Hermeneutic of suspicion applied to interpreting Thomas

Hmmm. Two posts in one day – so much for my hiatus!

On 9 February, Phil S posted a comment to April DeConick’s Forbidden Gospels blog in response to her “Reading History out of Theology” in which he said “I am suspicious of [the hermeneutic of suspicion] because, while it has yielded useful historical results, it is also a distortion because we assume that the authors are simply not able to give a truthful narrative about anything.”

I was surprised that this was how he understood the concept, although perhaps it isn’t surprising when you consider that it’s associated in many people’s minds with feminist theological polemic such as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s statement that “a feminist critical hermeneutics of suspicion places a warning label on all biblical texts: Caution! Could be dangerous to your health and survival” (in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Letty Russell (ed) (Westminster Press, 1985)). More recently, she has spoken about it in less emotive and more academic terms as:

A deconstructive practice of enquiry that denaturalises and demystifies linguistic – cultural practices of domination ….. It has the task of disentangling the ideological functions of kyriocentric text and commentary. (Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation, (Orbis, 2001) p 176)

Schussler Fiorenza is, of course, talking about a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion. In more general use, I think the term suggests that we need to recognise that all eye-witness accounts of events are told from a particular perspective and that all interpretations of those accounts are coloured by the perspective of the interpreter. We need to keep this in mind in our dealings with the accounts and their interpretation.

This is not saying that the person telling the story or the person interpreting the story are not telling the truth. It simply says that we should be wary of assuming that we are hearing everything that happened at the time. Different people notice different things about the same events, which is why eye-witness accounts of accidents vary. People also notice different things if they are looking or reading for a particular purpose.

Early scholarship on Thomas was, I think, coloured by the fact that most scholars were Christian biblical scholars looking for evidence about whether or not the discovery of Thomas was going to require radical revision of orthodox Christian theology. Certainly much of what I have read of comparisons of the parables that appear both in Thomas and one or more of the synoptics makes comments about whether or not the Thomas version is more or less ‘authentic’ than the synoptic version. I find that I don’t always agree with the conclusions they draw but the observations they make in the course of reaching these conclusions are often important in developing an understanding of what the Thomas community might have believed. I would suggest that in reading their work in this way, I am employing a hermeneutic of suspicion, but I am certainly not suggesting that they are not telling the truth.

Sometimes, also, we see what we expect to see and don’t necessarily notice something different immediately, or at all. One of the parables that I am working on is the parable of the treasure (Thomas 109; Matthew 13: 44). Christian scholars are used to Matthew’s version, in which the Realm/Kingdom is like a treasure, buried in a field and found by someone who then sells all he has to buy the field. One of the significant differences between Matthew and Thomas is that in the Thomas version, the Realm/Kingdom is like a person in whose field there is a buried treasure about which the person knows nothing. All of the interpretation of Thomas that I have read so far talks about this parable as though the Realm/Kingdom is being compared to the treasure, even when the writer of the interpretative comment has indicated that the subject of the parable is the person, not the treasure!

The parable is much easier to understand if the Realm/Kingdom is the treasure – something valuable from which you can only benefit if you find it. In the Thomasine parable, three people own the field, but only one finds the treasure and uses it. Whether or not you see GTh as a gnostic text, it is quite clear that the writer is interested in knowledge, so if the Realm/Kingdom is the treasure, then we have a story about knowing and not knowing about the Realm/Kingdom. Perhaps this is the way the parable should be understood. Perhaps an error has been made in the copying or an adjustment has been made to suit the purposes of an editor, but the fact remains that this is not what the text says.

The writer of Thomas clearly views the Realm/Kingdom differently to the writer of Matthew, the only synoptic that has a significant number of Realm/Kingdom parables. I haven’t done enough detailed work on the rest of these parables to enable me to decide whether this parable as it stands lines up with the rest of what GTh says about the Realm/Kingdom or whether the easy interpretation is the one that makes most sense, but again I am employing a hermeneutic of suspicion – this time about both the text that we have in front of us and the way that it has been interpreted by scholars who are expecting to see the Matthean version of this story. Again, I am not trying to suggest that anyone is not telling the truth – simply that they haven’t seen everything there is to see.

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2 thoughts on “Hermeneutic of suspicion applied to interpreting Thomas

  1. “In more general use, I think the term suggests that we need to recognise that all eye-witness accounts of events are told from a particular perspective and that all interpretations of those accounts are coloured by the perspective of the interpreter. We need to keep this in mind in our dealings with the accounts and their interpretation.”

    I guess the same could be said of scholarship, whatever the approach?

  2. Yes, Pat, I think it can. I think it describes a basic tool of the scholarly enterprise, which is why I was somewhat surprised at Phil’s reaction to the term. A quick google search shows that it’s been used reasonably widely, not just in the field of biblical scholarship. It has, however, received ‘bad press’ in some Christian circles for a while, now that I think about it. I wonder if that’s because it was so often used by feminist biblical scholars or whether it is a reaction to the idea of being ‘suspicious’ of Scripture, or perhaps a bit of both?

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