Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (3) – memory, tradition & historiography

Memory, tradition, and historiography

This is the third of three posts that look at Kirk, A. (2015). Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research. Early Christianity, 6(3), 285-310. It   follows on from here and begins here.

Kirk’s final section (pp 306-310) addresses the issue of the challenges that the gospel traditions offer to critical historical enquiry. The people responsible for the formation of the tradition were not trying to write history but to sustain culture, and the details that are important to the historian are often least important to the formation of cultural tradition. The formers of cultural tradition are interested in the conceptual and morally signifying elements that can be drawn from what happened, rather than in the detail of the events themselves. These significant elements are distilled from the historical events and making it possible for the tradent communities to maintain their connections with founding events.

I am going to cite extensively from p 309 because I am at a loss as to how to summarise it effectively:

Synoptic communities are not directly remembering the past, but the tradition, which mediates the normative past in symbolic forms into the present. The tradition circulates in visual, oral, and written media, all of which have tractable properties. It can be redacted, reformulated, recontextualized, reconfigured, consolidated, and in the course of unfolding its symbolic potential supply the resources for Christological and moral reflection and for its own elaboration. The autonomy of the tradition entails that past and present come to co-exist in the tradition in ways that are not easily separable.

This, then, affirms from the perspective of neuroscience what others have said using different data: what is found in the Synoptics cannot be viewed as a simple historical account of the Jesus events and it is difficult to know which parts of it are from the time of Jesus and which from the time and place in which each gospel was written. He then says:

The tradition thus gives much scope for the exercise of critical historical judgment. But the indissolubility of the connection between the tradition’s symbolic mediation of the past and its autonomous course of development is what opens up productive lines of historical enquiry on the basis of the materials of the tradition. It accounts for why the Synoptic tradition has in fact proven so responsive to historical analysis.

The point he appears to be making here is that there is historical fact embedded in the Synoptic accounts – they mediate the historical events for the reader. The authors did not simply make up material. He sees this paper as having provided the theoretical basis for a model for the formation and history of the Synoptic tradition,

one that shows how the Wirkungseffekte of Jesus might be traced back into the cognitive formation of memory itself and to the formation of the tradition at the interface of the cognitive processes of memory with cultural media. We have been able to clarify how it is that the tradition mediates historical realities, and yet how it enables, and is itself part of, a complex Wirkungsgeschichte [effective history] that includes the appearance of the Gospel narratives themselves.

Kirk then makes two final points.

The first is that his analysis suggests that the Synoptic Gospels are not garden-variety archival materials – that they are actually ‘symbolically concentrated mediations of the aggregates of events’ (p 310) rather than incomplete records of particular events. This, he suggests, helps to explain the lack of extra early Jesus tradition in the non-canonical material, and supports Gerhardsson’s questioning of the notion that the authors of the canon selected material from a large amount of Jesus-tradition. The notion that the Synoptics are not ordinary archival materials is not new, nor is the idea that they nevertheless contain historical information. His suggestion that they are concentrated aggregates of events rather than selections from a large amount of circulating material is new – at least to me. This builds, I assume, on the fact that tradition replaces individual memories in the memories of the community to which the tradition belongs, so that other material is forgotten unless it is recorded in some way. I am not sure, however, that there is as big a lack as he suggests in the non-canonical material. About half of GosThom is not found in the canon and there is other material in the other apocryphal gospels. While some of this is, to our thinking, clearly fantastic, to the person who is unused to the canon, much of the gospel material is also fantastic, although Christians hold it to be true. Clearly, however, this contention deserves more thought.

Second, he maintains that even though it has been usual to view the question of historicity of the gospel tradition as being a question of its relationship to individual eyewitness recollection, this is not really accurate. The fact that individual memory has an uneven ability to remember episodic details is not really important because it is these details that are filtered out as of minimal relevance for the task of the tradition – ‘to distil out and transmit the normative past.’ Thus, he contends that the historiographical challenges presented by the tradition have little to do with the qualities of eyewitness memory.

I think Kirk’s paper is an important contribution to the field, but I think he has misunderstood its significance. He spends significant time demonstrating that in everyday life, as opposed to forensic situations, a critical part of remembering is determining which of the details of an event are salient and therefore worth remembering. Tradition, he contends, is formed as individual eyewitnesses share their memories and the community determines what is salient for the purposes of understanding its collective moral and social identity. He seems to see this as somehow different to what happens when individuals remember and yet psychologists suggest that individuals rarely remember events in order to reconstruct history, but rather to help them to understand themselves as moral and social beings (see my paper here http://www.revistajesushistorico.ifcs.ufrj.br/arquivos13/2-Redman.pdf for references). Thus, what Kirk describes as he describes the formation of tradition appears to be the same process that individuals go through in remembering the past, just at a group rather than an individual level. It is also the same process that the people working in social memory theory are describing, but using a different theoretical basis. What communities do when they create traditions in which to preserve important memories is the same as individuals do when they create and retrieve individual memories. Yes, they are more stable than individual memories because more people are invested in maintaining their stability, but the process of sifting, sorting and re-sorting is basically the same, because it is using the same basic tool – the human brain. I think that what is actually happening is that we are getting increasing triangulation from various sciences – psychology, neuroscience and sociology – that helps us to understand the nature of the gospel materials and therefore what kinds of conclusions we can reasonably draw from them.

They are not ordinary historical accounts and cannot be treated as though they are, but nor are they simply ahistorical materials designed to convince the reader of the author’s particular theological perspective. That we have increasing scientific evidence of this has important implications for Christians, but does not, I think, invalidate the preceding two millennia of faith.

Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (2) – how tradition emerges

How tradition emerges

This is the second of three posts that look at Kirk, A. (2015). Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research. Early Christianity, 6(3), 285-310, and follows on from here.

Kirk begins his account of the emergence of tradition by looking at ‘schemas’ – the structures containing a set of ‘typical’ elements for particular activities that our memories use to save space by configuring memories in logical (conceptual or sequential) order. ‘Experiences unfold in unpredictable, diffuse ways, rarely schematically, but in memory they will be organized and recalled as such.’ (p 296) Further, memories which are schematically similar will blend together over time to form a generic memory which achieves the smallest possible size for minimal loss of information (p 267). Although each of us has individual schemas for particular kinds of events, many of them are drawn from the schemas and scripts of the culture into which we are socialised. Kirk argues that that ‘cognitive schemas are already a form of tradition’ and that memory makes sense of the present by enabling us to make connections between present experience and the schematic patterns laid down in the past (p 298).

How well something is remembered depends on the strength of neural connections formed, which depend on the conditions when the memory is initially encoded, and then on what happens when it is subsequently recalled. People are more likely to remember material that matters (is salient) to them and to forget that which is not. They are more likely to remember events that arouse their emotions, and to become emotionally aroused again when they remember these events. In particular, events that have moral significance to the person are more likely to be deeply encoded and more frequently remembered and thought about, which further reinforces the patterns in which they are encoded. This, again, is triangulation of findings from psychology and social memory theory.

He then notes the similarities between memories as cognitive artefacts and tradition forms as cultural artefacts – they both have schematic, scripted structures, filtering of details and convergence upon existentially and morally salient element. They are thus ‘economical bearers of judgements, evaluations, and affects’ (p 299) From here, he moves to memory genres and forms.

When people communicate their memories, they do so using the formulaic patterns of the genres in circulation within their cultures, and the way that the memories are communicated consolidates the memories. Kirk illustrates this with Harald Welzer, Sabine Moller, and Karoline Tschuggnal’s Opa war kein Nazi: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis [trans: Grandpa was not a Nazi: National Socialism and Holocaust in family memory] (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 2002), which details the shift in the way family memories are told between the generation that lived through the National Socialist era and their grandchildren as they tell the stories using schemata from their respective ‘ambient cultural fields.’ They show that there has been a shift between generations from the grandparents who simply use the narrative schemas from the Nazi era to tell stories about the soldiers being transported east to Soviet prison camps, and the women in houses trying to hide from Russian soldiers, to grandchildren who distance their grandparents from the regime (Opa war kein Nazi) and even cast them as heroic resisters and helpers of the oppressed. Clearly this tendency for the tradition to ‘romanticise’ events is problematic for the historian and biblical scholar, although Kirk aims to minimise the difficulties by saying that (unlike, the reader must assume, the Jesus events) this study is on memories which could potentially disrupt rather than strengthen the family, so, he suggests the grandchildren view the era as one from which lessons must be learned but which has no bearing on them personally; and that the sample excludes those who are unwilling to talk about their memories, thus biasing it. (pp 299-301)

Kirk next examines how commemorations become traditions (pp 301-303). ‘Community identity is grounded in a shared past; remembering therefore is a high stakes activity: commemoration.‘ (p 301) He describes commemorations as more than just the sum of individual recollections. They form around elements that are important for the moral and social identity of the commemorating community and thus have had individual recollections filtered out. ‘Emergent representations thereby escape the limitations of unreflective, notoriously unstable eyewitness memories with their fragmented, idiosyncratic perspectives’ and thus ‘[c]ommemorative artifacts highlight morally significant elements of a past event at the expense of specific details and thus take on timeless, exemplary qualities.’ (p 302) He states approvingly that they become cultural symbols, virtually decontextualised and stabilized in ‘culturally resonant media forms.’ Again, however, freeing the important elements of a story from their historical context is problematic for the historian and potentially also for the biblical scholar.

From here he moves to the effects of these cultural artifacts back on the cognitive processes (pp 303-305). This section is very dense and provides significant information about the neurobiology of memory, but Kirk appears to be saying that using cognitive-cultural coupling, the brain is able to extend its capacity by using ‘cultural artifacts’ (such as tradition) to store important information. Because of the way that memory works, the memories of individuals are relatively unstable, whereas cognitive-cultural coupling in the form of tradition provides external support which renders salient memories very stable. Tradition, however, displaces or overwrites individual memories, becoming the cognitive basis for individual recollections. Thus, Kirk seems to be saying that once an account of an event becomes part of a tradition, the individual eyewitnesses will no longer actually remember the details of what they saw and experienced – what was salient for them is replaced by what is salient for the community.

My note in the margin of this section says ‘but what about accuracy?’ Tradition is very stable, but it may not necessarily be correct. Opa may not have been a Nazi, but he probably wasn’t the hero that the grandchildren talk about either. This doesn’t matter if the purpose of the communal memory is to extract information about appropriate responses to something like the Nazi regime, but could become quite problematic if someone thinks it would be good to nominate Opa for an award for his bravery.

Finally, before applying his work to the Synoptic tradition, Kirk looks at tradition as an autonomous cognitive system (pp 305-306). His argument here appears to be that when unnecessary detail is stripped so that the tradition can be stabilised and the memory load decreased, the material can be operated on at the higher levels of cognition which are necessary to enable ‘tradent communities’ to apply the information it contains within their shifting historical and social horizons. That is, successive communities are able to apply the concepts and precepts of tradition to the new challenges that arise as the society in which they live changes, thus ensuring the transmission of a cultural identity across generations. This, of course, is an extremely useful thing for people to be able to do with religious tradition because as time goes on it becomes increasingly unlikely that followers of a particular religion will encounter situations that are close to those in which the teachings of their faith emerged. It is not so useful for the historian.

(continued in part 3)

 

Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (1) – memory distortion

Following on from my previous post, I want to look at Alan Kirk’s paper in the same edition of Early Christianity: ‘Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research” (vol 6, pp 280-310). Again, Kirk is not a blogger, but I’ve linked to his university page. The paper is fascinating, but the language is dense and deals at some depth with the psychological and neurobiological literature around cognition and memory, and he also quotes a significant amount of German literature in German – a not unreasonable thing to do in a journal published by a German company and which has German abstracts for all papers, but makes it heavier going.

Kirk begins by reminding us that there is a distinction between memory (what individuals remember about events) and tradition (what is handed down) and traces how tradition develops, with an emphasis on the neurobiological processes involved. He concludes that “We have been able to clarify where the historiographical challenges presented by the tradition lie, but these have little to do with the quality of eyewitness recollection.” (p 310) I think that the account he gives of the process is very useful, that his analysis of the significance of many of the facets of the process is insightful and helpful, but I want to suggest that what he has actually demonstrated is something different. In order to do so, I need to deal with the paper in some detail, so I am dividing my response into 3 posts.

Kirk begins with the concept of memory distortion and suggests that both sides of the historical Jesus debate now take for granted the fact that memory distortion occurs, with the more skeptical emphasising how much it contaminates fact and those who defend the tradition arguing for limitations on its effects. He points out that:

  • Psychological research into memory does not deal with real life situations because it asks participants to remember things that have no significance to them (like word lists) and deliberately tries to manipulate people into misremembering, thus exaggerating memory’s susceptibility to distortion (pp 289-291).
  • Although no two activations of a particular memory are exactly the same because neural activation of particular memories is driven by the immediate social context in which we remember it, most people are able to remember well. Thus, he contends, not all memories are necessarily distortions of events remembered (p 292).
  • Psychological memory distortion studies are mainly done in forensic (legal) situations where incidental details can be critical in determining guilt or innocence, so loss of detail can be critical and is taken as an indicator of the fragility of memory. In most other situations, he argues, what is important is the ability to determine what is worth remembering ie determining the salience of various details, rather than trying to keep track of all the detail. This involves subjective factors and makes remembering and recounting history much more complex than simply remembering a list of words by heart. (p 293-4)
  • ‘[R]emembering a significant past is an inherently relational activity’ which ‘…entails that it is under obligation to ethical norms, to the virtues of integrity, responsibility, and accountability to others’ and thus ‘…cannot be separated from its moral, existential significance for its rememberers’ (pp 294-5, emphasis Kirk’s). This, it seems to me, is a cognitive psychological explanation for Kenneth Bailey’s observation that community members in an oral society act to stop oral tradents from straying too far from what the community sees as the facts.

Thus, Kirk reiterates, but with neurobiological data as evidence, the fact that observers do not remember all the details of events that they have witnessed. This provides triangulation for previous work that looks at eyewitness testimony and human memory from psychological and social memory theory standpoints. His new contribution is in making the case that it is only in situations like that of a court-room that this is necessarily problematic. In other situations, discarding unnecessary information is a useful skill. It thus seems that he is arguing that it depends how one defines ‘accurate’ as to whether what is reproduced from people’s memories can be considered accurate.

It appears that the point he is trying to make (although he does not say this) is that the level of detail provided is not the same as the level of accuracy. For example, if I stop and ask for directions to get to 25 Smith Street, one person may tell me to drive the way I am headed and turn right into Brown Street and then left into Smith Street and number 25 will be in the second block on my left. Another may tell me that I need to keep heading south for two blocks and turn west into Brown Street, which has a McDonalds on the corner, then keep heading west for two blocks and turn south into Smith Street and that I will find number 25, which is a two-storey white house, two blocks down on my left. Both these sets of directions will get me to the same place, so they are arguably both accurate, although the second one is more detailed. Despite the extra detail, I would find it less helpful because I am not at all good at determining compass points when I am driving, so the first one would probably get me to my destination more effectively.

Kirk is, however, more interested in the material that we have available to us – the tradition – than he is in individual memories, and it is to the tradition that he turns next.

(continued in part 2)

 

 

 

 

Eric Eve on Memory, Orality and the Synoptic Problem

The latest (ie September 2015) edition of Early Christianity looks at on Jesus and Memory: The Memory Approach in Current Jesus Research. My thanks to Chris Keith for pointing it out on the Jesus Blog. I plan to read most, if not all, of the articles in it but started with Eric Eve’s offering, Memory, Orality and the Synoptic Problem (pp 311-333). If you are at all interested in the issues of memory and orality as they relate to the Synoptic problem, I would thoroughly recommend this paper.

Not surprisingly, given the paper’s title, Eve begins by talking about memory (pp 312-317), providing a brief overview of the field and, in particular, the notion of schemata and the role of narrative forms in circulation in a person’s culture in shaping how s/he narrates an event. He then draws attention to the fact that ancient authors tended to memorize sacred texts and then cite them from memory rather than checking written versions of their references. He suggests that

Where both redaction criticism and Synoptic problem studies have traditionally envisaged later Evangelists editing their sources, it might thus be better to think in terms of the later Evangelists reworking their source in memory, with lesser or greater fidelity to the source material dependent on a number of factors. …[This] suggests a model of scribal composition that is as distinct from oral performance as it is from literary production in a print culture. (p 317)

I think that this is a very helpful distinction.

He next moves on to orality (pp 317-323), where he begins by critiquing the ‘distressing vagueness’ (p 317) with which the term ‘oral tradition’ is often used in biblical scholarship to mean anything communicated orally, which ‘has allowed scholars to use “oral tradition” as a kind of wildcard to play in default of any other explanation that fits their preferred theory.’ (pp 317-18)

He then outlines Vansina’s distinction between oral tradition, which is material that is passed down in relatively stable form over a number of generations, or which persists for a number of generations; and oral history – the personal reminiscences of eyewitnesses to an event or those who have heard eyewitnesses more or less first hand. He suggests that not everything that the gospel authors heard by word of mouth was oral tradition in this restricted sense, and while I don’t actually find Vansina’s terms particularly intuitive, I agree that the distinction is significant.

The next point is, I think, very important. He argues that only genuine oral tradition can provide substantial help in explaining synoptic relations because in order to account for detailed similarities or differences in wording between synoptic parallels, the oral material needs to have been stable enough to influence the author’s wording, and to have reached each author in much the same form. This is only possible if the material is oral tradition of the kind that is relatively stable at the level of wording not just gist, rather than oral history (p 319). He appears to be suggesting that while we have evidence that the people of Jesus’ time could learn vast blocks of text by heart, we have no evidence that they did so as a matter of course.

He then moves on to psychologist David Rubin’s fascinating work (Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-Out Rhymes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) on how some oral traditions become remarkably stable over time and introduces Rubin’s ideas of serial cueing and the use of multiple constraints to preserve text. Cueing happens when someone performs a song or poem and ‘each line or unit prompts the memory of what comes next.’ (p 321) Eve illustrates this concept using Rubin’s example of the counting-out rhyme Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo.  The use of catchwords that is suggested to order GThom is another example of cueing. Rubin suggests that as well as the use of schemata, overall plot structure and vivid imagery to help hearers to remember at the deeper levels of meaning and gist, but that ‘surface features’ such as rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance and melody can also be retained in memory. (p 322)

The third section of the paper looks at agreements and disagreements in the Synoptic tradition (pp 323-327). Eve argues that if Rubin is correct about the role of multiple constraints in oral tradition, then surface linguistic characteristics may well survive together with deeper or schema-related characteristics like gist and imagery and be equally important in stablizing the tradition. Thus the assumption of people like Kenneth Bailey, James Dunn and Rafael Rodríguez that oral tradition primarily preserves gist ‘may not always apply in the case of more poetic or aphoristic material’  (p 323) because the wording may be part of what is necessary to enable the oral text to survive as a piece of memorable tradition. He also recognises that not all of the Synoptic material will work in this way since some (like the Good Samaritan) relies primarily on the imagery and unexpected twists to make it memorable. He also notes that putting material into writing changes the constraints on the author with regard to memorability.

Eve contends that ‘the degree of variation or similarity between parallel versions is not of itself an automatic index of whether the relation between them is oral or literary’ (p 325). Lack of verbatim agreement is not necessarily due to oral tradition, while close verbal agreement between strikingly formulated sayings or memorable poetry need not be the result of text-based copying, because oral tradition can  stabilize this kind of material quite well. Close verbal agreement between prose narratives which lack the surface features of memorable oral tradition would, however, strongly suggest some form of literary relationship. He also argues that “oral tradition” does not provide a good explanation for minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark.

Finally, he addresses the issue of oral tradition and alternating primitivity (pp 327-331) ie the notion that sometimes the more primitive form of the tradition appears in Matthew and sometimes in Luke. He suggests that ‘being shorter does not necessarily make something more primitive, especially in oral tradition’ where extra words may in fact be an aid to memory. This lines up with Frederic Bartlett’s research which showed that successive tellings of stories tended to strip unnecessary detail. After analysing the Beatitudes and the Lord’s prayer, he states that

‘there is simply no way of distinguishing a written deposit of a genuine oral tradition from a good literary imitation of one by a writer steeped in the tradition in question. Formal linguistic features might persuade us that a particular passage could never have been genuine oral tradition, but they can never demonstrate that it must have been one (pp 231-2).’

I very much agree with Eve about the fact that we can’t be nearly as certain about the trajectories through which parallel material in the early Christian writings travelled to the Synoptics, and I find the ideas he outlines intriguing. His theory about the possibility of something closer to original wording being preserved in work that is poetic or aphoristic seems right, but I am not sure if this gets us very much further with respect to the Synoptic material, since very little of it is poetic and most of the sayings recorded are probably too long to be considered aphorisms. I would be very interested to see an extension of this work that indicates which pieces of text he considers to belong to this category.

Little things can make a big difference!

This post has absolutely nothing to do with either The Gospel of Thomas or Early Christianity so if you are in an academic frame of mind, you might like to skip it.

I have been associated with the University of New England for around 15 years (and I have been a PhD candidate there for more than half that time) and up to now I have only ever had positive interactions with their IT HelpDesk staff. Some of their staff have gone well above and beyond their basic job descriptions to be helpful, in fact. A couple of days ago, however, their student email system started telling the world that my email domain name was @myune.onmicrosoft.com rather than @myune.edu.au so I have been having problems posting to email lists. I contacted them using their on-line form and got a prompt response that suggested I should ring them if the problem wasn’t fixed. It wasn’t, so I rang and for the first time I got someone who didn’t tell me their name, wasn’t interested in listening to me and insisted that I try a fix that I was fairly sure wouldn’t actually work. It didn’t, so I added a comment to my incident report and the same person who’d replied to my first report replied again, asking me to try something else and then ring if that didn’t work. Again, I tried it and it didn’t work.

Now I find myself very unwilling to ring again. I am quite sure that the person who has been sending me emails wants to talk to me because it will be so much easier to diagnose the problem if I am on the end of the phone and can try things and report back. I am also quite sure that if he happens to be the person who answers the phone, he will be helpful. But I might get the unhelpful person. Since there are quite a few staff who answer the HelpDesk phone, I could easily get one of them, too, and they are also likely to be helpful. But I might get the unhelpful person … so I don’t want to ring.

It is amazing how just one encounter with an unhelpful person can have such an effect, and possibly if this last few weeks hadn’t been rather challenging in other ways it wouldn’t have been so bad.  It reminds me, though, that I don’t know what life has been like for the people I encounter and I need to be careful in my interactions with them, lest I put them off unintentionally.

I (Still) Believe – review

I-still-believeA little while ago, I bought a copy of John Byron and Joel N Lohr (eds) I (Still) Believe – leading bible scholars share their stories of faith (Zondervan, Michigan, 2015) because I thought it sounded interesting. I used it as bedtime reading for a week or two, and then got to read most of the rest of it in one day, whilst killing time between appointments.

It proved to be as interesting as I had expected. The editors have put together reflections from 18 experienced biblical scholars from the US, Canada and the UK, specialists in both testaments, whose faith has not been destroyed by the serious academic study of scripture (even though many people are sure that this is what happens when you do it). I hadn’t heard of all of them but knew and was interested in enough of them to make it worth buying, to my mind. I haven’t been disappointed. It is very clear that academic biblical study has changed what and how these people believe, but it is equally clear that each of them still has a strong Christian faith.

Theologically, they represent a wide cross-section of positions and there are some interesting juxtapositions because the chapters are in alphabetical order of family name.  Bruce Waltke’s piece begins with the statement:

My faith in the inerrancy of Scripture as to its Source and in its infallibility as to its authority for faith and practice was firmly rooted in my formative years, nurtured throughout life by my walk with God, defended in college by an apologetic of defensible partiality, enriched in seminary, challenge throughout life, especially at Harvard, and matured in my career. (p 237)

and follows directly after Phyllis Trible’s account of wrestling with the ‘texts of terror’ in the Hebrew Scriptures from a feminist perspective.

In almost all of the pieces, I found things to which I related, things that struck a chord from my own experience. In particular, however, I warmed to Morna Hooker’s notion that ‘trust’ might be a better word than ‘faith’ to translate the Greek pistis (p 125). She argues that faith suggests a set of particular doctrines that one has to believe, whereas the biblical understanding is rather on relying on someone who is utterly reliable – God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New.

I was also interested in Scot McKnight’s contention that ‘the church does not need historical Jesus studies.‘ (p 168)  He isn’t arguing that it is a waste of time, but that the conclusions it offers are limited.

I can prove that Jesus died, but I can never prove that he died for my sins; I can prove that Jesus asserted that he would be raised from the dead but I can never prove that he rose for my justification. (p 168)

While I had never thought about it in these terms, I have for a long time thought that much of the enthusiasm for historical Jesus studies lies in the hope that we will be able to prove the Bible and that this kind of aim is hopeless. Faith is faith by definition because it believe in things that are essentially unprovable.

Zondervan has a short YouTube clip in which John Byron talks about the book concept – the wish to combat the notion that doing serious biblical study causes you to lose your faith and an understanding of the importance of testimony. I agree that the testimony of these scholars is important. So often we hear that theological/biblical study makes you lose your faith, and that you can’t tell people in the pews these kinds of things. We hear about the biblical scholars who no longer count themselves as Christian, but very rarely from those who do.

Although I have used it as ‘light reading’ – and it is, in comparison to the material I am reading for my research – it is aimed at people who have a grounding in the academic study of the Bible and much of what the authors write about would probably mystify the average reader-in-the-pew. It would, however, be a valuable resource for people who are preparing for ordained ministry and for those in charge of their preparation and a prompt for reflection for the ordained about how they actually integrated their studies with their faith. For those who can’t read the names in the photo, the book contains chapters by:

Richard Bauckahm Walter Brueggemann Ellen F Davis
James D G Dunn Gordon Fee Beverly Roberts Gaventa
John Goldingay Donald A Hagner Morna D Hooker
Edith M Humphrey Andrew T Lincoln Scot McKnight
J Ramsey Michaels Patrick D Miller RWL Moberly
Katharine Doob Sakenfeld Phillis Trible Bruce Waltke

Is Gospel of Thomas a reaction to faith in Jesus’ miracles?

Recently I attended a workshop led by Emeritus Prof Bill Loader (as far as I know, he doesn’t actually blog, but here’s his website) on sexuality in the Bible. As part of the session on how we use the Bible, he said in passing that there is evidence in the New Testament that Jesus/the early church was uncomfortable with people who believed in Jesus simply because he performed miracles. This caused me to wonder whether the total absence of narrative in GThom might in fact be a reaction to this kind of faith, so I asked Bill for some more detail, which he kindly provided by email. He suggests that the relevant texts (all NRSV) are:

John 2:23 – 25: When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

and

John 3:1-3: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

which indicate a critique of faith based just on miracles, rather than being against miracles themselves. Also

John 4:48 (his comment to the royal official who asked Jesus to heal his sick son): Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

and

6:14-15 (the end of the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000): When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

and then

Matt 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

which suggests that there is more to faith than miracles and charismatic gifts.

Bill also suggests that Paul is doing the same kind of thing in 1 Cor 12 – 14, ie that he is putting the priority on love rather than the various ‘spiritual gifts’ and that ‘in a sense Mark puts things in perspective – not by denying miracles – but by portraying the way of the cross in contrast to the values of Peter who assumes winning and power matter’. In addition, Bill points to the warnings that believers need to be careful about testing spirits and teachers who claim authority on the basis of their ability to perform miracles. It occurs to me that Jesus’ instruction that people he has healed shouldn’t tell anyone about it (something they invariably ignore) could also be part of this.

Bill argues in his forthcoming book, Jesus in John’s Gospel, (Eerdmans, c. 2016) that John’s gospel contends that a miracle-focussed Christology is inadequate because it does not confess the one who came from above. [I hope it is clear that I am saying ‘Bill says’ to make it clear which bits of this post are his ideas and which are mine, rather than because I think that what he is saying is dubious.]

I wonder, then, whether Thomas’ gospel is also working against the idea that believing in Jesus as a miracle worker is adequate for salvation and does this by removing the distraction of accounts of the miraculous altogether.* John says that in order to see the kingdom, one needs to be born from above (Jn 3:3). Thomas says that finding the interpretation of Jesus’ sayings is necessary in order not to taste death (GThom 1).

Bill wondered whether the absence of miracles might just be a feature of the sayings gospel genre, because Q contains very few accounts of miracles but does contain references to Jesus’ miracles – such, I assume, as

Q 7:22 And [he] answered and said to them, Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk, lepers are made clean and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are given good news. (http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~kloppen/iqpqet.htm)

Of course, we don’t exactly have a huge number of examples of the genre to work on, but I don’t think it is a function of genre for two reasons. First, Q as generally reconstructed contains some accounts of miracles. Not as many as any of the Synoptics, but several. Second, although there is some mention of miracles in GThom, there is very little and it is all, I think, about miracles that Jesus’ followers will be able to do, rather than miracles that Jesus himself has performed, or about miraculous occurrences that will take place in the end times. For example, S4 talks about an old man talking to a 7 day old baby, but this is in the end times. There are also three Synoptic parallels/allusions: S14 says that if the disciples visit places where they are received they will heal the sick; S19 says that if people become his disciples, stones will minister to them; and S106 says that when you make the two one, you will become the sons of man and when you say ‘mountain, move away,‘ it will move away.

Thus it seems to me that GThom is not like Q in this respect, but perhaps having narrative is not an essential part of the genre. Regardless of the genre question, however, Thomas has no interest in miracles, nor, for that matter, in contextualising Jesus’ sayings in any way. And perhaps this is because he wants people to concentrate on Jesus’ teachings and not be distracted by the fact that he was a miracle worker. What do you think?

*A response to this in the Gospel of Thomas email forum has alerted me to the fact that this is poorly worded. I am not necessarily suggesting that the author of GThom removed accounts of miracles from a source text, simply that he felt that including accounts of Jesus’ miracles (and I am sure he was aware that Jesus was a miracle worker) would be a distraction from the ‘main game’ of gaining eternal life.