Women in movies and the Bible

Yes, I know this is totally off topic,  for what I’ve been blogging lately and doesn’t have much to do with the gospel of Thomas, but it is my blog…

Akma has posted a link to a Youtube video on the Bechdel test for women in movies.

It encourages the viewer to ask three questions:

  • are there two or more women with names in the movie?
  • do they talk to eachother?
  • do they talk about something other than a man?

So, as Akma notes, a conversation about the weather would get the movie a pass in the test. An amazing number of the box-office successes fail, although they would certainly pass if the genders in the questions were reversed.

It occurred to me that the Bible in general would also fail the Bechdel test. Although there are many incidences where men with names talk to men about subjects other than women and quite a number where women (often nameless, though) talk to men about a range of issues, there are very few where women with names talk to other women about anything much. The two that come immediately to mind are Naomi and Ruth’s conversations in the book of Ruth and Elizabeth and Mary’s encounter while they were both pregnant. I initially thought that Hagar being sent out into the desert might qualify, but Sarah makes Abraham do that.

Perhaps this is another contributing factor in the lack of women biblibloggers? In addition to the long tradition that has excluded women from leadership in the church, perhaps many of us have internalised from the Bible an idea that our voices are of no interest within the church?


Consequences of multiple tellings of stories

Ben Byerly and Mark Goodacre have made comments on this post which have caused me to give some more thought to how the tradition might have been effected by the extreme likelihood that Jesus told at least some of his stories more than once. I think there are two issues.

1. Development of separate tracks

Mark, I think I can see two ways in which Jesus’ telling the same stories more than once might result in separate tracks of the tradition, but that might depend on exactly what you mean by that. And please note that this is a might, rather than a must. I am very much saying that when faced with parallels that have significant differences, these are options to explain how it came about. Much more work needs to be done on individual passages to decide which option or options are most likely.

  1. The scenario that makes sense to me is that Jesus had a number of stories that he used to illustrate particular points. Since he was clearly a charismatic teacher, I think it’s reasonable to assume that he might have used different illustrations for the same point in different circumstances. For example, the parables of the pearl and the treasure as they appear in the Synoptic tradition are both about selling everything you have in order to get something (the Kingdom) which is of much higher value.  The pearl would appeal to merchants, whereas the treasure would appeal to farmers. He might well have used either or both in particular circumstances, depending on who was in his audience. As I suggest here, the fact that he was likely to have used stories in different combinations, again depending on his audience, is likely to result in their being remembered in different combinations by different people. This would include both people who only heard Jesus once or twice and those who travelled with him all the time, because different people find different things memorable. It is therefore quite possible that one of the disciples might remember one combination because of something that happened on a particular day that didn’t interest another disciple.
  2. Jesus may have told the same basic story but with a different twist to illustrate a somewhat different point- so perhaps Matt 23:25-26 and Luke 11: 39b-41 (the bit about washing the inside of the cup) might have been told differently by Jesus. Again, different disciples would potentially remember different versions because of their own particular interestes.

On the other hand, Jesus may have used common themes to illustrate different points – so that what on the surface appear to be parallels are actually different stories. I think that GosThom 8 (the parable of the wise angler) and Matt 13: 47-48 (the parable of the net) come into this category. I think that they are simply two of the various fishing  stories in circulation at the time that illustrate quite different points. In Thomas, Jesus is pointing out that once people have found the meaning of Jesus’ sayings it will be easy to distinguish from the wrong ones, whereas in Matthew, Jesus is talking about the fact that not everyone who is part of the church will necessarily make it into the Kingdom.

2. Consequences of frequent hearing

Ben’s comment that the disciples would probably have heard some of Jesus’ stories often enough to have known them really well opens up a new stream of thinking about what might constitute incontravertible evidence of textual rather than oral transmission, and of reliability of transmission. I’m sure we’ve all seen partners and children who have heard favourite stories told so often that they can repeat them more or less verbatim. Children in particular are inclined to do so in unison with their parent’s (boring) story. Perhaps, therefore, it doesn’t matter that the disciples were not trained oral tradents. The repetition may have made up for this, and may have enabled them to keep the Jesus tradition reliably in their minds for much longer than would make sense if they had only heard it once or twice?

An overview of Perrin’s “Thomas, the Other Gospel”

I recognise that I have started to talk about Nicholas Perrin’s Thomas, the Other Gospel (SPCK, 2007)in a rather piecemeal fashion, which gives a very skewed idea of his subject matter. Since I probably wouldn’t appreciate it if someone did that with my writing, I offer an overview, which probably should have been done first.

The book, which is aimed at what one might call an “educated lay audience” rather than specialists, is in two parts. In the first, he looks at what has been said about GosThom in books by three US scholars, noting what he finds helpful and what he disagrees with. The books are Stephen J Patterson’s The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (Polebridge Press, 1993), in a chapter entitled “The Thomas Community on the Move”; Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief (Random House, 2003) in “The Thomas Community on the Run”; and April DeConick’s Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (T&T Clark, 2005).

From his reading of these works, he generates six questions, two arising from each book, to which he adds a seventh and in the second part of the book he uses these questions as a framework for addressing what, in his opinion, should be said about GosThom.

The questions he addresses are:

  1. What accounts for the strange sequence of sayings in Thomas? Why do they occur in the order that they do? (Patterson)
  2. How might we explain the ascetical elements in Thomas? What socio-religious movement or movements might account for this renunciation of the world? (Patterson)
  3. Why is Thomas so interested in creational themes, that is, in protology? (Pagels)
  4. Why is the Gospel of Thomas according to Thomas? Why not some other apostle? Furthermore, what does this gospel say about the other apostles and why does it say what it does? (Pagels)
  5. What accounts for the disparate substance of the sayings ? (DeConick)
  6. Why are all these sayings connected with Jesus, when Jesus most certainly did not say at least some of the things attributed to him? (DeConick)
  7. Is there a single setting which can be hyopthesized behind Thomas that answers the above six questions in  a stroke? (Perrin) (p 75)

The answer Perrin offers to his question 7 is yes – he believes that the six questions can be answered if one considers that GosThom orginated in late second century Edessa, where it was originally composed in Syriac and later translated into Greek. He argues that the underlying source is Tatian’s Diatessaron, rather than individual Greek gospels, and that it echoes Tatian’s eschatology and asceticism and that it was composed at one time.

In these things he goes against the mainstream of more contemporary US scholarship which is tending to agree that it was composed in stages, the first one being much earlier than late second century. Most agree to a Syrian origin, but some suggest Greek as the original language. It is interesting that Perrin’s argument for an Edessan origin for Thomas is based on his argument for a Syriac original which is supported by Barbara Ehlers’ (‘Kann das Thomasevangelium aus Edessa Stammen?’, 1970, Novum Testamentum, 12 (3), 284-317) arguments against an Edessan origin that most people there spoke Syriac almost exclusively, so it would have been highly unlikely that a gospel composed in Greek would have originated there!

I agree with Perrin’s assessment that the Jesus in GosThom is a much less Jewish Jesus than is the one that appears in the canon and that the picture it presents is at odds with what we have seen there. This is hardly surprising since the gospel was condemned with enthusiasm by the Church Fathers. I am not so sure about some of his other conclusions.

Dr Who as a test case for human memory?

I am not sure whether I am just verbose, but I started to respond to comments by Mark (Goodacre) and James (McGrath) to this post and it got very long, so I’ve moved it again.

Mark said:

McIver and Carroll appear to assume that the writing-up of a short-term memory of a single text in some way correlates to the evangelists’ use of oral traditions. What McIver and Carroll are comparing are different kinds of use of single-fixed text, not the difference between oral tradition and written text.

Indeed. I think their statistics are useful, but they’re application has problems.

And James replied:

I’ve tried to think of a situation or experiment that might allow for testing of a scenario more like that in early Christianity. Maybe we should get some volunteers to agree to watch Doctor Who, and try to remember what the Doctor says – without DVRing it and watching it again!

I know that James’ suggestion is presented as humour, but I think it is also a serious suggestion? I agree that we need to find a more “early Christianity” scenario, but it really is challenging, partly because we’re not absolutely sure what we’re trying to recreate.

I think there is no argument that Jesus’ audience didn’t take notes about what he said. I think it would be safe to say that it is almost certain that Jesus’ audiences discussed what they’d heard with co-witnesses and/or people who hadn’t been present. The discussion would reinforce memory, but could also change it. Both these things could be replicated with Dr Who (or Lost) audiences and we could argue that telling them that they would be required to remember what the Doctor says would help to correct for the fact that they will have memories that are less well trained for this kind of thing than were those of the early Christians.

What we don’t know about the people present is whether they just developed ways of remembering things or whether they had specific memory training. Even if they didn’t have specific training, I think that modern participants might need some, although I don’t know what.

What we can’t  easily replicate is Jesus’ effect on his hearers’ lives. Many of the people who heard him went because they thought he might have something helpful to say and it is almost certain that some of those who believed him changed how they thought and lived as a result. This would also have reinforced their memories in the longer term. Unfortunately, sane Dr Who fans are not likely to believe what he says and put it into practice in their lives. I’ve never seen Lost, but I suspect it is in the same category. Although I don’t have any evidence right at the moment, it seems logical that people are more likely to pay attention to (and therefore remember better) things that will affect their lives than to things that are just entertainment.

Maybe getting people who want to make a change in their lives for some reason to attend a talk given by a well-known expert and then tracking what they remembered might work better? As a long term member of a Human Research Ethics Committee, I am trying to work out how you might get ethics clearance for this kind of research, which would require some level of deception . . .

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.