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.

I (Still) Believe – review

9780310515166, I (Still) Believe : Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship, John ByronA 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 and scholarship. (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.


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.”


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. (

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.

Who knew whom?

20th Century style . . . Montefiore and Jeremias

As part of my research, I have been looking at the parables of the Reign/Kingdom of God that take the form ‘the kingdom is like a person who…’.  A number of the commentators I have read cite Joachim Jeremias in The Parables of Jesus (translated by S H Hooke. third (revised) ed. SCM Press, 1972, pp 101-102) where he argues that that parables which in Greek begin with ὁμοίος and a noun in the dative case, indicate that there is an underlying Aramaic le in the original and that they should be translated, ‘It is the case with . . . as with . . .’.  This, he argues, shifts the focus of the comparison from the closest object in the sentence to some other part, so for example the kingdom is not actually being compared to a mustard seed, but to the end result of planting one. I have referred to this in several places because the parables that I am looking at in the Synoptics mainly fall into this category.

To my surprise, however,  on going back over some old work I discovered that Hugh Montefiore had said the same thing about the underlying Aramaic le and its effect in “Comparison of the Parables of the Gospel According to Thomas and of the Synoptic Gospels,” (NTS 7(1961): 246-7). Montefiore doesn’t mention the ὁμοίος + dative Greek structure, but clearly they are both talking about the same thing. Although the Montefiore paper is older than the Jeremias book, the Jeremias book is the third English edition, based on the text of the eighth German edition of Die Gliechnisse Jesu, the first edition of which was published in 1947. Thus, Montefiore could have read an earlier version of Jeremias’s book.

Montefiore does not attribute his statement to anyone, but citations can be omitted by accident and in the next section he refers twice to ‘Jeremias, op cit’. At this point I groaned, because this meant trawling back through the footnotes on many pages to find out which of Jeremias’ publications had been cited previously. Montefiore liked Jeremias’ work and cited it a dozen or so times in the paper, but I eventually found that he was referring to the 1957 edition of The Unknown Sayings of Jesus, a translation of the 1951 second edition of Unbekannte Jesusworte. I liberated a copy from my favourite theological library and started reading – or at least skimming – not finding anything. It was quite weird, however, to read an analysis of POxy 1, 654 and 655 written before it was recognised that they were fragments of Thomas (although in an addendum for the English translation he notes that Puech had published a paper in Revue de l’Histoire des Religions in 1955 that indicated that POxy 654 was identical with the opening section of Gospel of Thomas).

It then occurred to me that maybe my assumption that Jeremias had made the original observation and that Montefiore had failed to attribute it correctly might not be right. Maybe Jeremias got the idea from Montefiore. I am not totally sure that this is what happened because of the wording of the footnote on p 101 doesn’t make it clear exactly what Jeremias is referring to, but he certainly cites pp 246 f of Montefiore’s paper at the end of the section where he talks about this feature of the Greek. It would therefore seem that the reason that this is normally attributed to Jeremias is that most people I’ve been reading have been focussing on the Synoptics, so have probably not read Montefiore – and it does seem that Jeremias explains the phenomenon more fully.

The final test would be to get a copy of Jeremias that had been published before 1961 to see if he mentions this feature in it. I’ve just put in a request for the 1954 edition of the English version but I won’t get it until towards the end of the week, since Monday is a public holiday for Easter and it has to come from another campus.

Who would have thought that working out which scholar was basing his work on the other’s would be so tricky in the age of print and enthusiasm for correct referencing?

Gathercole on dating Thomas

Victoria asked in the comments to my previous post what Gathercole’s reasons were for his dating and I thought it would be easier to do this as a new post than to put it in the comments section. He divides the chapter on dating into three sections:

  1. evidence for a terimnus ante quem – in which he includes the papyrological data which suggest that the P Oxy papyri tend to be assigned dates in the third century, especially the early or middle part; and the testimonia from other writers gives similar dates. He thus suggests that roughly 200 CE is a reasonable date for the original mss. He then discounts arguments for an early date that propose that GThom influenced the canonical gospels; that the depiction of James in S12 suggests that James was still alive; that the fact that GThom appears to have been influenced by the Synoptics but not John suggests that it was written after the Synoptics but before John; and Uro’s suggestion that it must be seen as early because it doesn’t evidence a fully developed Gnostic character.
  2. evidence for a terminus a quo – in which he discounts the suggestion that the author knew the Diatessaron (which would give an earliest date of after 175 CE); questions the idea that Ss 68 & 71 denote evidence that it was written before the destruction of the Temple (DeConick), or soon after (Dunderberg) and instead supports the idea that they refer to the Bar Kochba revolt – which suggests post 135 CE. He sees the idea expressed by some that Thomas thought Matthew to have been authoritative also supports a post 100 CE dating.
  3. additional indications – here he agrees with Hedrick that Thomas’ use of the term “the Jews” in S 43 suggests at least the end of the first century as a dating; that his stance on circumcision in S53 fits better in early to middle second century; and that while he hesitates to label the gospel ‘Gnostic’ some of the motifs are clearly influenced by Gnosticism, which would again make it later rather than earlier.

Mark Goodacre  in his Thomas and the Gospels: the case for Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 20102, pp 169-71) also argues that a dating post Bar Kochba revolt is fairly convincing – they both cite Hans-Martin Schenke in On the Compositional History of the Gospel of Thomas (Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, 1998, p 28).

Quite clearly, given the range of datings suggested by reputable biblical scholars (Gathercole lists 31 in his table, ranging from DeConick’s kernel prior to 50 CE through to Drijvers about 200 CE), the evidence is not at all clear, despite the fact that most are reasonably clear in their opinions. Where one lands depends to a certain extent on how much weight one puts onto particular pieces of evidence and there is a certain amount of personal opinion behind the scholarship, I think. This is not an issue on which my work actually turns, so I am prepared (to use one of Gathercole’s favourite expressions) to ‘remain agnostic’ about it for the moment.

Gathercole: “The Gospel of Thomas”

Gathercole's Recently, I received my copy of Simon Gathercole’s The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014) – something  of a saga since the first copy I ordered got lost in transit and I had to request a refund and order it again! It’s over 700 pages long, the first 188 pages being introductory material, followed by 430 pages of commentary, then an extensive bibliography, an index locorum (aka index of ancient texts cited), an index of modern authors and an index of subjects. This post provides a summary of the introductory material.

Let me get my intemperate rant about the pricing of academic books out of the way before I address the content. Given that the amount I paid for it (AUD282 including postage) would enable someone to be trained as a teacher in a developing country and provide a toilet for a village that doesn’t have one, I would have expected better proof-reading (there are typos and missing citations – some, but not all of which can be tracked down in the bibliography) and editing (when the item ‘below’ doesn’t appear for 13 pages or several chapters, providing a page number would surely be more useful to the reader), better binding, and that all the pages would be cut so that the printers’ marks weren’t visible.  It does, however, have footnotes, rather than endnotes, which is a definite plus!! There is an e-book available, but it appears to cost USD250, which is more than AUD310.

Gathercole has done an enormous amount of work, investigating a huge amount of literature and has, I think, struggled at times to decide how to put it together in ways that make sense and are accessible to the reader. I assume that this is why the ‘appended note’ on Thomas as a ‘rolling corpus’ is slightly longer than the chapter to which it is appended. A helpful feature of each chapter is that the first footnote contains a bibliography of major works on the issue addressed.

Chapter 1 looks at the manuscripts, their datings and various features and chapter 2 compares the Greek and Coptic texts, looking at theories of composition. The third chapter looks at the ancient texts that mention GThom by name, providing the relevant sections in their original languages, followed by a reflection on the content of each. Chapter 4 looks at passages where it seems likely that the content of GThom is being referred to without specifically mentioning GThom. In this chapter, he cites the source material in English translation.

The fifth chapter is a summary of his work in pages 19-125 of The composition of the Gospel of Thomas original language and influences (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) and rehearses his position that there are very strong reasons to conclude both that the Coptic version of GThom is a translation from the Greek and that it was originally written in Greek. Chapter 6 addresses the issue of provenance and, after identifying from the literature Syria (either Edessa or Antioch) and Egypt as possibilities, he concludes that we can’t know and that it probably does not really matter.

He then moves on to dating and authorship in chapter 7. As stated in Composition, Gathercole believes that GThom is a later rather than an earlier work. He dates it somewhere between 135 and 200 CE. His dating thus means that the author was neither an apostle nor a Manichaen, and he notes that the author is unknown. He then provides a reasonably extensive list of proposed dates from the literature in chronological order.

In chapter 8, he bravely addresses the issue of structure, agreeing with most commentators that it is not a particularly carefully ordered text. He lists four attempts to divide Thomas into sections – by Janssens, Tripp, Davies and Nordsieck, all of which he sees as unsustainable. He does not, however, address DeConick’s five speeches proposal. He lists three generally recognised structuring devices – “Jesus said”; an opening section; and links between pairs/clusters of sayings. He lists the sayings in pairs or groups and indicates which of a catchword link, a thematic connection and/or a form in common link them (in a number of cases, he sees more than one of these applying to a group). He questions how many of the catchwords are accidental and indicates that he hopes to avoid the extremes of overcontextualising and ignoring context in his commentary.

The next chapter looks at the genre. Gathercole looks at the variety of genres suggested by various authors and discards as unlikely all but two: gospel; and sentence collection/chreia collection. He makes a point that I had not considered in talking about the gospel genre – that just as John is written so that the reader may believe, so Thomas gives guidance about transcending death (p 140). He concludes that it is a mixed genre and notes that Kelber’s term ‘sayings gospel’ is helpful.

Chapter 10 is probably the longest of the introductory material (although this depends on how you choose to count the pages of ‘appended notes’) and deals with the religious outlook of GThom. It contains a very thorough listing of the various characteristics of the text under a comprehensive range of headings and he reserves his analytical comments until he has laid out all the evidence, all of which is helpful. He argues that GThom sets itself against non-Christian Judaism, the wider Christian movement and various figures of authority. He suggests that GThom ‘may not be completely systematic, but it is reasonably coherent’ (pp 166-167) but resists putting a particular theological label on it. There follows another ‘appended note’ addressing the issue of whether or not GThom is Gnostic, which towards the beginning notes that the answer to the question depends on one’s definition of Gnosticism. He summarises the debate, and suggests not only that it is difficult to categorise GThom as Gnostic given that it does not contain a clear demiurgic account of creation (p 173), but also that using labels such as Mack’s ‘proto-gnostic’ or  Funk’s ‘reflecting an incipient gnosticism’ is questionable and that ‘it is very difficult to align GThom very closely with any particular movement’ (pp 174).

In chapter 11, he looks at GThom and the historical Jesus and contends that GThom is not useful in developing a picture of the historical Jesus. Chapter 12 is the final chapter of the introductory material and describes the plan of the commentary section. It provides for each saying a bibliography, a copy of the Coptic text and, where available, the Greek text, together with translations, followed by textual comment, interpretation and notes.

This book is clearly intended for the scholar rather than the interested lay person. Gathercole quotes material written in Greek, Coptic, Latin, French, German and Italian in their original languages and without translation. English translations of the ancient material are largely available on the internet and the modern language material is short enough so that using an on-line translation service would probably give a reasonable understanding of the gist of each, but following the argument in depth could prove frustrating. He also has a tendency to use uncommon English words and Latin terms quite regularly. It is by far the most detailed commentary on the actual text of GThom available in English, French or German. DeConick’s two volumes combined are the closest in length, but she spends more time on her theory of composition and on overview issues and less on the text itself. Gathercole has, as I said earlier, consulted a massive number of works and this and the detailed attention to the text make it a very useful reference work on GThom. Noticeably absent from his bibliography, however, are the major works on oral transmission, human and communal memory that I think help to understand the transmission issues for early Christian collections of the sayings of Jesus, and which provide the strength of DeConick’s work.

Clearly, any real review of the book would need to include an assessment of the textual commentary. I have not begun to read that part and at this stage have no time to do it in any systematic way. This, then, is more a summary of and reflections on the introductory material. I am sure the book will prove very useful, but I am still not happy about the price.

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 off 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, 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.