Is Thomas gnostic?

It appears that it is now possible to add polls to WordPress blogs (assuming one is able to deal with the tech bits), so I thought I’d do a slightly more serious one than I’ve seen on other blogs in the last day or so. When I tell people I’m doing a PhD on the Gospel of Thomas, many nod sagely and say “Oh, yes, the Gnostic gospel.” I actually don’t think it’s Gnostic but I’m wondering what other readers of this blog think. You will be pleased to see that there is an option where you can write in your own answer in case you don’t like any of mine. There is probably a character limit for the write-in box. If you find out what it is, please let me know. 🙂


It appears that the comments in “other” don’t show up when you check the votes, so I will paste them here. So far, there are three:

  • Wisdom literature with gnostic overtones
  • It’s eclectic – wisdom traditions, mystic traditions, gnostic traditions, synoptic
  • Gnostic, but only because that’s what I read somewhere.

Update 2

And a fourth:

  • Wisdom open to gnostic interpretation

Update 3

The results say there are now five comments, but I can only find four.  I may have accidentally deleted it when I pressed ctrl-W instead of shift-W If your comment hasn’t been included, you might like to post a comment or email me at jredman2 at une dot edu dot au and I’ll put it up anonymously.

Poster Presentations

Recently, April DeConick updated her website on the Codex Judas Congress to be held at Rice University 13-16 March 2008. All the paper titles are up now and it looks really fascinating, with a wide range of speakers presenting papers – a real who’s who of gnostic studies from a range of perspectives, including Prof Majella Franzmann, my doctoral supervisor. Pity it’s on the other side of the world and outside my actual research area. 😦

I am trying to stay away from the site to help control my basic envy, but I did notice on my last visit that there are some very useful links to pages on the web about doing poster presentations. Although I have seen some very effective science-based posters presented at conferences, I have always found the concept of presenting a poster for a religion/humanities topic rather puzzling, so have never offered one. These links are helpful.

DeConick’s “Thirteenth Apostle”

As some will be aware, I was working at Rice University when April DeConick’s new book The Thirteenth Apostle was in the final stages of preparation. I proofread the main body of the text and one or two of the appendices that April was preparing. I was impressed enough to want my own copy of the final book, even though Gospel of Judas isn’t my particular area of specialty, because it contains a very good overview of Gnosticism and a number of other useful features as well as the commentary on the text of the Gospel.

I looked at the Coptic text of the relevant passages and read her arguments for her interpretation of the text through very carefully and they make sense to me. I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of my own copy – it’s due within the next few days – and plan to write a review once I’ve finished writing the conference paper that’s been hanging over my head for the last several weeks. In the meantime, you might like to look at the review on the Baptist Press website that also includes a report of an interview between April and Gregory Tomlin. My only criticism of it is that it lists the Gospel of Thomas as a Gnostic text and I don’t agree with this! You might also like to read what she has to say about her translation and about the problems that scholars are having in gaining access to the facsimiles of the text.

Update 9 Nov

My copy has arrived and I am very surprised.  I really thought I was going to get a paperback, but it’s hardcover.  I cannot believe that I paid $13.57 US for a hardcover new release book!  Of course, the postage and handling were almost as much as the book itself, but it’s still amazingly reasonably priced, especially given the very favourable exchange rate at the moment.  The last DeConick book I bought cost waaaaaaay more. 🙂

Wisdom from the past

I was recently taken by something that R McLean Wilson wrote in his very early Studies in the Gospel of Thomas (A R Mowbray and Co, London, 1960). He introduces his consideration of the Gnostic element in Thomas by saying:

In the study of an ancient document much depends upon the pre-suppositions with which we begin, on the questions with which we approach the examination of the text.(p 14)

He goes on to say that if you concentrate on details and isolate passages from one another, while you may produce useful information, you may also miss the “range and sweep” of the document. General impressions acquired by looking at the text as a whole, however, may be misleading if not combined with a detailed examination. As Wilson so rightly states, if you start with the assumption that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, you can find evidence for dependence, and if you start with the assumption that it’s independent, many of the same things will provide evidence for that, so your initial assumptions are important.

I think Wilson’s comment is sound advice for all studies of ancient text. The challenge is to approach texts with a reasonably open mind and to look at the problematic elements and ask “What sorts of things might cause/explain this? Which of these is most likely and why? What are the minimum conditions that need to apply in order for explanation A to be true? And explanation B? And C, if there is a C? If it doesn’t fulfill either/any of the minimum conditions, what have I missed?”

I try to use this methodology on all occasions and hope that I am usually successful. 🙂

Hiatus explanation

Over the last week or two I’ve been very busy doing the things I get paid to do (ie being a university chaplain) and thinking about a paper for the upcoming postgraduate conference here at UNE. I’ve also been reading Birger Pearson’s new book Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).

The chaplaincy has taken up so much time because we had a seminar yesterday on God and climate change and it took quite a lot of time to organise. I spent the first half of the week waking up in the middle of the night worrying that we wouldn’t get anyone arrive and then, after I’d done three radio interviews, the second half of the week waking up worrying that we’d get too many for the venues I’d booked. As it turned out, we got nice numbers and good discussion and lots of positive feedback.

The postgraduate conference is something of a challenge. Our university has recently been reorganised to streamline admin so we now have only two faculties and I am enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (the other is The Professions). I imagine that organising the papers being offered by postgrad students (that’s grad students if you come from the US) for that kind of range of disciplines is going to be something of a nightmare. There is a theme: “Global Directions • Regional Futures • Tomorrow’s Leaders”, but we don’t have to address it, which is just as well. I’m not sure how I could squeeze a paper on my area to fit this theme!

I’ve decided, in the interests of being accessible to as wide an audience as possible, to look at some of the psychological material on factors affecting the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and see what that might say to biblical scholars about the usefulness of being able to identify parts of the gospels as eyewitness testimony. (See my comments on Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.) I submitted the abstract earlier in the week and will now have to wait and see if it is accepted. In the meantime, I have a small stack of journal articles and a few suggestions from one of the Psychologists on staff about classic works that I need to read to get me going.

I’m about a third of the way through Pearson’s book and am finding it the most readable introduction to Gnosticism I’ve embarked on. Some of this may be due to the fact that I’m somewhat more interested in the topic than I was two years ago when I was reading to get some background for my thesis and some to the fact that this is the first book I’ve read that wasn’t a translation from another language, but so far I think that it’s money well spent. I’ll write a review once I’ve finished it.

April DeConick on Gospel of Judas

April DeConick’s new book The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas really says is now available for pre-order on Amazon in the UK, Canada and the US and she has posted a synopsis of the chapters on her blog. While I was at Rice earlier this year, I was able to read a very late draft of the book itself and see the appendices in development. I would highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in Gospel of Judas and how it fits into the Gnostic spectrum.

The text itself is very readable and I think it will be accessible to a general readership while providing enough “meat” to engage those with more expertise in the area. She lays out her case for disagreeing with the National Geographic team clearly and presents very convincing alternatives to those sections of the text that the National Geographic team use to present Judas as a hero, together with an overall understanding of the nature of the text that makes a great deal of sense.

The appendices also provide a fantastic set of resources for anyone who wants to delve further into Gospel of Judas, second-century Christianity, the New Testament Apocrypha, Gnosis and the Gnostics and Sethian Gnosticism. She presents lists of references in a very convenient form that will save newcomers to the field (and probably also more experienced scholars) a huge amount of time and work. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the final version.