Levine: Short stories by Jesus

Last year, I bought a copy of Amy-Jill Levine’s new book, Short Stories by Jesus – the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi (HarperOne, New York, 2014) and have been meaning to post a review of it every since I started using it. I find that the perspective of Jewish scholars on Second Testament writings often helps me to shake of what I have ‘always known’ about the texts and allows me to see something different and I like Levine’s writing. She is one of the contributors to  Coogan, Michael David, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins. The new Oxford annotated Bible  (Oxford [England]; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) and one of the editors of Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler eds. The Jewish annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible translation. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) but this is the first extended writing of hers that I’ve read and I’m glad I bought it.
The introductory chapter talks about ‘How we domesticate Jesus’s provocative stories’ and the conclusion addresses ‘The power of disturbing stories’. In between, she deals with Luke’s trio of parables on lostness; the Good Samaritan; the Kingdom of Heaven is like Yeast; the Pearl of Great Price; the Mustard Seed; the Pharisee and the Tax Collector; the Laborers in the Vineyard; the Widow and the Judge; and the Rich Man and Lazarus. In each case, she looks at how the elements of the parable are understood from a Jewish perspective, highlights traditionally anti-Semitic interpretations of the stories when appropriate and offers new perspectives.
The text is easy to read, aimed, I think, at an intelligent lay reader rather than a specifically academic readership. It nevertheless has useful notes (unfortunately, they are endnotes, rather than footnotes, but the book itself is not expensive – around $25 for the hardcover and $18 for the paperback through BookDepository.com, and you can’t expect everything). It would be quite suitable for undergraduates and I am certainly finding it useful for my doctoral work.
I don’t always agree with the conclusions she draws, but that’s not unusual for me. I would thoroughly recommend it.

Is it me, or R McL Wilson?

In “Thomas and the Growth of the Gospels.” Harvard Theological Review (1960) 53(10): 231-250), R McL Wilson says about GTh 76:

This is sufficiently close to the parable of the Pearl of Great Price to be recognized as simply another version. The only question is which is the more primitive, and here the stress on the merchant’s wisdom is surely secondary, while the phrase “the kingdom of the Father” has a Gnostic ring. (p. 230)

In Studies in the Gospel of Thomas. London, Mowbray (1960), he says:

This seems to make a clear case for dependence on the first Gospel, but a glance at the order must give rise to doubts. Matthew’s chapter of parables begins with the Sower, which in Thomas is logion 9, and continues with an exposition of the reason for the use of parables and with other sayings, … and finally the parables of the Treasure (logion109), the Pearl (logion 76) and the Drag-net (logion 8). If Thomas drew from Matthew, why did he separate the parable one from another in this way? And why do they appear in this order? … On the assumption that Thomas is based on Matthew these fact present a problem. On the other hand we know from comparison with Luke that Matthew has a tendency to assemble his material into large blocks, as for example in the Sermon on the Mount, and the fact that these parables are separated in Thomas, and appear in a different order, may point to the author’s use of a different tradition, or at least to his independent access to the tradition from which Matthew drew. (p.54)

Here, in two publications from the same year, he seems to be arguing quite different positions on the relationship between GThom and Matthew. Or is it just that I am missing something?

What language did Jesus speak?

The language that Jesus spoke has been a matter of interest amongst scholars for quite some time.  My first serious introduction to the issues was in Stanley E Porter’s  “Did Jesus Ever Teach in Greek?” (1993,  Tyndale Bulletin 44(2): 199-235) and the response by the late Maurice Casey  “In Which Language Did Jesus Teach?” (1997, Expository Times 108(11): 326-328), although I am sure there was much written before this. As Seth Sanders reminds us over at USC Annenberg’s Religion Dispatches, it was recently the subject of a short exchange between Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sanders’ article provides an overview of the complexities of the issue which I found fascinating. It is well worth a read.

My thanks to Jared Calloway at Antiquitopia for pointing it out.

Other Thomas Scholar Interviews

I was reminded by André Gagné’s post in the Nag Hammadi Seminar Facebook group that Chris Skinner has conducted interviews with a number of other Thomas scholars over the years since he started blogging. He has moved them across from PEJE IESOUS to Crux Sola and you can find them here. He has interviews with Nicholas Perrin, Stevan Davies, Stephen J Patterson, Ismo Dunderberg, Risto Uro, Marvin Meyer, Simon Gathercole and Mark Goodacre.  The Nag Hammadi Seminar group is also worth looking at and joining, although it looks at more than just Gos Thom of course.

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 Academia.edu 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. :-)