Interview with Nicholas Perrin on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

booksHere’s part two of my interview with Nick Perrin. In this installment I ask him about the relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and historical Jesus research and his hopes for the future of Thomas scholarship. He even (stop the presses) finds an area of agreement with April DeConick. Who would’ve thought?

Question #4 (CWS) Your earlier work, Questioning Q (edited with Mark Goodacre) and your late dating of the Gospel of Thomas together controvert two major areas of quasi-certainty for many who are presently working in NT studies / early Christianity / historical Jesus studies. This suggests to me that you have a level of healthy skepticism about some of the “assured results” of modern NT scholarship. For the record, what is your view on the development of the canonical sayings tradition? Have Q and the Gospel of Thomas been given too much unwarranted attention? How would you seek to remedy that situation within the guild? What avenues of investigation remain to question modern views of Q and Thomas?

(NP) I think most of the NT guild would agree that Q-mania has gotten out of hand. The two-source hypothesis is not the worst hypothesis on offer by any stretch, but please let us be more attuned to its weaknesses. A Q community? Mmmm. Not sure how many of us outside the Q Section at SBL are really willing to go there.

Question #5 (CWS) Another research interest that I have and one that I hope to promote on this blog is the historical Jesus. To your mind, what implications for historical Jesus research does the Gospel of Thomas have? Is there anything in Thomas that is old enough to be potentially illuminating about the life of the historical Jesus?

(NP) Since I date Thomas fairly late, this does not bode well for its usefulness in historical Jesus research. However, I’m not sure this matters in practice. In a Stand der Forschung on Thomas, I show that the gospel is virtually unused as a source in contemporary historical Jesus research, even by scholars who see it as quite early. So, quite aside from whether I think Thomas should make a difference to historical Jesus research, the empirical fact is that it hasn’t. I am coming out with a book on the historical Jesus and I mention Thomas as little and as much as most writers on the subject.

Question #6 (CWS) What scholars pursuing research on the Gospel of Thomas (and/or Christian Origins) have you found most helpful for your own work on the Gospel of Thomas?

(NP) You know, I think all the major writers on Thomas have some good insights. And I’m not just blowing smoke when I say that. For example, I believe April DeConick is completely right about the background hermeticism. Quispel latched on to this, but good for her for running with it further.

Question #7 (CWS) Do you plan to do any more work on the Gospel of Thomas. If so, what other projects do you currently have planned (or in the works)?

(NP) Someone has asked me to help compose an online (hypothetical of course) Syriac Gospel of Thomas. Hey, if we have a Critical Edition of Q, why not a Syriac copy of Thomas? We’ll see. I am not planning any major work on Thomas, but will probably spend the rest of my career responding to doubters. In Thomas: The Other Gospel I rely in part on the linguistic argument, but advance other grounds for making the same case. For me it all adds up; there are too many factors (theology, terminology, phraseology, cultural background etc) that fit a late second century Syriac Thomas – the more I think about, the more convinced I become. Hopefully, if I take this point seriously, I won’t also take myself too seriously along the way.

Right now I’m at Princeton working on a high-falutin’-level book on Irenaeus and his battle with Gnosticism. I am tending to see the Irenaeus’s conflict has having to do with onto-theology, but I may well change my mind before the book is done. It’s fascinating.

Question #8 (CWS) To your mind, what area(s) of Thomas research is/are in need of further investigation? If you were going to supervise Ph.D. students in this area, what avenues of study would you suggest? (If you are currently supervising doctoral students in Thomasine studies, can you share a little about what these students are pursuing?)

(NP) There are a few points that could stand closer investigation. The influence of Philo on the Gospel of Thomas and second-century patristica needs more work. Also hermeticism. If Thomas was a kind of script for personal enlightenment, where do we find parallels in the study of religious ritual? This is not my field, but an area that needs more exploration. I think too that someone should take on some of the sloppy assertions made about orality. In so many of these discussions, we lack any kind of empirical control or any real specificity as to what we are really talking about. As a result, most of our discussions are hopelessly abstract and ungrounded. This is a methodological problem.

Thanks again to Nick for agreeing to be interviewed. Stay tuned throughout the fall semester for interviews with Stephen Patterson, Stevan Davies, and others.

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