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

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 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.

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.