Apart from what I have already said here, here and here about the 2013 SBL Memory and the Historical Jesus session, I am also interested in what we might make of the Gospel of Thomas in the light of Rafael’s point about the importance of context although this is moving away from the historical Jesus to the early Jesus movement. Rafael (in his paper, at least) is interested in the importance of context for the work of contemporary historians in accessing the historical Jesus, but it has another important function – that of controlling the possible interpretations.
We are all familiar with public figures, especially politicians, who insist that their comments have been quoted out of context and that they didn’t mean what they are quoted as having said at all. Sometimes this is even true. Sometimes quoting something out of context can sometimes make it possible to interpret it in exactly the opposite meaning to that which it had originally, and decontextualising can often enable a range of quite odd interpretations, as well as those intended by the speaker (or writer). Rafael reminds us that the interpretation given in the text explains why the words were remembered, but it does more than this – it also explains how the writer wants them to be remembered and understood. I wonder what it says about the intent of the author of GTh, given that copies of it were still being made in the fourth century, so it clearly wasn’t considered to have been superseded by the narrative gospels.
Thomas begins his text with the statement that whoever finds the meaning of the secret sayings of Jesus which were recorded by Judas Didymos Thomas will not taste death, and in it the most complex context provided is “the disciples asked Jesus X and he replied…”. This contrasts with the Synoptics which almost invariably provide contexts that limit potential meanings and in some cases also provide the authorised interpretation (the parable of the sower springs immediately to mind). Given that about half of the so-called ‘secret’ sayings bear a significant resemblance to sayings of Jesus reported in one or more of the Synoptics, it is difficult to know exactly what the author meant by their being ‘secret’ unless GTh really did predate Mark or Q (assuming Q existed). What is quite clear is that he is not giving the reader any clues about the meanings. Any reader who wishes not to taste death needs to do some hard yards to find their correct interpretation.
If you subscribe to the theory that GTh is a Gnostic text (and many people don’t) then only the Gnostic elite have the ability to find the meaning. If is not Gnostic, perhaps the Thomas community might have been allowing room for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help those who genuinely wanted/deserved eternal life to find the correct meaning of the sayings – although the role of the Holy Spirit does not feature significantly in GTh.
In addition, having been quite pessimistic about our ability to prove the authenticity of any Jesus tradition or to have the actual words of Jesus, both here and on Michael Kok’s blog, I want to note a counter-argument. Anyone who has read to a small, preliterate child will recognise the speed with which they are able to learn by heart the text of a favourite book. Any attempt to alter the words or skip pages is met with loud protests and some will also offer to ‘read’ the book to you, sitting down and leafing through the pages, turning at the right time whilst reciting the words for you. I suspect that some of Jesus’ teachings were produced often enough so the disciples who travelled around with him got to know them pretty much by heart. I still think that the time-lapse between when Jesus taught and the gospels were written down, combined with the vagaries of both individual and social memory mitigates against our being able to prove that the gospels contain Jesus’ actual words, but I don’t think that what we have is necessarily a long way removed from them.