Interview with Ismo Dunderberg on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

400000000000000090356_s4Here’s part two of my dialogue with Professor Dunderberg. I especially appreciate his lengthy answer to my question about prospects for future study on the Gospel of Thomas. Thanks again, Professor Dunderberg!

(CWS) 4. I know that you regard yourself as more of a Johannine scholar, but do you anticipate any further research on the Gospel of Thomas? If so, could you tell us about it? I also know that you recently had an opportunity to examine Codex Tchacos up close (Gospel of Judas). Did you pursue this research in preparation for a book? Are you planning to do more research into similar ancient Christian texts?

 (ID) I’m not working on Thomas any longer, but I am presently working on the Gospel of Judas. My article on this text and ancient theories of “anger management” was recently published in a collection of articles edited by April DeConick. And I’m presently working on an edition and commentary on the Gospel of Judas. For this purpose, I spent a week in Geneva this past December inspecting some of the pages of Codex Tchachos. I’m sorry to tell I had no great new discoveries; the present edition by Wurst and others seems very accurate!

 As I’m now moving back to New Testament studies “proper” from Thomasine and Valentinian studies, I’m now and then asked to give papers on the reception of New Testament texts in the second century. I haven’t done much of this so far but  it seems I should do more in the future.

(CWS) 5. 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 (if any)? You argue that there is material in Thomas old enough to be illuminating about the life of the historical Jesus. How do these two research interests coalesce in your own scholarship?

(ID) I haven’t conducted any independent research on the historical Jesus thus far; perhaps I’m too much aware of the problem of circularity which is particularly vexing in this field of study? I think there are sayings in Thomas which may “sound like Jesus,” or may stand closer to him than the synoptic versions, but I hardly have anything original to say about that matter–except that I was surprised to see that the Jesus seminar found so little in the non-synoptic material of Thomas that could go back to Jesus.

(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?

(ID) First of all, I should mention my two Finnish colleagues, Antti Marjanen and Risto Uro. Not only have I spent hours and hours with them discussing the Gospel of Thomas, but they have also painstakingly read and commented on everything I’ve written about this topic, and have opened with their own work many important perspectives to it, both in methodological issues and in detailed analysis. Riley and DeConick have been very important discussion partners, of course. I’ve always found Elaine Pagels’ research and discussions with her most inspiring for my work (both on Thomas and Valentinians). I should also mention Stephen Patterson, whose work has prevented me from thinking that Thomas was simply put together from bits and pieces derived from the synoptic gospels; Philip Sellew, whose work always opens new perspectives for understanding Thomas in a broader context of antiquity; and Stevan Davies, who has such a keen eye especially on what binds John and Thomas theologically together and on their background in Jewish wisdom theology. Finally, I should mention Tjitze Baarda, whose detailed presentations at SBL and articles warned against any kind of generalizations and false security as to our conclusions about Thomas.

(CWS) 7. 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?

(ID) There are of course many areas where further investigation might be necessary. One promising path is the increased interest in how the Gospel of Thomas might have been understood in Egypt in the fourth century. What was it in this text that attracted attention among early Christians of this period? Why was it translated, by whom, and to whom? There’ve been initial attempts to analyze the individual Nag Hammadi codices as collections, and such analyses may shed light on this questions. The demolition of strict boundaries between “orthodoxy” and “heresy”, for which many have argued, may help us see affinities between Thomas and monastic literature more clearly than before.

Another big problem, that still needs further clarification, is the genre of Thomas. It is, of course, a collection of sayings of Jesus, but what are hermeneutical ramifications of this genre? Should we continue to try to find a unified theology in, or behind, it? Or should it be approached as a random collection of oracles, as Davies proposed some years ago?

 Due to my interest in the school of Valentinus, I’ve also developed a fancy for interactions of early Christian texts with philosophical traditions. I’ve been one of the editors of a book dealing with this topic, where there are chapters on gospels, Paul, Sethians, and Valentinians–but strikingly, none on Thomas! Risto Uro made some very promising remarks about this issue in his book Thomas (2003). In light of them, it would be worthwhile to explore more systematically whether the Gospel of Thomas was written (or could be placed) in dialogue with philosophers, like Paul or the author of John may have been.

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