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. :-)

Asking questions, getting answers

Returning to my blog after a longish break, I came across this half-written post and thought I might finish it and publish it.

At the end of last year for the first time I was teaching earliest Christianity during the leadup to Christmas. It was a very interesting experience to sit in the pews and listen to preachers talking about the Advent readings from a faith perspective whilst preparing lectures for Studies in Religion students and then reading essays about the challenges for the early Jesus movement. Something that has stood out starkly for me is that the information that you get from the text depends to a very large extent on the questions you bring to it.

The Studies in Religion students had been asked to write about the challenges that the members of the early Jesus groups faced and how they responded. The preachers were talking about the challenges that Christians today face and how we might respond to them. Both groups were using the Bible as a primary source of their answers, but the answers they were giving me were quite different- or they should have been. Unfortunately, some of the students gave me information about how to live as a Christian today, which, whilst not unreasonable things to read out of the text, was the wrong answer to the question they were addressing. Because the preachers I was listening to are good preachers, I didn’t hear sermons that just told me about how the early Jesus groups responded to the challenges of their time, but I have certainly heard this kind of sermon in the past. Usually the preacher of the latter kind of sermon has offered a very reasonable assessment of the situation at the time of writing of the text, but it has not been the right answer to the questions that most members of congregations bring to Sunday worship.

The early Christian texts are capable of providing answers to a range of both historical and faith questions and I think it’s perfectly valid to ask both kinds of questions of them, but it’s important not to confuse the answers. Or to try to force the answers to your questions down the throats of people who are asking different questions. As someone whose initial training in biblical studies was focussed on answering faith questions, I find that I have to watch quite carefully at times that I don’t slip into that mode in my current writing, but careful historical work is an essential basis for the faith work.

Perrin on context of Jesus’ speeches

Much to my delight,  Mike Bird has posted a guest post by Nick Perrin over at Euangelion which further explains his position on the importance of context for Jesus’ speeches (Nick’s, not Mike’s). He says:

If the historical Jesus is to be understood in a Jewish context (which now just about every Jesus scholar writing today says we must do), then we have at least grounds for presuming that Jesus was not a sage espousing abstract, universally-valid truths but a Jewish-style prophet who issued his teachings in response to a particular context and with reference to specific addressees (the disciples, the priesthood, the crowds, etc.). He also presumably expected his closest followers to understand the relevance of context to his utterances. Such a prophet, I would offer, would also normally expect to have his words interpreted within his historically-specific context. That Jesus’ followers were eager (in their re-presentation of Jesus) to abstract Jesus’ words from his deeds means either that the Third Quest is simply wrong or that the disciples fundamentally betrayed their master. Neither of these paths seems very helpful.

I am happy with the possibility (although it is merely a speculative possibility – Thomas offers us nothing more than very speculative evidence here) that a free-floating collection of Jesus sayings circulated with the Jesus’ backstory fully in mind. Presumably, this backstory could be communicated alongside the sayings of Jesus. I am not willing to make the historically indefensible move of saying that Jesus’ earliest followers transmitted the words of Jesus without giving a darn about the context/backstory. That’s the move Bultmann made; that’s what DeConick seems to want to do. If this is also the move Judy Redman wants to make, then I think she too is running up the pretty steep hill of current Jesus scholarship consensus. It is eminently un-Jewish to separate a prophet’s words from his deeds; in the Jewish scriptures, the two are always mutually reinforcing.

Nick, I have no argument with the notion that Jesus was/conceptualised himself as a Jewish-style prophet and that Jesus’ Jewish followers would not want to abstract Jesus’ words from his acts. I don’t necessarily see GosThom as coming from a Christian community with a strong Jewish identity, though.  I think that it is fairly clear both from the text itself and from the writings of the Church Fathers, that GosThom is not part of the stream of proto-orthodox or apostolic Christianity which is the ancestor of mainstream Christianity today.

I don’t think that a series of sayings that provide only the minimal contextual material necessary to make them comprehensible has anything at all to offer us in the way of information about the historical Jesus as a person. Rather, I think it tells us about what (some) early Christians who did not fit into the proto-orthodox mainstream believed about Jesus, ie it tells us about an early Christianity rather than about Jesus.  GosThom makes no attempt to present Jesus, only to present his teachings, and the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that GosThom is intended as a post-basic document to help people who are already believers to come to a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teachings.  It seems to me that the “good news” in GosThom is not that Jesus, in dying and rising again conquered sin and death on our behalf (which requires an historical context), but that believers can find the secret of eternal life if they earnestly seek to understand Jesus’ teachings (which requires no historical context). I would certainly see parallels between this kind of stance and the group in today’s society that likes Jesus’ ethical teachings but has no time for the miracle stories (or a bodily resurrection). May of these people would be happy with the Thomas stance on abstaining from alcohol and meat, but would probably not get excited about abstaining from sex. :-)

The fact that a group might want to divorce Jesus’ sayings from his actions doesn’t necessarily mean, I don’t think, that their report of the sayings is any more unreliable than the reports in the canon. If they believed that it is the sayings and the discovery of their meaning that was critical to escaping death, I would imagine that they would have paid particular attention to making sure that they got the sayings right. The two factors that would affect what was considered to be the “correct” version, though would be the effects of human memory and whether Jesus had more than one version of a particular story/saying.

This all probably means that I can’t sustain a very early dating for Thomas, but given that the mission to the Gentiles go underway quite early, I don’t think it means that I need a late date.

Speeches of Jesus (3) – human memory experiments

Again, I am  moving a comment up to a post of its own. Mark Goodacre says, referring to April DeConick, “Human Memory and the Sayings of Jesus” in Tom Thatcher (ed.), Jesus, the Voice and the Text: Beyond The Oral and Written Gospel (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008): 135-80 and Robert K. McIver and Marie Carroll: “Experiments to Develop Criteria for Determining the Existence of Written Sources, and Their Potential Implications for the Synoptic Problem,” JBL 121 (2002): 667-87:

I am not persuaded that we should use the 15 or 16 word string criterion of McIver and Carroll. This is something derived from experiments on contemporary students that included some flawed methods and dubious inferences (some comments on McIver and Carroll are included in a post on DeConick’s similar experiments, http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2008/12/contemporary-memory-experiments-and.html).

[For some reason that I don't understand, if you click on the link above, it takes you to an error message saying this page doesn't exist, whereas if you copy the link and paste it into your browser, it finds the post quite happily. This problem is now fixed.]

Mark, as I indicated in my comment on the previous post, I also have reservations about applying research on 20th and 21st century undergraduates directly and uncritically to 1st century Christians because their memories have been trained so differently. I also agree that the fact that the students in April’s research were given stories that are not culturally familiar will have had an effect on how well they remembered. I therefore don’t think that you can take the statistics in her results and apply them to the 1st century, but she doesn’t seem to be trying to do this in what she terms a pilot study. I think that the kinds of transformations are, however, relevant and would bear further investigation in a population that is more like 1st century Christians.

Although I am using a very small sample size (3) and anecdotal evidence, my friends who are blind have far better memories than do I or my sighted friends because it used to be hugely more difficult for them to keep and access written records than it was for people who could write on paper with pencils and carry the notes around with them. I suspect that PDAs and talking text is going to change this, but I think that blind people in their 40s and 50s and older would be a better example of how memory works than are younger undergrads.

Also, at the beginning of her article, she talks about the Parable of the Lottery Ticket, which she gives to her classes. This is a culturally congruent story and it would be very interesting to see the statistics on it. I have also used this parable in my own classes and bible studies, but I get the participants to re-tell it the same day and even when I warn them that they are going to be asked to re-tell it, I only ever get accurate gist, not accurate detail and not terribly long verbatim strings. Their memories really are not terribly impressive.

All this, I think, makes McIver and Carrol’s data potentially an underestimate of the length of verbatim string needed for reasonable certainty that there is a textual rather than an oral relationship between two texts. OTOH, it is also likely that Jesus’ audience was paying closer attention to him than my students or April’s students were paying to us. Neither April nor I are demonstrable miracle workers, after all! Possibly what we needed to do was to say “pay careful attention – the material I am about to present will be examined”. :-)

At the same time, I don’t think we are dealing with the kind of material that lends itself to incontravertible proof of how it was transmitted. I think we can probably say, along with the originality software, that any verbatim string of 8 words or more that are not aphorisms or stock phrases has the possibility of being copied from a written text, but that we need a much longer string of verbatim correspondence to be able to say with any certainty that this is so. We then need to look at the string in context and analyse the kinds of changes that the material around it has undergone in order to be a bit more certain about our judgements.

Speeches of Jesus (2)

Doug Chaplin over at Clayboy has responded to my previoius post on Speeches of Jesus, adding two cautions. My response to his response is also too long to go in the comments.  He says:

First, in the canonical gospels there are incidents which are quite differently narrated, such as the story of the woman who anoints Jesus. It is hard to tell whether this represents more than one similar incident or variations of one incident, although most scholars incline (as I do) to the latter view. The difference between variations of an incident – less likely to have happened on more than occasion – is a warning about assuming variations of a saying are simply owing to its having been uttered on more than occasion. A lot of variation is it would seem creative work in either the memory or the narration, and it may still be right to try an essay a judgement about which variant is most likely historical.

I, too, am inclined to believe that incidents like the story of the woman who annoints Jesus are variations on the same incident, rather than different ones. It seems highly unlikely that women made a habit of annointing Jesus with expensive perfume. :-)

I would suggest that there is a third possibility for variations of this kind, though, and that is in the passing on of stories. Allport and Postman in The Psychology of Rumor (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1947) provide some fascinating examples of what happens when a story is retold in what they termed “rumour chain”. They had one person look at a picture and describe it to someone else who could not see the picture. This person described it to a third and so on. The most famous of their scenarios was a picture of an African-American man in a suit and an Anglo-American man in overalls and carrying a half-open cut-throat razor. They are both standing in a subway carriage. In most cases, by the sixth retelling it is the African-American who is holding the razor and in some cases he is threatening the Anglo-American with it. In the same way that in proof-reading our own writing we tend to read what we expect to read, people tend to hear what they expect to hear.

It is possible that any two or all three of these sources of variation might have come into play to produce the variations in question.

I’d also like to draw more clearly the distinction between variations between the canonical gospels with respect to narratives and variations between the synoptics and Thomas with respect to how parallel sayings are grouped. When parallel sayings are grouped differently, I would tend to look first at the possibility that they were heard that way because Jesus used them on different occasions. In looking at variations in narrative and variations in detail, I would be more inclined to look at memory and transmission issues. I am also rather inclined to suggest that some of the variation that has been ascribed to redaction may be more likely to reflect the way in which particular events and sayings were remembered in the communities from which the texts came than to be an attempt of a redactor to influence the belief of the community.

Doug continues:

The second caution is that (and this is one of the points made early on in Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism which is not always given due attention) sayings are very hard to evaluate historically. When they are removed from narrative contexts as in Thomas, questions of historicity become almost impossible. Judging the historicity of any of Thomas’ variants depends, I think, on some prior judgments being made about the core of historical teaching material especially in the synoptics, and those judgements in turn depend in part on ones made about the contexts provided from events and narratives. Making historical judgments about Thomas is, I think, a necessarily derivative activity.

I agree. The whole issue of historicity is a really difficult one. I want to say that anything that is not obviously anachronistic or antithetical to Jesus’ known teaching should not be ruled out as ‘authentic Jesus tradition’* simply on the basis that we have no other record that Jesus said it. That is, I think that it is possible that GosThom contains more authentic Jesus tradition than is found in the canon. The problem with this, of course, is that working out what is not antithetical to Jesus’ known teaching involves assuming that teaching in the canon is authentic Jesus tradition, which means that we are, to some extent at least, bringing faith claims into the historical enterprise. This about as convincing as trying to use sections of the Bible to prove the existence of God – they are only convincing if you are prepared to believe that the Bible is an authoritative text, which requires a prior belief in the existence of God.

*I think we have no chance of reliably recovering Jesus’ actual words unless and until someone develops a functional time machine.

Speeches of Jesus & the Canon – Perrin on Thomas (2)

In the next chapter of Nicholas Perrin’s Thomas, the Other Gospel, I find myself surprised again, this time by a comment about April DeConick’s work. He says on p 61 that either she must develop a very complicated explanation of how the early church took “these Jesus speeches” and cut them up and recombined them or her position “virtually entails that the storyline preserved in Mark is entirely mythological”. I don’t see why this must be so.

It seems to me that although the canonical texts and GosThom are all called “gospels”, the canonical gospels serve a different purpose to GosThom.*

  • The canonical gospels are trying to do two things: to tell people what Jesus taught; and to show people that what he taught is worth paying attention to.  Thus, they need to give information about his life and his work as well as what he taught. They therefore present his teaching within a context that makes it obvious that Jesus was somewhat different to your run of the mill teacher of wisdom.
  • GosThom is only trying to do one of those things. It starts with the presumption that its readers believed that what Jesus taught was worth paying attention to. They didn’t need convincing – they just needed to know what he said. GosThom therefore only presents context when it is necessary to understand the teaching. It makes no suggestion that it attempts an orderly account of Jesus’ life and ministry, just a collection of the sayings of Jesus that need to be understood in order to escape death.

Accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry in the canon

It seems to me that a considerable amount of scholarship and general Christian interpretation of the New Testament assumes that Jesus only ever said anything once. Thus, if one author presents a saying in one context and another has it in a different one, one of them must be wrong, or at the very least, have engaged in some creative editing. This, in turn, leads to some quite creative explanations of apparent contradictions in the texts.

It would seem to me, though, that if Jesus went to place A where they were doing X (which was wrong) he would have taught against X there. If he visited place B where they were also doing X, he would have taught against it there as well. If they were doing X in places C, F and J, then he would have taught against it there as well. However, given that it is highly unlikely that he just had the one speech that he trotted out in each place, and that he tailored what he had to say to the circumstances, the teaching against X could have been “written up” in any one of five different contexts if a narrative that was presenting the highlights of Jesus’ teaching were being written. (None of the gospels purports to be an exhaustive account of Jesus’ ministry.) The saying against X might have stayed in the writer’s mind linked with any one of a number of other sayings, depending on whether s/he was remembering what happened at A, B, C, F or J. Mark’s sources and Thomas’ sources may have been remembering different occasions where Jesus taught particular things, linked with different sets of teachings. Thus, differing accounts of the same teaching with a slightly different “spin” in a different context might simply be totally accurate recalls of different occasions where Jesus was reacting to the different circumstances in which he found himself.

I think that total accuracy is rather unlikely and that some of the differences are explained by how human memory works (which I explain in detail in my JBL article), but that’s not particularly relevant here. What is relevant is that the early Church didn’t seem to have any problem with the differing accounts – they canonised all four gospels, after all.

Recording Jesus’ teachings as speeches

In a situation where you are not attempting to provide Jesus with credentials, but simply to record his teachings, the overall context in which he said them is not important, although sometimes the audience makes a difference, or what he was responding to.  As DeConick suggests on pp 65-6 of Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (London. T&T Clark. 2005), it may be that Jesus’ teachings on five different themes were put together as though they were speeches to enable them to be remembered more readily for oral performance (and to help the audience to remember them). If the content of the sayings were what was considered important, not their settings, then there is no problem about grouping them together so that teachings about a particular issue are together, and so that they build around a theme.

DeConick says on p 66 of Recovering:

When intense study is made of these discourse units, it appears that someone familiar with older sentences of Jesus has secondarily developed them into dialogues and elaborate question and answer units between Jesus and his disciples.

This has implications for the argument that the author of GosThom did not use one of the canonical gospels as a source because it would make no sense to take units that are put together and rip them apart and scatter them throughout another document. It might make sense if you were wanting to produce some kind of thematic overview of Jesus’ teachings. OTOH, it might also be that your source for Jesus’ teaching was the testimony of a different eyewitness who had been present when Jesus combined his teachings in a different way to address a different circumstance. It does not, however, require either a complex theory about how the early church cut up Jesus’ speeches or that the storyline in Mark is “entirely mythological”. The speeches are speeches of oral tradents, not speeches of Jesus.

An aside – the footnote from above

*I often read that GosThom is not really a gospel because it doesn’t have narrative, but it seems to me that modern scholars are the ones who have decided that the gospel genre/Gattung requires narrative. Euangelion simply means “good news” or “good message” and GosThom certainly contains that – it begins by telling us that whoever finds the meaning of the teachings in it will not die. I suspect that the people who wrote the texts that bear the title “euangelion” (or attached those titles to them) did not realise that there was a genre called “gospel” and that they had to obey rules in order to be able to use the title!

Belief in Jesus? – Perrin on Thomas

I am currently reading Nicholas Perrin’s  Thomas, the Other Gospel (London: SPCK, 2007). It’s been on my shelf for ages but something else has always pushed itself to the fore until now.

He begins by outlining his project – the quest for the historical Gospel of Thomas, then outlines the work of Stephen J Patterson, Elaine Pagels and April DeConick,indicating where he agrees and disagrees with their approaches, before (I assume, because I haven’t read that far yet) providing an approach of his own. I have been struck by a number of things that will require some careful digestion, but something that I found really odd was his comment on p 51 that salvation in GosThom “did not, at any rate, involve belief in Jesus”.

I found it odd because the whole of the gospel is sayings of Jesus which, one assumes, the reader who wishes not to experience death must believe. Surely, then, belief in Jesus is as essential a part of Thomas Christianity as it is of any other kind of Christianity? The issue, I guess is belief in Jesus as what?. Thomas requires belief in Jesus as Teacher of Truth, while Apostolic Christianity, at least as it is practised in more Evangelical circles today, requires belief in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

Why study early Christianity?

A few days ago, one of my FaceBook friends who is studying theology as a candidate for ordination in the Uniting Church in Australia (ie my denomination) put up a status update saying she was fascinated by the reading she was doing on the Gospel of  Thomas, to which someone else responded that they’d immediately thought of Thomas the Tank engine. This got the response from someone else that you would learn as much about salvation from Thomas the Tank Engine as from the Gospel of Thomas.

This caused me to wonder just how many people read the Bible simply to learn about salvation, and how many people study theology/biblical studies just to learn about salvation? It has certainly never been one of my motivations, but I am a big fan of knowledge for its own sake rather than for how I can use it.

Having said that, if my sole reason for studying early Christian manuscripts was to learn about salvation, then it is possible to learn things from GosThom if you have an enquiring mind. About 50% of GosThom has parallels in one or more of the Synoptics and I certainly find that when I read the material I’m working on (the parables of the Reign/Kingdom of God in GosThom and their parallels, where there are any, in the Synoptics) it causes me to view the canonical material with new eyes. I find myself saying “Oh, I didn’t realise that it said that!” So, you know, if the Bible is really the inspired word of God and God really does speak to us through it . . . :-)

Hmm – I wonder if I should tag this as a “reasonably intemperate rant”???

PS: I would actually be interested in why other people study early Christianity – do you do it to learn about salvation or for some other reason?

Eyewitness Testimony and Psychology

Update 21 April

My article “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research” appears in the latest edition of Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010) 177-197. April DeConick mentions it in a very flattering way on her blog, the paper version arrived in my mailbox a week or more ago and today I received an email saying that is is now available for free to SBL members at the JBL website.

Richard Bauckham suggests in his 2006 book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that we can be significantly more confident than form critics suggest about the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus life and ministy. In response, I examine the psychological literature on eyewitness testimony and human memory, asking:

  • What light does psychological research shed on the extent to which information obtained from eyewitness accounts could be considered to be accurate information about the historical Jesus?
  • What consequences does this have for the way biblical scholarship might treat eyewitness accounts?

I was just about ready to submit the article for publication when the JSHJ and JSNT issues with critiques of the book and Bauckham’s responses to them were published, so it also takes into account the comments and Bauckham’s somewhat more nuanced expression of his position. I was relieved to discover when I read them that no-one had written “my” article. :-) I’m not going to put my conclusions up here because justifying them would take more space than one can reasonably put in a blog post and I’d rather have people critique what I actually wrote than what they think I might have written.

The article began as a paper for SBL Auckland in 2008. I ended up reading 80-90 papers and books to get my head around the psychological literature. An early version of the review of the psychological literature was read by one of the psychologists at UNE who has done significant work in eyewitness testimony and a near-to-final draft was read by a psychologist at University of Otago, so I’m confident that I haven’t done anything outrageous with the psychological evidence. I’ve found it very useful background for my doctoral research and also for the teaching on biblical criticism I have been doing  for the Earliest Christianity unit in my School over the past few weeks.

Like April, I am very pleased to see it in print at last and I’m grateful for her support and that of my two doctoral supervisors (advisers) Profs Lynda Garland (UNE) and Majella Franzmann (Otago) and my family during the production period.

Christians and Biblical Scholarship

It matters how you understand God

No, I don’t mean how (if at all) you think God communicates with human beings. Rather, I mean that how you understand God to work in the world has a significant effect on how you do Biblical Studies. I am about to try to articulate coherently something that’s been wandering around in the back of my mind for a while, so I hope it makes sense. And perhaps I should warn you at this stage that the example I use in this post deals with material that some people might find upsetting because of their own personal experience.

A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a copy of the updated edition of her book about how she coped with her grief at the tragic death of her 21 year old son. It’s now ten years since he died and the new section talks, amongst other things, about her communication with other Christians who have found the book helpful.

She writes very well but the way she copes with the family tragedy requires a view of how God works in the world that I just don’t share. She sees her son’s death as the result of being hit by a car whilst on a family holiday in Canada as part of God’s sovereign plan for his life. In other words, her world/faith view says that God has a quite detailed plan for each person and that this plan includes taking her son up to heaven after a relatively short life.

It works for her and for many other Christians, but not for me (and others like me), because I cannot see how you can insert human free will into this kind of understanding. I see God as offering a more general game plan for human beings as a whole and allowing us to choose how closely we follow it. I see something like stepping out in front of a car because you were looking the wrong way in a country where the traffic drives on the other side of the road as human error, not part of a divine plan. Where God comes in is in helping us to deal with the effects of human action, not in determining the human action. I don’t plan to go into detail about this issue because this is not a blog on Christian theology and I have no intention of debating the rights and wrongs of particular theological perspectives here, nor of trying to suggest that someone else’s experience of God is wrong.

What, though, does this have to do with Biblical Studies?  Well, it seems to me that how Christians view and analyse biblical texts depends on what they think about how God acts in human history. It depends on whether they think that Jesus came to earth with a detailed plan of action or with general guidelines that enabled him to function in the situations in which he found himself, and on how much they think that God is involved in the events of everyday life.

If Jesus had a detailed plan of action, and God is involved in the minutiae of everyday life, then the areas that are open for discussion in the biblical texts are fairly limited. Which of the multitude of early manuscripts available to us represent the best witness to the original text is certainly one. Arising from this, what constitutes the received text is another. Other than that, the focus must be on translation and interpretation. Research on the effects of oral transmission, eyewitness testimony and memory is meaningless because God’s intervention has ensured that what was transmitted and remembered is accurate. Understanding the copying process and the errors arising from it would help to evaluate the manuscript tradition, but because God is in control, the possible thought processes or belief systesm of redactors is irrelevant.

If Jesus had guidelines and God intervenes to provide support when things go wrong rather than to affect what happens, much more is up for grabs. There is worth in tracing back the processes of redaction, oral transmission etc because it helps to explain how the text came into being and what it might originally have said. It is possible to suggest that what happened during Jesus’ encounter with the Cananite/Syrophonecian woman was that Jesus became aware that his ministry was not just to the Jews, something he had not understood until then, that he wasn’t just being rude and offensive to test whether she, as an outsider, had enough faith to be worthy of becoming an insider. It is possible to ask “Did God really say that, or is this an adjustment that’s been made later to fit a particular understanding of what was happening at the time?”

The fundamental issue for biblical interpretation by Christians is, I suppose, how we understand the notion that Scripture is “inspired by God”. People who prefer to speak about this as “God-breathed” and understand that it therefore has a guarantee of accuracy are going to read the first part of my forthcoming JBL article on pyschological research on eyewitness testimony and memory and say “yes, but what does that have to do with the Bible?” and disregard my conclusions. Those who think that it means more that God nudged people to write down in their own words how they experienced God in action in their lives are going to find it quite interesting, even if they don’t agree with my conclusions.

Those in one group are not going to be convinced by the arguments of those in the other about meaning and interpretation unless they change their fundamental understanding of how God works. This is not to say that we should keep saying what we believe because there are some people who hear the arguments from the other perspective and say “Ah, finally this makes sense … now, how do you get to that point?” For the majority, however, the answer to the question “But can’t you see that this makes more sense” is “no, no, I can’t because it doesn’t” and trying to convince them with logic at the level of the current point in question is a waste of everyone’s time. I don’t know about yours, but my time is too precious to waste on this kind of venture.