On asking the right questions

In the last few days, I’ve been participating in a couple of discussions on the Gospel of Thomas email list – one about Nicholas Perrin’s Thomas and Tatian and another about different ways of understand the term “son of man”.  My most recent response to one caused me to make a link between the paper I presented at SBL Auckland on eyewitness testimony and a post I wrote on this blog while I was in Texas last year about using the right tools.

One of the things that was highlighted for me in my reading of the psychological research about eyewitness testimony was the important of what questions are asked if you want to retain the integrity of your data.  So, if you line up half a dozen people and ask an eyewitness to a crime “which of these people did it?” you are more likely to get a positive identification, even if none of them was there, than you are if you ask “did any of these people do it?” If you ask someone “how fast was the car going?” you are likely to get higher speed estimates than if you ask “how slowly was the car going?”, and so on.

My lawyer friend refers to these as “leading questions” and she gets very frustrated when her husband doesn’t respond correctly to her leading questions in social situations. “You remember Judy, don’t you, R?” is supposed to be met with the response “Hello, Judy, how are you” or “Hmm, yes, your face is familiar but I can’t remember where we met” rather than “No, darling, I don’t remember ever seeing her before in my life”.

I think it is possible for biblical scholars (and other researchers) to ask leading questions which cause their analysis of the data of their research to be tainted.  So, if you approach Thomas asking “what evidence can I find that Thomas is dependent on the synoptic material?” you will potentially reach different conclusions to the ones you will reach if you ask “are there any passages in Thomas that are similar to and/or the same as those in the synoptics and if so, what might that mean?” The answer you give, especially to the first question will be further influenced by whether or not you have anything invested in the outcome.  That is, if you want the answer to be “lots of evidence” you are more likely to include tenuous evidence.  If you want it to be “none at all”, then you will discard anything that could reasonably be considered tenuous.

I think its actually quite difficult to resist the temptation to read into ancient Christian texts what we expect to see in them, especially if, like me, you’ve been trained as a Christian minister and listened to years and years of preaching on them.  I find it helps if I start with my Thomas text rather than one of the synoptic parallels, because the Thomas text is almost invariably different to the text I’m used to, so it shakes me out of my complacency and encourages me to question my comfortable understandings of the meaning of the parable in question.  I still want to ask, though, “what is Jesus saying here?” rather than “what is the text saying and how might its readers understand it?”  I guess the guiding principle ought to be that if you begin your research with questions you already know the answers to, you are asking the wrong questions.


2 thoughts on “On asking the right questions

  1. Hello, Judy …

    … I find your thesis interesting, but perhaps only relevant, really, if one is but “searching for the opinions of others” as opposed to “searching for the truth”. Think about it … sometimes (usually, actually) opinions dont’ necessarily lead us to “the truth” but only discovery does. (Eureka ! I have found it !)

    In the case of the Gospel of Thomas, no one (well no one who would care to share his or her discovery if one has actually been made) has yet satisfactorily explained or shared the truth about Thomas, so why would one want to (again) go looking for “opinions” or theories about it in order to better understand its enigmas? Is the methodology of discovery not moreso one where the researcher formulates a hypothesis (one that is beyond that which has been researched before and proven to be invalid … thus, “not the truth”) and then goes ahead and “tests it” scientifically (as opposed to “via opinion”) in order to to see if it answers all of the yet unresolved and nagging questions about the enigma?

    My sense is that academe has become especially “opinionated” of late, sometimes mounting complete hypothesis and solutions vis-a-vis issues based almost solely on what “so and so” has postulated about them as opposed to formulating a “discovery syllogism” leading to the truthful solution of the issue beyond that of expert or learned opinion only.

    Are the logia of Thomas true Jesus sayings simply because Thomas says so? (Three synoptic evangilists might not think so …) Is logion 114 really a later add-on to the Gospel of Thomas simply because it “seems that way” to certain researchers ? Is a “primitive redaction” necessarily an “earlier” redaction than a “more mature one”? … these are all necessarily opiniated conclusions but not necessarily the “truth” about these issues.

    I think you are quite correct in saying that it is “quite difficult to resist the temptation to read into ancient Christian texts what we expect to see in them”, but lets not (by all means) succumb to the greater temptation yet to read largely or only into Christian texts what other’s “mere opinions” are while ignoring or avoiding “the onthological truth which we seek” in our ultimate conquest !


    Maurice Cormier

  2. Hi Maurice,

    What I was trying to say is that if you ask the wrong questions, you will only get opinions, and opinions that are often based on preconceptions on the part of the questioner. I’m not sure if we can get the objective truth about Jesus from any early Christian writing, but if we come to the text with better questions, we can get closer to it.

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