Bill Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas

Chris Skinner, over at Crux Sola, has recently posted the last of a series of three interviews with Bill (or more formally – but it seems that he rarely is – Dr William) Arnal from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. Bill’s paper,  “The Rhetoric of Marginality: Apocalypticism, Gnosticism and Sayings Gospels” (Harvard Theological Review, v. 88, n. 4, p. 471-494, 1995) was part of my early reading around Thomas and one of the things that really sparked my interest – so I was interested to read where he had moved to in the twenty years since he wrote it.  Since Chris blogs with Nijay Gupta, the posts aren’t adjacent to one another so here are the relevant links:

He makes some very interesting points about the nature of the Gospel of Thomas and areas that need (and don’t need) to be explored which are really worth reading. The highlight of my night, however, is this (yes, I know, I need to get out more):

…it seems to me that there is very little in Thomas that we could (were we so inclined) trace back to the historical Jesus with any confidence. I’m pretty sure the name “Jesus” (or rather, its equivalent) is historical. And I imagine Jesus said stuff, sometimes, so that’s probably accurate too. I’m not especially confident about anything else.

Bill doesn’t blog (at least not that I’ve found), but you can follow him on and get to see a lot of  his papers collected in the one place. 🙂

Kenneth Neller’s GosThom thesis

Some years ago, I became aware that in 1983 Kenneth Neller had gained his doctorate from St Andrew’s University, Scotland, with a thesis entitled “The Gospel of Thomas and the Earliest Texts of the Synoptic Gospels”. When my library contacted the St Andrew’s library about accessing it, the conditions for getting it on an inter-library loan were just too restrictive for it to be worth accessing. A few weeks ago, I decided to ask again, and St Andrew’s library informed me that I could now request a free scan of it through the British Library’s Electronic Theses Online Service or EThOS.  I did this and just received an email letting me know that it has been scanned and is available for download.  As I understand it, this means that it is now freely available for download by anyone else who visits the site, so if anyone else has been interested in reading this, but balked at the St Andrew’s conditions, it’s now there.

Interestingly, when I put the whole title into the search bar, it told me that nothing matched my search, but when I searched for Neller Gospel Thomas, the search engine found it. I haven’t yet read it, but it looks interesting. Neller was supervised by Robert McLachlan Wilson, one of the big names in early Thomas scholarship.

Making bread…

…clearly something many biblical scholars don’t do

raised loaves

Raised loaves

I have moved on to the parable of the woman who used some yeast/the parable of the leaven (Gos Thom 96 || Matt 13: 33 || Lk 13: 20-21) and one thing strikes me in the comments of a number of scholars. They talk about the inevitability of yeast creating large loaves. Yeah, right!

Before I started my postgraduate studies, I used to make a lot of bread. I would take it places and people would be amazed that I could do it, because their bread always ended up heavy, hard and nasty-tasting. This puzzled them, because usually they were good at cooking other things and could produce good results simply by following a recipe. With bread, however, there is much more to it than just mixing together yeast, flour and water and putting it in a warm place – there’s a lot about how the dough looks and feels that can’t be described in a recipe.

Things that can cause your bread to spoil:

  • putting your bread in conditions that are too hot – it kills the yeast
  • putting your bread in conditions that are not hot enough – the bread takes forever to rise. At least, however, you can fix this by warming it
  • not putting enough water into the dough – the dough is too heavy for the yeast to work properly, so you get small, dense loaves that aren’t nice to eat
  • putting too much water into the dough – it doesn’t form shapes properly and oozes all over the place, sticks to your fingers and is generally painful to work with
  • putting too much salt in it – salt inhibits the action of the yeast and you get small, dense loaves
  • not putting any salt in it – the yeast works too fast and you get bread with big bubbles in it so your topping leaks through the holes
  • not keeping the top of the rising loaves moist enough – if a tough, dry skin forms, the yeast action is again inhibited and you get small, dense loaves. Now this is easy – you oil it lightly and put it in a plastic bag. No plastic bags in 1st century Palestine, so you used a damp cloth – and had to keep renewing the dampness when it was hot
  • not kneading the dough enough – the gluten doesn’t form properly and you get small, dense loaves
  • kneading the dough too much – too much gluten formation makes the loaves tough. This usually only happens, however, if you are in a very bad mood and are kneading dough to work off your frustrations. 🙂
  • not cooking the loaves for long enough – you get a gooey glug in the middle that is very difficult to digest
  • cooking the loaves for too long – they burn and dry out
  • cooking the loaves at too low a temperature – again, you get small, dense loaves
  • cooking the loaves at too high a temperature – yes, they burn, but you can also get small, dense loaves because there should be some rising happening in the oven and if it’s too hot, the yeast dies immediately and you don’t get the extra rising. And remember that in Jesus’ day, ovens did not have a thermostat – you regulated the temperature by watching the fire that was heating your oven very carefully and knowing by experience what you needed to do.

In addition, yeast is a tricky thing to work with because it is alive. Modern home bakers are spoiled. The dried yeast that we can use is much more forgiving than the cake yeast and sourdough starters that were used for many centuries. You can put dried yeast in an airtight container in the freezer and it will keep for years. Even in a cupboard, it lasts for many months.  It also works over a wider range of temperatures than fresh yeast. Fresh yeast really needs to be kept at about body temperature in order to work well. Dried yeast can be significantly hotter and still work beautifully. Cake yeast might last a month or so if frozen, and only a few days in a cool place in the kitchen and a few more days in a fridge. (Do I need to point out that fridges and freezers were not a normal part of 1st century Palestine kitchen equipment?) Dying yeast imparts a nasty, sour taste to the bread and you need to use a lot more to get it to rise. Sourdough starter is a little less finicky, but rises more slowly and must be fed and divided regularly.

So there is nothing inevitable about yeast dough turning into bread, unless it is in the hands of an experienced bread maker. Did Jesus know this? Quite possibly. If he did, then the Gos Thom version is quite likely at least as close to Jesus’ version as are Matt/Luke/Q. The coming of Kingdom of the Father is like the situation where a woman takes a tiny piece of yeast, mixes it with flour (and other ingredients) and cares for it until it turns into big loaves – although I guess you need to be comfortable with Jesus being like a woman to be happy with this interpretation. 🙂

Growing wheat …

… or things the parable of the wheat and the tares almost certainly isn’ t saying

I have been working on the parable of the wheat and the tares Matt 13: 24-30 || GTh 57 and have been fascinated by some of the suggestions that various commentators have come up with in the way of interpretation. It is clear that they have never been involved in a wheat-growing enterprise. I have a degree in Agricultural Science and spent the first four years of my ministry in one of the major wheat-growing areas of Australia so I though I would share some of my learning about the process.

First, everyone seems to agree that the ‘tares’ or weeds of the biblical parable are a kind of bearded ryegrass also called ‘darnel’, and with the botanical name Lolium temulentum. For those of you who are not good at botanical names, both the uppercase L at the beginning of the Lolium (regardless of where it appears in a sentence) and the italicised words are essential if you want any agronomical cred at all.

Second, it appears that the basic method of sowing in first century Palestine was to walk through the plough field, throwing handfuls of seed out around you. You didn’t then cover it over, so it wasn’t particularly challenging for someone to come in during the night and throw darnel seed in with your wheat seeds. It appears that it was not until 1701 when Jethro Tull perfected the first horse-drawn seed drill that covering sown seed became anything like a common practice.  And because the seeds are about the same size and shape, unless you had reason to inspect them closely, you would not notice the new seeds sown on top of the old and if you did, you would have a snowball’s chance in hell of picking all the darnel seeds out of your wheat. It also appears that the practice of sowing darnel and wild oats in your neighbour’s crop was common enough in Rome in the early second century CE for there to be a law against it, so this was not just a rhetorical device. (A. J. Kerr, “Matthew 13:25. Sowing Zizania among another’s wheat: Realistic or artificial?,” JTS 48(1997): 108.)

Third, when the wheat and ryegrass plants are small, they look very similar to one another. As they grow bigger, it becomes obvious that the ryegrass leaves are narrower, have less prominent veins and are shinier. Thus, someone who is used to looking at fields of wheat will know before the crop starts to set seed if there is any significant infestation of darnel in their wheat crop. Unfortunately, by the time this becomes obvious, if you have planted your seeds closely enough to get a good yield per acre/hectare the roots of the plants are so intertwined that you run a very serious risk of pulling up wheat plants when you pull up the weeds and they will not respond particularly well to replanting. And while it was probably normal practice for the servants to pull out weeds when they were noticed in a crop, there wouldn’t be all that many in a well-cared-for field, so losing a few wheat plants along the way would not have been a big deal. The crop in the parable had far more darnel plants, though, because extras had been deliberately planted and the plants were probably closer together. The servants probably asked their master about pulling them out expecting that the answer would be ‘don’t.’

Fourth, once heads form even the most inexperienced person can tell the difference, as can be seen from the images to the right. It is not just at the harvest that the different kinds of plant are easily identifiable by all who care to look. The seeds of darnel are poisonous, or are commonly infested by a poisonous fungus, (Penn Veterinary Medicine, Poisonous Plants: Genus: Lolium (2014 ; available from so they cannot be combined with wheat grain and must be disposed of before the grain is threshed from the plants, but when harvesting is done by hand, as happened in first century Palestine, it is easy enough to bind the darnel heads up in bundles and keep them separate from the wheat which is taken away for threshing. This is *not* possible with the modern combine harvesters.

Fourth, harvesting is a labour intensive, time critical activity. The grain cannot be harvested until it is ripe or it will not keep well, will not make good flour and will not sprout if it is being used to sow a new crop the following year. Once it is ripe, it needs to be cut as soon as possible because it will drop from the plant onto the ground and spoil if left too long, and if it rains while the ripe seeds are in the field, they will sprout in the ear and be unsuitable for flour making or replanting. The window of time is often only a few days. In the twenty-first century, the combine harvester goes into the field as soon as the dew has dried off enough and it works until late into the day and sometimes as far into the night as the dew makes possible. In pre-mechanised societies, it was customary to hire day workers as reapers to supplement the farmer’s normal workforce, so the reapers mentioned at the end of the Matthean parable are different people to the servants/slaves at the beginning – it is not just the literary device suggested by some commentators.

Fifth, burning the darnel is the appropriate method of disposing of it, because burning will kill the seeds and make sure that the next crop planted in the field is not infested with darnel plants from viable seed left lying in the field. The more weeds you have in the crop, the more important it is to kill the seeds so you don’t have the same problem the next year. Despite Hultgren’s footnote citing the Dictionary of Life in Bible Times, (Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, Grand Rapids; Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2000 296 n 14. citing “Agriculture” in Willy Corswant (ed) Dictionary of Life in Bible Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960) it is highly unlikely that the tares would normally have been fed to stock, because the seeds are also poisonous to animals. (See, for example, M Tadych and J F White, “Endophytic Microbes,” in Eukaryotic microbes, ed. Moselio Schaechter; Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2012, 56.) Keeping them for fuel has some significant problems in that carrying the ripe darnel plants away from the field has the potential to broadcast the darnel seed across a wide area, thus introducing weeds into other places on your farm, although if fuel was in very short supply, the farmer might have been willing to take this risk.

Thus, the process described in the parable is not the unusual, allegorical account that some commentators want to make of it.

Update: On re-reading the last sentence, I see that this could be interpreted as saying that Matthew doesn’t allegorise the account – of course he does, but the story itself is highly likely to be an account of a normal, if not frequent, happening in first century Palestinian agriculture.

Secret Scriptures Revealed – Tony Burke

Over the past little while, I have been reading Tony Burke’s Secret Scriptures Revealed – A new introduction to the Christian Apocrypha (London, SPCK, 2013). It took me a while because I was using it as my ongoing light reading material – the book I read to relax before going to bed and take with me to read in waiting rooms etc, rather than something I was using for my research.

Tony has been studying the Christian Apocrypha for many years and this book aims to provide the intelligent non-expert in biblical studies with clear, accessible information about them. I think he succeeds.

It is divided into seven chapters. The first asks (and answers) “what are the Christian apocrypha?”; the second provides an overview of what studying them is involved; the third looks at apocryphal lives of Jesus; the fourth at passion and resurrection gospels; the fifth focuses on legends about Jesus in the early church; chapter six looks at myths, misconceptions and misinformation about the Christian apocrypha; and the final (short) chapter sums up what has been covered. It doesn’t have footnotes, endnotes or in text referencing, but at the end of each section there is a box which tells the reader where the information has come from and there is a bibliography at the end, as well as a section on where to go for further information.

In addition to providing information about the texts themselves, Tony makes links between them and popular literature of today – like The Da Vinci Code – and indicates where there has been exaggeration and misrepresentation. He looks at where the texts came from, who wrote them, why they weren’t included in the Bible and whether reading them is harmful to personal faith (he says no and I agree with him).

I enjoyed reading it. Because I haven’t made an extensive study of the Christian apocrypha, I learned quite a number of things from it quite painlessly and am confident from what he has to say about the texts that I have studied in some depth that what he has written is accurate and trustworthy.  He gives the reader a taste for what can be found in each of the texts he covers, and shows them where they can find out more, including the names of trustworthy places on the web, whilst acknowledging that this can become out of date quite quickly.  I would definitely recommend it for those interesting in getting an introduction to and an overview of the Christian apocrypha.

an apology and explanation

Hi everyone.

Those of you who are following this blog will no doubt have received a notification of a post about Rafael Rodriguez’s latest book. I managed to publish it before it was finished and now WordPress has lost half the text.  I will work on it later this evening and hope to have a sensible version available asap.  😦


The completed version is now available below. 🙂

Rodríguez: Oral Tradition and the New Testament

Media of Oral Tradition and the New TestamentSo, here is the completed version of the post which appeared earlier in very unfinished form:

Between putting information about the parable of the banquet into the relevant chapter of my thesis, I have been reading Rafael Rodríguez’s Oral tradition and the New Testament: a guide for the perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014). This book is very new, as you can see from the publication date, and is part of the Bloomsbury series about which they say:

Guides for the Perplexed are clear, concise and accessible introductions to thinkers, writers and subjects that students and readers can find especially challenging. Concentrating specifically on what it is that makes the subject difficult to grasp, these books explain and explore key themes and ideas, guiding the reader towards a thorough understanding of demanding material.

I think that Rafael has succeeded in meeting this brief. In less than 150 pages (counting the endnotes) he has provided a glossary of the terms commonly used in the area (‘The what of oral tradition and NT studies’), an overview of the contribution of the important thinkers (‘The who of oral tradition and NT studies’), an overview of the usual model for understanding oral tradition in NT studies, together with a critique of it and a proposal for a better one (‘The how of oral tradition and NT studies’) and four examples of the application of the model in NT texts (‘The why oral tradition and NT studies’). The four examples he uses are the relationship between the Synoptics, the prologue from Gospel according to John, Paul’s use of Moses, and ascribing Christ as king in Revelation.

For me, the most important part of the book is chapter 4 – ‘The how of oral tradition and NT studies’ in which he outlines the most visible approach to the question of oral tradition and the NT – that which is based on Werner Kelber’s early work together with that of Joanna Dewey and Pieter Botha and others – critiques it and proposes a different model. The usual approach, which he calls the morphological approach, postulates that orality has certain identifiable characteristics and that once a researcher finds these s/he can safely assume that they are evidence of residual oral tradition. The characteristics are based on Walter Ong’s list of nine psychodynamics of orality, but, as Rafael points out, many of these characteristics are also characteristics of good written communication.  He argues, following John Miles Foley, that we need to shift our focus from what an oral-derived text looks like to how an oral-derived text generates meaning and that traditional verbal art exists in a range of different forms from Oral Performance, which was composed orally, performed orally and received aurally to Written Oral Poems which were composed, performed and received in written form. If I understand him correctly, he is not arguing that the characteristics of oral-derived text should be completely ignored, just that they should not take centre stage.  This approach, which he refers to as the contextual approach, requires us to view

the oral expression of tradition as the context within which the written NT texts developed and were written by authors, recited by lectors (and/or oral performers), and received by audiences (and/or readers). A contextual approach to oral tradition and the NT fundamentally changes the questions media critics ask and the issues involved in answering those questions. (p 72)

The other parts of the book are also interesting and valuable. He doesn’t just summarize the contributions of the various players – he also highlights strengths and weaknesses in their work, and I found myself agreeing with his assessments. In the process of reading this chapter, I met one or two people whose work I have not read and found that there are one or two things that ‘everybody knows’ about orality that are not actually true – for example, that all reading in antiquity was reading aloud!! I found the fact that there were four different examples of applications of the method helpful, because each required a somewhat different approach. I now need to think about how it might apply to my work with Gos Thom. What I have noticed in the parable of the banquet is that the way that Thomas tells it seems much more like something that is designed to be remembered and retold orally than are either Luke or Matthew’s versions. It reminds me quite a bit of the Three Little Pigs, where the words of the pigs and the wolf are stable and the sequence of events is stable, but the narrative that surrounds the pigs’ and the wolf’s activity is left to the creative imagination of individual storytellers. The words of the host’s servant are stable and the response of the invitees is set in a stable format, except for the second invitation, which suggests to me editing by another person later and also that the original author of this version of the parable was interested in having it easily remembered by an oral tradent – but perhaps I am stuck in the morphological model. 🙂

The thing that I found most problematic is not a content issue, but a formatting one, and one I need to learn to live with if I want to buy relatively cheap books: I hate endnotes! I never know which chapter I’m reading without thumbing back to the beginning of it, so finding the relevant note in the back of the book is tedious. Other than that, I thought that some of the definitions in the glossary were unnecessarily complex – but the fact that some readers would not be happy with all the definitions was something that Rafael expected. I am familiar with the words biosphere and homeostasis from my previous studies in the sciences and I did not think that they were used particularly differently in the field of oral tradition, but I found that I needed to read them through several times in order to make sure that I was right.

This is a book that I am glad that I bought. It provides a good overview of the field and helped me to put together some things that have been roaming free in my mind for some time, as well as showing me some new and interesting things. And it wasn’t as peripheral to my current chapter as I had feared, so reading it could count as working on my thesis. 🙂

Happy belated anniversary!

My husband just asked me what date it was and I realised that yesterday it was seven years ago that I started this blog. It’s had its ups and downs in terms of postings, but it’s been a place where I can reflect on my academic work and its relevance to my paid work etc.

I know that I have certainly matured in my outlook over the seven years and I really hope that before this blog reaches its eighth anniversary I will have finally submitted my doctoral thesis. This assumes that I can find another supervisor, Majella Franzmann having had to withdraw due to pressure of work in her role as Pro Vice Chancellor Humanities at Curtin University. I am grateful for her encouragement for me to get involved in postgraduate study and will miss her support.

My doctoral thesis/dissertation will be a somewhat different document to the one I envisaged when I began my journey as a part time masters research candidate in late 2004, having spent the year learning Coptic for fun. I upgraded to a doctorate in December 2006 and in 2007, I got to spend five weeks with April DeConick at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where I developed some insights into the Coptic text of Thomas that have shaped how I am approaching it.

I also decided while I was there that I really wanted to attend the SBL International Meeting in Auckland in 2008 and that I needed to have a paper accepted in order to be able to afford to go and Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses inspired me to look into psychological research on witness testimony. I became so interested that I worked the paper up into a journal article “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research,” which was published in JBL 129, no. 1 (2010): 177-97. This in turn led to the exciting invitation to write a chapter, “Eyewitness Testimony and the Characters in the Fourth Gospel,” for Chris Skinner’s  Characters and characterization in the gospel of John. (Library of New Testament Studies. London: T & T Clark, 2013), which made me explore characterization theory in more depth. I am also seeing strong links between the psychological research on eyewitness testimony and human memory and the social memory theory work being done by people like Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne and Rafael Rodríguez.

I’ve also done some teaching with Dr Lesley McLean in RELS 387/587 Earliest Christianity: Social Context and Sacred Text in the Studies in Religion area at University of New England (UNE) – the Australian one. Love the teaching, love the on-line interaction with the students, but the marking not so much. 🙂

In addition, I’ve  been involved as a participant and moderator of the Gospel of Thomas email group where I have appreciated the support of its founder, Mike Grondin* and the other moderators and have enjoyed the conversations. Again, these have provided food for thought on my academic journey.

All this has been interesting, exciting and fun, but has resulted in my having to do a significant rewrite of my methodology chapter and, of course, the literature review, not to mention rejigging some of my earlier analysis of the texts I’m studying. In the middle of it all, I had a long break (nearly two years) where the funding for my chaplaincy position ran out and I spent 14 months working as a research assistant on a number of UNE non-religious projects. This left no intellectual space for biblical studies. I then moved to the other end of the state, became a distance student and spent more time getting my head around a new job that involved working on nearby campuses of two different universities – again, leaving precious little intellectual space. This period was one where there were very few blog posts.

Early last year, I became involved in Shut Up and Write at Charles Sturt University (one of the places where I work). I started moderating on-line sessions using Adobe Connect and while I haven’t found anyone else doing Studies in Religion, I have study buddies all over Australia and in Switzerland and Japan, all experiencing the isolation of the distance post-grad and enjoying the support and structure that weekly writing sessions bring. I am very grateful to Cassily Charles, the Academic Writing Consultant for Higher Degree Research Students for providing me with access to shut Up and Write, and in particular to Willie, Jen, Marcel, Nina and Bruce who have shared writing sessions with me and listened as I thought my way through several episodes of ‘stuckness’ as I worked my way back into my research and my blogging.

My thanks, too, to the various people who have followed this blog and made comments and helpful suggestions over the years. I have really appreciated knowing that I wasn’t just posting into the ether. 🙂

Onward and upward!

*Correction: Mike tells me (well, the whole list, actually) that it was actually Paul Miller who founded the Gospel of Thomas email group. Mike ‘only’ took over the reins twelve months later in late 1999 (or very early 2000).

Rodríguez on oral tradition and our understanding of the gospels

I am currently reading in Rafael Rodríguez’s Structuring early Christian memory (London: T & T Clark, 2009). I don’t intend to write a formal review because I really am trying to complete a chapter of my thesis and make a good start on the next in the next week and a half, and much of the book has little relevance to these two chapters. I am, however, enthusiastic about his section on oral transmission – the fourth chapter, entitled ‘Performance, Structure, Meaning and Text’. I also found the previous chapter on social memory useful and interesting, but that’s not what I want to reflect on.

Rafael reminds us that the oral traditions on which the written gospels are based were not verbatim reproductions of previous performances and that the written gospels are neither verbatim dictations of an oral performance of the Jesus tradition nor notes to enable the reproduction of a verbatim re-performance. He says:

When we approach the gospels as primarily related to that hypothetical, abstract construct (the Jesus tradition) and conceive their interrelationships not as editions or redactions of one another but as interdependent, embodied expressions of that abstract tradition, we effect a critical paradigmatic shift that challenges both the methods and the results of previous analyses. The written gospel traditions are not ‘formally bounded, complete items’ (John Miles Foley, 1995. The Singer of Tales in Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.: xi); they refer to and incorporate the abstract Jesus tradition they instantiate, and they must be read accordingly. The gospels do not refer primarily or exclusively to other ‘formally bounded, complete items’, that is, to other written gospels or sources.

We thus find ourselves reading our texts not primarily in reference to other extant texts, which have a concrete, tangible existence, but in reference to a hypothetical construct: the abstract, untextualizable Jesus tradition. (p 90)

If we do this:

we begin to perceive the problem inherent in the scholarship that establishes one expression of the Jesus tradition (e. g., Mark or Q) as the standard against which other expressions are read simply on the basis that Mark or Q is the ‘earliest’ gospel or is ‘closest to the historical Jesus’…The texts of the gospels … for all their similarities and differences, reference the same traditional corpus, though in different ways, for different purposes, and, often, to different ends. (p 91)

This makes a great deal of sense to me. It is quite clear that there are sections of the synoptics where the level of verbatim correspondence indicates that there is a textual relationship between the two/three texts, but the fact that an author clearly had access to a written version of another gospel does not necessarily mean that he decided to alter the sections where it is different simply for his own theological purposes. Rather, it might well have differed from the version of the oral tradition with which he (and his community) was (were) familiar so that he felt the need to correct it – and this leads to the reception of the texts.

Rafael says:

New Testament research needs to broaden its focus from the texts’ composition to consider the texts’ reception. Both the evangelists and their audiences would have been familiar with and participants in oral performances of the Jesus tradition. Once the texts of the gospels were committed to writing, is it really likely that those texts represented radical departures from the oral tradition that preceded and continued to develop alongside them? We cannot presume that our texts preserve records of single performances, such that ‘gospel composition’ becomes transcription; still less can we continue to presume that our gospels are the ‘Markan’, ‘Matthean’, or ‘Lukan’ version of the tradition. Rather, our texts were written in the context of oral performances of the Jesus tradition and would have been received by their audiences as performances that, though transformed into written texts, preserved extra-textual references to the Jesus tradition as a whole. (pp 97-7)

In other words, a written text that was provided to a community that knew the oral tradition would not have been well received if its author tried to do a radical reshaping of the tradition, although they were highly unlikely to have objected to somewhat different wording of the stories as long as the punchline was correct.

In looking at the issue of reception, Rafael talks about the fact that the audiences of the oral transmission were familiar with the contexts in which the stories were told – something that is potentially lost once the text is written down and sent away. He suggests that the beginnings of the gospels might well provide cues to the context and how the author intended it to be read (ie in which ‘performance area’ it belonged), picking up on work by Loveday Alexander in this area (see pp 107-9). This certainly makes sense to me, and is the approach I am taking to the Thomas sayings. I think that the fact that the author tells us at the beginning that these are secret sayings and that anyone who finds the meaning of them will not taste death affects how the sayings are read.

One section, however, interests me because I see it differently. Early in the chapter, Rafael says:

Kelber emphasizes performance as the moment of composition: ‘transmission and composition converge in oral performance. Although the speaker used traditional materials, she or he was composing while speaking . . . The idea was not to reproduce what was said previously, but to (re)compose so as to affect the present circumstance.’ (Kelber 1995 ‘Jesus and Tradition: Words in Time, Words in Space’. Orality and Textuality in Early Christian Literature. Semeia 65. Ed J. Dewey. Atlanta: Scholars Press: 150, citing Lord 1960 The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 5, 101; emphasis added). But why does Kelber oppose ‘reproduc[ing] what was said previously’ with ‘affect[ing] the present’? This opposition is not only unnecessary, it jars against Kelber’s helpful recognition of ‘traditional materials’ in oral performance. (p 83)

To me, Kelber’s statement makes a great deal of sense in terms of what I know of the art of story-telling and also some of the psychological research on human memory and story-telling.  When skilled story-tellers tell a story, they take their outline and recast it in ways that they think will be most effective to achieve the effect the want to evoke from their current audience. They do not tell stories just because they can, but to achieve a particular effect or result. In other words, they tell stories to affect the present circumstance of their hearers. The desired effect might be as simple as to lift the mood of the audience by making them laugh, but it is more likely to be to promote thought about a particular issue as well. They will modify their language and choose which details to emphasize and which to minimize on the basis of the likely interests of the current audience. When I preach on one of the farming parables in a rural setting, I will often re-tell the parable with some added invitations to the audience to picture themselves in the situation, so I will encourage the grain farmers to think about the contrast between their use of huge headers and combine harvesters in contrast to the hand sowing and reaping practised in Jesus’ times; and I will talk in detail about the likely species of weed in the parable of the man who sowed good seed. I think that this is probably the kind of affecting of the present circumstance that Kelber had in mind and I don’t see it as jarring against his recognition of traditional materials in oral performance.

A Plea for Affordable Book-pricing | Larry Hurtado’s Blog

Larry Hurtado’s latest blog post is A Plea for Affordable Book-pricing. I agree wholeheartedly. As someone who lives (a) in Australia and (b) several hours’ drive from a good theological library, I am a fairly enthusiastic buyer of books, but I simply can’t afford to pay over $100 (let alone over GBP 100 = AUD 185) for a hardcover book. Nor do I need hardcover – I just don’t use my reference books that often. I read Review of Biblical Literature avidly and often buy books that are reviewed. I also read reviews on other people’s blogs, and again will often buy something that looks useful – but only if it’s in paperback (or second-hand) unless it’s absolutely essential for me to own it.

I was extremely grateful when an author recently sent me a soft copy of his book which is only available in hard copy at the moment. I would still prefer a hard copy, though. I am finding marking up the text electronically not as easy as doing it with a pen and sticky notes on paper.  I second Larry’s plea!