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.