Interview with Stephen J. Patterson on the Gospel of Thomas (Part III)

patterson_250Here’s the final installment of my interview with Professor Patterson. It’s good to hear that he is back working seriously in the Gospel of Thomas after some time away.

(CWS) 6. 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?

 (SJP) I began with Robinson and Koester, whom I still find to be very insightful.  I like Plisch’s new commentary.  I still use Schrage all of the time, even though I disagree with his central thesis.  His work is full of valuable detail.  I use the Finns a lot – Uro [see here and here], Marjanen, DunderbergZöckler’s book is helpful.  I rely on Pagels and Davies essays on Genesis exegesis in early Judaism as the basic framework for understanding the theology.  And, of course, we could not have a better tool that Layton’s edition of Codex II.

(CWS) 7. You have written quite widely on the Gospel of Thomas. Are you currently planning to undertake more research on the Gospel of Thomas? If so, what other projects do you currently have planned (or in the works)?

(SJP) I am currently preparing the Hermeneia volume on Thomas.  This has brought me back into the study of this text after several years hiatus.

(CWS) 8. 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?)

(SJP) The most pressing issue now is understanding the theology of Thomas.  The older designation “Gnostic” clearly won’t do.  I have recently argued for Middle Platonism as the basic framework (“Jesus Meets Plato: The Theology of the Gospel of Thomas,” pp. 181-205 in J. Frey, et al., ed., Das Thomasevangelium, Entstehung – Rezeption – Theologie.  BZNW 157 [Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008]).  I think this is right, but there is much to explore here.  Also, there are many sayings still for which little or no research has been done.  Students just need to wade into the bibliography to find the thin places (there are plenty) and get to work.  Sayings 15, 26, 29, 56, 59, 70 etc.—all sayings for which there is no major study.  In connection with the commentary I have developed a fairly comprehensive bibliography, and would gladly direct students to the most neglected sayings needing further study.

Once again I would like to thank Professor Patterson for taking the time to interact with my questions in this forum. I have other interviews planned as the academic year progresses. With these interviews my primary goal continues to be fostering discussion and generating interest in the major issues involved in intelligently discussing the Gospel of Thomas. If anyone has a suggestion about what other questions they would like to see posed or what other scholars they would like to see interviewed, please feel free to comment.

First Thoughts on D Campbell’s Deliverance of God

I am reviewing Douglas Cambell’s tome The Deliverance of God (Eerdmans, 2009) for a review journal.  I have just begun reading this massive work and I am about 200 pages into it – a mere 20%!

I will confess that I did not spend much time in his precursor text – The Quest for Paul’s Gospel (2005).  Nevertheless, from bits and pieces I had picked up before of Quest and other essays of his, I liked his take on Paul.  Also, I myself am a fan of the ‘Paul and Apocalyptic’ school and, though Campbell rightly confesses that Lou Martyn has been its most well-known advocate, I think it was J.C. Becker who enchanted me to reading Paul this way (and also my supervisor John Barclay’s encouraging me to give Kaesemann and try).

So what of the Deliverance of God?  I must say that it has been, so far, a stunning and bewildering critique of the popular soteriological position – Justification theory (which he associates with Luther, but follows its logical and philosophical character apart from the work of just one scholar).

In the first 200 pages, his critique is logical and philosophical.  He draws in some history-of-interpretation issues, but his overall point is that “Justification theory,” the dominant view of most Christians and many (especially protestant) scholars, is incoherent, individualistic, deeply inconsistent, patchy in terms of focusing on what Paul focuses on, and even harmful to Christian thought.  If nothing else, though Campbell can be accused of using the term “obviously” or “clearly” too much, he problematizes Justification theory in a way no one else has done in the past.

Since I am a Methodist, I resonate with many of Cambell’s concerns -why does Justification theory (JT) not have a thoroughgoing pneumatology?  What about the empowerment and impulse for ethics?

At the same time, and again I want to repeat that I am only a short way through the book, Campbell is deeply concerned that JT presumes that fallen humanity can really think through their own depravity and find “faith” to choose Christ and accept God’s offer of salvation.  For Campbell, Paul’s hamartiology is far too serious to allow for this kind of “rationalistic” and “contractual” approach which sees humanity as fallen, but still epistemologically functional.  In Campbell’s mind, Romans 5-8 paints a picture of a hopelessly blind humanity that needs LIBERATION – that is, God’s one-sided unconditional deliverance to change the world and free, that is, DELIVER humanity from bondage to oppressive powers – SIN and DEATH.  While I resonate with the apocalyptic tones in his very colorful portrait of Pauline theology, it comes across as either Calvinistic (humanity is too lost to choose God, so God does some choosing), or universalistic (God’s apocalyptic deliverance is absolute).  I think, and I say this only knowing part of Campbell’s argument, that if he pushes the election part too far, then Paul loses his prophetic voice – the prophet (who figures prominently in apocalyptic discourses as God’s own herald), keep in mind, preached judgment as well as hope and the covenantal people were addressed as if they had the choice (or at least were responsible for their choice) of renewed obedience (I think of the prophetic Psalm 78).

So far, though, it is very gripping reading.  My only wish was that he launched his attack in stages, releasing two or even three different books (perhaps in rapid 6-month successions).  The first part of the book (so far) is very compelling and I think it is the part that will end up influencing scholarship.  At the SBL review session, I was introduced to some of his thinking specifically on Romans 1-4 and I can sense that this seems a bit more idiosyncratic.  We will see, of course.  I delay judgment until I have heard him out – all 1000 pages!

I encourage Paulinists out there to really set aside some time to work through this book.  Whether or not it ends up doing in scholarship the kinds of things Campbell hopes for, it will stand as an excellent piece of literature – carefully crafted and planned and he has clearly done his homework.  Doctoral students can see here what it means to tackle an issue (especially a large issue) from every angle.  But please, when you publish, don’t do endnotes as Campbell did.  I think he did it to save some pages (and I can appreciate the need to make production cheaper).  But so far I have consulted absolutely no endnotes.  Shame on me, but I blame the format.  As I always do.

Pistis Christou Contest Winner (see what he said!)

The winner of the Pistis Christou book giveaway contest is: James Gregory.  I will get the book out to you in the next few days, James!  Congrats!

While many of the entries were helpful and interesting, I could only pick one winner.  Nevertheless, I have been told that, if you want a good price on the book, check out Eisenbrauns who is offering it for a mere $13.37 – the best price I have found on the web (better than Amazon!).

Here is what James Gregory  had to say about the debate:

For reasons concerning the roles of the humanity of Jesus and human faith, the pistis Christou debate is rather important. Is our faith in Christ what effects salvation? Was it Christ’s faithfulness to God’s will that brings about salvation? This issue is more involved and interesting than merely a syntactical one. Rather, it is one marked with important theological implications. Would Paul and the New Testament writers even have thought about an individual’s faith in Christ, or would they have considered the corporate faith of the children of God? It is precisely because a theology of justification both at the individual and ecumenical levels is directly informed and influenced by pistis Christou that the issue matters at all, that not a few scholars have addressed the issue, and that it needs to be dealt with accordingly for understanding faith for the human Christ or the human believer. Ultimately, we are faced with a decision whenever we see the construction, pistis Christou, whether it is describing Christ’s faithfulness or our faith in Christ. If it is the latter, which many take it this way, it emphasizes the human believer’s role in justification. But if it is the former, it highlights Christ’s role of obedience and faithfulness unto death on our behalf. Because the discussion revolves around this distinction between the human Christ and the human believer, this debate is important for Pauline studies, for it is part of the foundation for justification by faith. The question becomes, “Is it Christ’s faith or is it our faith that brings about justification?” The distinction concerns whether or not humans have any role or responsibility in justification. The former view argues that humans do not, while the latter view argues that they do. The works of Paul function as the bedrock for a theology of justification. Since these works are important for this subject, it follows that the pistis Christou debate is essential for discussing and shaping the foundation for justification theology in Pauline studies.