informed me that I could now request a free scan of it through the British Library’s Electronic Theses Online Service or EThOS.  I did this and just received an email letting me know that it has been scanned and is available for download.  As I understand it, this means that it is now freely available for download by anyone else who visits the site, so if anyone else has been interested in reading this, but balked at the St Andrew’s conditions, it’s now there.

Interestingly, when I put the whole title into the search bar, it told me that nothing matched my search, but when I searched for Neller Gospel Thomas, the search engine found it. I haven’t yet read it, but it looks interesting. Neller was supervised by Robert McLachlan Wilson, one of the big names in early Thomas scholarship.

Making bread…

…clearly something many biblical scholars don’t do

raised loaves

Raised loaves

I have moved on to the parable of the woman who used some yeast/the parable of the leaven (Gos Thom 96 || Matt 13: 33 || Lk 13: 20-21) and one thing strikes me in the comments of a number of scholars. They talk about the inevitability of yeast creating large loaves. Yeah, right!

Before I started my postgraduate studies, I used to make a lot of bread. I would take it places and people would be amazed that I could do it, because their bread always ended up heavy, hard and nasty-tasting. This puzzled them, because usually they were good at cooking other things and could produce good results simply by following a recipe. With bread, however, there is much more to it than just mixing together yeast, flour and water and putting it in a warm place – there’s a lot about how the dough looks and feels that can’t be described in a recipe.

Things that can cause your bread to spoil:

  • putting your bread in conditions that are too hot – it kills the yeast
  • putting your bread in conditions that are not hot enough – the bread takes forever to rise. At least, however, you can fix this by warming it
  • not putting enough water into the dough – the dough is too heavy for the yeast to work properly, so you get small, dense loaves that aren’t nice to eat
  • putting too much water into the dough – it doesn’t form shapes properly and oozes all over the place, sticks to your fingers and is generally painful to work with
  • putting too much salt in it – salt inhibits the action of the yeast and you get small, dense loaves
  • not putting any salt in it – the yeast works too fast and you get bread with big bubbles in it so your topping leaks through the holes
  • not keeping the top of the rising loaves moist enough – if a tough, dry skin forms, the yeast action is again inhibited and you get small, dense loaves. Now this is easy – you oil it lightly and put it in a plastic bag. No plastic bags in 1st century Palestine, so you used a damp cloth – and had to keep renewing the dampness when it was hot
  • not kneading the dough enough – the gluten doesn’t form properly and you get small, dense loaves
  • kneading the dough too much – too much gluten formation makes the loaves tough. This usually only happens, however, if you are in a very bad mood and are kneading dough to work off your frustrations. :-)
  • not cooking the loaves for long enough – you get a gooey glug in the middle that is very difficult to digest
  • cooking the loaves for too long – they burn and dry out
  • cooking the loaves at too low a temperature – again, you get small, dense loaves
  • cooking the loaves at too high a temperature – yes, they burn, but you can also get small, dense loaves because there should be some rising happening in the oven and if it’s too hot, the yeast dies immediately and you don’t get the extra rising. And remember that in Jesus’ day, ovens did not have a thermostat – you regulated the temperature by watching the fire that was heating your oven very carefully and knowing by experience what you needed to do.

In addition, yeast is a tricky thing to work with because it is alive. Modern home bakers are spoiled. The dried yeast that we can use is much more forgiving than the cake yeast and sourdough starters that were used for many centuries. You can put dried yeast in an airtight container in the freezer and it will keep for years. Even in a cupboard, it lasts for many months.  It also works over a wider range of temperatures than fresh yeast. Fresh yeast really needs to be kept at about body temperature in order to work well. Dried yeast can be significantly hotter and still work beautifully. Cake yeast might last a month or so if frozen, and only a few days in a cool place in the kitchen and a few more days in a fridge. (Do I need to point out that fridges and freezers were not a normal part of 1st century Palestine kitchen equipment?) Dying yeast imparts a nasty, sour taste to the bread and you need to use a lot more to get it to rise. Sourdough starter is a little less finicky, but rises more slowly and must be fed and divided regularly.

So there is nothing inevitable about yeast dough turning into bread, unless it is in the hands of an experienced bread maker. Did Jesus know this? Quite possibly. If he did, then the Gos Thom version is quite likely at least as close to Jesus’ version as are Matt/Luke/Q. The coming of Kingdom of the Father is like the situation where a woman takes a tiny piece of yeast, mixes it with flour (and other ingredients) and cares for it until it turns into big loaves – although I guess you need to be comfortable with Jesus being like a woman to be happy with this interpretation. :-)

Growing wheat …

… or things the parable of the wheat and the tares almost certainly isn’ t saying

I have been working on the parable of the wheat and the tares Matt 13: 24-30 || GTh 57 and have been fascinated by some of the suggestions that various commentators have come up with in the way of interpretation. It is clear that they have never been involved in a wheat-growing enterprise. I have a degree in Agricultural Science and spent the first four years of my ministry in one of the major wheat-growing areas of Australia so I though I would share some of my learning about the process.

First, everyone seems to agree that the ‘tares’ or weeds of the biblical parable are a kind of bearded ryegrass also called ‘darnel’, and with the botanical name Lolium temulentum. For those of you who are not good at botanical names, both the uppercase L at the beginning of the Lolium (regardless of where it appears in a sentence) and the italicised words are essential if you want any agronomical cred at all.

Second, it appears that the basic method of sowing in first century Palestine was to walk through the plough field, throwing handfuls of seed out around you. You didn’t then cover it over, so it wasn’t particularly challenging for someone to come in during the night and throw darnel seed in with your wheat seeds. It appears that it was not until 1701 when Jethro Tull perfected the first horse-drawn seed drill that covering sown seed became anything like a common practice.  And because the seeds are about the same size and shape, unless you had reason to inspect them closely, you would not notice the new seeds sown on top of the old and if you did, you would have a snowball’s chance in hell of picking all the darnel seeds out of your wheat. It also appears that the practice of sowing darnel and wild oats in your neighbour’s crop was common enough in Rome in the early second century CE for there to be a law against it, so this was not just a rhetorical device. (A. J. Kerr, “Matthew 13:25. Sowing Zizania among another’s wheat: Realistic or artificial?,” JTS 48(1997): 108.)

Third, when the wheat and ryegrass plants are small, they look very similar to one another. As they grow bigger, it becomes obvious that the ryegrass leaves are narrower, have less prominent veins and are shinier. Thus, someone who is used to looking at fields of wheat will know before the crop starts to set seed if there is any significant infestation of darnel in their wheat crop. Unfortunately, by the time this becomes obvious, if you have planted your seeds closely enough to get a good yield per acre/hectare the roots of the plants are so intertwined that you run a very serious risk of pulling up wheat plants when you pull up the weeds and they will not respond particularly well to replanting. And while it was probably normal practice for the servants to pull out weeds when they were noticed in a crop, there wouldn’t be all that many in a well-cared-for field, so losing a few wheat plants along the way would not have been a big deal. The crop in the parable had far more darnel plants, though, because extras had been deliberately planted and the plants were probably closer together. The servants probably asked their master about pulling them out expecting that the answer would be ‘don’t.’

Fourth, once heads form even the most inexperienced person can tell the difference, as can be seen from the images to the right. It is not just at the harvest that the different kinds of plant are easily identifiable by all who care to look. The seeds of darnel are poisonous, or are commonly infested by a poisonous fungus, (Penn Veterinary Medicine, Poisonous Plants: Genus: Lolium (2014 ; available from http://research.vet.upenn.edu/PoisonousPlantsofPA/Loliumtemulentum/tabid/5459/Default.aspx) so they cannot be combined with wheat grain and must be disposed of before the grain is threshed from the plants, but when harvesting is done by hand, as happened in first century Palestine, it is easy enough to bind the darnel heads up in bundles and keep them separate from the wheat which is taken away for threshing. This is *not* possible with the modern combine harvesters.

Fourth, harvesting is a labour intensive, time critical activity. The grain cannot be harvested until it is ripe or it will not keep well, will not make good flour and will not sprout if it is being used to sow a new crop the following year. Once it is ripe, it needs to be cut as soon as possible because it will drop from the plant onto the ground and spoil if left too long, and if it rains while the ripe seeds are in the field, they will sprout in the ear and be unsuitable for flour making or replanting. The window of time is often only a few days. In the twenty-first century, the combine harvester goes into the field as soon as the dew has dried off enough and it works until late into the day and sometimes as far into the night as the dew makes possible. In pre-mechanised societies, it was customary to hire day workers as reapers to supplement the farmer’s normal workforce, so the reapers mentioned at the end of the Matthean parable are different people to the servants/slaves at the beginning – it is not just the literary device suggested by some commentators.

Fifth, burning the darnel is the appropriate method of disposing of it, because burning will kill the seeds and make sure that the next crop planted in the field is not infested with darnel plants from viable seed left lying in the field. The more weeds you have in the crop, the more important it is to kill the seeds so you don’t have the same problem the next year. Despite Hultgren’s footnote citing the Dictionary of Life in Bible Times, (Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, Grand Rapids; Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2000 296 n 14. citing “Agriculture” in Willy Corswant (ed) Dictionary of Life in Bible Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960) it is highly unlikely that the tares would normally have been fed to stock, because the seeds are also poisonous to animals. (See, for example, M Tadych and J F White, “Endophytic Microbes,” in Eukaryotic microbes, ed. Moselio Schaechter; Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2012, 56.) Keeping them for fuel has some significant problems in that carrying the ripe darnel plants away from the field has the potential to broadcast the darnel seed across a wide area, thus introducing weeds into other places on your farm, although if fuel was in very short supply, the farmer might have been willing to take this risk.

Thus, the process described in the parable is not the unusual, allegorical account that some commentators want to make of it.

Update: On re-reading the last sentence, I see that this could be interpreted as saying that Matthew doesn’t allegorise the account – of course he does, but the story itself is highly likely to be an account of a normal, if not frequent, happening in first century Palestinian agriculture.

Secret Scriptures Revealed – Tony Burke

Over the past little while, I have been reading Tony Burke’s Secret Scriptures Revealed – A new introduction to the Christian Apocrypha (London, SPCK, 2013). It took me a while because I was using it as my ongoing light reading material – the book I read to relax before going to bed and take with me to read in waiting rooms etc, rather than something I was using for my research.

Tony has been studying the Christian Apocrypha for many years and this book aims to provide the intelligent non-expert in biblical studies with clear, accessible information about them. I think he succeeds.

It is divided into seven chapters. The first asks (and answers) “what are the Christian apocrypha?”; the second provides an overview of what studying them is involved; the third looks at apocryphal lives of Jesus; the fourth at passion and resurrection gospels; the fifth focuses on legends about Jesus in the early church; chapter six looks at myths, misconceptions and misinformation about the Christian apocrypha; and the final (short) chapter sums up what has been covered. It doesn’t have footnotes, endnotes or in text referencing, but at the end of each section there is a box which tells the reader where the information has come from and there is a bibliography at the end, as well as a section on where to go for further information.

In addition to providing information about the texts themselves, Tony makes links between them and popular literature of today – like The Da Vinci Code – and indicates where there has been exaggeration and misrepresentation. He looks at where the texts came from, who wrote them, why they weren’t included in the Bible and whether reading them is harmful to personal faith (he says no and I agree with him).

I enjoyed reading it. Because I haven’t made an extensive study of the Christian apocrypha, I learned quite a number of things from it quite painlessly and am confident from what he has to say about the texts that I have studied in some depth that what he has written is accurate and trustworthy.  He gives the reader a taste for what can be found in each of the texts he covers, and shows them where they can find out more, including the names of trustworthy places on the web, whilst acknowledging that this can become out of date quite quickly.  I would definitely recommend it for those interesting in getting an introduction to and an overview of the Christian apocrypha.

an apology and explanation

Hi everyone.

Those of you who are following this blog will no doubt have received a notification of a post about Rafael Rodriguez’s latest book. I managed to publish it before it was finished and now WordPress has lost half the text.  I will work on it later this evening and hope to have a sensible version available asap.  :-(


The completed version is now available below. :-)