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. 🙂


Why gender equality matters

Jenny Baker, over at Sophia Network drew my attention (well, not just mine, that of all her readers) to this post by Dave Westlake on gender equality. He says, amongs other things:

And I am really angry that some of them do see but don’t think it matters. I am tired of the patronising comments that women need to toughen up, not be so sensitive, learn how to take a joke.

I find it encouraging that I see Christian men making this kind of statement on a reasonably regular basis now – very different to the situation two decades ago, when I first started mixing in church leadership circles where it was left to women to point out the problems.

Dave’s post, however, is particularly eloquent. Its timing is also good – coming so soon after the Catholic church’s re-affirmation of ordination of women as a serious crime against canon law (but not, it hastens to add, at the same level as sexual abuse of minors by priests, even though the two things were affirmed as crimes against church law in the same document).

It causes me to wonder what kinds of things make people leave churches. Why do women stay in that kind of situation? I left my local Presbyterian congregation because I didn’t want to have to run their youth group and didn’t like the minister’s take that a pastoral visit to a hospital patient who turned out not to be Presbyterian was a waste of his time. I stayed away because of their increasingly narrow understanding of the place of women in leadership.

The Presbyterian Church of Australia, which I grew up in, ordained its first women ministers in the mid 1960s. Most of it then united with the Methodist and Congregational churches in 1977 to form the Uniting Church, but I remained Presbyterian because my local congregation did. A few years before that, when it agreed to have women elders, my home congregation joyously ordained (no, this is not a mistake – elders are also ordained in the Presbyerian church, at least in Australia) the 40 women who had been functioning as elders anyway. I moved and found that continuing Presbyterianism was much narrower in other parts of the country. When I felt called to ministry, the minister of my home congregation offered to arrange for me to be supported through the Presbyterian system if I wanted to, but advised me against it because he had already sensed the changing attitude and I chose to remain with the Uniting Church.

As time has gone on, the Presbyterian church has become more and more narrow on the issue of women in leadership. It no longer ordains women to ministry and in some states, it no longer ordains women as elders either. Because ordination is for life, they can’t “unordain” people, so they still have one woman minister in active ministry, but I do not understand why she stays. She has been treated abominably by many people in the denomination, although at the moment she is the senior minister in a congregation where her husband is assistant because that’s the way the congregation issued their call, so there are still pockets of resistance!!

But why is this important? Well, I like Dave’s explanation at the end of his blog piece:

In the beginning God made men and women. Both were equally an expression of his image, character and love. Men and women were commissioned together  for both child rearing and ruling. Then the fall happened and what was meant to be together got broken. The world has been crying ever since. Men and women were supposed to be together- equally. We still need to be together if we are to fully represent God, understand His will and live His ways. Male dominated leadership cannot do this. Strict gender based roles cannot do this. And when we belittle, marginalise, overlook and make life harder for women not only do we fail to represent God faithfully, we also destroy a little bit of  His image in one of his very loved children.

Maybe over the weekend I’ll return to blogging on Thomas or eyewitness testimony, but maybe not – I have a job application to write. 😦

Perrin on catchwords (2)

John makes a number of points in the comments section of this post, which, again I have picked up and put into a separate post.  First, he says:

You were saying that:

From this he argues (p 94) that since Patterson says that gaps in catchwords = no intentional editing, no gaps in catchwords must necessarily mean that editing has taken place

(my emphasis).

Perrin does not argue that it “must necessarily mean” that, he simply says “the evidence suggests the conscious design of an editor”.

In fact, what Perrin says is:

Patterson considers the dilemma: catchwords could point in the direction either of editorial design or of more spontaneous oral traditioning.  He chooses the latter and he does so because he finds occasional gaps in catchwording, that is, he finds that some saying in Thomas are isolated. But if Thomas was written in Syriac and if, as at least my reconstruction suggests, a Syriac Thomas has no gaps at all, then by the same logic Patterson would have to agree that the evidence suggests the conscious design of an editor (my emphasis). (p 94)

The context of this statement is that Perrin is arguing that Thomas was originally written in Syriac and brought together in the one place at the one time.  By this stage of the book he is confident that he has provided sufficient proof  for a Syriac original that the onus is on others to show that this is not so and he begins this section by saying that “another inference almost ineluctably follows, namely that the Gospel of Thomas … was a carefully worked piece of literature, brought together at one place and at one time by an industirous Syriac-speaking editor” (p 93).  I agree that he doesn’t say quite as baldly as I suggested that the unbroken catchword connections in his Syriac retroversion must necessarily “prove” the work of an editor, but it seems to me that this is exactly the message that the reader is expected to take from this section.

John then says:

Also, when you say:

As I indicated earlier and as Patterson points out, catchwords were important tools for oral tradents who needed to be able to remember long pieces of oral text.

you fail to mention what he has to say exactly about that (it’s on the same page, in the next paragraph!). Here it is:

“A second reason for inferring editorial activity on the part of Thomas, as opposed to envisaging one who merely assembled stray oral traditions, is the complexity of catchword associations. […], a number of sayings have multiple catchword connections sprouting out in two directions at once”. Then he refers to Heim and Weeks, who argue about Proverbs, against the “aid for memory” explanation, based on the complexity of the catchwords (they argue that “the editor(s) wanted to create some kind of textual coherence”).

I have no problem, as I say here, with the notion that the complexity of the chain of catchwords in Perrin’s retroversion demonstrates some form of editorial work that was not done in the course of oral transmission. What I have difficulty with is the notion that this necessarily indicates that the editorial work happened all at once, rather than over time as the document moved between oral and written form.

And John says again:

You also say that:

It seems to me that the careful chain of catchwords and the rather random order rather better fits the notion of a corpus of sayings that was designed to be communicated orally

Perrin objects to your ” rather random order” comment. He says (p. 95):

“At points the Gospel of Thomas does follow the order of both the synoptics and the Diatessaron: Gos. Thom. 8-9, 32-33, 42/43-44, 47, 65-66, 68-69, 92-93 and 93-94.”

And he gives the example of GT 44-45, where part of Matthew fits and part of Luke fits, but a much better fit is the harmonization of Mat and Luke in the Diatessaron.

Further on the order (on p. 97), Perrin says the author was “much more concerned with thematic groupings and above all with linking sayings together by catchwords”.

I think that in these situations, Perrin is referring to the fact that where there are parallels in Thomas to the Synoptics and the Diatessaron, the order in which these parallels appear is the same as it is in the Synoptics and/or the Diatessaron. It is on this kind of evidence that he bases his contention that the Diatessaron is the primary source for Thomas. I have no argument with the fact that Thomas follows the order of the Synoptics/the Diatessaron at these points, but they don’t constitute a particularly large part of the text and this is not what I was referring to, when I talked about rather random order.

The section you quote from p 97 begins by saying that on the whole the author of Thomas has little interest in following the order of the sources, but is “much more concerned with thematic groupings and above all with linking sayings together by catchwords.” One of the oddities of Thomas is that there are a number of sayings which appear twice in slightly different form.

In addition, Thomas contains a number of parables of the Kingdom. All but two of them have synoptic parallels. They are:

Parable Thomas Mark Matthew Luke
The Seine-net Thos 8 – not a

Realm parable

Matt 13: 47-48
The Mustard Seed Thos 20 Mark 4: 30-32 Matt 13: 32-32 Luke 13:18-19
The Weeds among the Wheat Thos 57 Matt 13: 24-30
The Banquet Thos 64 – not a

Realm parable

Matt 22: 1-10 Luke 14: 16-24
The Pearl Thos 76 Matt 13: 45-46
The Leaven Thos 96 Matt 13:33
The Woman with the Jar of Meal Thos 97
The Assassin with the Sword Thos 98
The Lost Sheep Thos 107 Matt 18: 12-14 – not

a realm parable

Luke 15: 4-7 – not a Realm parable
The Treasure Thom 109 Matt 13: 44

As you can see, the only synoptic that is particularly concerned with parables of the Kingdom is Matthew, where all but one of the Kingdom parables appear in a block in chapter 13. The Thomasine Kingdom parables are spread out throughout the text, and if we were to add in the other sayings about the Kingdom, we would find an even broader scattering, which is hardly a thematic grouping.

I don’t think that Perrin’s thesis explains either of these things satsifactorily, for two reasons.

  1. It seems to me that if the author of Thomas was putting time and careful attention to developing something with literary coherence and using catchwords as part of that, s/he would not have repeated so many sayings with minor variations, especially if s/he were modelling her/his work on the Diatessaron in which Tatian set out to produce a harmonisation of the different versions of stories and sayings found in the various gospels.
  2. The concept of the Kingdom is introduced in S3, where we are told to be careful about people who try to tell us that the kingdom is in the sky or the sea, so it seems like a fairly important theme for the gospel. If the editor was really concerned about thematic groupings, I would imagine that this is one that would be grouped, rather than spread out. It is also quite clear that Thomas does not follow the Synoptic ordering for these parables – not only do they not appear in one block, they are also in a different order to that in which they appear in the Matthean block.

While I think that Perrin’s work provides quite good evidence that NHC II,2 is based on a Syriac original, I think the second part of his thesis – that it was written all at once using Tatian’s Diatessaron as its primary source –  is on shakier ground. I am also not quite sure what we do about the evidence we have from the POxy fragments that the sayings that we have in NHC II,2 were not always transmitted in the order in which they appear there (or in quite the same wording). It would be really nice if someone discovered a few more complete manuscripts, or even some more, slightly larger fragments. 🙂 In the meantime I don’t think that any of the theories put forward provides a complete, bulletproof explanation of its origins and I’m afraid I don’t have anything new and startling to offer, nor do I plan to have.

Catchwords and oral transmission

Mark Goodacre asks a question in the comments on my post on Perrin on catchwords that I started responding to and decided needed a post of its own:

I have often heard it said that catchwords may be signs of oral transmission, but is there any evidence for this? Or is it just what we imagine may be the case?

Lots of authors say this, but most don’t give concrete examples.

I’ve just been re-reading the chapter on formulae in Alfred Lord’s Singer of Songs and what he describes for the oral epic singers of Yugoslavia that he and Milman Parry studied is rather different to that of the catchwords in Perrin’s Syriac retroversion of GosThom. From early childhood the Yugoslav poets absorbed the rhythm patterns of the traditional epic poems and a whole lot of stock ways of describing things and in effect they re-compose their poems every time they perform them. As Patterson suggests and Perrin emphasises, their poems don’t have careful, consistent catchword linkages between each line, because they don’t memorise their epics – they put them together on the spot from a remembered story-line and a series of stock language patterns that fit the rhythms of their form. Lord doesn’t use the term “catchword” but there are words that link lines together, although it’s unclear exactly how much of the repetition is about linkage and how much it is because of the need to keep the rhythm patterns consistent – something that isn’t necessary in the transmission of prose.

I think, however, that Perrin is probably correct in saying that a consistent chain of catchwords, such as those in his Syriac retroversion, that link both to the saying behind and the saying ahead is not a mark of unbroken oral transmission from composition to transcription.  It would seem to me, as I think Perrin suggests, that catchwords that go both forward and backward from the saying in question must have been carefully crafted, rather than coming out of the more impromptu process described by Parry, Lord etc. It also seems to me, though, that this does not rule out the interaction between orality and literacy suggested by DeConick in ch 1 of Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (see eg p 32).

Jacob Neusner in The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees Before 70: The masters (1971) Brill, p 165, quotes Louis Finkelstein’s theory that catchwords were used by rabbis to remind them of how the oral Torah was remembered, suggesting that there may have even been a written record of the catchwords before the rest of the Torah was transcribed. The catchwords described by Perrin could have had this kind of function, but I haven’t followed up the reference.

I don’t have anything on the Greek rhetorical methods on my shelves, but this would be another place to look for methods used at the time for preparation of material for oral presentation. Young men were given lessons in how to speak with authority, which required preparation. Simply repeating a speech learned by heart wasn’t going to be convincing and as far as I am aware, there was no ancient Greek equivalent of the modern debater’s palm cards, but rehearsing a skeleton of your argument was, I believe, encouraged by teachers.

So, in answer to Mark’s question (which may have been rhetorical), I don’t have any definitive proof, just places to look when/if I have a bit of spare time. 🙂

Farewell R McLachlan Wilson

Ealier this week, Jim Davila posted news of the death of Robert (Robin) McLachlan Wilson as the result of a massive stroke that he’d suffered in the previous week. He was ninety-four years old and it appears that until the stroke, he was still active – publishing his last book just before he turned 90.

He was one of the earlier scholars who wrote on GosThom. I have three items by him (other than two book reviews) in my collection:

Wilson, Robert McLachlan (1960a), Studies in the Gospel of Thomas (London: Mowbray).

— (1960b), ‘Thomas and the Growth of the Gospels.’, Harvard Theological Review, 53 (10), 231-50.

— (1960c), ‘Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels’, Expository Times, 72 (11), 36-39.

He wrote lucidly and coherently and I enjoyed reading his work. Rest in Peace