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.

Relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics

In the comments Mike K says:

I take it you view Thomas as largely independent of the Synoptics so that there similarities and differences may be explained as a result of different processes of oral transmission from the original eyewitnesses? I was just reading Andrew Gregory’s “The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Ireneaus” and he is very cautious about accepting any literary dependence as demonstrable unless it meets Koester’s criteria of whether the redaction is present, but he too finds evidence of Lukan redaction in the Greek fragments of Thomas (so difficult to blame on later scribal harmonization in the Coptic version). So I was wondering if you think it may be possible that whoever put together this compilation of sayings in the 2nd century was familiar with the Synoptics in some way, yet perhaps many of the sayings still reached the author independently from oral tradition?

This is too big to answer in the comments, so I am bringing it up to a post of its own.

I don’t know that I want to be that definite, but that’s certainly the way I am leaning, yes. As a person of faith, I believe that Jesus really existed, that there were many eyewitnesses to the various parts of his ministry and that they shared their stories of their encounters with Jesus with friends, family, colleagues. I would also like to believe that the early Christians were, in general, people of good will and integrity who told others what they genuinely believed to be true and accurate accounts of what they saw, heard and experienced, rather than deliberately reshaping material to convince others to their way of thinking. A lot of the redaction criticism theory sounds too cold and calculating to me: author X took author Y’s version and edited it so that it fitted in with his theology sounds like a very deliberate thing to me.

I think that the level of verbatim correspondence between some parts of the Synoptics are long enough for us to be pretty sure either that one version was copied from the other or that there was some common source with which both authors were familiar. If what scholars beginning with Gerhardsson suggest is correct, it may well be that this source was oral material learned verbatim, rather than necessarily a written copy but I suspect that alterations were made because the version that was available did not line up with the author’s memory of the event (or the account that s/he had heard from an(other) eyewitness), rather than something more deliberate. How we understand an event andwhat we remember of an event are strongly shaped by what we believe about the world, so our memories do tend to line up with our beliefs and therefore theologies but mostly this shaping is unconscious. McIver summarises the evidence here quite well (see my review of his Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels) although I don’t agree with the conclusions he draws about what it means for reliability.

Another possible explanation, however, of how there are different versions of what appears to be the same story in circulation is that Jesus actually told basically the same story several times with slightly different details because he was telling them to a different audience in different settings. In other words, it is possible that the reason that Matthew, Mark and Luke have parallel stories in different settings is not that they wrote their gospels to achieve particular theological purposes that worked best if they put them in different orders, combinations and settings and but because Jesus actually used them in different orders, combinations and settings and the ones that fitted best with a particular eyewitness’s theological emphasis were the ones that were remembered by that person. Quite a few of the changes that we see that are named as ‘redaction’ could equally be the result of people retelling a story in their own words and it doesn’t matter whether the story is one they have read somewhere or one they have heard somewhere. My article  “How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 1 (2010): 177-97 summarises the literature on both eyewitness testimony and human memory.

So, in short, yes, I think what you suggest is possible, Mike, but because we are working with Greek text of the Synoptics and largely Coptic text of Thomas and some of the Greek text we do have puts the sayings in a different order to the Coptic text, I don’t think we canbe at all certain about which of the various theories is correct. I think that on the basis of the evidence we have, it is perfectly possible that Thomas was written in total isolation from the Synoptics, on the basis of teaching that he learned verbatim from Jesus. That he used the sayings he used because they were the ones that he remembered best over the years because they were the ones that helped him to make sense of his world and his life.  I think it is exceedingly unlikely that the author picked up texts of the Synoptics, selected his/her favourite bits, changed them so that they would produce the spin he wanted and made up a whole pile of other stuff so that he could convince a group of gullible people of the veracity of his/her particular theological system (whatever that is). What we need in order to make a more definitive statement about which of the various theories of composition is most likely is an early copy of a full Greek text. Even then, however, if you accept that Jesus tried to get his disciples to learn his sayings verbatim, you don’t need to have a theory of textual dependence even with really significant verbatim sections.

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (6)

I have finally finished the book and propose to deal with the remaining 8 chapters in one post. The other option would be to look at each chapter in detail and that would take too long.

Chapter 6  is entitled Thomas and the Synoptics: A Method for Assessing Influence and proposes 6 stages in a method for assessing the influence of the Synoptics on Thomas. Gathercole outlines it as follows:

  1. Influence from the Synotpics on Thomas will be evident where Thomas reproduces redactional material.
  2. Where there is influence, taking the direction of that influence to be Synoptics –> Thomas (rather than Thomas –> Synoptics) can be justified on various grounds.
  3. The influence from the Synoptics can only reliably be seen in Thomas’s reception of Matthean and Lukan redaction of Mark.
  4. The sample of Thomas sayings to be analysed is thus restricted to places where there are parallels with Mark and at least one of the other Synoptics.
  5. Various options are discussed for how influence might take place, including combinations of oral and literary factors.
  6. Finally, the quesiton is raised of when in Thomas‘s compositional and transmission history any influence of the Synoptics might have been exerted (p 145).

On the basis of point 4, Gathercole only looks at 20 sayings – those that have a parallel in both Mark and at least one of Matthew or Luke.

Having amplified the six points, he then applies the method in chapters 7 & 8, Matthew in the Gospel of Thomas and Luke and the Gospel of Thomas. In doing this, he picks up Elaine Pagels’ suggestion that GTh 13.3 (where Jesus asks the disciples what they think he is and Matthew answers that he is a wise philosopher) is a reference to the content of Matthew’s gospel, although he rejects the notion that Peter’s comment about Jesus being like a righteous angel does not need to be a reference to either Mark or Gospel of Peter, because Peter is an unsurprising interlocuter, whereas Matthew is not. The notion that GTh 13.3 is a reference to Matthew’s gospel appears to be a key piece of evidence because he mentions it quite frequently. On the basis of his methodology, 11 of the 20 sayings are examples of Thomas‘s reception of Matthean or Lukan redaction of Mark.

Section II ends with chapter 9, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas, in which Gathercole surveys the previous chapters and concludes that:

attempts to exclude the influence of the Synoptics from the Gospel of Thomas are unsuccessful. There is in Thomas what one might term ‘significant’ influence indentifiable from Matthew and Luke. The influence is significant not because the redactional elements … which appear in Thomas are remarkably extensive in any particular places, but rather because these redactional traces appear in eleven out of twenty sayings in which they might be identified ( p 223).

He notes that it is not possible to know by what method this influence was exerted – whether it was oral, literary or “secondary orality”, but it is clear from the foregoing and succeeding parts of the book that his definite preference is that it is literary influence.

I find his arguments significantly less convincing than he does, especially for literary influence. He continually uses words such as ‘significant’ and ‘striking’ for extremely short strings of correspondence, similar wording that is not the same and the occasional shared use of an unusual word. Research on human memory has demonstrated that even members of highly writing-dependent cultures can reproduce strings of 15 words or more verbatim from memory and people living in oral and verbomotor cultures can do significantly better than this, so strings of 6-7 words, even with one of 13, are not convincing evidence of literary influence. While it is, of course, possible that the author of Thomas was familiar with written versions of both Matthew and Luke but chose to change the wording to suit his own ends, the evidence provided is not enough to rule out: oral transmission; a common source, either oral or written; or transmission of traditions that sprang from two different eyewitnesses to Jesus’ teaching. Gathercole dismisses the first two of these and does not address the third. Indeed, it appears that he has done very little reading in the area of oral transmission and none at all in human memory and eyewitness testimony. The latter two are, at least in my opinion, very important given that we hold that the gospels are, in general, eyewitness accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus which were transmitted orally in Christian communities for several decades before they were recorded in written form.

Part III looks at Thomas and other early Christian literature. Chapter 10 examines two passages in Romans and one in 1 Corinthians and concludes that Paul influences Thomas.  Chapter 11 looks at the phrase ‘the world is not worthy’ in the Epistle to the Hebrews and GTh 56, 80 and 111 and concludes that Thomas was influenced by the Epistle to the Hebrews. It seems to me that the argument he provides and dismisses for the expression simply being a pre-existing multilingual Jewish expression is stronger. Chapter 12 is entitled A note on the “two wys” tradition and GTh 25 and in it he concludes that Thomas should be included in the group of texts influenced by a hypothetical re-existing “two ways” source.

In summary, Gathercole finds that Thomas was originally written in Greek, is dependent on both Luke and Matthew as well as some of the Pauline corpus and the Epistle to the Hebrews (and probably other sources as well). Gathercole makes it clear that he is not arguing that the author of Thomas sat down with the texts of the Synoptics, Paul and Hebrews in front of him and copied and pasted as he saw fit, but it is also clear that he prefers the notion that there is literary rather than oral dependence of Thomas on the Synoptics. What this actually means, though, is rather unclear. The book would have benefitted from a careful definition of dependence (as would most works addressing this issue). Sometimes he suggests that this might be as vague as once having heard them read and remembering them, at other times, the reader gets the impression that he thinks that the author may have read them. In the latter chapters, he tends to use ‘influence’ rather than dependence, and this seems to be a better way of talking about what he is claiming. I think that  he succeeds in making it obvious that we simply do not have sufficient evidence to be able to be dogmatic about any theory of  composition of Thomas and that theories about source, dating, original language etc are all intertwined, but I do not find his arguments for his position nearly as compelling as he does.

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (5)

Chapter 5 is entitled Responses to Arguments for Independence and contains a discussion of the weaknesses that Gathercole perceives in the arguments for Thomas being independent of the Synoptics. I find a number of the things he says in it puzzling or surprising and often wish that he had provided examples to back up his statements.

In the introduction, Gathercole notes that while the previous four chapters can stand alone, their findings also have three significant implications for how we understand the relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics. The first two are straightforward and simply summaries of what has gone before:

  • a putative early Aramaic Thomas would make a relationship between it and the Synoptics unlikely, but a Greek original makes a relationship between the four more likely.
  • if it were possible to demonstrate that Thomas and the Synoptics contained divergent translations from Aramaic originals, independence would be more likely, but the conclusions drawn in chapters 2 and 3  suggest that the case is not particularly compelling.

The third surprised me.

  • He says that the discussion in chapter 4 of the similarities bettween the Greek and Coptic texts “showed that the content of Thomas was reasonably stable across the century or two separating the Greek fragments and the Coptic version. The implications of this point for our discussion are traced further in ensuing chapters (p 129).” Perhaps I have not read chapter 4 thoroughly enough, but I have been unable to find any statement about the stability of the content until this point in the book. It is therefore not clear to me exactly how he feels that he has demonstrated this.

Gathercole also indicates that:

these chapters will not argue for anything like total dependence upon the Synoptics, as if all the author or editor of Thomas knew was Mark, Matthew and Luke and nothing else (I am not aware of any scholar who has argued for that position.) Clearly Thomas is – on any reckoning – at least partially independent of the Synoptics, as it is virtually incredible that the editor of Thomas invented all the material not paralleled with the Synoptics. The presence both of non-Synoptic but Synoptic-like material in Thomas and of other quite different sayings clearly points towards partial independence, but neither of these can be regarded as indicating the independence of what is paralleled in the Synoptics (pp 129-130). [underlining added]

I am not sure what it is that Gathercole is trying to convey in the underlined sentence.  Clearly, those sayings in Thomas which do not appear in any of the Synoptics cannot possibly be held to be dependent on them, but the source of any non-parallel material is irrelevant.  FWIW, if you hold that the extra material is not authentic Jesus tradition, then the most likely explanation is that the editor and/or his/her community did, in fact, invent it. If you hold that it has the possibility of being authentic Jesus tradition then it must ultimately stem back to some alternative eyewitness source – and John 21:25 certainly suggests that there is plenty of authentic Jesus material that has not appeared in the canonical gospels.

Having said this, Gathercole then identifies four main areas of argument in favour of Thomas being independent and addresses each in turn. I am using his own headings:

  1. Do the differences in order imply the independence of Thomas and the Synoptics? He makes four ponts. He first raises the question of why Thomas would break up and re-order Matthew, which he says is essentially a non-problem, arising from the highly scribal mentality of the early Thomas scholarship. “When this scribal mentality is abandoned, however, the objection ceases to have any force (p 131).” With this comment, he moves on to the next issue, but the situation is by no means as clear cut as he suggests. While it is true that in cultures where material is transmitted orally rather than in written form, the preservation of text in exact verbatim form is not as high a priority as it is in a scribal culture, one of the features of oral transmission is grouping items ways that make them easy to memory. Deliberately dragging a nice, neat, easy to remember section such as Matthew 13 apart is counter-intuitive, unless you wish to accept an explanation such as Perrin’s Syriac catchwords as providing a new way of remembering such a large body of material. His second counter is to quote Tuckett: ‘someone somewhere must have changed or created either the synoptic order or GTh’s order to produce the other (probably with a number of stages in between’ (“The Gospel of Thomas: Evidence for Jesus?”, NTT 52 (1998) 23-24). This is, of course, only true if one is dependent on the other. Given the lack of verbatim agreement and, in some cases, significant differences even in the gist of the parallels, another possibility is that the two come from different eyewitness accounts of different events in Jesus’ teaching where he used slightly different versions of stories in somewhat different order. His third is to remind us that Wilson identified several cases where adjacent sayings in Thomas ‘are also juxtaposed in the Synoptics” (p 131) and asks if this is purely accidentally. It almost certainly isn’t, but if what we have is accounts from different eyewitnesses recounting the same events, it would be expected that there would be overlap as well as difference. Fourthly he draws attention to the difference in genre and suggests that in a collection of sayings, one might expect the order not to be as important as it is in something that is clearly narrative. While this is true, it goes against his earlier argument that Thomas and the Synoptics are of the same genre. Most of these points would benefit from the provision of an example to illustrate how he reaches his conclusions, rather than just a bare statement of what he holds to be fact but which appears to me to be open to question.
  2. Do form-critical factors suggest the priority of Thomas‘s versions? This section looks at the various form-critical ‘rules’ used to indicate that one piece of text is older/earlier than another and demonstrates  that some contradict one another and they are by no means as watertight as their supporters suggest. While I agree with what he says in most of this section, his cases would be stronger with the use of examples. As it stands, much of his argument consists simply of quoting the opinions of other scholars and, as usual, he has ignored the evidence from oral transmission and human memory, which this time would support his case.
  3. If Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, why is there no extensive verbatim correspondence? Here, we are promised a discussion of individual sayings in later chapters, shown again the longest example of correspondence between Greek texts and told that by adopting the correspondence between the Synoptics as the ‘norm’ scholars who favour the independence argument are placing the burden of proof artificially high. Again, the psychological literature on eyewitness testimony and human memory would suggest that this is not the case.
  4. Does the absence or insignificance of Thomas’s appropriation of redactional feature in the Synoptics show that there is no literary relationship? Gathercole obviously argues that it doesn’t, because he has made it very clear that he is convinced that there is a literary relationship between them. He indicates that he will deal with these issues more fully in the next three chapters but in the meantimes makes a number of remarks. I find the points he makes less than obvious without concrete examples. At this point, all I feel that he does successfully is to indicate that there is sufficient evidence of potential redaction so that we cannot rule out the possibility of literary relationship. This hardly needs stating, given the debate in scholarly circles over the past 50 or so years.

In view of my comments above and in previous posts, I am afraid I cannot agree with the first sentence of the conclusion to this chapter “In sum, there is not really a single argument for the thoroughgoing independence of Thomas which has any force (p 143).” He promises that in the following chapters he will demonstrate “that there is actually good reason to suspect the opposite, namely that Matthew and Luke do influence Thomas (p 144).” I hope that this involves more than simple citations of the opinions of others.

To this point, the book has very much the feel of a text for which the author has been given a strict word/page limit which only allows a sketch of the material being presented. It is a relatively slim volume, but this is clearly the result of the nice paper on which I commented in the first post. There are 270 pages of text, plus introduction and indices, and I notice that many of the thicker paperbacks on my shelves have fewer pages than this.

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (3)

In Chapter 3, Gathercole works through 77 areas in the Coptic text of Thomas that have been proposed by various authors as Semitisms. He looks at those identified by Quispel and Guillaumont and listed by DeConick in her The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation but adds a number of others presented elsewhere in the scholarly literature. He quite rightly says that problematising the proposal of a Semitic background requires a large sample size.  He does not, however, attempt to include all the 502 Syrian catchwords proposed by Perrin. Of the aim of the chapter, he says:

It is hoped that the present chapter will show that in almost every instance, alternative explanations are readily available, and to suggest that, as a result, the case for a Semitic Vorlage underlying our Greek and Coptic texts has been greatly exaggerated and is in fact very vulnerable. In addition to the immediate concern with the original language, this chapter is also significant for the question (which will loom large later, in Part II) of Thomas’ s independence, since we will treat here a number of alleged cases of Aramaic Vorlagen translated differently (and thus independently) by Thomas and the Synoptics. (pp 43-4)

As can be seen from the previous post, Gathercole’s argument about the Semitisms in Thomas looks at three main areas: the identification and classification of Semitisms in the text; the identification of mistranslations or wooden translations which could are explained by an underlying Semitic text; and the identification of divergent translations that occur in either the Greek and Coptic Thomas or  in canonical parallels to Thomas and which could be explained by a common Semitic Vorlage.

I think he demonstrates quite credibly that quite a few of the pieces of text identified by other scholars as Semitisms are either acceptable Greek or acceptable Coptic idiom and that others, while clearly arising as a result of translation from a Semitic language can be classified as Septuagintisms, rather than what might be termed de novo Semitisms. He also demonstrates that a significant number of those passages which have previously been considered to be the result of mistranslation are actually the result of problematic exegesis and are acceptable was they stand; and that in a number of situations where real problems exist with the text, there are Greek explanations that are equally as likely as the Semitic ones that have been proposed, or they could be explained by textual corruption. Thus, he raises significant doubt in the first two areas.

In looking at the third area, that of divergent translations, he notes that in a number of situations the parallel texts are so different that they could only be considered to be loose translations at best, so do not provide convincing evidence that they are translations of a common Semitic Vorlage. In other situations, the divergences are translations of conjunctions and prepositions which are acknowledged by scholars  to be translated unpredictably between other languages and Coptic. Finally, there are places where the explanations offered by other scholars require a translation directly from a Semitic language to Coptic, which he finds untenable.

He finishes with: “These conclusions do not, of course, mean that it is impossible that various sayings in Thomas go back to Semitic originals  . . . The analysis in this chapter does emphasise, however, how difficult it is to conjure up evidence which can only be explained on the basis of a Western Aramaic or Syriac Vorlage.” (p 104)

Again, however, while the evidence he provides is well researched, it seems to me that the conclusions he draws from it are an overstatement of the case, for several reasons. First, even though it may be possible to provide an individual explanation of every Semitism proposed that does not require that it comes from a Semitic language original, the people who are proposing a Semitic original are saying, in effect, that when you put all these pieces together the overwhelming ‘feel’ of the text is that there is a Semitic language underlying it. To provide a modernt parallel: When I read the English translation of Uwe-Karsten Plisch’s commentary on Thomas, there is nothing in it that is incorrect, but there are definitely segments which someone who speaks English as their first language would have worded differently. The fact that I can provide perfectly acceptable explanations for each one of them in English does not take away the “germanic” feel which is caused by their presence in numerous places in the text. Of course, as Gathercole himself notes once or twice, it is difficult to identify the source of this Semitic feel. Given that Jesus did most, if not all, of his teaching in Aramaic and Thomas consists almost entirely of  Jesus’ words, it may come from Jesus. If the person who translated the text into Coptic spoke a Semitic language as his/her first language s/he may have introduced Semitisms that did not exist in the original text, and the notion of LXXisms of course makes sense, too. Thus, while a Semitic Vorlage may not be the only explanation for many of the Semitisms detected in the text, it must one of the possible explanations remain at this stage and I don’t think it is necessary that it be the only possible explanation in order for it to be the best one.

From my perspective, however, there is a more significant gap in Gathercole’s treatment when he deals with the divergent translations. While I concur that we are on shaky ground trying to demonstrate a common Vorlage for material that appears only to be a loose translation of the original, much of the problematic material seems to me to have an explanation which Gathercole does not explore. The more I read about eyewitness testimony and human memory, the more likely I think it that divergences such as those between Thomas and the canon come from the accounts of different eyewitnesses to the same events, exacerbated by the fact that the transmission for the first decade or two was oral. Most of the divergence theories were proposed several decades ago, before much research had been done about eyewitness testimony and when biblical scholars were largely unaware of research on human memory and oral transmission that was being done in other fields. The variations seem to me to be better explained as gist transmissions by several eyewitnesses through different trajectories than by loose translations of one underlying text. Whether they became stable as part of community tradition (see eg Bailey) or as a result of Jesus teaching his disciples in the manner of the rabbis of his time (see eg Gerhardsson) is unclear.

In chapter 4, which will be the subject of the next post, Gathercole moves on to positive evidence for a Greek-language origin. This may build a case which outweighs the difficulties that I’ve raised above.

Robert McIver – Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels

Last year, SBL published Robert McIver’s book Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels. I ordered it immediately but it sat on my shelf for several months before I had time to look at it. McIver is a fellow Australian and I met him at the SBL international conference in Auckland, New Zealand in 2008.  He has published two papers on oral and written transmission and the gospels with his colleague Marie Carroll* which I found useful in writing my JBL article on eyewitness testimony, so I was interested to see what he had to say.

The book provides a quite comprehensive coverage of the psychological research on eyewitness testimony and human memory, which makes it an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in an overiew of the field. I found the chapter on personal event memories particularly helpful. It draws attention to the work of David Pillemer in Momentous Events, Vivid Memories (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998) which extends the classic work of Brown and Kulik on ‘flash bulb memories’ to memories of momentous events in general – something I had not come across before.

The book has limitations, however. First, I would question McIver’s decision to limit his discussion of the problems of human memory in Daniel Schacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001) to transience, suggestibility and bias. I think that both misattribution and absent-mindedness can also have significant impact on eyewitness memories of events in some of the circumstances in which the gospels came into being.

Second, and far more importantly, I do not understand how he has moved from the evidence he has provided to the conclusion he draws. He provides careful evidence that eyewitness memory is not at all good at producing verbatim reproductions of what was said; that people often see and remember what they expect or want to see and remember; that there is a rapid deterioration of memory at the level of detail in the first hours, days and weeks after an event and it is not until about five years out that the rate of forgetting slows almost to a stop; that people fill gaps in their memories with material that is likely to have happened, given their knowledge of the people and circumstances involved so that ‘what is recorded in the Gospels is highly likely to be consistent (emphasis McIver’s) with what actually happened’ (p 156); and that while about 80% of what is remembered by eyewitnesses is accurate we have no way of determining which 20% in inaccurate.  He notes that apophthegemata and aphorisms are more likely to be remembered almost verbatim or not at all than are extended narratives and argues that parables, as coherent stories with a punch line, are ideal for accurate transmission, but the overall picture he provides is the reliability of reproduction is at the level of gist and overview rather than verbatim repetition and fine detail.

He also argues with Birger Gerhardsson et al that Jesus is likely to have trained his followers to remember his teachings in the same way that rabbis trained their disciples. This is really the only way that one could be confident that the words put into Jesus’ mouth by the authors of the gospels are the words Jesus spoke. The evidence from psychological research points to gist-only levels of accuracy.

McIver finishes by saying:

So it can be concluded that, like most products of human memory and despite all the frailties of such memory, the Gospels should be considered to be generally reliable. If the evidence presented thus far may be relied on, then  –  at least for the apophthegmata, the parables and the aphorisms – the burden of proof should lie with those who wish to claim that a saying found in the Gospels in not from Jesus or that an incident reported about him did not happen, not with those who assume its authenticity. Human memory is a remarkable facility, and the traditions found in the synoptic Gospels may be considered to be a product of its effectiveness. (p 187)

Unfortunately, incidents are not apophthegmata, parables or aphorisms, and the evidence provided by the psychological research is not, at least in my opinion, nearly strong enough to make this confident a statement about events, regardless of what you may or may not believe about Jesus as rabbi. While a careful reading of the book makes it clear that McIver is not saying “see, see, we can prove that we have Jesus’ actual words and blow-by-blow, accurate accounts of his actions”, I think he significantly overstates his case and I will not be at all surprised if others use the book in this way.  I think what the book does is rather to provide some helpful understandings of how the variations between the gospels have arisen – due to the frailties of human memory rather than a deliberate attempt on the part of the authors to push their particular theological barrow at the expense of accuracy.

* McIver, Robert K. and Marie Carroll ‘Experiments to Develop Criteria for Determining the Existence of Written Sources, and Their Potential Implications for the Synoptic Problem’, Journal of Biblical Literature, 121 (4) (2002), pp. 667-687; and McIver, Robert K. and Marie Carroll, ‘Distinguishing Characteristics of Orally Transmitted Material When Compared to Material Transmitted by Literary Means’, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 18 (9) (2004), pp. 1251-1269.

More on Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses

I’ve just spent several hours reading two papers whose authors were kind enough not only to draw my attention to them but also to remind me that I had meant to read them but not managed to do so. One is a philosophy paper published in the Journal of Political Ecology and written by one of my office-mates. Tanzim Khan has written a fascinating account one of the outworkings of the tension between forest conservation and energy procurement in Bangladesh, which, of course, has nothing at all to do with the topic of this post, but I enjoyed reading it.

The second is by John N Collins – “Re-thinking ‘Eyewitnesses’ in the Light of ‘Servants of the Word’ (Luke 1:2)” (Expository Times 2010 121: 447). It is just the kind of thing I enjoy most. The first part sets Bauckham’s work in the context of Catholic scholarship over the past half century or so; the second takes a close look at translation issues and how they affect our understanding of theological concepts and as an added bonus John writes really well. Lest this sound condescending, I need to say that I’ve spent the last two days at work struggling with an abominably written report so John’s smooth prose was a delight. (Tanzim, writing in his second language produced a significantly more readable result than this report.)

In the first section of the paper, John traces the approach of the Catholic church to biblical scholarship from pre-Vatican II rejection of Bultmann through the 1993 Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church which states the importance of the place of the Historical Critical Method to the point where Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, expresses reservations about the historical method in his 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth. Collins suggest that Richard Bauckham “has arrived at the same conundrum as Benedict but after travelling in the opposite direction” (449). I think it is helpful to be reminded that there are times when Catholic biblical scholarship comes at issues from a somewhat different direction- something I was conscious of during my theological training at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Having established the differences and similarities between Bauckham and Benedict, Collins goes on to look at how the term ‘eyewitnesses’ (autoptai) is used at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. He argues that Luke’s autoptai are not the oral tradents that Bauckham suggests, but those who are working with a literary tradition; and that their role as “guarantors of the tradition” began siginficantly later than Bauckham’s argument would require. I can’t reproduce his reasoning here, but I would recommend the paper.

As I read through Collins’ paper, I was reminded again of why Bauckham’s thesis is so attractive to Christian biblical scholars. Those of us who grew up in a church community just assumed that the gospels were eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry and our first encounter with twentieth-century biblical scholarship required a significant mental gear-change. At some level, I suspect we all want to be convinced that the gospels are historically accurate, because faith would be so much easier if we could prove this. Unfortunately, I don’t think this can be done without the aid of a time machine, but Bauckham’s work has certainly prompted a significant number of people to think in new ways about the gospels, which can’t be a bad thing. 🙂