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can find out more, including the names of trustworthy places on the web, whilst acknowledging that this can become out of date quite quickly.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