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.

Greek Teaching – Week One Strategy

[Disclaimer: much of this advice is geared towards an urban campus where most students have full-time job outside of their educational work]

I think I mentioned before that I have chosen Clayton Croy’s A Primer of Biblical Greek for my class, as it is very basic and the seminary has used it many times before.

What to do the first week [we meet once a week for three hours, over 10 weeks]?

These classes can be very scary for students who have never studied a language, especially one in a different script.

My goal for the first week is to keep it basic, introduce the letters and their pronunciation, and get them comfortable with the foreignness of it all.  I am purposely taking it easy for the first two weeks.  This is partly because it is conceivable that some students may decide to join the course in the second week and I don’t want to already be on chapter 5 or something.  I plan to do two chapters a session starting week 3.  That way, we are just about half-way through the book at the end of the first quarter.

I’d like to spend about half an hour on just trying to pronounce words in Greek from the NT (which is an exercise in Croy, ch. 1).  This is important because I know students in their final year of the MDIV who still don’t really know how to pronounce Greek words!  Sad.  Also, studies have shown that the better students are at pronunciation, they are in a better place to retain grammatical information.  So, do as much out-loud work as you can!

Explaining diphthongs can sometimes be a challenge, but the key is to continue demonstrating pronunciation and how they act as one vowel in syllabification.

I have decided, as a first week devotional, to simply point out the alliteration of the use of kappa words in Philippians 3.2.  It is not glamorous, but it is certainly intentional on Paul’s part and is poetic in Greek in a way it is not in English, of course.  Anyone else have ideas?

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

nickperrin-200x300One of the goals of my blog is to promote further reflection on the Gospel of Thomas. As I mentioned earlier in the month I have planned to post a series of interviews with prominent Thomas scholars throughout the fall semester. The first scholar to sign on board with my interview request was Nicholas Perrin, Associate Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. I have asked him a few generic questions (which I have also posed to the other interviewed scholars) and a few questions related to his own research. What follows is the first part of my interview with him. Thanks for participating, Nick!

Question #1 (CWS) 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?

(NP) Actually when I entered my PhD program, I thought I was going to do something or other on Paul. But when the opportunity came up to do some research on Thomas, I grabbed it: I would be darned if I would get through a doctorate and not learn something about this text which I had been hearing so much about. I looked at Thomas’s use of the Old Testament which got me stuck on the question of sources.

Question #2 (CWS) In your monograph Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron (AcBib 5; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002), and in your book Thomas: The Other Gospel (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2007), (along with a few journal articles) you seek to rehabilitate the earlier view (advocated by Gilles Quispel and others) that the Gospel of Thomas was composed in the last quarter of the second century and was literarily dependent upon the Diatessaron. Could you briefly explain why you find this approach to be convincing? For readers who may not have interacted with your work, can you briefly summarize what arguments you find most compelling?

(NP) It’s funny how scholarship comes full circle on things. People sometimes call my view new, when actually one of the very first commentaries on Thomas, published in Dutch in the early 1960s, argued just this. He didn’t have much to go on, but his hunches were right. Other Dutch scholarship followed suit, notably Klijn.

My argument basically draws attention to the catchwords in Thomas, that is, rhetorical devices which replicate sound or meaning across two or more sayings. No one would disagree with the existence of such catchwords in this sayings collection. And anyone familiar with ancient literature, including the Bible, will know that catchwords are actually fairly common in antiquity. They are extremely common in early Syriac literature and most scholars agree that Thomas was composed in Edessa, the Syriac metropolis.

While we have always assumed that Thomas was originally written in Greek, I entertain the proposition that it was written in Syriac. This can be explored by looking for the presence of catchwords on a Syriac versus Greek versus Coptic reconstruction. The number and distribution of Syriac catchwords in a Syriac Thomas is overwhelming. Can I prove that I have accurately reconstructed the Syriac in each case? Of course not. But history only works in terms of probability, and I do think that I have shifted the burden of proof on those who resist Syriac composition. And why should we be so surprised?  I am basically saying it was written in the mother tongue of the (virtually) agreed-upon city of origin.

From here I argue that the sequence of sayings in Coptic Thomas is a faithful reflection of the original text in Syriac. Since the sayings in Coptic Thomas at seven or eight points follow the order of the Diatessaron (not to mention the countless shared textual variants with the Diatessaron), this suggests influence from the Diatessaron to Thomas – not vice versa.

Now since the Diatessaron is typically assigned to Syriac, c. 173 AD, this puts Thomas pretty late. Certainly enough time to be translated and disseminated broadly within the generation. After all, the church fathers in Rome are squawking about it within two generations – this was a popular book. It must have moved fast and been translated as need be for local readers.

Question #3 (CWS)  As you know, the view that Thomas was dependent upon the Diatessaron, and that it was originally composed in Syriac has not been met with widespread acceptance (this is the case with Quispel’s version of the argument and your own). In addition, these views have been criticized by those with expertise in Tatian and in the Syriac Peshitta. Are you aware of the arguments leveled against your own and how would you respond to them?

(NP) Well, it depends what you mean by ‘wide acceptance’. Tom Wright, Scot McKnight and Craig Evans, whom I consider to be among the best NT scholars alive, have signed on in print. I’m fine with that. I always assumed that most Thomas scholars, who have much invested in this text as an early text, would be naturally resistant. Will April DeConick ever wake up one day and say, “You know, that Nick Perrin was right about Thomas all along”? I doubt it. But I wonder if the ground is shifting. Last November at an open SBL meeting, Stephen Patterson kept talking about Tatian and Philo (who had a formidable reception coming into the third century), and I asked him publicly what prevented him from allowing a late second century date. He said – in front of a few hundred witnesses, mind you — it was plausible. I thought it was a stunning and commendable admission.

I’m not sure what ‘Tatian expert’ you had in mind. In private conversations with Bill Petersen, he said he read my book, had some questions for me, but seemed to have time for the case I was making. True, one of my first reviews was written by a soi-disant Tatian expert and largely unsympathetic. But there was no point at which he criticized me as a Tatian scholar. (Looking back, he could have, at a minor juncture involving Jesus’ saying on ‘grapes and thistles’, but this does not amount to much so far as the larger argument goes.) Judging by Petersen’s rather fierce review of my reviewer’s dissertation on the Diatessaron, I suspect Bill would have questions about his ‘Tatian expert’ status. My questions have more to do with the immediate relevance to a linguistic study.

Pete Williams knows his way around Syriac and has written against my proposal. I consider Pete a friend, but I believe he has missed some pretty key tricks along the way in his criticism. I will be responding in Vigiliae Christianae. I appreciate a good go-around.

But I think there is also an issue regarding the nature of evidence and hypothesis-verification. When over coffee I asked Pete, since he was skeptical of my position, when he thought Thomas was written, he said, ‘I don’t know.’ Fair enough, but this seems a bit too easy. Faced between the option of skepticism (we can’t say anything meaningful about this text because we can’t be sure our theories are sufficiently sustained by the evidence) and tentative hypothesis (there are no irrefutable theories but I am willing to stake a paradigm that makes the best sense of the data we’ve got), I will take the latter course any day. Personally, I am generally more drawn to scholarship that delivers a big picture with some risk of maximalism than scholarship that refuses to venture even a tentative position. So if you don’t like a late second-century Thomas, I’m okay with that and such scholarship has its place, but I would then like to know whether you hitch your wagon to Pagels, Patterson, DeConick, or the standard (‘140 CE because that’s what the discoverers of Oxyrhynchus fragments guessed a century ago — and who I am I to argue with a guess out of thin air?’).

Stay tuned for part two. . . .

New Commentary Series – by Africans

It is no controversial statement to say that most biblical commentaries comes from America, the UK, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other parts of Europe. However, there is a booming population of Christians in Africa who either do not have access to this scholarship physically, or are not able to bridge the cultural gap.

Zondervan has partnered with some publishers in Africa to present the African Bible Commentary Series and the first volume is now out on the Pastoral Epistles.

What makes this series special is that it is produces entirely by Africans, so the anecdotes, and applications are less focused on America and England, and more on African life. Also, there are some traditions in African cultures that bring us closer to the culture of life in the ancient Mediterranean world, though I am sure there are major differences as well.

I think this is a very worthy endeavor. I have friends who are missionaries, teaching at a theological college in Zimbabwe. I am sure they desire to have locally produced scholarship to inspire and instruct their students with relevant analogies and in a manner that is easy for them to understand. I am excited to see the series produced and used in Africa and around the world – I may even borrow some choice stories.

UPDATE: This information comes from Christopher Wright:

It is worth noting that the book is published in Africa by Hippo Press – a consortiu of African evangelical publishers that have combined under the facilitation of Langham Literature – one of the ministries of Langham Partnership International which in the USA is known as John Stott Ministries.  This book is part of the fulfilment of the dream of John Stott himself to encourage indigenous scholars ans writers in the majority world countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.  It is exciting to see this vision bearing fruit.  Sam Ngewa is also one of the editors of the Africa Bible Commentary – which has sold over 80,000 in English in Afria, and is available also in French, Portuguese, and Swahili, with translations in Hausa, Amharic and Malagasi on the way.  This too is entirely written by African evangelical scholars, some of whom got their doctorates through Langham  – JSM.  Check out the stories at

Wheaton Theology Conference 2010 (and NT Wright)

This year’s Wheaton Theology Conference (April 16-17, 2010) is in dialogue with Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright and his dialogue partners for the weekend are very impressive!

Of course Wright will be there, not just for a fly-by, but all weekend with several lectures and a Q & A!  But – there is more.  Throw in Richard Hays, Markus Bockmuehl, Sylvia Keesmaat, Brian Walsh, Kevin Vanhoozer, Marianne Meye Thompson, and Edith Humphrey and you have what looks to be an amazing discussion!

For the schedule see HERE.  Soon there will be a permanent link on the sidebar.

At some point, perhaps a bit closer to the conference, I would like to do something like “an Idiot’s Guide t o NT Wright,” perhaps split into three parts: Wright on Paul, Wright on Jesus, Wright on Biblical Theology.

I could write the Paul post, but would any of you be interested in doing either of the other two?  I would like to get each part onto scribd and maybe, if the pieces are professional enough, we could get Wheaton to link to it to help registrants prepare and refresh their memories for the conference.  Just a thought!

Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology

I came across an advert for a very exciting forthcoming book from Zondervan:

Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology (out in November, I think).

The question is – who are the four scholars?

Overall, they chose well.

Walter Kaiser – A Principlizing model

Daniel M. Doriani – A Redemptive-Historical model

Kevin Vanhoozer – A Drama-of-Redemption model

William Webb – A Redemptive-Movement model

Aside from being a good debate overall, this is one of the most critical issues in biblical studies and hermeneutics at this time.  This kind of discussion is even long overdue.

In fact, if this book lives up to what we normally expect from these authors, this might even become a standard textbook in hermeneutics courses.  I know that this is exactly the kind of issue that seriously affects pastoral ministry, personal life choices for Christians, and attitudes towards the ongoing relevance of Scripture.  I am very excited to see what this book is like, as I also enjoy reading the thoughts of the respondents.

This particular COUNTERPOINTS volume is unique in that the respondents include Chris Wright, Mark Strauss, and Al Wolters.

Blogging through teaching Greek…(and thoughts on preping for first day)

I have decided to try and blog through my experience teaching NT Greek (for the sixth time!).  Though I have developed some habits and systems for how I teach Greek, I always want to be refining my teaching.  I may not post on every week’s worth of material, but I want to blog enough that I can offer ongoing advice and I can also get some advice now and again.

So – the first class (which will be Oct 5):

I have chosen to teach from Clayton Croy’s A Primer of Biblical Greek (Eerdmans, 1999).

I picked this book for several reasons.  First, I like Mounce, but I taught with it four times and I am ready for something different.  I also taught Duff (which is popular in the UK) and I did not like it at all.  Second, it comes highly recommended from my colleague here at Ashland Seminary, David deSilva – someone whose opinion I trust!  Thirdly, since I am teaching at an extension campus with mostly students who have full-time jobs, I needed something simple (even if a bit simplistic) and that wouldn’t scare students away.  Finally I like that Croy introduces the reader to the LXX and encourages students to understand the significance of it for NT study.

My overall plan is to take it easy the first couple of weeks – to ease the students into the course.  We meet once a week for three hours and there are 10 weeks in a term (and we will meet for two terms).  This is not ideal, as it is better for learning purposes to spread the work and instruction over two, and ideally three, days a week.  But – I did not design the schedule and, frankly, this one-block system works best for commuters.

So, we will spend a lot of time in the first class getting to know the alphabet, working on pronunciation, and looking at those funny things called breathing marks and accents.

I want to do a devotional that would be suitable for the first day – something having to do with the Greek alphabet.  Any thoughts?

Also, we will try a couple of songs – one is the Greek alphabet – the tune I got from Bill Mounce.  It is from a nursery rhyme I think.  The other song is ‘he is Lord’, but we will use kyrios throughout the song when you are meant to sing ‘he is Lord’ (i.e., ‘ky-ri-os, ky-ri-os, he is risen from the dead, ky-ri-os, every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, I-e-sou ky-ri-os…).  That way I can also introduce the fact that you did not really need to say, in Greek, ‘he is…’, because that part is implied.  YOu could properly say, ‘Every tongue will confess “Jesus Lord”‘, and leave out the verb.

That is the plan.  I intend to do slides on Powerpoint, but that becomes tedious after a while.  I will certainly use it for the first few weeks, and maybe even the whole first semester (it serves as kind of a lesson-plan for me and it keeps me on track).  When we get into the second term, we end up spending more time on exceptions to paradigms and unusual forms that the discussion is centered more on the nuts and bolts of translating, parsing, and interpreting and less on understanding paradigms.

More to come!