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.
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. :-)
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.
…clearly something many biblical scholars don’t do
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. :-)
… 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.
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.
I am currently reading in Rafael Rodríguez’s Structuring early Christian memory (London: T & T Clark, 2009). I don’t intend to write a formal review because I really am trying to complete a chapter of my thesis and make a good start on the next in the next week and a half, and much of the book has little relevance to these two chapters. I am, however, enthusiastic about his section on oral transmission – the fourth chapter, entitled ‘Performance, Structure, Meaning and Text’. I also found the previous chapter on social memory useful and interesting, but that’s not what I want to reflect on.
Rafael reminds us that the oral traditions on which the written gospels are based were not verbatim reproductions of previous performances and that the written gospels are neither verbatim dictations of an oral performance of the Jesus tradition nor notes to enable the reproduction of a verbatim re-performance. He says:
When we approach the gospels as primarily related to that hypothetical, abstract construct (the Jesus tradition) and conceive their interrelationships not as editions or redactions of one another but as interdependent, embodied expressions of that abstract tradition, we effect a critical paradigmatic shift that challenges both the methods and the results of previous analyses. The written gospel traditions are not ‘formally bounded, complete items’ (John Miles Foley, 1995. The Singer of Tales in Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.: xi); they refer to and incorporate the abstract Jesus tradition they instantiate, and they must be read accordingly. The gospels do not refer primarily or exclusively to other ‘formally bounded, complete items’, that is, to other written gospels or sources.
We thus find ourselves reading our texts not primarily in reference to other extant texts, which have a concrete, tangible existence, but in reference to a hypothetical construct: the abstract, untextualizable Jesus tradition. (p 90)
If we do this:
we begin to perceive the problem inherent in the scholarship that establishes one expression of the Jesus tradition (e. g., Mark or Q) as the standard against which other expressions are read simply on the basis that Mark or Q is the ‘earliest’ gospel or is ‘closest to the historical Jesus’…The texts of the gospels … for all their similarities and differences, reference the same traditional corpus, though in different ways, for different purposes, and, often, to different ends. (p 91)
This makes a great deal of sense to me. It is quite clear that there are sections of the synoptics where the level of verbatim correspondence indicates that there is a textual relationship between the two/three texts, but the fact that an author clearly had access to a written version of another gospel does not necessarily mean that he decided to alter the sections where it is different simply for his own theological purposes. Rather, it might well have differed from the version of the oral tradition with which he (and his community) was (were) familiar so that he felt the need to correct it – and this leads to the reception of the texts.
New Testament research needs to broaden its focus from the texts’ composition to consider the texts’ reception. Both the evangelists and their audiences would have been familiar with and participants in oral performances of the Jesus tradition. Once the texts of the gospels were committed to writing, is it really likely that those texts represented radical departures from the oral tradition that preceded and continued to develop alongside them? We cannot presume that our texts preserve records of single performances, such that ‘gospel composition’ becomes transcription; still less can we continue to presume that our gospels are the ‘Markan’, ‘Matthean’, or ‘Lukan’ version of the tradition. Rather, our texts were written in the context of oral performances of the Jesus tradition and would have been received by their audiences as performances that, though transformed into written texts, preserved extra-textual references to the Jesus tradition as a whole. (pp 97-7)
In other words, a written text that was provided to a community that knew the oral tradition would not have been well received if its author tried to do a radical reshaping of the tradition, although they were highly unlikely to have objected to somewhat different wording of the stories as long as the punchline was correct.
In looking at the issue of reception, Rafael talks about the fact that the audiences of the oral transmission were familiar with the contexts in which the stories were told – something that is potentially lost once the text is written down and sent away. He suggests that the beginnings of the gospels might well provide cues to the context and how the author intended it to be read (ie in which ‘performance area’ it belonged), picking up on work by Loveday Alexander in this area (see pp 107-9). This certainly makes sense to me, and is the approach I am taking to the Thomas sayings. I think that the fact that the author tells us at the beginning that these are secret sayings and that anyone who finds the meaning of them will not taste death affects how the sayings are read.
One section, however, interests me because I see it differently. Early in the chapter, Rafael says:
Kelber emphasizes performance as the moment of composition: ‘transmission and composition converge in oral performance. Although the speaker used traditional materials, she or he was composing while speaking . . . The idea was not to reproduce what was said previously, but to (re)compose so as to affect the present circumstance.’ (Kelber 1995 ‘Jesus and Tradition: Words in Time, Words in Space’. Orality and Textuality in Early Christian Literature. Semeia 65. Ed J. Dewey. Atlanta: Scholars Press: 150, citing Lord 1960 The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 5, 101; emphasis added). But why does Kelber oppose ‘reproduc[ing] what was said previously’ with ‘affect[ing] the present’? This opposition is not only unnecessary, it jars against Kelber’s helpful recognition of ‘traditional materials’ in oral performance. (p 83)
To me, Kelber’s statement makes a great deal of sense in terms of what I know of the art of story-telling and also some of the psychological research on human memory and story-telling. When skilled story-tellers tell a story, they take their outline and recast it in ways that they think will be most effective to achieve the effect the want to evoke from their current audience. They do not tell stories just because they can, but to achieve a particular effect or result. In other words, they tell stories to affect the present circumstance of their hearers. The desired effect might be as simple as to lift the mood of the audience by making them laugh, but it is more likely to be to promote thought about a particular issue as well. They will modify their language and choose which details to emphasize and which to minimize on the basis of the likely interests of the current audience. When I preach on one of the farming parables in a rural setting, I will often re-tell the parable with some added invitations to the audience to picture themselves in the situation, so I will encourage the grain farmers to think about the contrast between their use of huge headers and combine harvesters in contrast to the hand sowing and reaping practised in Jesus’ times; and I will talk in detail about the likely species of weed in the parable of the man who sowed good seed. I think that this is probably the kind of affecting of the present circumstance that Kelber had in mind and I don’t see it as jarring against his recognition of traditional materials in oral performance.
I have been doing some reading around the Criteria of Authenticity for sayings of the Historical Jesus and find that I am now confused. It appears that, despite the fact that scholars talk about The Criteria of Authenticity as though they were an agreed list, they aren’t.
A quick search of the web came up with:
Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.225-263.
- The criterion of multiple attestation on the cross-section approach
- The criterion of multiple forms
- The criterion of Aramaic linguistic phenomena
- The criterion of Palestinian environmental phenomena
- The criteria of the tendencies of the developing tradition
- The criterion of dissimilarity on discontinuity
- The criterion of modification by Jewish Christianity
- The criterion of divergent patterns from the redaction
- The criterion of environmental contradiction
- The criterion of contradiction of authentic sayings
- The criterion of coherence (or consistency)
Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research: Previous Discussion and New Proposals. JSNTSup 191. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
If Richard Vinson’s review of this for JBL is accurate (and it seems to be from what I can see of the book on Google books), Porter suggests that there have been five criteria but thinks there should be three more.
- multiple attestation
- least distinctiveness
- Aramaic background plus
- Greek language
- Greek textual variance
- discourse features
John Kloppenborg has an article on his website where he lists one preliminary criterion, five primary criteria and three secondary ones.
The preliminary one is being very suspicious of anything that lines up too closely with the evangelist’s particular theological leanings. This is followed by:
- multiple attestation
- historical plausibility plus
- Palestinian environmental phenomena or Aramaism
- stylistic criterion
- plausible tradition history
Michael Kok has gone with Kloppenborg’s first five criteria.
All this rather surprised me, because I was expecting to find the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar in voting on the gospel sayings. The book that outlines the process and presents the findings is Funk, Robert Walter, Roy W. Hoover, and Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus: New Translation and Commentary. New York, Toronto: Macmillan; Maxwell Macmillan Canada; Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993 and it doesn’t have a neat list of criteria. When you look at pp 16-34, they looked at and for:
The rules of written evidence
- Clustering and contexting
- Revision and commentary
- False attribution
- Difficult sayings
- Christianizing Jesus
The rules of oral evidence
- Orality and memory
- The storyteller’s license
- Distinctive discourse
- The laconic sage
FWIW, my summary of the Funk etal criteria can be found at Jesus_semnar_criteria (because I can’t type accurately and changing the file name now is just too hard). It seems, however, that there is no official set of criteria – or have I missed something?
Chris Keith on the Jesus blog draws our attention to an article in the UK Telegraph about Richard Burridge’s take on the Life of Brian. I first heard of Richard when I attended an international multifaith university chaplains’ conference in Vancouver. Richard was the Christian keynote speaker and his talk, “The Phoenix in the Marketplace”, used Harry Potter to link what chaplains do in universities into popular culture. His presentation was entertaining as well as helpful. I have referred to his What are the Gospels a number of times in my work on eyewitness testimony and memory and I also enjoyed hearing him when he visited Melbourne a year or two ago while he was on study leave and again reflecting on aspects of Christianity in the context contemporary society. I think the Pope and his advisors made a good choice in presenting him with the Ratzinger Prize.
Reading the Telegraph article took me back to the time when Life of Brian was first released in Australia. Richard says that those who called for the satire to be banned after its release in 1979 were “embarrassingly” ill-informed and missed a major opportunity to promote the Christian message and I can attest to a personal example of this. I was living away from home for the first time, in Brisbane (13 hours’ drive from friends and family). I was attending a continuing Presbyterian church (the more progressive members of the Presbyterian church had joined the Uniting Church and the Presbyterian remnant were contemplating whether they could unordain the women ministers who hadn’t left), so people in the congregation I attended were involved in picketting the local picture theatres because they were quite sure it was satanic. I was studying for a graduate diploma in a group of ten students – one Uniting Church person who had grown up Methodist; one Latter Day Saint, me and seven people who were not actively involved in any religious practice. We got to know one another quite well and hung out together quite a bit. Several of the seven wanted to know what the churches had against it and since I was the religious person who went to the pub with them (they wanted to know why the Uniting Church person wouldn’t – weren’t they good enough for her?), they asked me. I had to say that I didn’t know – the newspaper reports made no sense to me, either, but I wasn’t willing to go and see it at the picture theatre because there was a very good chance that I would be spotted by a picketter and I didn’t know how to cope with that.
I have since seen it several times and cannot believe that anyone could possibly see such brilliant satire on the factions within the church as satanic. It’s much more a wake-up call to people who get so fixated on the fine detail that they can’t see the big picture and had I attended a screening at the time, we could have had a very worthwhile discussion about it at the student bar, because these people were genuinely interested in what Christians believed and why. I certainly agree with the Telegraph article’s concluding quote from Richard:
They were satirising closed minds, they were satirising fundamentalism and persecution of others and at the same time saying the one person who rises above all this was Jesus, which I think is remarkable and I think that the church missed that at the time.
Maybe the Python reunion this year will provide us with the opportunity to redress that missed opportunity.
Apart from what I have already said here, here and here about the 2013 SBL Memory and the Historical Jesus session, I am also interested in what we might make of the Gospel of Thomas in the light of Rafael’s point about the importance of context although this is moving away from the historical Jesus to the early Jesus movement. Rafael (in his paper, at least) is interested in the importance of context for the work of contemporary historians in accessing the historical Jesus, but it has another important function – that of controlling the possible interpretations.
We are all familiar with public figures, especially politicians, who insist that their comments have been quoted out of context and that they didn’t mean what they are quoted as having said at all. Sometimes this is even true. Sometimes quoting something out of context can sometimes make it possible to interpret it in exactly the opposite meaning to that which it had originally, and decontextualising can often enable a range of quite odd interpretations, as well as those intended by the speaker (or writer). Rafael reminds us that the interpretation given in the text explains why the words were remembered, but it does more than this – it also explains how the writer wants them to be remembered and understood. I wonder what it says about the intent of the author of GTh, given that copies of it were still being made in the fourth century, so it clearly wasn’t considered to have been superseded by the narrative gospels.
Thomas begins his text with the statement that whoever finds the meaning of the secret sayings of Jesus which were recorded by Judas Didymos Thomas will not taste death, and in it the most complex context provided is “the disciples asked Jesus X and he replied…”. This contrasts with the Synoptics which almost invariably provide contexts that limit potential meanings and in some cases also provide the authorised interpretation (the parable of the sower springs immediately to mind). Given that about half of the so-called ‘secret’ sayings bear a significant resemblance to sayings of Jesus reported in one or more of the Synoptics, it is difficult to know exactly what the author meant by their being ‘secret’ unless GTh really did predate Mark or Q (assuming Q existed). What is quite clear is that he is not giving the reader any clues about the meanings. Any reader who wishes not to taste death needs to do some hard yards to find their correct interpretation.
If you subscribe to the theory that GTh is a Gnostic text (and many people don’t) then only the Gnostic elite have the ability to find the meaning. If is not Gnostic, perhaps the Thomas community might have been allowing room for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help those who genuinely wanted/deserved eternal life to find the correct meaning of the sayings – although the role of the Holy Spirit does not feature significantly in GTh.
In addition, having been quite pessimistic about our ability to prove the authenticity of any Jesus tradition or to have the actual words of Jesus, both here and on Michael Kok’s blog, I want to note a counter-argument. Anyone who has read to a small, preliterate child will recognise the speed with which they are able to learn by heart the text of a favourite book. Any attempt to alter the words or skip pages is met with loud protests and some will also offer to ‘read’ the book to you, sitting down and leafing through the pages, turning at the right time whilst reciting the words for you. I suspect that some of Jesus’ teachings were produced often enough so the disciples who travelled around with him got to know them pretty much by heart. I still think that the time-lapse between when Jesus taught and the gospels were written down, combined with the vagaries of both individual and social memory mitigates against our being able to prove that the gospels contain Jesus’ actual words, but I don’t think that what we have is necessarily a long way removed from them.