Memory and the Historical Jesus (SBL session recording) – part 1

It’s Christmas Day and I finally have time to finish off a post that I started nearly a week ago.  It seems appropriate that on the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus I should reflect on what we actually know about him.

A little over a week ago, I was pleased to be able to listen to an audio recording of the Memory Studies in Historical Jesus Research session at SBL 2013, thanks to Anthony Le Donne over at the Jesus Blog (and, I assume, to the participants who gave permission for it to be put on line).  The presentations were/are:

  1. Chris Keith – “The Past Approaching and Approaching the Past: The Contribution of Memory Studies to Historical Jesus Research”
  2. Zeba Crook – “Memory Distortion and the Historical Jesus”
  3. Rafael Rodríguez – “An Uneasy Concord: Memory and History in Contemporary Jesus Research”
  4. Paul Foster – “Memory: Help or Hindrance in Historical Jesus Research?”

This session has been referred to as the ‘blow-up in Baltimore‘ – a name coined by Tyler Stewart – and the question and answer session at the end was certainly lively, although not quite as lively I expected of something described as a ‘blowup’. A problem with the audio of the Q&A was that it was not always easy to tell which of the participants was speaking (almost certainly because James Crossley, the chair of the session, didn’t realise he was moderating for audio-recording). While Chris Keith’s southern accent and Paul Foster’s very British tones are quite distinctive, Rafael Rodríguez and Zeba Crook are somewhat more difficult to tell apart in the heat of discussion – at least I found them so (North Americans need to note that Australians and New Zealanders find it incredible that you can’t tell our accents apart, too). Unfortunately, I can’t see a way of articulating my reactions in a reasonable number of words for one post, so I have split it into two, with my comments on Chris and Zeba’s presentations here and on Rafael and Paul’s in part 2.

I found myself agreeing with some of the things that each of them said (or the things I understood them to be saying, anyway) and disagreeing with others. One of the things I found consistently interesting is that they, and I, all seem to be coming to very similar conclusions about the nature of the gospel materials, even if what we think we should do about it is different. I think that what we have is the beginnings of triangulation, which is good.

[Alan Bryman (‎) offers the following definition of the use of triangulation in social science research: “Triangulation refers to the use of more than one approach to the investigation of a research question in order to enhance confidence in the ensuing findings. Since much social research is founded on the use of a single research method and as such may suffer from limitations associated with that method or from the specific application of it, triangulation offers the prospect of enhanced confidence.”]

I found Chris’s survey of the field of Social Memory Theory (SMT) very helpful, and would recommend listening to the recording of his inaugural lecture (“Social Memory Theory and the Gospels – the first ten years”) for further information, although the video part is less than stimulating. 🙂 I agreed with him when he called into question the criteria of authenticity and said that memory doesn’t preserve the past in a way that means that you can separate past actions from their interpretations, but that historians can nevertheless make a reasonable guess at the past. I kind of agreed with him when he said that SMT makes a definite contribution to historiography, but that its contribution is to how we use the material we have to reach our conclusions.  Maybe I abbreviated what he said in the notes I took, but I think that what SMT does is to help us to understand what kind of material we actually have and it is this which informs (or should inform) how we can and can’t use it in reaching conclusions about history.

Zeba provided a quick tour of the psychological research on memory, noted that most groups want to keep a positive image of themselves and therefore tend to manipulate their memories for the purpose of collective self-deception, and that some of the ways that memory distorts the past are less severe than others. He listed them in order of severity. I agreed with all of this. I am not so sure about his conclusion that this leaves us with a New No Quest (for the historical Jesus), which we might perhaps replace with a quest for the remembered Jesus. The quest for the historical Jesus is no more hopeless than is the quest for the historical Julius Caesar or the quest for any other historical personage (Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels?: a comparison with Graeco-Roman biography. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004 provides comparisons between the gospels and bioi of other historical personages of the time), yet historians do not appear to be giving up on them. The difference is in what we want to do with the information we find out about the historical Jesus and the historical Julius Caesar – no-one today is trying to base their lifestyle on the sayings of Caesar and even the Romans who considered their emperors to be divine had a very different relationship to them to the one that Christians have to Jesus.

If you read the psychological literature, while it is possible to get people to ‘remember’ things that simply didn’t happen, if they are wholly fictitious events as opposed to merely altered details,  there needs to be a deliberate attempt and some significant work on the part of some external agent to create a false memory. Thus, if we are prepared to accept that the early Christians were people of integrity who had had genuine encounters with Jesus, it is less likely that we have total fabrications than that we have distortions. Again, this helps us to understand that we don’t have empirically verifiable facts, but what we have is arguably no less reliable than any other historical evidence from that period or any other period before less ephemeral records are available. the broad brushstrokes of the gospel stories are highly likely to be accurate, but the details less so.

Now read on.

Memory in real life (3)

So far, I have been talking about individual memory, but in this post, I’d like to address two things that affect how groups remember things. One is culture and the other is authority.

Cultures can be (very roughly) described as independent or interdependent. Many western cultures (eg the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) are generally independent – they value separateness, autonomy and self-sufficiency and consider the individual to be at least as important as  the group. Many eastern cultures (eg China, Japan, and parts of the m\Middle East) tend to be interdependent – they emphasize connectedness, social context and harmony and value the group more highly than any individual in it.

When a group of eyewitnesses get together to talk about an event, it is almost inevitable that there will be times when two people will have conflicting memories of the same aspect of the event.  Groups from independent cultures tend to have a relatively low tolerance for this situation (often termed incongruity/cognitive dissonance in the psychological literature) and are likely to want to work out which of the two people is right.  They will employ a range of strategies to determine this including taking a vote to see which version the majority of the group agrees with. Indeed, it’s quite likely that the second person will begin his or her version with the words “No, you’re wrong – it was like this.” While we in the west regard it as a bit awkward if this causes a robust discussion in which both sides insist that their version is the correct one, we are much more interested in finding out “what really happened” than in group harmony, so if the group splits into two camps and members of the other side don’t actually talk to us again, we see that as their problem not ours.

Groups from interdependent cultures will try to maintain harmony within the group, so they will work towards a compromise, even if the compromise position cannot possibly be the truth because no-one (initially) remembers it happening in that way. They often have a higher tolerance for incongruity/cognitive dissonance – and the fact that the early church was quite happy to accept the four gospels as canon suggests that they were like this. Tatian was possibly an exception, although the Diatessaron may simply have been a different way of allowing all versions of the Jesus story to be heard. I am not sure how long ago parts of western Christianity started to try to explain how there really is no contradiction between the gospels, but it does not appear to have been an issue for the church of the fourth century. (References for the effect of culture on dealing with differences in memory of events include: Jennifer L. Aaker and Jaideep Sengupta, “Additivity versus Attenuation: The Role of Culture in the Resolution of Information Incongruity,” Journal of Consumer Psychology 9 (2000): 67–82; Jennifer L. Aaker, “Accessibility or Diagnosticity? Disentangling the Influence of Culture on Persuasion Processes and Attitudes,” Journal of Consumer Research 26 (2000): 340; Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper, “Rethinking the Value of Choice: A Cultural Perspective on Intrinsic Motivation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76 (1999): 349–66; Michael W. Morris and Kaiping Peng, “Culture and Cause: American and Chinese Attributions for Social and Physical Events,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67 (1994): 949–71.)

The other thing that has a significant effect on both recall and group processes is the relative authority of the people involved. There is significant evidence that the perceived authority of the person asking questions about an event will have an effect on how eyewitnesses answer questions. I am very frustrated that I can’t find the relevant references for this, but in general if someone with higher authority asks the questions, people will try harder to remember things and be more inclined to guess. Over time, the guessing is remembered more and more confidently (see, for example Hastie, Reid, Robert Landsman, and Elizabeth F Loftus. “Eyewitness Testimony: The Dangers of Guessing.” Jurimetrics Journal 19, no. 1 (1978): 1-8 and Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001: 115-117). And, although I don’t have references to back this up, I also suspect that the perceived relative authority of group members will affect how much notice is taken of their accounts of events. In strongly hierarchical societies, I suspect that it it both more likely that the more senior members of the group are given the opportunity to speak first and that there is significant unease about saying something that would make these people look as though they had made a mistake.  This is certainly the case with the international students that I work with, and makes it challenging for them to operate in tutorial groups where they find it very difficult to question anything said by the lecturer or tutor.

Since it is well documented that ageing tends to have a negative effect on the memory and age is one of the criteria for authority and respect in eastern cultures, we have the possibility that the most flawed memory of the story is the one that the group accepts as accurate or is the most influential in forming the version that the group accepts and passes on. Given that there were quite a few eyewitnesses to many of the events in Jesus’ public ministry, it is highly likely that a range of different “agreed versions” of what he said and did were in circulation fairly soon after each event as different small groups talked together about their experiences.


A couple of  references about the effect of the authority or credibility of the questioner are James Marshall, Law and Psychology in Conflict (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), 41–63; Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony, 98; Gerald Echterhoff, William Hirst, and Walter Hussy, “How Eyewitnesses Resist Misinformation: Social Postwarnings and the Monitoring of Memory Characteristics,” Memory & Cognition 33 (2005): 770–82.

Memory in real life (2)

Picking up from where I left off yesterday, I’d like to look at how we remember time.  As I said in my response to Mike Kok’s post, Steen F Larsen, Charles P Thompson, and Tia Hansen. “Time in Autobiographical Memory,” Pages 129-56 in Remembering Our Past: Studies in Autobiographical Memory (Ed. David C Rubin. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999) point out that we remember some aspects of time more easily than others. The time at which something happened is usually remembered fairly reliably because people use what are called ‘temporal cyclic schemas’ to place an event at a particular time of day, day of the week or season of the year. If we don’t have something concrete to anchor it, though, we can often displace in longitudinal time. [Challenge: can you use the phrase ‘temporal cyclic schema(s)’ in a believable context on your blog this week? Link back here if you can – although unlike the Jesus Blog, I can’t offer a prize.]

For example, we  might be sure that something happened on a Monday, because it happened right after we got back from the Step class at the gym and we go to Step on Mondays. We can’t remember which Monday, because every Monday is pretty much the same, but it was a while ago, although not too long ago, so probably about four weeks. When we’re telling someone the story, if when in time is really only to add colour and interest, we will probably say ‘four weeks ago’ without bothering to check. Then, when we  look at our diary, we discover that either it wasn’t a Monday or it wasn’t four weeks ago because Monday four weeks ago we were out of town at a seminar. So at that point, some of us will riffle frantically through our diaries  or try to find some other piece of external evidence to pinpoint more exactly when it happened while others will use a process of logic:

“I know it must have been Monday because it was after Step, so it can’t have been four weeks ago – so it must have been five weeks or three weeks, but it was hot, so it wasn’t five weeks ago because that was the week when we had the cold snap. Oh, hang on, I’m sure it was four weeks ago, because it was in the same week that I gave that guest lecture and that was definitely on the tenth – Oh, I remember! Because I ate so much at the conference I decided that I needed the exercise so I went to the Step class on Wednesday that week…”

If you are trying to remember something at a distance of quite a few years and you aren’t in the habit of keeping a detailed diary, you may no longer have access to all the clues you need to place the event accurately. You probably won’t remember which week it was that had the cold snap, for instance, so you will retell the story in the time-frame that makes most sense to you – which will probably place it on a Monday.

In the current discussion about memory, one of the targeted issues is the fact that Mark has the clearing of the temple at the end of Jesus’ ministry and John has it at the beginning. Most scholars agree that it is highly unlikely that it happened more than once, so which is correct? Most people are more inclined to accept Mark’s version as accurate because his is the earlier gospel, and many attribute the earlier timing in John as the result of a deliberate decision by the author to move it to a place that better fits his particular theology. This is the equivalent of suggesting that John said to himself “I know Jesus really cleared the temple just before he died, but I think I will move it to the beginning of my gospel because it will help my readers to understand Jesus’ role in salvation history better if I put it up the front. Oh, and I’ll finish off by saying that everything that’s written in it is true.” Really?? I find it very difficult to believe that people of integrity who genuinely believed in Jesus as messiah/saviour would function like this and I do like to believe that the biblical authors were people of integrity.

Psychological research, however, indicates that time (ie season) of the year is reasonably easy to remember, but the exact year is not. John and Mark both agree that the occasion was a visit to the temple for Passover, just not which Passover. It is quite believable that Jesus went to Jerusalem for more than one Passover, and it is quite possible that only one visit to the temple at Passover was eventful – the one where he cleared the temple court of merchants. At a distance of a decade or more from the event, most of the mental time markers for the event would have disappeared, leaving the people telling the story with the difficult task of situating this important event in their narrative. As both social memory theorists and psychological memory researchers attest, remembering is about helping us to make sense of the world in which we live and for Mark, it clearly made sense that the temple cleansing would have happened at the end of Jesus’ ministry, whereas for John, it made sense at the beginning, so that’s the way they remembered it.

Yes, one of the markers used to situate the event in memory is likely to have been the theology of the two authors, but it is quite possible that they situated the event in longitudinal time at a subconscious level. It is by no means necessary to posit a deliberate redaction on the part of one of the authors. If John had access to Mark, he may have believed that he was correcting Mark’s faulty memory. It is also possible that the actual event happened in the middle of Jesus’ ministry and both authors remembered the timing incorrectly, because there respective timings made more sense of their particular understandings of Jesus’ role in salvation history. 🙂

On the other issue that Mike raises, the date of Jesus’ death, I am feeling somewhat perplexed. John 19: 31 says that Jesus was crucified (with others) on the Day of Preparation so Pilate ordered that the legs of those being crucified be broken to hasten their deaths; Luke 23: 54 says that Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body on the Day of Preparation; Mark 15:  42-43 says Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body on the Day of Preparation and Matthew 27: 62 says that the Jewish authorities want to Pilate the next day (after Jesus died), that is after the Day of Preparation. It therefore seems to me that all four gospels have Jesus dying on the same day. What am I missing?

It would be somewhat more difficult (although by no means impossible) to argue that psychological theory explains Jewish authors remembering a different day at this time, although for a Gentile author the whole Jewish Shabbat/Passover thing might not have made nearly as much impact and he (or she) could more easily have placed an event around that time of year wrongly.

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.

Fellowship for Biblical Studies Inaugural Conference

Earlier this year, I attended a seminar in Melbourne at which Richard Burrdige was one of the speakers. I found out that there is a Fellowship for Biblical Studies operating and I joined just in time to offer a paper for their inaugural conference and have it accepted.

Sean Winter has posted the program on his blog, so I won’t bother. I am a little awed to discover that all the papers are going to be presented in plenary, since I am used to being part of a parallel program where people have some opportunity to choose what they want to hear. At least, however, I will only be presenting to biblical scholars, even if some of them focus on the Hebrew Scriptures. At UNE school seminars, I get to present to historians, classicists, philosophers, archaeologists and people from peace studies and international studies so I spend about half of my presentation sketching in the background.

Here’s the abstract:

Matthew, Luke and Thomas all tell stories about a man who lost one of his hundred sheep and left the other ninety-nine to go and look for it. They start out with the same basic details, but the significance they give to the sheep and to the happy ending are different in each gospel. This paper will explore the similarities and differences between the three lost sheep stories and examine their implications for our understanding of the relationship between sheep and shepherd and the relationship between the three. In doing so, it will try to take seriously the effects of oral transmission and human memory as well as scribal redaction on the extant versions of the text.

I’ve been enjoying doing the research for this – it is helping me to think about how to integrate my work on memory and eyewitness testimony better into my thesis/dissertation. In the process, I have been interested to note how much tighter the referencing conventions have become in the last thirty or forty years. Jacques Ménard’s 1975 commentary on Saying 107 owes a huge amount to that of Wolfgang Schrage (1964) – in a significant part of the comment he has done virtually nothing other than translate Schrage’s words from German into French – yet there is very minimal acknowledgement. Even a first year undergrad would get a very stern warning about plagiarism nowadays, but I assume from the fact that the book is published by Brill that this was considered fair dealing back then!

Hedrick’s commentary on Thomas

Another reasonably recent commentary on Thomas is:

Charles  Hedrick’s Unlocking the Secrets of the Gospel According to Thomas

Hedrick, Charles W. Unlocking the Secrets of the Gospel According to Thomas: A Radical Faith for a New Age. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2010.

Hedrick is distinguished Emeritus Professor at Missouri State University in the US and has written extensively on Thomas, the Synoptic problem and parables (among other things). He blogs at Wry thoughts about religion and is a fellow of the Westar Institute (home of the Jesus Seminar and Polebridge Press).

This commentary is aimed at a more general audience than is Pokorný’s. Hedrick provides a glossary of  terms and names that are likely to be unfamiliar to someone without some formal education or reading in scholarly writings about early Christianity. The translation he provides of the text uses gender neutral terms where possible and less formal English than is usual in commentaries. For example, he translates the closing sentence of Saying 8 as “Better pay attention to this” rather than the more usual variants around “Let the one who has ears listen” and uses the term “imperial rule” rather than the familiar “kingdom.” He has also chosen to subdivide a number of the sayings so that sections that are clearly different in content are numbered separately. For example, he treats saying 47 in four separate sections – the sayings about not serving two masters; not wanting to drink new wine after old; not putting new wine into old wineskins; and the one about not sewing an old patch onto a new garment. This makes sense to me, but I am not so sure about his decision not to include the “Jesus says” at the beginning of each saying.

Assessment of Thomas

I will again address Skinner’s three questions as a way into the material.

When was it written?

It was composed or compiled for the first time for the first time by the late first or early second century, or perhaps earlier (p 3).

What is its relationship to the canonical gospels?

Thomas is a “collection of collections” of sayings of Jesus. Each saying needs to be considered individually and regarded as potentially independent until it can be shown to be dependent on the Synoptics (p 15).

What is its genre and theological outlook?

As noted above, Thomas is a collection of collected sayings of Jesus, so it doesn’t have a consistent systematic theology (p 7). As a whole it is not a Gnostic text, although it contains ideas that are in line with Gnostic thought, just as it contains ideas that are in line with early orothodox Christianity.

Other items of note

Hedrick considers that only a small percentage of the sayings in Thomas actually originated with the historical Jesus – most of them represent the work of Jesus’ followers at various times and in various places (p 8). He says, however, that a good case can be made for the noncannonical sayings 82 and 98 to have originated with Jesus. It tells us nothing about the historical Jesus because its author has no interest in the person of Jesus, only in his teachings.

Positive Aspects

  • the layout is clear and easy to follow
  • Hedrick shows how the various sayings link to one another (at least in his opion – I suppose others might disagree)
  • He also indicates the links to Q and to the canonical material
  • He also indicates where in the commentary he has first dealt with recurring themes eg whenever the imperial reign of the Father appears in a saying, the reader is referred back to the first place where it is mentioned. This makes it possible to dip easily into the comment on a particular saying and follow his line of thought about the various issues it raises
  • the writing style is engaging and easy to read

Negative Aspects

  • the bibliography is relatively brief
  • because of his translation choice, it is not easy to see the Coptic text in the English translation. He does, however, normally justify unusual choices of translation

And finally

This commentary would be a good introduction to the text for a reader with little background in biblical studies, but still provides stimulation for the more expert reader. While it does not provide the depth of analysis that is found in either DeConick or Plisch’s commentaries, it is still definitely worth consulting.

Back to commentaries – Pokorný

Returning to my series on commentaries on GosThom, I want to look at:

Petr Pokorný’s A Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas

Pokorný, Petr, Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas: From interpretations to the interpreted.  T&T Clark Jewish and Christians Texts Series. New York: T&T Clark Ltd, 2009 (hardcover) and 2011 (paperback).

Pokorný is Professor of New Testament exegesis at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.  He is a former president of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, fellow of several Learned Societies. A festschrift in honour of his 70th birthday was published in 2004, so he has a long track record in the field. He is the author of 12 German monographs, textbooks and commentaries, some of which have been translated into English.  This commentary was, however, written in English. It uses the English translation of the Berliner Arbeitskreis für Koptisch-Gnosticsche Schriften as the text of Thomas.

The format of the commentary is fairly traditional – general information about the text followed by detailed comment on each saying. Each of the individual commentaries is divided into two parts. Part A looks at individual features and part B provides a more general overview. The comment sections are generally followed by a short list of relevant literature.

Assessment of Thomas

Seeing I found Skinner’s formulation of the three major issues for Thomas scholarship today helpful, I thought I would use them as the structure for this section, but found this somewhat difficult at times. When he addresses an issue, Pokorný has a tendency to present the arguments of various scholars and outline the consequences of each of them. Unfortunately, however, because of the way he uses tenses and sentence structure, it is not always clear (at least not to me) when he is saying “if you take this position, then you must necessarily believe X and not believe Y” and when he is saying “my position is X and not Y”.

When was it written?

Pokorný contends that Thomas originated later than the Synoptics and that the version we have “represents a theolgical stream that originated in the early second century” (p 19) and “originated at a time when some of the earlier Gospels had already attained canonical status” (p 13).  He thus rejects the idea that Thomas is one of the earliest documents of Christian literature (p 15). However, he also identifies five different versions that have existed, including the one represented by Hippolytus’ quotation of saying 3, which he suggests is a later version than NHII,2 (pp 20-25).

What is its relationship to the canonical gospels?

Pokorný states that the fact that has been named “The Gospel of Thomas”  despite its genre (see below) indicates that at the point where the title was added (the third version) the “text claimed canonical authority”. I would suggest that it was the editor who claimed canonical authority on its behalf, but the point is well made. He further suggests that it was used as a liturgical text in place of the canonical gospels (p 22). This is not, however, the issue that is raised by Skinner in posing this question and Pokorný spends several pages on Skinner’s issue – examining the relationship between Thomas and John and then between Thomas and the Synoptics.

He notes that there a number of similarities between the theologies of John and Thomas, which he says is understandable because both have links with Syria. He does not reject the idea that John is a reaction to Thomas, but says how much John was influenced by Thomas is unknown. He suggests that the Thomas group seem to have gained ground in Syria after the Johannine group left for Asia Minor (pp 16-17).

With respect to the relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics, he rejects both of the black and white models – ie that Thomas is totally derived from the Synoptics and that it is totally independent – in favour of a development in several stages that involves the use of some material that either comes directly from the Synoptic tradition or from a shared source, as well as some independent tradition. He thus appears to be saying that, although it is not early, it can still provide us with useful information about Jesus and his teachings, or at least how the early church received them.

What is its genre and theological outlook?

Pokorný states that Thomas is not the same literary genre as the canonical gospels – it is not a biography. From a purely literary perspective, it belongs to the same genre as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Pseudo-Phyocydes or the New Testament letter of James – a collection of wise sayings. It is, however, different from a simple collection of proverbs in that it is a collection of dominical sayings and as such it belongs to a genre represented by Q,  by the small collections of sayings of Jesus that are included in the Gospels  eg the parables from Mark 4 and by the special source of Luke and other early collections (pp 7-8).

He holds that to say that the Gospel of Thomas is Gnostic is anachronistic. Even though it was used by Gnostics, all that can be found in it is a theology influenced by the Platonic ideas that were popular at the time of its writing and were used by Gnostics – although  Hippolytus’ version of Saying 3 shows a much stronger Gnostic influence. It seems that the subheading on p 27 of the section on the theology of Thomas reflects his position: that it sits “between Gnosticism and mainstream Christianity”.

Other items of note

In four separate places, Pokorný states as though it were a given that putting Jesus’ sayings in the context of an account of his life resulted in their being (better) preserved (emphasis added by me in each case).

Admittedly, the pieces of tradition that have been embedded in the canonical Gospels are preserved in an interpreted form; but after they have been written and used in liturgy, they underwent only minor changes. By linking them with Jesus’ deeds, with descriptions of his attitudes, and by placing them within the contingent past of Jesus’ life, they have indeed been preserved. (p 10)

Christian proclamation, which originally was considered to be a kind of sermon on biblical texts, became now liturgical text itself. The tradition about Jesus has been preserved and protected from falsification because it was framed by the life story of the earthly Jesus. (p 11)

We have to suppose that from the very beginning fragments of memories circulated among Jesus’ adherents, and the fact that from a speech of Jesus some of the hearers recalled only individual sayings that seemed to them memorable is understandable and probable. The narrrative frame protected the sayings from transformation better than the genre of a collection of sentences, but the free circulation still did not stop immediately. (p 18)

and finally

Finally, the method of conserving Jesus’ teaching in individual sayings as in the wisdom traditions and prophetic proclamation is obviously more ancient than the method of setting his teaching in a biographical frame, as invented by Mark. All the same, the biographic frame conserved the ancient layer of the Jesus tradition more effectively than collections of his sayings. (p 158)

He appears to be arguing that the fact that Jesus sayings were preserved in the canon in the context of Jesus’ life is some kind of guarantee that they were better preserved. Although the first two quotes also mention use in a liturgical context, he maintains elsewhere that Thomas was used instead of the Synoptics in the liturgies of the Thomas community (p 22). Perhaps a reader can help here?

Positive Aspects

  • the layout is clear and easy to follow.
  • Pokorný pays particular attention to the relationship between each saying and any canonical parallels
  • he builds on the work of others and draws on his own research to develop some fresh and interesting ideas about the various texts. My reaction on reading the introductory material was that it is different, unexpected, although I cannot quite articulate how. In the comment on saying 8 he suggests that the big fish represents the human soul, as do the large branch in the mustard seed parable and the big sheep in the lost sheep parable. I am not aware of this having been suggested elsewhere in the literature (although perhaps I am suffering from memory lapse?)

Negative Aspects

  • part of the part B of the comment on saying 8 (the parable of the net) actually belongs with the comment on saying 9, the parable of the sower.
  • the decision to transliterate djandja as č and kyima as q makes perfect sense to speakers of Slavic languages, but not to the average English speaker
  • most importantly, as I have indicated above, there are many places where the English is not smooth, times where it is ambiguous or difficult to follow and one or two places where what he is trying to communicate is quite unclear. It would have benefitted from more effective editing.

And finally

For the Thomas scholar, this commentary provides interesting insights into the text and comment on the work of other scholars and is certainly worth reading. I would probably not recommend it as an introduction to the text, however – it assumes too much background knowledge.

A little plug here for T&T Clark/Continuum – again they have released a paperback edition not too long after the publication of the hardcover. I bought the hardcover but my paperback copy of De Conick’s Recovering the Original Gospel of  Thomas is perfect bound (ie stitched in sections), rather than having the cut binding (pages just glued individually into the cover) of many cheaper paperbacks. I assume that this is their standard paperback binding method, so I would definitely be inclined to buy the paperback version rather than the hardcover.