Speeches of Jesus & the Canon – Perrin on Thomas (2)

In the next chapter of Nicholas Perrin’s Thomas, the Other Gospel, I find myself surprised again, this time by a comment about April DeConick’s work. He says on p 61 that either she must develop a very complicated explanation of how the early church took “these Jesus speeches” and cut them up and recombined them or her position “virtually entails that the storyline preserved in Mark is entirely mythological”. I don’t see why this must be so.

It seems to me that although the canonical texts and GosThom are all called “gospels”, the canonical gospels serve a different purpose to GosThom.*

  • The canonical gospels are trying to do two things: to tell people what Jesus taught; and to show people that what he taught is worth paying attention to.  Thus, they need to give information about his life and his work as well as what he taught. They therefore present his teaching within a context that makes it obvious that Jesus was somewhat different to your run of the mill teacher of wisdom.
  • GosThom is only trying to do one of those things. It starts with the presumption that its readers believed that what Jesus taught was worth paying attention to. They didn’t need convincing – they just needed to know what he said. GosThom therefore only presents context when it is necessary to understand the teaching. It makes no suggestion that it attempts an orderly account of Jesus’ life and ministry, just a collection of the sayings of Jesus that need to be understood in order to escape death.

Accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry in the canon

It seems to me that a considerable amount of scholarship and general Christian interpretation of the New Testament assumes that Jesus only ever said anything once. Thus, if one author presents a saying in one context and another has it in a different one, one of them must be wrong, or at the very least, have engaged in some creative editing. This, in turn, leads to some quite creative explanations of apparent contradictions in the texts.

It would seem to me, though, that if Jesus went to place A where they were doing X (which was wrong) he would have taught against X there. If he visited place B where they were also doing X, he would have taught against it there as well. If they were doing X in places C, F and J, then he would have taught against it there as well. However, given that it is highly unlikely that he just had the one speech that he trotted out in each place, and that he tailored what he had to say to the circumstances, the teaching against X could have been “written up” in any one of five different contexts if a narrative that was presenting the highlights of Jesus’ teaching were being written. (None of the gospels purports to be an exhaustive account of Jesus’ ministry.) The saying against X might have stayed in the writer’s mind linked with any one of a number of other sayings, depending on whether s/he was remembering what happened at A, B, C, F or J. Mark’s sources and Thomas’ sources may have been remembering different occasions where Jesus taught particular things, linked with different sets of teachings. Thus, differing accounts of the same teaching with a slightly different “spin” in a different context might simply be totally accurate recalls of different occasions where Jesus was reacting to the different circumstances in which he found himself.

I think that total accuracy is rather unlikely and that some of the differences are explained by how human memory works (which I explain in detail in my JBL article), but that’s not particularly relevant here. What is relevant is that the early Church didn’t seem to have any problem with the differing accounts – they canonised all four gospels, after all.

Recording Jesus’ teachings as speeches

In a situation where you are not attempting to provide Jesus with credentials, but simply to record his teachings, the overall context in which he said them is not important, although sometimes the audience makes a difference, or what he was responding to.  As DeConick suggests on pp 65-6 of Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (London. T&T Clark. 2005), it may be that Jesus’ teachings on five different themes were put together as though they were speeches to enable them to be remembered more readily for oral performance (and to help the audience to remember them). If the content of the sayings were what was considered important, not their settings, then there is no problem about grouping them together so that teachings about a particular issue are together, and so that they build around a theme.

DeConick says on p 66 of Recovering:

When intense study is made of these discourse units, it appears that someone familiar with older sentences of Jesus has secondarily developed them into dialogues and elaborate question and answer units between Jesus and his disciples.

This has implications for the argument that the author of GosThom did not use one of the canonical gospels as a source because it would make no sense to take units that are put together and rip them apart and scatter them throughout another document. It might make sense if you were wanting to produce some kind of thematic overview of Jesus’ teachings. OTOH, it might also be that your source for Jesus’ teaching was the testimony of a different eyewitness who had been present when Jesus combined his teachings in a different way to address a different circumstance. It does not, however, require either a complex theory about how the early church cut up Jesus’ speeches or that the storyline in Mark is “entirely mythological”. The speeches are speeches of oral tradents, not speeches of Jesus.

An aside – the footnote from above

*I often read that GosThom is not really a gospel because it doesn’t have narrative, but it seems to me that modern scholars are the ones who have decided that the gospel genre/Gattung requires narrative. Euangelion simply means “good news” or “good message” and GosThom certainly contains that – it begins by telling us that whoever finds the meaning of the teachings in it will not die. I suspect that the people who wrote the texts that bear the title “euangelion” (or attached those titles to them) did not realise that there was a genre called “gospel” and that they had to obey rules in order to be able to use the title!

Belief in Jesus? – Perrin on Thomas

I am currently reading Nicholas Perrin’s  Thomas, the Other Gospel (London: SPCK, 2007). It’s been on my shelf for ages but something else has always pushed itself to the fore until now.

He begins by outlining his project – the quest for the historical Gospel of Thomas, then outlines the work of Stephen J Patterson, Elaine Pagels and April DeConick,indicating where he agrees and disagrees with their approaches, before (I assume, because I haven’t read that far yet) providing an approach of his own. I have been struck by a number of things that will require some careful digestion, but something that I found really odd was his comment on p 51 that salvation in GosThom “did not, at any rate, involve belief in Jesus”.

I found it odd because the whole of the gospel is sayings of Jesus which, one assumes, the reader who wishes not to experience death must believe. Surely, then, belief in Jesus is as essential a part of Thomas Christianity as it is of any other kind of Christianity? The issue, I guess is belief in Jesus as what?. Thomas requires belief in Jesus as Teacher of Truth, while Apostolic Christianity, at least as it is practised in more Evangelical circles today, requires belief in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

Why study early Christianity?

A few days ago, one of my FaceBook friends who is studying theology as a candidate for ordination in the Uniting Church in Australia (ie my denomination) put up a status update saying she was fascinated by the reading she was doing on the Gospel of  Thomas, to which someone else responded that they’d immediately thought of Thomas the Tank engine. This got the response from someone else that you would learn as much about salvation from Thomas the Tank Engine as from the Gospel of Thomas.

This caused me to wonder just how many people read the Bible simply to learn about salvation, and how many people study theology/biblical studies just to learn about salvation? It has certainly never been one of my motivations, but I am a big fan of knowledge for its own sake rather than for how I can use it.

Having said that, if my sole reason for studying early Christian manuscripts was to learn about salvation, then it is possible to learn things from GosThom if you have an enquiring mind. About 50% of GosThom has parallels in one or more of the Synoptics and I certainly find that when I read the material I’m working on (the parables of the Reign/Kingdom of God in GosThom and their parallels, where there are any, in the Synoptics) it causes me to view the canonical material with new eyes. I find myself saying “Oh, I didn’t realise that it said that!” So, you know, if the Bible is really the inspired word of God and God really does speak to us through it . . . 🙂

Hmm – I wonder if I should tag this as a “reasonably intemperate rant”???

PS: I would actually be interested in why other people study early Christianity – do you do it to learn about salvation or for some other reason?

Eyewitness Testimony and Psychology

Update 21 April

My article “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research” appears in the latest edition of Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010) 177-197. April DeConick mentions it in a very flattering way on her blog, the paper version arrived in my mailbox a week or more ago and today I received an email saying that is is now available for free to SBL members at the JBL website.

Richard Bauckham suggests in his 2006 book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that we can be significantly more confident than form critics suggest about the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus life and ministy. In response, I examine the psychological literature on eyewitness testimony and human memory, asking:

  • What light does psychological research shed on the extent to which information obtained from eyewitness accounts could be considered to be accurate information about the historical Jesus?
  • What consequences does this have for the way biblical scholarship might treat eyewitness accounts?

I was just about ready to submit the article for publication when the JSHJ and JSNT issues with critiques of the book and Bauckham’s responses to them were published, so it also takes into account the comments and Bauckham’s somewhat more nuanced expression of his position. I was relieved to discover when I read them that no-one had written “my” article. 🙂 I’m not going to put my conclusions up here because justifying them would take more space than one can reasonably put in a blog post and I’d rather have people critique what I actually wrote than what they think I might have written.

The article began as a paper for SBL Auckland in 2008. I ended up reading 80-90 papers and books to get my head around the psychological literature. An early version of the review of the psychological literature was read by one of the psychologists at UNE who has done significant work in eyewitness testimony and a near-to-final draft was read by a psychologist at University of Otago, so I’m confident that I haven’t done anything outrageous with the psychological evidence. I’ve found it very useful background for my doctoral research and also for the teaching on biblical criticism I have been doing  for the Earliest Christianity unit in my School over the past few weeks.

Like April, I am very pleased to see it in print at last and I’m grateful for her support and that of my two doctoral supervisors (advisers) Profs Lynda Garland (UNE) and Majella Franzmann (Otago) and my family during the production period.

Christians and Biblical Scholarship

It matters how you understand God

No, I don’t mean how (if at all) you think God communicates with human beings. Rather, I mean that how you understand God to work in the world has a significant effect on how you do Biblical Studies. I am about to try to articulate coherently something that’s been wandering around in the back of my mind for a while, so I hope it makes sense. And perhaps I should warn you at this stage that the example I use in this post deals with material that some people might find upsetting because of their own personal experience.

A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a copy of the updated edition of her book about how she coped with her grief at the tragic death of her 21 year old son. It’s now ten years since he died and the new section talks, amongst other things, about her communication with other Christians who have found the book helpful.

She writes very well but the way she copes with the family tragedy requires a view of how God works in the world that I just don’t share. She sees her son’s death as the result of being hit by a car whilst on a family holiday in Canada as part of God’s sovereign plan for his life. In other words, her world/faith view says that God has a quite detailed plan for each person and that this plan includes taking her son up to heaven after a relatively short life.

It works for her and for many other Christians, but not for me (and others like me), because I cannot see how you can insert human free will into this kind of understanding. I see God as offering a more general game plan for human beings as a whole and allowing us to choose how closely we follow it. I see something like stepping out in front of a car because you were looking the wrong way in a country where the traffic drives on the other side of the road as human error, not part of a divine plan. Where God comes in is in helping us to deal with the effects of human action, not in determining the human action. I don’t plan to go into detail about this issue because this is not a blog on Christian theology and I have no intention of debating the rights and wrongs of particular theological perspectives here, nor of trying to suggest that someone else’s experience of God is wrong.

What, though, does this have to do with Biblical Studies?  Well, it seems to me that how Christians view and analyse biblical texts depends on what they think about how God acts in human history. It depends on whether they think that Jesus came to earth with a detailed plan of action or with general guidelines that enabled him to function in the situations in which he found himself, and on how much they think that God is involved in the events of everyday life.

If Jesus had a detailed plan of action, and God is involved in the minutiae of everyday life, then the areas that are open for discussion in the biblical texts are fairly limited. Which of the multitude of early manuscripts available to us represent the best witness to the original text is certainly one. Arising from this, what constitutes the received text is another. Other than that, the focus must be on translation and interpretation. Research on the effects of oral transmission, eyewitness testimony and memory is meaningless because God’s intervention has ensured that what was transmitted and remembered is accurate. Understanding the copying process and the errors arising from it would help to evaluate the manuscript tradition, but because God is in control, the possible thought processes or belief systesm of redactors is irrelevant.

If Jesus had guidelines and God intervenes to provide support when things go wrong rather than to affect what happens, much more is up for grabs. There is worth in tracing back the processes of redaction, oral transmission etc because it helps to explain how the text came into being and what it might originally have said. It is possible to suggest that what happened during Jesus’ encounter with the Cananite/Syrophonecian woman was that Jesus became aware that his ministry was not just to the Jews, something he had not understood until then, that he wasn’t just being rude and offensive to test whether she, as an outsider, had enough faith to be worthy of becoming an insider. It is possible to ask “Did God really say that, or is this an adjustment that’s been made later to fit a particular understanding of what was happening at the time?”

The fundamental issue for biblical interpretation by Christians is, I suppose, how we understand the notion that Scripture is “inspired by God”. People who prefer to speak about this as “God-breathed” and understand that it therefore has a guarantee of accuracy are going to read the first part of my forthcoming JBL article on pyschological research on eyewitness testimony and memory and say “yes, but what does that have to do with the Bible?” and disregard my conclusions. Those who think that it means more that God nudged people to write down in their own words how they experienced God in action in their lives are going to find it quite interesting, even if they don’t agree with my conclusions.

Those in one group are not going to be convinced by the arguments of those in the other about meaning and interpretation unless they change their fundamental understanding of how God works. This is not to say that we should keep saying what we believe because there are some people who hear the arguments from the other perspective and say “Ah, finally this makes sense … now, how do you get to that point?” For the majority, however, the answer to the question “But can’t you see that this makes more sense” is “no, no, I can’t because it doesn’t” and trying to convince them with logic at the level of the current point in question is a waste of everyone’s time. I don’t know about yours, but my time is too precious to waste on this kind of venture.

Objectivity and interpretation of texts

I started writing this post several days ago in response to Christopher Skinner’s interesting post on his PEJE IESOUS blog. It’s part of a conversation with April DeConick about perspectives – here and here.  In his post, he talks about the fact that we all bring biases and presuppositions to our interpretation of texts so that it is impossible to be totally objective in our interpretations. Wade Greiner, April’s husband, has a post that suggests that while everyone has biases, not all biases are equal. Since then, April has added two more posts. The first,  entitled “Choosing your method” outlines her operating principles and is particularly helpful.  The second expresses her frustration at the way the medium allows for misinterpretation. Skinner has posted twice more on the general subject.  James McGrath also has a helpful post. I have previously touched on this issue, but want to explore it further, looking at a different way of thinking about it that I find helpful.

The reader response theory of literary criticism tries to take the differing perspectives of different readers/interpreters seriously, although it is open to serious abuse if taken too far. In part, it sees readers of a text as belonging to particular “interpretive communities” (a term which I think was coined by Stanley Fish), which influence the way in which they interpret particular texts. I think that another way of saying this is that the interpretive community to which one belongs influences the questions one asks of the text and the assumptions one makes about the text. Most of us belong to multiple interpretive communities, which sometimes results in interesting approaches to texts.

When I look at texts from early Christianity for the purposes of my doctoral studies, I ask different questions of them to those that I ask when I am preparing to preach or lead Bible study.  For my doctoral work which I do primarily as part of the interpretive community of academic scholars of studies in religion, I ask “what does this tell me about early Christian communities – how they lived, what they believed, etc?” If I were working on something different I might also be asking  “what does this tell me about the historical Jesus?”, but whatever I ask, I am using the historical-critical method as an end in itself and if I don’t use it properly, I’m in big trouble.

When I am preparing to preach or lead Bible study,  which I do primarily as part of the interpretive community of  Christian biblical scholars, I ask “what does this tell me about how early Christians related to/understood God?” and “what does this tell me about how I should live as a faithful Christian in the twenty-first century?” I have to be aware of the historical context in order to answer  the preaching/teaching questions or I could come up with some very weird answers, so I still have to use the historical-critical method properly.  Knowing the historical context is not the purpose of my questioning, though, it’s a stepping stone to developing a credible theology.

As a practising Christian, I am aware that I make different assumptions about GosThom to the ones I make about the Synoptics, even when I am not wearing my “minister” hat. I am getting better and better at catching myself at it, though. Although I don’t actually believe that there are questions one may not ask about those texts that the church calls Scripture,  I know that there are some questions that it just doesn’t occur to me to ask because I “know” the answers so well. Atheist scholars have different blind spots as a result of belonging to that particular interpretive community. For example, I think they are prone to writing off the unusual as superstition more quickly than is always warranted. James Crossley and Mike Bird’s How Did Christianity Begin?, which I have reviewed, provides a good illustration about the differing assumptions that an atheist and Christian scholar might bring to the texts of early Christianity.

Feminist scholars, womanist scholars, people of colour etc all bring different foundational assumptions to the text from their interpretive communities. I don’t see that there is anything preventing people from all these interpretive communities from doing good historical-critical work or good theology as long as they are aware that they are bringing these biases.

I don’t see that belonging to a confessional interpretive community necessarily prevents one from doing good historical-critical work, either. It depends on the particular confessional community. Things become problematic when the interpreters come from confessional interpretive communities that make strong faith claims such as “God dictated every word of Scripture, so it cannot contradict itself” – which requires some incredible gymnastics of the text  or “The Spirit speaks to me and tells me how to interpret Scripture in today’s world” – which may result in interpretations that have no real basis in the text in its context.

I think I need to finish here in the interests of getting this posted before this topic becomes totally passe. 🙂

A quote to consider

I didn’t want to call this “quote of the day” lest someone think that if they come back tomorrow and the next day there will be two others, but it is certainly the quote that sprang out at me from today’s reading.

The modern reader, critic, and yes, even the person of faith, must remember that the authors of the four canonical Gospels never asked us to read them, to treasure them, or to treat them as scripture (Patterson, Stephen. “Can You Trust a Gospel? A Review of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 6, no. 2 (2008): 194-210.)

Not, of course, an original thought. In fact, Andrew Lloyd Webber came at the idea from a different angle when he wrote in the lyrics of “The Last Supper” from Jesus Christ Superstar:

Always hoped that I’d be an apostle.
Knew that I would make it if I tried.
Then when we retire, we can write the Gospels,
So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.

I wonder, sometimes, at what some of we Christians do with the Biblical texts and the burdens we place on them that their authors never envisaged them having to carry. If had they known that over the ensuing centuries scholars would argue over minute sections of their writings and about the significance of articles and prepositions, I wonder if they would have had the courage to put anything in writing in the first place! Even if God was inspiring them.