Eyewitnesses – accuracy, reliability and trustworthiness

In two of her posts to the biblical-studies list colloquium on Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Liz Fried has raised the issue of witness reliabilty vs truth. Reading them has clarified for me a half-formed thought that has been annoying me for weeks. I was trying to get at it in my post “Testimony as History” but couldn’t quite articulate the problem.

In her post entitled Question for Prof. Bauckham, Fried says that in the discourse of psychology and statistics, her former area of study, “reliability” refers to whether or not a test elicits the same results each time a particular person takes the test. A reliable witness is one who tells the same story every time s/he is asked to say what happened. The test may not be accurate (ie it may not really test what it purports to test) and the witness may be repeating a totally fabricated account, but they are still reliable in the sense that they are consistent.

and in her post RE: [biblical-studies] Bauckham replies to Fried, she says:

A very important experiment was done in the 50’s. Subjects were shown a scene of people standing on a crowded bus. Two people were standing in the middle of the bus facing each other holding on to a pole. One was black, wearing a suit and tie, and holding a briefcase. The other was white, wearing overalls, and holding a wrench.

Subjects were to report back, the next week I believe, to tell the researcher privately what they saw.

The majority of subjects switched the races, they believed they saw the black man in overalls and the white man in a suit and tie. Some reported additionally that the black man was holding a knife (not a wrench). And rather than simply facing each other on a crowded bus, some subjects saw a hostile confrontation.

The point is that people’s perceptions are affected by their prior beliefs. People see what they expect to see.

Besides the research on eye-witness testimony, another important research area is that of story-embellishment . . . Personal stories are embellished with each telling. Gaps are filled in by the teller to supply details poorly understood or unavailable, and they are filled in according to the teller’s idea of what “must have been.” With the next telling these embellished details are recounted as part of what he saw, not part of what he invented.

So, it is not enough to provide evidence that the written versions of the canonical gospels were eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry. As Fried points out, eyewitnesses can misremember what they saw if it conflicts with what they already know/believe/expect, and they can embellish their accounts. Bauckham draws attention to the possibility of embellishment when he mentions Rossini’s account of his attempt to meet Beethoven.

As I understand him, Bauckham is saying that the written version of the canonical gospels were produced in communities where eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus ministry, death and resurrection were still alive and controlled the way in which accounts of these events were recorded. In order for this to be of any value, we need also to be able to identify which eyewitnesses were in control of the accounts and that be sure that they were producing accurate (ie trustworthy) rather than simply reliable (ie consistent) accounts. Bauckham, I think, is assuming that an account that has been controlled by an eyewitness up to the point where it is recorded in writing is more likely to be accurate than one than an account that has gone through a number of iterations of oral transmission between its accuracy being checked by an eyewitness and being written down.

While this may be true, to what degree it is true will depend on a variety of things, including how comfortable the eyewitness in question is about having a “warts and all” account of her/his role in events being recorded for posterity and how seriously a community might take its role in preserving an accurate account. Many communities have at least one person with a memory like a steel trap and an inclination to say “hey, wait a minute – last time you told this story you said X, not Y”, whereas some people are very uncomfortable about appearing in a bad light in public. I think it’s quite clear that most of the people who appear in the canonical gospels would benefit from the services of a good public relations officer, but whether this means that the accounts of their actions are accurate or simply written by someone who didn’t like them much is something that I don’t think we can determine empirically from this far away in time from the actual events.

I don’t think that we can assume that accounts recorded under the influence of eyewitnesses are necessarily more accurate than those recorded some time after eyewitnesses ceased to have influence over their transmission without making some assumptions about the eyewitnesses. On the other hand, I don’t think we have to assume that they are necessarily less accurate, either.

Christian scholars start from the assumption that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, a teacher/miracle worker who lived in first century Palestine. The majority also assume that the people who recorded the canonical accounts of his life and teaching (and death and resurrection) are trustworthy people who were doing their best to record these accurately (although there are some who would make more radical claims about the accuracy of the gospel texts). Atheist/agnostic scholars do not necessarily assume that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person and may well assume that the early Christians were engaged in a careful conspiracy to trick people into becoming involved in their religious movement. In other words, whether or not you consider a leader of the early church to be a trustworthy eyewitness will depend on your faith stance about Christianity.

So while I am happy to accept Bauckham’s argument that eyewitness testimony was an acceptable form of recording history at that time, I am not sure where it gets us, because we have no independent standard against which to judge whether or not these eyewitnesses were trustworthy ie whether or not they provided accurate accounts of what they witnessed. Without that, Christians are still making faith claims about the trustworthiness of the eyewitnesses, which I don’t think is any different to making faith claims about the trustworthiness of the process of community-based oral transmission without eyewitness influence. I would want to make those faith claims, but I can also see why those outside Christianity might not find them especially convincing. I think we are still left with the reality that it is not possible to “logic” someone into faith, no matter how much we would like it to be otherwise. 🙂

Thomas as “authentic Jesus tradition” – more thoughts

As I was driving to the university this morning, it occurred to me that my response to the notion of Thomas from a Christian theological perspective was just a tad too cavalier. (I am blaming this on jet lag, because I can. 🙂 ).

I am very dubious about our ability to recover the exact words that Jesus spoke. I am more confident that we can recover authentic Jesus content in terms of ideas and teachings, but not necessarily as Jesus said it. What we have available is manuscripts that give us some idea of how various early Christian communities understood Jesus’ teachings. How relevant they are for the Christian church today depends to a large extent on the framework in which they were understood at the time. How close was the framework to that which the Church currently understands as orthodox?

Michael Williams calls into question the usefulness of the term Gnosticism, as does Karen King. Williams suggests that there was a group of people who

  1. accepted the biblical demiurgical proposition that the cosmos was not created as a result of the initiative of the highest God,
  2. were intensely interested in speculation about the true nature of divinity and the supracosmic realms
  3. were focussed on the soul’s eventual transcendence of the created order and on patterns of spirituality that would contribute to this goal
  4. saw nothing un-Christian in these views. (Rethinking Gnosticism Princeton University Press, 1999, 261-262)

He calls this position “biblical demiurgical”. Orthodox Christianity clearly does see something un-Christian in these views and non-canonical manuscripts that come out of this framework are not of much use to the Christian theologian, but I don’t see Thomas as fitting into this category because I don’t see evidence of 1. or 2. in the text. So, if it is not biblical demiurgical/gnostic, is early and is likely to contain authentic Jesus tradition, I think that the Church needs at least to ask questions like: What if the councils of the early Church got it wrong? How different would our practice of the faith look if we added Thomas to our mix of Scripture? Thomas was condemned as heresy by some of the early Fathers, but is there a problem with the text itself or was it with how the communities who held it to be authoritative used it? How important is the tradition of the Church in determining what we believe and how we live today? (Of course, different branches of the Church will answer this last quite differently.)

Gospel of Thomas as “authentic Jesus tradition”

I recently received an email which asked me what I think the implications of assuming an early dating for Gospel of Thomas might be on our understanding of the canon, given that one would assume that an early manuscript would (likely) contain significant amounts of authentic Jesus tradition. I found this a very interesting question and thought I might share my musings about it on this blog. This is what I think at the moment. I make no promises that I will still hold this position in six months’ time and am very happy for readers to disagree with me.

I don’t think that this is a question that has been addressed in any systematic way by scholars, although it is the logical question to ask about material that has been named as early and independent of the canon. My feeling is that the original Thomas scholarship was largely done by Christian Biblical scholars who really, really, really hoped that they would not need to revise two milennia of Christian scholarship, so they began with the hope that they could show that Thomas was not “more authentic” (whatever that might mean) than the canonical material and they breathed a huge sigh of relief when they decided that it was dependent on one or more of the synoptics and/or clearly gnostic. Since then, there has been a lot of debate about whether or not Thomas is “dependent” on the canonical gospels (although I don’t see people suggesting that Matthew and Luke are “dependent” on Mark) but I don’t recollect any of those people who have argued that Thomas is independent suggesting that this might have any effect on how we view the canon.

I think before we answer the question, though, we need to ask what we think an “authentic Jesus tradition” actually is and what it signifies.

I think that Christians in general tend to read the canon and gain the impression that Jesus only ever taught any of his teaching or told any of his parables once, so there is only one authentic original version of Jesus’ teachings. I don’t, however, think that this is particularly likely. Given that Jesus was an itinerant preacher/teacher/miracle worker who was trying to convince the Jewish people of his day that they’d strayed quite a distance from God’s desired path for them, it seems far more likely to me that he had a core of teachings that he used in most places, complete with a set of illustrations that went with them, but that he would have made adjustments to how he told them according to the audience he was talking to. So, he told his agricultural illustrations somewhat differently to a group of farmers to the way he did to a group of town-dwellers etc and he may have used different illustrations to make the same point depending on his audience. Thus, different audiences would have heard somewhat different versions of the same stories – same general thrust but different details. In other words, there could well have been several authentic versions of at least some of Jesus’ parables and sayings and we have no way of deciding which, if any of them, is the “best”, most “authentic” version. If we don’t accept this, then what do we do with the parallel versions of parables and sayings within the synoptic tradition?

In addition, as Bauckham points out in his book, the way that eyewitnesses retell stories varies. If you ask a group of people who have witnessed an event to tell you what happened, you’ll get a range of different accounts because of things like vantage points, personal situations and interest etc. So, four different people going away from hearing Jesus and telling their friends/family/local community about it, would result in four different accounts, even if the people were doing their best to give an accurate account of what they witnessed/heard. There is no guarantee that anyone was trying to produce an accurate, unbiased account of what they witnessed/heard because they didn’t see themselves as being witnesses in a court of law. Rather, they were bearing witness to a significant experience which they may or may not have discerned as being an experience of God.

So, if we accept that the Gospel of Thomas was early, it tells us that there were other versions of Jesus’ teachings in circulation in the early church and that some of the early Christians were happy to treat them as authoritative – otherwise they would not have given them the title “gospel”. Even taking into account the fact that Thomas is in Coptic and the canonical gospels are in Greek, Thomas has very little of the verbatim repetition of material that you see between Mark and Matthew and Luke, so I think it’s pretty unlikely that Thomas used one of the canonical gospels as a source ie Thomas is not dependent on the canonical gospels. However, that doesn’t mean that some communities a little later on did not have access to Thomas and one or more of the other gospels.

I don’t think that the dating of the various gospels alone tells us much about what might or might not be authentic Jesus tradition, but I suspect that the differences between parallels in different gospels are less due to deliberate redaction and more to oral transmission and Jesus having taught the same things slightly differently in different places than many scholars have suggested in the past. That is, I think that more than one of the variants we have available could be “authentic Jesus tradition”.

So, what implication does Thomas being early and potentially containing authentic Jesus tradition have for our understanding of the canon?

I think that what you finally conclude about Thomas and the canon depends to a significant extent on whether you are working from inside or outside the Church and therefore what weight you are prepared to give to the work of the Spirit in guiding the Church to select material for the canon. Those working within a secular framework tend to talk about what ended up in the canon in terms of political winners and losers, whereas those working within a Church framework tend to be somewhat more hopeful that the Councils of the Church actually tried to listen to the leading of the Spirit and even did a halfway reasonable job of hearing God (which requires a belief that there is a Spirit to do the leading in the first place, of course). I belong to a denomination that tries to take very seriously the notion that consensus decision-making in the councils of the Church should be in response to the Spirit and I have seen some radical changes in opinion and attitude taking place in church meetings as we listen to one another, so I tend to be more hopeful that the development of the canon involved more than politics, but that’s a faith stance rather than one for which I can produce empirical historical evidence. And there are times in church meetings when I wonder… 🙂

However, when I read the canon through the eyes of a Christian theologian/preacher/teacher, I am asking the question “in the light of what this says, how should I and other Christians live our daily lives?” My faith stance says that I do not need to take Thomas into account when I answer this question, or at least do not need to give it anywhere near the weight that I do those texts that the Church has declared to be canon.

When I look at Thomas in connection with my doctoral research, though, I am asking a different question. I am asking “what does this tell me about how early Christians understood the Christ event and what it meant for their daily lives?” My faith stance is irrelevant when I try to answer this question because I am not looking at Christians now, but at Christians then and I am not starting with the assumption that I need to be able to harmonise the teachings in all of them, but rather working on the assumption that the people who held these texts to be authoritative quite probably didn’t have access to the others so didn’t try to harmonise the teachings in them. It doesn’t matter what I think about the authenticity of the Jesus tradition contained in each of “my” texts, because the people who wrote and used them held them to be authentic and acted upon that belief.

I think that the fact that we are dealing with written records of orally transmitted eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry and teaching means that we have no accurate way of making empirical decisions about what is and isn’t authentic Jesus tradition, but I don’t think it actually matters. We are not, in the end, going to be able to prove Christianity (or any other religious belief system) – it will always require some level of faith commitment. While I think that Christianity is far more logical than a requirement to “believe five impossible things before breakfast”, it isn’t science, either. Historians of early Christianity will choose a different standard for evaluating the reliability of different versions of Jesus’ teaching than does the Church, but they are using the texts for a different purpose, so that, I think, is OK. The problem comes when Christian theologians want to use their standard for evaluation as a yardstick to measure history and historians want to use their standard to judge theology.

Please note that I am not saying that it is perfectly OK for Christians to believe any bizarre thing that takes their fancy and justify it as a “faith” stance, nor for historians to totally disregard what a body of believers have thought over the course of two thousand years – there needs to be some overlap between standards.

Testimony as History

I am currently reading Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006) and need to stop and think about his statements about eyewitness testimony. I have thought for quite some time that the earlier dates for all the gospels would not preclude the possibility that at least one of the sources that the authors had to draw on would be eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry and death, but what I’ve read of Bauckham’s book so far (the beginning, bits of the middle and the end) leaves me with questions.

The book builds on the work of Samuel Byrskog (Story as History – History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History. Leiden: Brill, 2002) and in his first chapter he tells us that Warren Carter critiques the fact that Byrskog provides little in the way of criteria either for identifying eyewitnesses or for identifying eyewitness testimony in the tradition. (11) Bauckham says he will attempt to do this in the following chapters. I recognise that this is a big ask, but I haven’t found the criteria for identifying eyewitness testimony yet (even by cheating and reading the last chapter). This is disappointing, since I’ve had a gut feeling that Thomas is potentially closer to eyewitness accounts than the canonicals and a nice, neat list of critera for testing this would have been really great! Bauckham does, however, spend quite some time on identifying the eyewitnesses.

Bauckham says in the first chapter that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony and contends that testimony is a valid form of history and that it “should not be treated as credible only to the extent to which it can be verified. “(5) He also says “Testimony offers us . . . both a reputable historiographic category for reading the Gospels as history, and also a theological model for understanding the Gospels as the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus.” (5)

In talking about testimony, Bauckham stresses the kind of testimony that comes from a court of law. At least in British, Australian and North American courts, this kind of testimony is fairly objective. Witnesses are generally not permitted to pass on hearsay, or to speculate much on the significance of what they have experienced or witnessed. They just recount their memories of what actually happened.

My problem with testimony outside a court setting is that it normally involves significant amounts of interpretation and Bauckham seems not to deal with this aspect. Modern Christian testimony tends to begin “Let me tell you how God has been working in my life this week . . .” and while it will tell you facts as perceived by the person speaking, it will also attribute explanations to those facts that come out of a particular world view – one in which God is very actively involved in the lives of human beings. Thus testimony will tell you that when person X was running late for an important appointment she prayed that God would guide her and someone drove out of a parking space right outside the place where she needed to be just as she got there, so she was able to arrive at the appointment right on time. This, then, is proof that God hears and answers prayer and/or that God wanted her to make it to the appointment on time.

In many circumstances, there is no reason to doubt that the parking space event really happened, but we might not want to accept the intepretation that goes with the story. On the other hand, when someone else in the local Christian community hears the story and decides to write it down as part of a set of examples about how God answers prayer, we may be more cautious about believing even the story itself, depending on what we see as the motivation behind the retelling.

In church over Easter I found myself reflecting on John’s account of the crucifixion. (Someone thought it would be cool to present chs 18 & 19 in plainsong chant with choir and soloists, which took over 20 mins, so there was plenty of opportunity for reflection.) I got stuck on 19:22-24:

23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,“They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.” (NRSV)

I have no idea what translation they sang, but it actually said “They did this to fulfill what the scripture says . . .” I remember thinking “Sure they did – four Roman soldiers decided to cast lots for Jesus’ robe so they could fulfill Hebrew Scripture!” The NRSV is not quite so problematic, but it certainly fits into the category of testimony that involves interpretation from a faith perspective, which in turn makes me wonder about how likely it is that this kind of material is close to an eyewitness account and how much it might have been re-remembered over time to fit the notion that Jesus came in fulfillment of Scripture.

Bauckham includes a very helpful chapter on Eyewitness Memory, which looks at recent research on the nature and reliability of eyewitness accounts, but it raises for me the question of why it is important whether or not we have eyewitness accounts.

He contrasts the heavily embroidered and largely fictional account that Rossini gave in later life of his youthful attempt at meeting with Beethoven with the very reliable account of an 85 year old man of an event that happened when he was ten years old. This highlights for me the patchy nature of eyewitnesses – the fact that we have an eyewitness account means very little without significant evidence that it is the account of a reliable eyewitness. An eyewitness account from a Rossini type would be of significantly less value than something that had been passed through several layers of oral transmission within a community like the one described by Kenneth Bailey (“Middle Eastern Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels.” Expository Times 106 (1995): 363-67), where the audience saw themselves in the role of custodians of accuracy, reminding the teller when s/he left something out or got important details wrong.

So, while I did not take much convincing that the gospels could easily be quite close to eyewitness accounts (especially Thomas), I haven’t found any criteria for making this judgement and I am not sure that I really see why this is so important. In the end, most of us are making (non?)faith-based/religious judgments about whether or not the gospels are reliable, trustworthy documents and I don’t see that this is likely to hinge on how close they are to eyewitness accounts.

Maybe I’m just being slow, or maybe I should have waited until I’d finished it before blogging? Constructive comment would be most welcome.

In search of a methodology

One of the things I’ve found most difficult about my research is settling on a methodology. I’ve never been expected to have a methodology before.

In the past, I’ve more or less just read stuff and written about it and while I’ve had some idea of how I was going to tackle my material, I haven’t needed to articulate it up front. I’ve always been wary of methodologies because I’ve seen too many people select a methodology for their research and then twist their material to fit the methodology. The results range from odd to downright worrying.

The example of this that springs most immediately to mind (because I’ve just read about it) is Douglas Oakman’s “peasant reading” of the story of the Good Samaritan (“Was Jesus a Peasant? Implications for Reading the Samaritan Story (Luke 10:30-35)” BTB 22 (1992) 117-25). I think that it’s important that we remember that Jesus was not a white twenty-first century westerner. I also think that the various “peasant readings” of parables are very useful to provide a different perspective on how Jesus’ audience might have perceived what he said, but I am not sure why you would choose the Samaritan story as an example. The context is Jesus having a conversation with a lawyer who is trying to justify himself and his conduct. The encounter, without the parable, appears in Matthew and Mark as well and in both cases, the audience is Pharisees and Sadducees, so it seems to me not particularly useful to speculate on what a peasant audience might have made of the story.

Jesus is portrayed in the Synoptics as a crowd-gatherer. Therefore I think we must assume that he was a charismatic speaker and teacher, one who would tailor his material to his audience. The Synoptics also show him talking to a range of audiences that were not peasants, as well as to those who would have been. I think the more traditional “Pharisee and Sadducee” reading is a better one for this particular parable, fascinating though Oakman’s version is.

That’s why the title of Morna Hooker’s paper “On Using the Wrong Tool” (Theology 75 (1972): 570-81) appealed to me enough to get a copy, even though it didn’t appear to be directly relevant to my study of Thomas. (I have also found Hooker’s work helpful in the past.) The paper was written in the early 1970s and Hooker was looking at form-criticism, which she suggested was a useful tool but not capable of doing what was being required of it – uncovering the authentic teachings of Jesus (570).

April DeConick is looking at the paper in more detail on her Forbidden Gospels Blog. I simply want to comment that it put a name for me to my dis-ease with the notion of settling on a methodology – it is a fear of “using the wrong tool”. Indeed, my original intention was to write my methodology chapter just before I wrote the acknowledgments and abstract. The methodology chapter appears in my thesis outline, but it has nothing next to it. I have, however, come to the realisation that I can’t get much further without at least a provisional methodology because to do so it to run the risk of asking the wrong questions.

My stay in Texas has reinforced for me the problem with asking the wrong questions – you get the wrong answers, or sometimes no real answer at all! “Did I leave my handbag here?” and “Can you tell me where the lift is?” are inclined to be met with blank stares until I realise that I need to ask about my purse and the elevator.

So, in order to analyse my text, I need to have defined what it is that I think I am looking at, so I can ask the right questions, which is part of developing the right tool.

Further thoughts on interpretive methodology

Thinking about reactions to the term ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ caused me to reflect on how someone whose faith was formed in a relatively conservative evangelical group came to be researching a non-canonical gospel in the way that I am. When I started my theological training, although we had done lots of bible study, the majority of my colleagues and I found the whole biblical criticism thing very new and strange, because ministers don’t tend to share this kind of thing in their preaching. Some responded by saying “if this is what I have to do to be ordained, I’ll do it, but I don’t believe it”, while others found it exciting and liberating. Very few, however, were prepared to embrace it with the enthusiasm of our teaching staff.

I remember commenting to one of my friends that I had found myself agreeing with Bultmann on some issue or another and that this was scarey. Agreeing with Bultmann wasn’t quite like agreeing with Hitler, but he wasn’t high on our list of reliable interpreters of Scripture, either. Most of us had come to theological study with the idea that the gospels were more or less minutes of Jesus’ ministry – history rather than theology.

One of the people I did like and trust, however, was Ernst Käsemann. The English title of his book Jesus Means Freedom (Der Ruf der Freiheit) stayed with me as the basis of a hermeneutical principle. This has been combined with something that one of my practicum supervisors taught me to ask: “Where is the good news for this person in this situation?” If a traditional interpretation of a piece of Scripture results in imprisonment rather than freedom and is not good news to whole classes of people (like women, people of colour etc) I ask “Is this what the text really says? Is this what Jesus/God really intended?”

A further principle was given to me by David M Scholer when I audited a course that he taught on ‘Women and Leadership in the New Testament’ in Melbourne (Australia) shortly after my ordination. He talked about the fact that how we interpret Scripture depends significantly on which verse or verses we use as the lens through which to view it ie which verse or verses we think of as normative. Those who use “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3: 28) are generally in favour of women in leadership in the church. Those who use “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (1 Tim 2:12) generally are not. How we choose our normative texts is, of course, influenced by many things, but again, I tend to choose perspectives that bring freedom and good news for people who have no control over the circumstances in which they find themselves (eg minority groups in society).

Perhaps these are of no direct relevance to a study of the Gospel of Thomas as an academic discipline, in that I am not trying to develop principles for living from my analysis of the text. Nevertheless, the practice of holding pieces of text up against the whole and asking “is that what it really says, or am I carrying over ideas from traditional interpretation?” and “does that interpretation make sense when you look at in context?” is, I think, essential for good textual analysis.

Hermeneutic of suspicion applied to interpreting Thomas

Hmmm. Two posts in one day – so much for my hiatus!

On 9 February, Phil S posted a comment to April DeConick’s Forbidden Gospels blog in response to her “Reading History out of Theology” in which he said “I am suspicious of [the hermeneutic of suspicion] because, while it has yielded useful historical results, it is also a distortion because we assume that the authors are simply not able to give a truthful narrative about anything.”

I was surprised that this was how he understood the concept, although perhaps it isn’t surprising when you consider that it’s associated in many people’s minds with feminist theological polemic such as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s statement that “a feminist critical hermeneutics of suspicion places a warning label on all biblical texts: Caution! Could be dangerous to your health and survival” (in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Letty Russell (ed) (Westminster Press, 1985)). More recently, she has spoken about it in less emotive and more academic terms as:

A deconstructive practice of enquiry that denaturalises and demystifies linguistic – cultural practices of domination ….. It has the task of disentangling the ideological functions of kyriocentric text and commentary. (Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation, (Orbis, 2001) p 176)

Schussler Fiorenza is, of course, talking about a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion. In more general use, I think the term suggests that we need to recognise that all eye-witness accounts of events are told from a particular perspective and that all interpretations of those accounts are coloured by the perspective of the interpreter. We need to keep this in mind in our dealings with the accounts and their interpretation.

This is not saying that the person telling the story or the person interpreting the story are not telling the truth. It simply says that we should be wary of assuming that we are hearing everything that happened at the time. Different people notice different things about the same events, which is why eye-witness accounts of accidents vary. People also notice different things if they are looking or reading for a particular purpose.

Early scholarship on Thomas was, I think, coloured by the fact that most scholars were Christian biblical scholars looking for evidence about whether or not the discovery of Thomas was going to require radical revision of orthodox Christian theology. Certainly much of what I have read of comparisons of the parables that appear both in Thomas and one or more of the synoptics makes comments about whether or not the Thomas version is more or less ‘authentic’ than the synoptic version. I find that I don’t always agree with the conclusions they draw but the observations they make in the course of reaching these conclusions are often important in developing an understanding of what the Thomas community might have believed. I would suggest that in reading their work in this way, I am employing a hermeneutic of suspicion, but I am certainly not suggesting that they are not telling the truth.

Sometimes, also, we see what we expect to see and don’t necessarily notice something different immediately, or at all. One of the parables that I am working on is the parable of the treasure (Thomas 109; Matthew 13: 44). Christian scholars are used to Matthew’s version, in which the Realm/Kingdom is like a treasure, buried in a field and found by someone who then sells all he has to buy the field. One of the significant differences between Matthew and Thomas is that in the Thomas version, the Realm/Kingdom is like a person in whose field there is a buried treasure about which the person knows nothing. All of the interpretation of Thomas that I have read so far talks about this parable as though the Realm/Kingdom is being compared to the treasure, even when the writer of the interpretative comment has indicated that the subject of the parable is the person, not the treasure!

The parable is much easier to understand if the Realm/Kingdom is the treasure – something valuable from which you can only benefit if you find it. In the Thomasine parable, three people own the field, but only one finds the treasure and uses it. Whether or not you see GTh as a gnostic text, it is quite clear that the writer is interested in knowledge, so if the Realm/Kingdom is the treasure, then we have a story about knowing and not knowing about the Realm/Kingdom. Perhaps this is the way the parable should be understood. Perhaps an error has been made in the copying or an adjustment has been made to suit the purposes of an editor, but the fact remains that this is not what the text says.

The writer of Thomas clearly views the Realm/Kingdom differently to the writer of Matthew, the only synoptic that has a significant number of Realm/Kingdom parables. I haven’t done enough detailed work on the rest of these parables to enable me to decide whether this parable as it stands lines up with the rest of what GTh says about the Realm/Kingdom or whether the easy interpretation is the one that makes most sense, but again I am employing a hermeneutic of suspicion – this time about both the text that we have in front of us and the way that it has been interpreted by scholars who are expecting to see the Matthean version of this story. Again, I am not trying to suggest that anyone is not telling the truth – simply that they haven’t seen everything there is to see.

The Forbidden Gospels Blog

The Forbidden Gospels Blog is April DeConick’s new blog, which looks at a range of texts from early Christianity that fall outside the New Testament canon. April is Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University and author of a number of books on the Gospel of Thomas, the most recent being her commentary, The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation. In the first post in her blog, she says:

What impedes our examination of early Christianity is not the limitations of historical criticism as some in the Academy would like to lead us to believe. The impediment is the fact that the majority of biblical scholars still have not dislodged themselves from their own faith perspectives. As long as this is the case, historical inquiry is impossible because the historical-critical perspective cannot be used uncompromisingly. Although I recognize that there can be no “objective” history recovered or written, this doesn’t mean to me that all subjective inquiries are the same. The theological inquiry is not the same as the historical.

This is certainly something I find challenging in my work on Thomas. I am a Uniting Church minister, trained to exegete Scripture for the benefit of the faithful. I find looking at Thomas in some senses liberating – I don’t need to ask the “how then shall I live?” question of it – but there are times when I find myself “stuck” in orthodox theology. I love doing textual analysis, but sometimes it’s a little difficult, given that I am working with familiar parables, to really concentrate on what the writer is saying, rather than bringing with me the baggage of two millenia of traditional interpretation.

I’m really looking forward to my five weeks at Rice later this year!