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. :-)

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.

Burridge and the Life of Brian

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.

Old doctoral dissertations

When I started my doctoral candidature, I got the library to do a search to see if any doctoral dissertations had been written in my subject area. They found three: one from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; one from Emory University; and one from St Andrew’s University. I decided that the St Andrew’s one was not sufficiently interesting for me to be bothered going through the procedure needed to sight it. We had to borrow it on interlibrary loan and I had to sign a declaration saying that I would neither remove it from the library nor photocopy it; I could only have it for a relatively short period and that period included the postage time to and from Scotland. I must add that this was a number of years ago and St Andrew’s may have changed their policy since then. Emory already had theirs microfilmed and happily posted me a printout at a reasonable cost. Southwestern needed to photocopy their original but once they had worked out how to allow me to pay them from outside the US, they did the copying speedily and again at a very reasonable price. I got both of them softbound, skimmed them and then put them aside until I needed them for detailed text work.

I’ve just started working with them and am finding that they provide quite detailed information about the state of play of scholarship up to the first half of the 1960s – both were examined in 1965. I assume this is because there was a limited amount of material written at that stage, so they could describe it in more detail without exceeding the word limit. I am also in awe of the task that must have been involved in producing a thesis in the era before computers.

Hollie L. Briscoe’s  “A Comparison of the Parables in the Gospel According to Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels” (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1965) begins with the assumption that Gos Thom is a Gnostic adaptation of the Synoptics and unfortunately has a rather mechanistic approach to demonstrating that this is true. Any word or phrase that can be used in a Gnostic sense he claims as Gnostic and further proof of his claim, even though all his examples can be used in other ways as well. It’s not dissimilar to the approach taken by a number of other early Thomas scholars and I don’t find it particularly compelling. That aside, however, he provides useful summaries of the scholarship at the time, and a helpful bibliography. Theologically, I sometimes find it uncomfortable, but that is not particularly surprising given where it comes from. He nevertheless demonstrates the difference in emphasis between Thomas and the Synoptics effectively. My copy is now bristling with labelled sticky notes so I can find the necessary sections quickly as I address particular pieces of text. I appreciated his decision to transliterate all words that needed to be written in a non-English script, given the limitations of the manual typewriter that was used to produce the thesis. I also appreciate the footnotes which must have driven his typist demented!!!

I find John Bunyan Sheppard’s “A Study of the Parables Common to the Synoptic Gospels and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas” (PhD, Emory University, 1965) theologically more comfortable, but I do wish he’d decided to transliterate the Greek and Coptic rather than painstakingly hand writing slabs of both languages in a hand that would not have got him a job as a community scribe or in a scriptorium in earlier times. Again, he provides detailed summaries of the scholarship of the time and because of the way he’s divided the texts I can use the index to find the bits that interest me, which is better than sticky notes. On the other hand, unlike Briscoe, Sheppard has gone for end notes, which means sticky notes at the back so I can find the relevant notes reasonably quickly.

If, like me, you are interested in the specific parables that Thomas has in common with the Synoptics, both these dissertations are worth looking at, even though thought about them has moved on since 1965.

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.

More on Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses

I’ve just spent several hours reading two papers whose authors were kind enough not only to draw my attention to them but also to remind me that I had meant to read them but not managed to do so. One is a philosophy paper published in the Journal of Political Ecology and written by one of my office-mates. Tanzim Khan has written a fascinating account one of the outworkings of the tension between forest conservation and energy procurement in Bangladesh, which, of course, has nothing at all to do with the topic of this post, but I enjoyed reading it.

The second is by John N Collins – “Re-thinking ‘Eyewitnesses’ in the Light of ‘Servants of the Word’ (Luke 1:2)” (Expository Times 2010 121: 447). It is just the kind of thing I enjoy most. The first part sets Bauckham’s work in the context of Catholic scholarship over the past half century or so; the second takes a close look at translation issues and how they affect our understanding of theological concepts and as an added bonus John writes really well. Lest this sound condescending, I need to say that I’ve spent the last two days at work struggling with an abominably written report so John’s smooth prose was a delight. (Tanzim, writing in his second language produced a significantly more readable result than this report.)

In the first section of the paper, John traces the approach of the Catholic church to biblical scholarship from pre-Vatican II rejection of Bultmann through the 1993 Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church which states the importance of the place of the Historical Critical Method to the point where Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, expresses reservations about the historical method in his 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth. Collins suggest that Richard Bauckham “has arrived at the same conundrum as Benedict but after travelling in the opposite direction” (449). I think it is helpful to be reminded that there are times when Catholic biblical scholarship comes at issues from a somewhat different direction- something I was conscious of during my theological training at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Having established the differences and similarities between Bauckham and Benedict, Collins goes on to look at how the term ‘eyewitnesses’ (autoptai) is used at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. He argues that Luke’s autoptai are not the oral tradents that Bauckham suggests, but those who are working with a literary tradition; and that their role as “guarantors of the tradition” began siginficantly later than Bauckham’s argument would require. I can’t reproduce his reasoning here, but I would recommend the paper.

As I read through Collins’ paper, I was reminded again of why Bauckham’s thesis is so attractive to Christian biblical scholars. Those of us who grew up in a church community just assumed that the gospels were eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry and our first encounter with twentieth-century biblical scholarship required a significant mental gear-change. At some level, I suspect we all want to be convinced that the gospels are historically accurate, because faith would be so much easier if we could prove this. Unfortunately, I don’t think this can be done without the aid of a time machine, but Bauckham’s work has certainly prompted a significant number of people to think in new ways about the gospels, which can’t be a bad thing. :-)