Interview with Risto Uro on the Gospel of Thomas (Part III)

RistoHere’s the final installment of my interview with Professor Uro. For those interested in dissertation topics, he suggests three areas he’d like to see investigated:

(CWS) 7. 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)?

(RU) I am currently working on a project titled “Ritual and Christian Beginnings.” Part of the project is also to analyze the transmission of the Jesus traditions from the perspective of ritual and memory. Materials from Thomas will certainly play a role in the analysis.

(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?)

(RU) I would like to list the following three areas/topics:

  • Thomas and memory studies
  • Thomas in light of the Hellenistic philosophies (I did some comparison with Stoicism in my 2003 book, but much more could be done)
  • The social setting of Thomas in light of other “school” settings in early Christianity (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Valentinian Christianity)

There are some hopes that we could have a doctoral student work on one or some of these topics.

Thanks again to Professor Uro for participating. In the early fall I *hope* to post an interview with Professor Marvin Meyer of Chapman University. He has agreed to be interviewed in this forum but his schedule has not yet opened up enough to participate.

Interview with Risto Uro on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

9780567086075Here’s part two of my interview with Professor Uro:

(CWS) 4. To your mind, what is the relationship, if any, between the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John?

(RU) I agree with Ismo Dunderberg that the attempts to reconstruct a conflict between John’s and Thomas’ communities are on a shaky ground. I also find helpful his idea that both the figure of the beloved disciple in John and the apostle Thomas in the Gospel of Thomas should be seen in the context of other figures of authentication that abound in early Christian literature. There are interesting points of contact, though, and both gospels seem to roughly derive from same stage of the Christian movement as 1Timothy, Hebrews, and some of the Apostolic Fathers.

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

(RU) I think the most important contribution of Thomasine studies to historical Jesus research is methodological. As I explained above, one of my first interests was to use Thomas’ materials to understand the tradition process in light of orality and literacy studies. Now the field is often called orality-scribality-memory studies. The results of such studies may not be as direct or dramatic as tracing some “authentic” traditions in Thomas, but I have been influenced by E.P. Sanders too much to take the sayings tradition as a point of departure in the study of the historical 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?

(RU) As to the scholars, I cannot overstate the influence of the “original” Thomas project team in Helsinki (Dunderberg, Marjanen and Uro). We worked together intensively musing over Thomas and other Nag Hammadi writings on countless occasions for a period of several years. Moreover, my post-doctoral studies in Claremont brought me under the influence of the so-called Koester-Robinson school. I haven’t been a very obedient member of the school, but I always think with appreciation of what these great scholars have done to promote the study of Nag Hammadi and extra-canonical writings.

In terms of books, I have already mentioned Davies’ The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom and Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel. Steve Patterson’s The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus was on my desk constantly while working on Thomas.

My Conference Paper on Wright, Piper, and Justification

This year, when I proposed 4 papers for SBL, I was very discouraged that all 4 got rejected. Thus, it is the first time in four years I will not be presenting an academic paper at SBL (though I was invited to present in a Phd-prep workshop). I felt, therefore, that my conference experience was going to be a bit deflated.

Then, I got a nice email from ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) asking me if I would participate in the Pauline Studies seminar as part of a review panel discussing Tom Wright’s book Justification (alongside Mark Seifrid and Michael F Bird). I gladly accepted!

The title of my paper is: “To What End diakaiosyne? The Hermeneutics and Ethics of Justification in the Wright-Piper Debate.” (Friday, 3:20-4:00).

I am not an expert on Pauline soteriology, certainly not of the caliber of Seifrid or Bird, but I want to tackle the discussion from another angle: is dikaiosyne the summit of Pauline theology? Is it an end? Or is it a means to an end?

The question normally revolves around whether righteousness is imputed or declared, whether it is Christ’s own or as a result of Christ. Piper is concerned, along with others, that justification loses its power if it is mixed with a semi-pelagian theology that some detect in Wright’s work which ostensibly puts serious stock in the confirmation of righteousness at final  judgment.

I think that, in general, Wright is closer to what Paul is communicating, but I think a better way to work the argument (so as to not appear to be promoting a diminished christology) is to focus on anthropological teleology  - what is the goal of justification? My paper will beg for the answer (I hope): is the end not transformation that is detectable in ethical (or virtuous) living?  Here, I think, Wright has gotten Romans 2:7-8…well…right!

I will try to argue that Wright could buttress his argument by driving further some important texts on justification such as 1 Corinthians 6:11 and the emphasis on the Spirit and justification (cf. Gal. 5:5).

Finally, at the Wheaton Conference, Kevin Vanhoozer gave a show-stopping performance that brought speech-act theory into the conversation. I think, though I am not sure where I will fit this in, that I will try something similar using Berger and Luckman’s work on the sociology of knowledge. This has a great bearing, not just on justification and ‘soteriology’, but also on ecclesiology (as Wright would applaud), identity, and community ethos (which falls generally under the umbrella of ethics).

I do hope some of you will turn up, as I think this will be a fun discussion. Don’t ask me any really complex questions, though!  I may defer and give you the Bird.

Interview with Risto Uro on the Gospel of Thomas (Part I)

iso-uroAfter a short hiatus I am back and ready to post the first part of my interview with Finnish Thomas scholar, Risto Uro. Professor Uro is Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki. He has been a prominent voice in the so-called “Finnish school” of Thomas studies. I would like to extend my thanks to Professor Uro for his willingness to be interviewed in this forum.

(CWS) 1. I have asked this question of each Thomas scholar I have interviewed thus far. Before I interact with your work on the Gospel of Thomas I would like to begin by asking what got you interested in studying the Gospel of Thomas in the first place?

(RU) I wrote my dissertation on Q and after I had completed my doctoral studies I was invited to Claremont (The Institute for Antiquity and Christianity) by James Robinson, who was gathering a large international research team to produce a Critical Edition of the Q Gospel. During my stay in California, I also took an elementary course in Coptic taught by Dick Smith. In the atmosphere of Claremont it was almost impossible not to get interested and somehow involved in Thomasine studies.  Besides, my curiosity had already been awakened by Stevan Davies’s thought-provoking book I had read earlier (I have told that part of the story in the prologue of my 2003 book on Thomas). In Claremont (where I was two times, in 1989 and in 1992) I made the acquaintance of many scholars (e.g., Jon Asgeirsson, Marv Meyer, and Greg Riley) who were enthusiastic about Thomas and enthusiasm is contagious. After my return to Finland, I met Antti Marjanen, who had studied in Switzerland and learned Coptic there. We translated the Gospel of Thomas into Finnish, applied funding for a larger research project on Thomas (a young promising scholar Ismo Dunderberg had joined us), and—hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant—the rest is history.

(CWS) 2. In your work you have argued that Thomas shows evidence of “secondary orality” (specifically, Thomas shows dependence upon Matthew and Q through oral tradition). Could you briefly explain how you arrived at this conclusion?

(RU) Originally I made this suggestion in a paper that was published in 1993 (Foundations & Facets Forum 9:3-4), one of my earliest works on Thomas. I got interested in orality and literacy studies, which by that time seemed to provide a fresh perspective to the timeworn issue of literary dependence.   Werner Kelber had published a pioneering study on orality and the gospel tradition in 1983.  Kelber’s study was insightful and seminal, but he emphasized the Great Divide view, the idea that there is a deep-going hermeneutic difference between the oral and written modes of transmission.  I wanted to modify Kelber’s ideas toward a model that would allow more interplay and interaction between orality and literacy in the tradition process, a view that actually became a dominant in later scholarship. Also Kelber has admitted that his initial thesis was too much on the side of Great Divide theory.  I picked up the term “secondary orality” from Klyne Snodgrass’ 1989 article, which argued that the author of Thomas drew on free oral traditions and interpretations of the Synoptic Gospels as used in the Gnostic circles. But I never meant that “secondary orality” be taken as a magic bullet that explains the relationship between Thomas and the Synopticts in the whole. The issue is much more complicated than that. For me “secondary orality” was one concrete example of the interplay between orality and textuality, which could possibly be identified in some sayings of Thomas. Recent studies on (social and cognitive) memory and the “sociology of reading” in antiquity have shown that orality and literacy were intertwined with each other in manifold ways. Some impressive steps of progress have been taken with regard to these questions recently. I hope to be able to return to the issue from the perspective of my ritual project in near future.

(CWS) 3. In one essay from your edited volume, Thomas at the Crossroads, you ask the question, “Is Thomas an Encratite Gospel?” Could you share what conclusions you reach on this question and whether or not you regard Thomas as Gnostic?

My argument that Thomas is not really “encratite” was a reaction against the view dominant in the earlier scholarship according to which Thomas represents an extreme form of sexual asceticism. If we consider the gospel in the context of the Christian world at the turn of the second century, there is nothing extreme in Thomas’ relationship to marriage and sexuality.  Ascetic ideals were common in early Christianity and can be found already in Paul and in later first-century writings, such as the Gospel of Luke and Revelation. On the scale of ascetic emphasis, Thomas can be situated somewhere between Luke and the Apocryphal Acts, Thomas the Contender etc.

As to the question of whether Thomas is Gnostic or not, in my 2003 book I argued that Thomas represents a similar cosmological view as the Dialogue of Savior. They both share a view of the divine origin of humanity and fail to give any signs of demiurgical traditions.  If you define Gnosticism so that it must embrace both cosmological views (divine origin of humanity and the Demiurge), Thomas obviously isn’t Gnostic. But this is a matter of how you define Gnostic and Gnosticism. In Finland and perhaps elsewhere in Europe, the terms are not as ideologically-laden as they are in North America, and consequently the stakes in deciding the issue are not as high.

Stay tuned for part two. . . .

What is the body of Christ? Kaesemann writes…

The Body of Christ denotes a radical and global revolution of an earth enslaved since the fall by demonic forces. In it the Exalted One is revealed as its true Lord. The bodily service of his servants in fellowship with every creature is the demonstration and realization of the claim and promise of the One whose resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:25 is interpreted as a worldwide revolutionary and explosive event…bodily penetrating all the breadths, depths, and corners of the world…[The coporeality of the church] is the space in which at last the first commandment in its promise and claim is proclaimed over all the earth (On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene, p. 51).

To what end blogging? Continuing the conversation…

The last post I did on how to revitalize biblioblogdom has been met with divergent attitudes. Some have affirmed what I said, by noting a general decline in the biblioblogging world and agree that we should be a bit more focused and a bit more willing to have deeper conversations.

Others have argued that blogs are meant to be whatever the blogger wants – whatever topics, whatever pace, just whatever. Blogs are not journals, they are not “professional,” they are personal, spontaneous, and fun.

Those who have criticized my comments, though, may be misunderstanding me. I am NOT saying that bibliobloggers should do as I say. Blogs can and should do what satisfies the blogger. What I WAS saying was that, if revitalization in the community is desired, perhaps some of my suggestions might lead to such a renewal.

Think about it this way. Sometimes you read someone’s blog because you just want to get away from serious work. Sometimes you like the insider joking, ribbing, and slandering (in good fun).

However, we have developed a real community of scholarship in some ways (as evidenced in the association with SBL). For those who want to find a community of scholarship and learning, it does get a bit annoying when biblioblogs generate more posts on “randomness” than on something related to Biblical studies.

Some bloggers will say, “Good riddance to readers who have narrow expectations.” OK. Fair enough. To each his own. However, I think at least SOME bloggers need to be consistent enough and focused enough to maintain the infrastructure of the biblioblogging community. Otherwise, why call us an academic community at all. Why have an SBL affiliation?

I will be honest – my blog is generally serious. I am a fairly light-hearted person (just ask my Durham cohort), but I honestly don’t have time to just surf around and “veg” on blogs. I have kids. I have two major research projects. I have four new courses to prepare for next year. I have two conference papers to write. I have two articles to revise. I am moving to the west coast.

So, I might ask, what do we want to accomplish in the biblioblog world? Just good fun? OK. But then it may die sooner than we’d like and we can still meet up at SBL and remember the good ole days. However, I think for it to have roots, some critical mass of bibliobloggers need to be more focused, consistent, and collaborative.

A commenter, my friend Chris Spinks, mentioned that “blogs” were not originally avenues for having deep conversations. I think he is right, but I don’t like the language of “blogging” anyway (its a terrible sounding word to begin with!). Thus, I am pleased to not have the word “blog” in my address title. I like “wordpress” because the idea of “press” gives it more of a publishing flavor. Whether that was intentional on the part of WordPress, I don’t know. But just because others will call my site a “blog,” doesn’t mean I have to play by those rules.

I am sharing what I think will bring longevity to biblioblogdom. Remember, some folks out there don’t have colleagues or kindred spirits in Biblical studies, so they NEED this forum. While some use it for “fun,” for others it is their only academic club. I value that and I want to do some lasting sorts of things, though I try to read some others who take a more light approach (like the once-prolific Chris Tilling).

If others have suggestions, I am open to them. Please know that I am fine with folks being goofy and doing their thing. I am not the blog police. But maybe we can have some blogs and forums (as Rob Barrett has suggested) that foster more consistent and serious conversation.

The biblioblogging world in decline?

For some time now (maybe 9 months) I have noticed a serious decline in postings on a number of blogs, many which I used to regularly read. In fact, some bloggers who were the most widely read and most prolific, have just about disappeared…

What is happening?

Here are, I think, problems that have led some bibliobloggers to lose steam

1. Boredom

2. Lack of time – but, since most of us are either full-time students or full-time professors, we can all complain about not having time, and yet we all still do it.

3. Writer’s block – I have experienced this before, but I think it is temporary. Inevitably we (as bloggers) are engaging in new discussions, facing new teaching and research problems, and reading new books.

4. Lack of interest on the part of readers – maybe some have felt that there are no readers out there, or just a few. But I believe, if you make it worthwhile, “they will come.” Also, small communities are fine.

Perhaps I can convince any one blogger to push forward, or I can excuse one or two for a serious period of absence for a good reason (like moving across country like I will be doing in a few weeks). But what can we do about the languishing world of the biblioblogs [I recognize that some pockets are thriving, but I must confess that it appears to be losing energy as a whole]?

I don’t mean to be overly critical – I WANT to see revitalization. Here are some of my recommendations.

1. FOCUS – We need bloggers to think about their niche more. General readers, I think, are not looking for everyone to comment generally, but to learn (at least once in a while) from the specialties of each blogger.

2. FRESH FACES [or PAGES] – We need some new blood. I think we have all appreciated the very exciting contributions of new biblioblogger, but well-recognized scholar, Prof. Larry Hurtado.

3. CONSISTENCY – Some good bloggers seem to be hit or miss on actually blogging about the New Testament. Sometimes we see humorous posts about the news or random thoughts. I think (and I know some will disagree with me) that biblioblogs need to be more consistent in content. That doesn’t mean it has to be all serious – blogs are fun precisely because we can be more casual and goofy. However, I get frustrated when I see a feed-reader for biblioblogs and none of the posts are about Biblical studies!

4. TRUE CONVERSATION – It seems that, though we read each others’ blogs and even sometime comment, we don’t always seem to be having meaningful conversations. Can we start to facilitate good interaction somehow and try to learn from one another as (ideally) happens in face-to-face conference-style interaction? Perhaps initiating more bloggers conferences might help, where a group comes together (digitally) at a certain period and commits to blogging on the same issue/problem/subject/text, all drawing from different strengths and with a willingness to respond thoughtfully to others for mutual benefit.

5. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS NEED TO STOP. Enough said.

6. DEEPER RATHER THAN BROADER – Perhaps we may see more productivity if bloggers commit to writing a series of posts on the same topic. This helps generate interest and also lends itself to the blogger reflecting more deeply on the subject.

Disclaimer – some folks are content with making random posts and not taking the blogging world too seriously. Fair enough. However, even though I come to this world for some kind of recreation, I still hope to learn and have meaningful academic discussions as this biblioblogdom continues to exist.