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they can find out more, including the names of trustworthy places on the web, whilst acknowledging that this can become out of date quite quickly.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.

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.

Review of Johanna Brankaer’s “Coptic – A Learning Grammar”

Brice Jones has reviewed Johanna Brankaer’s Coptic – A Learning Grammar (Sahidic) (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 2010) here.

I own a copy of the book and have dipped into it in places, but not worked through it systematically. I found the tables of verb conjugation bases and the concordance of grammatical terms at the back helpful for getting my head around the differences between the older naming conventions used by Lambdin and the newer ones used by Layton, but I had not looked at it carefully enough to notice the errors that Brice points out.

I used the tables to produce a table of Sahidic Coptic verb paradigms with their alternative names which others might also find useful.

Update – 23 November 2013

Mike Grondin helpfully pointed out that I had managed to replicate the verb forms for the focalising present/present II in the verb paradigms table instead of presenting the correct forms for the relative present /relative of present I. Thanks, Mike!! I have now fixed this and made a few minor changes to the presentation which should make it easier for people who are not me to follow. :-)

Robbins on his book

The latest post on Christopher Skinner’s PEJE IESOUS blog talks about Vernon Robbins’ new book Who Do People Say that I Am? which I also mentioned recently. Chris has provided links to three posts by Robbins here, here and here on Eerdblog which provide some back story to three of the chapters in the book and also give you a flavour of the way Robbins writes. As Chris observes, the book is aimed at teaching. It has minimal footnotes together with a bibliography and series of discussion questions at the end of each chapter. The questions encourage readers to compare the text of the various non-canonical texts with the canon. The two chapters that I’ve read present good scholarship in a way that is accessible to the non-scholar without ‘dumbing it down’ so it would be useful in a theological book club setting as well as in formal classes and at USD25 it is very affordable. Definitely on my list to finish reading when I don’t have to concentrate more or less entirely on Thomas.

Robbins and Gagné on Thomas

Today, I read two pieces of writing on Thomas – the seventh chapter (“My Mouth is Utterly Unable to Say What You are Like!”) in Vernon K Robbins’ new book Who Do People Say I Am?: Rewriting gospel in emerging Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: W B Eerdmans Pub Co, 2013) and André Gagné’s “Jésus, la lumière et le Père vivant. Principe de gémellité dans l’Évangile selon Thomas” (Apocrypha 23, no. 1 (2012): 209-21). The latter title translates roughly into English as “Jesus, the light and the living Father. The principle of twinship in the Gospel according to Thomas”. I found out about the first from a review on April DeConick’s Forbidden Gospels blog and the latter from a post on André’s blog which he announced on the Nag Hammadi Seminar Facebook page. If you don’t have access to the journal, you can read the text on Scribd from André’s blog, something I really appreciated.

I don’t propose to review Robbins’ book because I don’t have time to read the other chapters at the moment, but if this one is typical, I am very pleased that I bought myself a copy. Because he is looking at what various early Christian communities said about who Jesus was, he compares Thomas to the canon, especially John. He makes a number of points that I had not thought about in this way before He says “Thomas shows us how some early Christians were trying to push their thinking and believing both inwardly and outwardly into regions beyond both time and space. They were in their own way creating speculative or imaginative Christian philosophy” (p 115). And then: “Jesus, then, does not redeem people through his actions, that is, by dying on the cross or performing miracles of healing. Rather, he saves people through the sayings he speaks” (p 116). He notes that Jesus is presented as a righteous messenger, but that he draws attention to what already is (the Kingdom spread throughout the world), rather than what is to come (p 116) and argues that the heavens and earth rolling up described in S111 has nothing to do with the Kingdom. At the time that this happens, the earth will simply cease to exist together with all those who have not “found” the Kingdom, but the Kingdom will continue to exist as it is already existing – a place outside time (p 121-123, 130). He spends some time looking at the significance of light in Thomas and says “In the Gospel of Thomas, all the elect have come from the place of light and will return to the place of light when they seek and find the Kingdom, through the Living One, namely Jesus, who is in their presence” (p 136).

He offers the following as an elucidation of S2:

When people seek until they find within Jesus’ sayings, they will be disturbed when they find. When they are disturbed, however, they will begin to marvel! When they marvel, then they will begin to know the Living One who is in their presence. And when the know the Living One, they will know that they themselves have come from the place of light, they will take off their earthly clothes and return to the place of light, and in the place of light they will dwell in the motion and rest of the Living Father. (p 136)

It was interesting to move from this to Gagné’s article, which also looks at the significance of light. The English abstract says:

Very few studies have engaged in a synchronic reading of the Gospel according to Thomas. But such a perspective contributes to a better understanding of many of the Thomasine logia, as well as an appreciation of the doctrinal particularities of such an enigmatic text. This article is a test case which presents an analysis of the analogous characterization of Jesus, light, and the living Father in the Gos. Thom. The Thomasine tradition portrays Jesus and his Father in terms of twinship. This is what lies behind the similar characteristics of both figures.

He begins with the fact that Ménard, in his commentary, notes the correspondence between Jesus and the Father and suggests that it is a primitive form of modalism, but that since then scholarship has tended to focus more on the history of the redaction of the collection of sayings than on the interpretation of the hidden words it contains. Gagné’s article looks, rather, at the interrelationship between the Father, the light and Jesus. He begins by arguing that the responsibility for finding meaning rests with the reader, not the text and that behind the appearance of disorganisation of the sayings, there may be a certain coherence which the reader must discover in order to find the meaning. He argues that in some places in the text it is possible to see chains of meaning that link sayings to one another (that is, the links are much more significant than simply catchwords) so that we are always in relentless pursuit of wisdom. (p 211-212).

Beginning on p 215, he then looks at sayings 49 and 50 as the jumping off point for examining what at first glance appear to be examples of modalism in Thomas, discussing the significance of the terms ‘solitary’ and ‘elect’. After a careful analysis of the text he concludes that there is therefore no modalism in such statements. He asks whether we should simply give up trying to find some consistency in the Thomasine sayings or could there be another principle at work that could explain the characterization of Jesus as light and living Father (p 220). Clearly, the answer to this rhetorical question is ‘no’. He concludes that:

In logion 108, the revelation of hidden things is promised to those who drink from the mouth of Jesus. Obviously, there is a correspondence between what is hidden and the hidden words in the first lines of Gos Thom. The disciple is transformed by the words of Jesus. When he receives the words (= drinks from the mouth of Jesus), it is then that his own identity is lost in that of his master. Like Didymus Judas Thomas, who is recognized as the true hermeneutic of Jesus, the disciples, too, become a kind of twin of the master.

Logion 106 talks about the manner in which those who give themselves over to the principle of unity become Sons of Man. This unquestionably corresponds to the input of logion 108 where the “son of man” becomes “twin” of Jesus, the Son of Man.

The concept of twinship may be what is behind the characterization of Jesus as the living Father. Jesus is somehow the twin of his Father, so he has the same characteristics. Like their Master, the disciples will also come to demonstrate the characteristics of Jesus, even to the point of carrying the title that is normally attributed to him, “son of man.” (p 221 – my translation without Coptic inclusions because I can’t easily manage either Coptic alphabet or transliterations in WordPress)

Although neither author makes any comment about whether or not Thomas is Gnostic, both their treatments give me a better insight into how it can be seen as Gnostic than do any of the other writing that I’ve read.

Reflections on Literacy

Media of Jesus' LiteracyAfter reading Chris Skinner’s review of Chris Keith’s Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee (LHJS 8; LNTS 413; London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2011), I thought I would like to read the book for myself. His third chapter, ‘Scribal Culture in the Time of Jesus’ started me reflecting on the whole concept of literacy, which, as Keith points out, is a fairly imprecise term. He talks about levels of literacy, and this makes a great deal of sense of my own experiences with language speaking and learning.

I have had several surprised native speakers of Spanish ask me if I can speak Spanish after hearing me read Spanish text out loud. The answer is no, I can’t, but I did attend the school language club’s Spanish lessons for long enough to learn how to pronounce it, and Spanish is a pretty phonetic language. Give me a can of food produced in a Spanish-speaking country and I can read the label to you in what is apparently quite convincing-sounding Spanish. Put me in Houston for five weeks, where all the signs on the public transport system are in English and Spanish and all the announcements are, too, and I can tell you in Spanish that, no, this is not a seat; that the next train on platform two goes to…; that you should take care when alighting from the bus not to step out in front of a car; and that no, I am sorry, but I don’t speak Spanish! Give me something complex to read, however, and I think it would quickly become obvious that I was reading without much comprehension. Am I literate in Spanish? Well, hardly by normal standards, but I can read it within some very narrow limits.

When I was younger, I volunteered to type drafts of translations of various books of the New Testament into Bislama, the lingua franca of Vanuatu, to help Rev Bill Camden, the head of the translation team for this project, who attended the same church as me. Bislama is a creole of English, French and several of the more widely spread indigenous languages, so although I did not speak the language, I found lots of the words very familiar. The grammatical structure is not very complex either, so it wasn’t too long before I got to the stage where I could often tell when there were errors in the manuscripts I was typing. Sometimes, as well as knowing that what I was typing wasn’t right, I could also make a decent stab at what it ought to have been. I wasn’t as fast a typist as the other volunteers, but I quickly became Bill’s favourite, because the others simply copied letter for letter what they had in front of them, whereas I provided a measure of proofreading as I went. Was I literate in Bislama? At one level, clearly I was – I could read it with sufficient understanding to spot errors in the manuscript. I could also take dictation over the phone. When I spotted a mistake, I’d ring Bill and he’d tell me what it should be and I’d type the correction into the manuscript. I couldn’t, however, write a sentence of any level of complexity (and no Vanuatuan would have understood my horrible pronunciation, but that’s a different issue). Since I was very familiar with the content in English of the texts I was typing there are definitely situations where I could have given the impression of a higher level of literacy than I actually had – something that Keith suggests might have been true of Jesus.

It is also certainly common now for people learning ‘dead’ languages to be taught to read them, but not to write them. It is also possible in many English-speaking universities to undertake courses in French and German for academic purposes which teach you how to read at a reasonably sophisticated level, but not to write or speak them. I was taught both Koine Greek and Coptic as reading languages and I’m sure that this is part of the reason that I find them so much harder to keep up than I do the French and German that I was taught to read, write and speak. I can see no reason why people in the first century would not also have only taken the time to gain the level of literacy that they needed in their everyday lives.

Keith makes some interesting points about different levels of literacy in first century Palestine, often corresponding to the needs of people in particular strata of society. There were lots of people who could read a bit, but not at the level of sophistication of the scholars of the time. He quotes information about how students were taught to read in Qumran before they were allowed to read out loud in worship.

Something that I have not seen mentioned by Keith (at least so far), or by anyone else, is the fact that the manuscripts that were available for reading at the time must have assumed a level of familiarity with the content, too. Not only did they not have any punctuation or breaks between words, the Hebrew texts were also unpointed (ie they only had consonants, and not vowels) and I have often wondered if this was partially a function of the fact that rabbis were encouraged to learn Scripture by heart. It is one thing to learn something by heart and recite it from beginning to end. It is quite another thing to learn something by heart and be able to start at any point and continue on. I have often thought that an unpointed text might well have functioned more as an aide memoire for someone who knew the whole text by heart than as a means of communicating the text to people who had never seen or heard it before.

Reading any unfamiliar first century manuscript out loud without significant preparation would have been considerably more difficult than is reading something like this blog, with its spaces between words, punctuation and full set of vowels.  Even the Greek manuscripts, which included vowels, would have been challenging, and my memory of reading about this suggests that the epistles were most likely performed by a literate member of the church community to the non-literate members after reading and rehearsal. We also have evidence from the early church Fathers that they trusted oral communication more than written, which is hardly surprising in such a heavily oral-leaning culture.

All of this is, I guess, a rather long-winded way of saying that so far Chris Keith’s book makes a lot of sense to me, but also raises some other issues.

And now for something completely different

Outlooks and Opportunities in Blended and Distance LearningDuring 2010, I was what a colleague referred to as ‘underemployed’. The church ran out of funding for my chaplaincy position and I spent time working as a research assistant/editor for a number of people around the University of New England. One of my jobs was doing research about how various universities offer postgraduate research degrees by distance education for the DEHub in its previous iteration as a consortium between five universities (four  Australian and one New Zealand). I was invited to present the findings at the international SUMMIT that they held in February 2011 and the paper has recently been published as a chapter in  Belinda Tynan, Julie Willems & Rosalind James (eds) Outlooks and Opportunities in Blended and Distance Learning Hershey PA, IGI Global, 2013. My chapter is “Communities of Practice for Distance Research Students in Australia: Why Do We Need Them and How Might We Create Them? (pp 346-352)” The book contains a range of interesting papers (another job that I had was to check that all the authors had implemented the reviewers’ suggestions or justified not doing so, so I have read them all), but it is quite expensive and probably of limited use to anyone who is not working in distance/blended learning.

One of my favourites is Mpine Makoe’s “The Pedagogical Suitability of Using Cell Phones to Support Distance Education Students” (pp 114-128), which talks about how she and her colleagues use mobile (cell) phones to provide support for students studying by distance in rural South Africa. She says:

The potential for using cell phones for educational purposes is enormous in a country of limited access to infrastructure that supports telephones, computers and broadband capacity for easy connectivity. In addition, few people have expertise of using computers. In the past ten years, cell phone users in Africa have increased to over 600 million, second only to Asia, (Reed 2011). In South Africa alone, the cell phone penetration is estimated at 98 percent. More than 90 per cent of University of South Africa (UNISA) students own or have access to a cell phone. Most of the cell phones they own have software features such as the internet, instant messaging platforms, pictures, video, music and games. Even the low-cost cell phones have some of these features that enable them to be used in education for collaboration, tutoring, research, reading and writing purposes (Prensky, 2004). The latest top of the range cell phones have the computing power of the mid-1990s computers while consuming one-hundredth of the energy (Prensky, 2004). Its mobility allows students to learn anytime, anywhere and everywhere.

Keegan (2005, p. 3) argues that ‘it is not technologies with inherent pedagogical qualities that are successful in distance education, but technologies that are generally available to citizens’. Since cell phones are used widely by a majority of distance education students, their use in teaching and learning is even more appropriate in a distance education context because they have the potential to reduce the formality of learning experiences that is not tied to a particular physical location. What this means in the South African context is that distance education students who live in remote rural areas can use cell phones to communicate with their lecturers and seek help from their peers. The efficacy of distance education in promoting access to marginalised students is premised on the notion that it can accommodate an increased and more diverse student population at reduced costs.

I found this concept amazing – I had to rethink my view of South Africa and of the use of mobile phones.

Goodacre’s ‘Thomas and the Gospels’ – a response

Tony Burke (who seems to have dropped the Chartrand from his name?) has recently posted a review of Mark Goodacre’s Thomas and the Gospels: the case for Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptics (Eerdmans/SPCK, 2012) – something I have been trying to find time to do for some time. In it, he expresses many of both my enthusiasms and reservations about the book and in some cases provides extra arguments to reinforce my opinions. I therefore don’t feel the need to write a systematic review when I can refer readers to Tony’s blog post. Instead, I plan to pick up some of the issues that struck me in particular along the way.

As an aside, though, let me mention that Mark’s publishers have moved into the multimedia world in publicising the book, so you can watch either a trailer or an 8 minute video interview, both linked from Mark’s NTBlog. I enjoyed watching them, but they in no way influenced me to buy the book which I had pre-ordered as soon as I could. I was also very pleased that it was published in paperback rather than hardcover, because it made a ‘must have’ book more affordable. It is clear, incidentally, that there are some subtle differences between the Eerdmans and SPCK editions, because Tony’s review mentions Kloppenborg’s comment on the back cover. My copy (the Eerdmans edition) has comments from Larry Hurtado, Dale Allison, Simon Gathercole and Klyne Snodgrass. No Kloppenborg. :-(

Overview

I expected the book to be well written, well researched, well argued and engaging and it is all of those things. As Tony comments, Mark presents his case in ‘an economy of space’, but he presents all the evidence clearly. Several authors I’ve read recently seem to have conserved space by saying things like ‘Bloggs says that the moon is blue’ without outlining Bloggs’ reasons for a highly contentious statement, as though the fact that Bloggs has said it means it requires no rationale. Mark provides the necessary outlines when he quotes, for which I was very grateful.

Later addendum
On rereading this some months down the track, I realise that nowhere did I say that this is an excellent book!! It made me think about some of the Thomas text in a different way and is a great addition to the field. I am very glad I bought it and read it. I just don’t happen to agree with everything Mark writes. :-)

There are three issues in particular that I want to comment on.

Dependence vs Familiarity

In the first chapter, there is a discussion (pp. 5-7) of the problematic nature of the word ‘dependence’. Mark suggests that it is a loaded term that is best avoided and that ‘knowledge’, ‘familiarity’ or ‘use’ are better. In practice, he tends to use ‘familiarity’ most of the time.  I wholeheartedly agree that the term is problematic and for all the reasons he outlines, but I  am not sure that he has found a workable solution, for two reasons.

The first is that, like dependence, the alternatives he suggests are all imprecise terms that are open to a range of interpretations. I would happily agree that I know my husband and children, but if someone were to ask me “do you know Mark Goodacre?” there are circumstances under which I would also say yes, even though we have never met. While there is a fighting chance that I would recognise him at an SBL annual meeting, I doubt that I would recognise him in a place where I wasn’t expecting him to be, but I am very familiar with his work, we are Facebook friends and I have seen quite a few photos of him. There are also circumstances in which I would say that I know Tony Burke, even though I have no idea what he looks like, because I am familiar with the field in which he works, have read his blog and some of his publications. I might also, however, say that I ‘know’ Flogging Molly, even though all I know about them is that they are a band that my husband and son both like, but whose music my daughter doesn’t enjoy.  ‘Familiarity’ has a similar number of different levels of meaning. Even ‘use’ is open to interpretation, since I can use things in ways and for purposes for which they were not intended.

The second reason is that I don’t think you can use ‘independence’ and reasonably expect that your audience will not hear ‘dependence’ as its opposite. Mark uses independence throughout the book and I certainly kept thinking of its opposite as dependence, even though I didn’t want to and Mark did not use it. It is, however, difficult to come up with a simple alternative, and maybe that points to another problem with the debate. What exactly are scholars saying when they say that Thomas is independent of the Synoptics? That the author of  Thomas did not have a copy of the manuscripts in front of him as he wrote? That the author had never heard of the Synoptics and had no idea what they contained? That he knew the content but did not deliberately consult the tradition in the preparation of his own manuscript?

It seems to me that a better option is simply to describe one’s theory about the relationship between two or more parallel texts and the likely trajectories through which they have travelled to reach their current forms, without trying to find a label when the options are open to as much difference in interpretation as are ‘dependent’, ‘knowledge’, ‘familiarity’ and ‘use’. One might say, for example, that the relationship between two texts is a literary one, with the author of one having had a written copy of the other in front of her/him during the composition of the later work. Or that it is a literary one, with both authors using a common written source which they may have been quoting from memory. Or that it is an oral relationship, or that we cannot be at all sure, given the evidence available. Or any one of a range of other options.

Literary Relationships and the ‘Plagiarist’s Charter’

Mark develops what he terms the ‘plagiarist’s charter’ (pp. 54-56) – that if a student copies only a small percentage of someone else’s work without appropriate acknowledgement, no one will accept the argument that the majority of the work was not plagiarised as proof that plagiarism had not occurred. In the same way, he argues, it is only necessary to demonstrate that a small amount of the material in Thomas is copied from the canonical gospels to demonstrate a literary relationship – it does not have to have been done consistently. While this is true, I think that it is not as easy to demonstrate that even a small amount of Thomasine material has been copied directly from the Synoptics as Mark suggests.

Like Tony, I do not find Mark’s work on verbatim agreements particularly strong. The verbatim agreements between the Greek texts of Thomas and the Synoptics are less than ten words long, and in some cases they are not exactly the same eg POxy 654:25-26 contains the text of Thom 4:2-3||Matt 19:30||Mk 10:31 in which there is a 7 or 8 word agreement in a group of 9 words. I have certainly had TurnItIn suggest to me on the strength of this kind of concurrence that in the paper I was writing on eyewitness testimony I may have neglected to cite material that I had quoted from an article on managment or marketing theory in a journal I had never heard of, let alone consulted.

Mark argues that the fact that the verbatim passages contain unusual words or a hapax legomenon is further evidence of a literary relationship, but this is not necessarily so. The psychological research on human memory and eyewitness testimony suggests that the things most likely to be remembered are those that someone finds interesting or striking and a person who likes words is likely to retain unusual ones, or unusual turns of phrase, so the fact that there is repetition of one or two unusual words is only an indication of familiarity with the tradition, not with the text. One of the examples Mark uses (see p. 47) is that of Werner Kelber using James Robinson’s account of the discover of the Nag Hammadi codices as the basis for his own. Mark highlights the use of a number of phrases, the most remarkable of which is “the ultimate act of blood revenge”, as clear evidence of a literary relationship (which is provable because Kelber provides a citation). While in this case we know that the relationship is a literary one, without Kelber’s citation, all that we could say would be that Kelber was familiar with Robinson’s wording. We would have no way of knowing whether Kelber had read Robinson’s book section or whether he had simply attended a lecture where Robinson was telling the story of the discovery, or even heard someone else tell the story of the discovery as they had heard it from Robinson. If a student hands in an essay which contains a small verbatim section of another work, we cannot tell whether s/he has had access to the original work or is simply using a quotation from it that s/he has found on the net or in a review of the work. In the same way, a verbatim quote of a short passage or several short passages from one of the Synoptics in another or in Thomas is not a guarantee that the author who has quoted the material had access to the entire text from which the excerpt comes.

In addition, I’m afraid I don’t find arguments about verbatim agreement between a Greek text and a Coptic text at all convincing. Even though Mark uses Bethge’s retroversion of the Coptic text into Greek, this retroversion was still created by someone who was very familiar with the canonical texts so could hardly help but have been influenced by that in his translations. I think it provides indication of possibilities rather than concrete evidence.

The Missing Middle

This is a new issue in the argument for a direct literary relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics. Mark argues that there are a number of times when Thomas fails to narrate the middle part of a particular parable or saying, so that there is a need to be familiar with the Synoptics in order for it to make sense (p. 109). He then provides examples. Like Tony I would argue that sayings 26 and 63 are not unintelligible without the Synoptic middles – one is only conscious of something missing because of familiarity with the Synoptics. I am not so sure about saying 89 (washing the inside of the cup) which Tony suggests is clear without the middle, but the Lukan version of this parable is not exactly clear, either, even with the middle added. I don’t find saying 100 (tribute to Caesar) unintelligible, and the fact that it does not have any contextual framing that explains why ‘they’ would show him a coin with Caesar’s image on it is not unusual for Thomas.  The other two, sayings 36 (what will you wear) and 57 (the weeds in the wheat), do indeed show signs of missing material, but given that we only have one manuscript of the Thomasine versions of these two sayings, the missing material could just as easily be a result of haplography on the part of a scribe at some stage between the autograph and NH II,2 as a result of Thomas assuming knowledge of the Synoptic versions of the stories.

In addition, I think that in trying to determine what kind of relationship there is between various parallels in early Christian texts, insufficient notice is taken of the fact that the Church holds that these accounts all stem back to the teachings of Jesus, which has been passed on orally for a significant period before it was written down. We tend to behave as though Jesus only ever told each parable once and that version was preserved in the form in which it left Jesus’ lips for some indeterminate period after which the gospel writers adjusted it to fit their particular theological purposes. In fact, it is highly likely that Jesus used his stories more than once, that in the manner of all good story-tellers, he adjusted both the framing and the actual wording as he interacted with his different audiences, and that those who heard the stories made their own adjustments as they passed on what they heard. This makes it extremely likely that extended verbatim correlations such as occur between the Synoptics are the result of a textual relationship where the author compared his version with an earlier document, but that shorter verbatim correlations, such as those that occur between the Synoptics and Thomas cannot be taken as conclusive evidence of anything other than a source which might be textual or oral that is shared by the authors of the texts.

In Conclusion

As I said at the outset, Mark’s book is well written, well researched, well argued and engaging and a ‘must have’ for any serious Thomas scholar. I am very pleased that I bought it. It has caused me to rethink how I understand the relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics and has helped me to begin to fit into place some ideas that have been wandering in my head for some time.

A very definite positive is Mark’s calling into question the problematic nature of the category ‘dependent’.  I don’t, however, think that simply substituting another word is the solution. I think we need to give up on shorthand terms and describe exactly how we believe parallel texts are related.

Ultimately, however, I am not convinced that the relationship between the parallel passages in Thomas and the Synoptics is based on the author of Thomas having had access to the text of one or more of the Synoptics.  This is not to say that I am convinced that it is impossible for this to be the case. I simply do not think that on the strength of  three Greek fragments and one Coptic text we have sufficient information to be able to make a definitive judgement. Like Tony, I still find April DeConick’s rolling corpus model the most useful model for the evidence we have.

Not Only a Father

One of the things I have been doing recently instead of working on my thesis is reading Tim Bulkeley’s book Not Only A Father. You can, too – for free because it’s online as well as available in paper form – and the online format allows you to comment or ask questions along the way, which is fun.

Tim is a Baptist who has been a pastor in Britain, a missionary in Africa and an Old Testament lecturer in New Zealand and he has been thinking about the way we name God and its implications since he started work on his PhD in the 1970s. The book takes a careful look at what language Scripture actually uses when it talks about God (not only Father and not only male, but also Mother and female) and also at the implications of insisting that Father is the only proper title for God and that male imagery is the only proper imagery for God.

I am liking the content and I like the fact that I can make comments and ask questions as I go, knowing that Tim will read them and quite likely respond. I am not, however, a big fan of reading books on line – I still like paper, especially for reference material. The interface is a bit ‘clunky’, but the material is very, very worthwhile.

Recent commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas

When I first started studying Thomas in about 2004, I asked about commentaries and was told that the only English language full commentary available was Richard Valantasis’  The Gospel of Thomas (London and New York: Routledge, 1997) and that I was really better off getting a copy of  Jacques Ménard’s L’Évangile Selon Thomas (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975).

Since then, there have been five commentaries published in English and one in German.  They are:

Nordsieck, Reinhard, Das Thomas-Evangelium: Einleitung: Zur Frage des historischen Jesus: Kommentierung aller 114 Logien.  (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2004).

DeConick, April D, The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, With a Commentary and New English Translation of the Complete Gospel (London: T & T Clark, 2006), together with the companion volume DeConick, April D, Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth (London: T&T Clark, 2005).

Plisch, Uwe-Karsten, The Gospel of Thomas : original text with commentary (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2008) – a translation from German.

Pokorný, Petr, Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas: From interpretations to the interpreted.  (T&T Clark Jewish and Christians Texts Series. New York: T&T Clark Ltd, 2009).

Hedrick, Charles W., Unlocking the secrets of the Gospel according to Thomas: a radical faith for a new age. (Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2010).

I have linked to my reviews of them, although the material on Plisch is in a post that gives another overview of commentaries, rather than (as yet) having a review of its own. In addition, two books have been published on Thomas this year (Chris Skinner’s What are they Saying About the Gospel of Thomas (Paulist) and Simon Gathercole’s The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas (Cambridge)) and a third, Mark Goodacre’s Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics (Eerdmans) is due out soon. Clearly, there is a significant increase in interest in Thomas!

Update (because I hit publish instead of save draft)

Hedrick’s commentary is suitable for a reader who is not a biblical scholar. The rest assume some knowledge of the discipline. DeConick and Plisch spend a significant amount of time looking at scholarship in the field and provide extensive bibliographies (as does Nordsieck, but in German). Porkorný and Hedrick place less emphasis on this and have much more limited bibliographies. It does not appear that Plisch’s commentary is available in paperback, but all the others are. All are worthy of attention in their own ways, but if I were only to buy two I would choose DeConick and Plisch and would recommend that you also buy DeConick’s companion volume.