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. . . .

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

  1. Professor Skinner

    I’ve just translated this excellent interview in Italian. I would ask you If I could publish this translation on my blog. I like history of early christianity and your blog is very interesting.

    Best regards
    Fabrizio Marini
    angelo-marco.blogspot.it

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