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.

Why do non-canonical texts make us uneasy?

April DeConick poses this question on her blog and I thought, as someone who is studying a non-canonical text, I might have a go at answering it.

Several people have suggested that one of the reasons that the non-canonical texts make us uneasy is because there isn’t a centuries-long history of interpretation for us to fall back on, so we don’t know what they mean. I guess this may be true, but for me it’s an opportunity to look at text without any major preconceived ideas about its meaning. Of course, we don’t have available to us a huge range of other people’s interpretations, just the occasional writing of a Church Father indicating that the author has got it wrong in a big way. If you are among the earliest scholars of the text, you don’t know ahead of time which people you’re aligning yourself with and who you’re disagreeing with. This could make you very uneasy, because some of our colleagues are not exactly gracious when they disagree with you. 🙂

One thing that makes me uneasy about drawing conclusions from the extra-canonical texts is that we have so few copies of them. When you look at the number of copies of the canonical texts that are in existence and the differences between them, you realise just how difficult it is to make any definitive statements about a text when there are only one or two or a handful of copies in existence. You might have a very accurate version of the original text, or you might have a wild corruption and you have no way of knowing.

I think, however, that the primary reason that non-canonical texts make us uneasy (or at least those of us who have grown up in a Christian church, no matter what we believe now) is that they have generally been labelled “heresy” by the mainstream church. Heresy, as we all know, is devised by Satan to lead the faithful away from the one true faith and into eternal damnation, so these texts are dangerous. 🙂

In fact, this is not how I conceptualise heresy at an intellectual level, but the indoctrination of decades dwells deep within my psyche and looking at “heresy” makes me uneasy (although it clearly doesn’t stop me). Coming to non-canonical texts with an open mind means that you might end up being convinced by what they say and thus end up outside orthodoxy. Which is uncomfortable. You might even end up believing that you should try to convey your new understandings to the orthodox church, which has the potential to be very uncomfortable indeed.

This, I think, is why there was (and still is to a certain extent) such an interest in looking at whether or not Thomas is dependent on the synoptics, and in using dependent/independent language in the first place, rather than talking about whether Thomas might have used one of the synoptics as a source, as we do when talking about the relationship between Mark, Matthew and Luke. If we can show “dependency”, then we feel that we are in a stronger position to argue that it is safe to ignore anything in Thomas that comes into conflict with orthodox Christian doctrine. If it’s not dependent, then we may have “authentic words of Jesus”, which makes us uneasy, because we may have to think about changing long-accepted doctrine/theology.

April DeConick’s new website

Today, April DeConick announced the launch of her new professional website aprildeconick.com, which she is using to move many of the resources she provided on her blog to a new, permanent home. It contains a Gospel of Thomas page which, at the moment, summarises her main conclusions about GThom and includes an FAQ. For those who are interested in Gnosticism, there is also a Gospel of Judas page which contains a summary of her findings about GJudas, together with a useful bibliography, plus information about the Mandaeans, the last living Gnostics. The site also includes information about the Codex Judas Congress which will be held at Rice in March 13-16, 2008 and be attended by an exciting range of scholars.

The page also has information about her teaching and the programmes available at Rice. It’s well worth a visit, especially if you are interested in pursuing studies in the area.

Gospel of Thomas and Gnosticism

Just in case there are people who read this blog who do not also read April DeConick’s Forbidden Gospels blog, today she has posted a review of Alistair Logan’s book The Gnostics. This book is on my “to read” list, but unfortunately, that also means it has to be on my “to buy, probably from outside Australia” list, so it won’t happen in the next week or two. 😦 It is a response to the North American critique and rejection of the category “Gnostics” and I am really looking forward to reading what he has to say.

I find characterising Thomas with respect to gnosticism challenging. On the one hand, knowing and understanding are important for salvation in Thomas, so it fulfils the characterisation of ‘gnostic’ that I was taught in my theological education (which, of course, would not have been simplistic, would it????). On the other hand, there is no evidence of a worldview where demiurges and other divine or semi-divine beings are involved in the creation and ruling of the earth and the heavens which I only learned about post-theological education.

I thus find Michael Williams’ and Karen King’s critiques of the use of the term helpful, because when people use it, especially in relation to Thomas, I wonder exactly what they mean by “Gnostic” (and usually make myself unpopular by asking). Thomas certainly doesn’t fit into Williams’ “biblical demiurgy” category, but it does place more emphasis on knowing and understanding than do the canonical gospels or orthodox modern characterisations of Christianity.

I am hoping that Logan will shed more light on the issue.