Interview with Stevan Davies on the Gospel of Thomas (Part III)

Here is the third and final installment of my interview with Professor Davies.

(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? 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?

 (SLD) Historical Jesus research is difficult to the point of present impossibility. You sure wouldn’t think so… we have quite a few ancient sources that you’d figure would be highly valuable and two millennia of people working with them to find out about the historical Jesus. And now, at the end of the process, we don’t seem to have a clue and Jesus usually looks just as much like a mirror now as he did in the period of the Acts of John where in the Round Dance section he says, “A mirror am I to those who know me.” That’s not quite true for my Jesus the Healer book on the historical Jesus where I argue that Jesus should be considered a spirit-possessed healer (just following Mark) but I’m not one myself. Not yet anyhow.

Even if Jesus isn’t just a fiction from the start (before you laugh your hollow laugh and point the finger of scorn at that notion, recall that the Johannine Jesus is complete fiction and nearly every scholar knows that, although most will phrase it differently, e.g. “the sayings and miracles of John’s gospel are the products not of historical knowledge but of community reflection upon the truths of the faith” and so forth). We have Mark, but Mark is invented largely to attack the established leaders of the Christian movement, the disciples and family. Mark’s gospel is full of miracle stories none of which ever happened and is focused on the idea of a resurrection that also didn’t happen. Connecting the miracle stories are sayings and dialogues the narrative context of which Mark invents. So you sure don’t have much left of true historical fact.

Couple the fact that most of Mark and all of John is fiction with the fact that you, gentle reader, know a good bit more about Jesus than Matthew or Luke ever did and you should despair. How do you know more than Matthew or Luke? Why, you have read both of their books carefully and their Q and Thomas’ gospel and John’s gospel;  they did not have any such collection. How do we know? Because when Matthew and Luke supplement Mark, they do so via Mark, which we have, and a written list that we have reconstructed, Q, and darn little else that has any claim to being something they didn’t just make up. Their infancy accounts? Their resurrection accounts? History? I don’t think so. Did Matthew or Luke have a store of historically significant information about Jesus that they chose not to include in their gospels, relying instead on Q and Mark and imagination? Maybe, but prima facie, since they didn’t include that material, it is more likely that they just didn’t know of it. As well, we might assume that when they did know something of significance, such as is to be found in Special Luke material, they did include it and you have read it. You know more than they did.

Two of the earliest sources (cf. Thomas’ saying 1 and Mark’s chapter 4) insist that Jesus’ teachings were riddles that are incomprehensible without great struggle (Thomas 2), or incomprehensible because Jesus wanted it that way (Mark 4:11-12). Matthew invents Jesus the Pharisee-Messiah to give voice to Matthew’s own convert’s view of what Pharisees ought to be doing. The proponents of the Jesus-was-a-myth theory rejoice in pointing out that the epistles of the canon lack historical information or interest almost entirely. So, at the very outset of the traditions you have fiction and confusion, riddles and parables. And then comes John who just makes up a fantasy about a god-man who never was doing things that never happened and talking about himself in impossible ways. You might as well quest for the historical Harold Potter.

My scholarship is going to go in the direction of trying to figure out why they didn’t know what they were talking about vis-à-vis Jesus. The assumption that they, the first century Christians known to us, knew a great deal more than we do about the historical Jesus is not backed up by the evidence we have. They really didn’t even particularly care about the historical Jesus… but why didn’t they? They did care enough to presume that a single individual in the course of a rather short period of activity gave rise to their religion, and the meaning of their lives, and their hope for immortality, but why they didn’t care enough to try and sort out what that individual actually thought about anything? This may have been common procedure in ancient circles, but it didn’t have to be that way, they could have found out what he had to say and what he meant by it and how he lived and so forth, but they didn’t.

How do you get from the Galilean who, in a style I presume is quite typical of Galileans, thought it wasn’t necessary to have serious respect for the Judean law, to somebody who was said to be the anointed king of Judea in the royal genealogical line; and, beyond that, born of a virgin impregnated by the holy ghost and, before that, he had been the creator of the universe? How does this happen in a few decades? Meanwhile his followers are paying almost no attention to his actual biography nor are they putting his actual teachings into a form that we today can say reflects whatever it was that he thought about anything. This is, I think, a lot odder than we generally think it is and the chaos in historical Jesus studies today proves that some sort of paradigm shift will be required if we are to get anywhere.

Perhaps the paradigm shift will come in through consideration of this question: why did Paul persecute the churches of God in Judea (Gal. 1:13-24)? This is first hand autobiographical eyewitness data; it doesn’t get better than that. Paul writing about his own life ca. 35 AD tells us that there were churches in Judea immediately after Jesus’ death, that they were doing something sufficiently illegal to be persecuted by him, a Pharisee, that those churches posed a threat to whatever authority Paul represented, and that later on Paul joined those churches having been informed, by spirit possession, that what he knew they were teaching (you don’t persecute if you don’t think you know what the subject of your persecution is up to) was right after all. Scholars may think Paul made it all up, but Paul doesn’t think so, he thinks he joined an existing movement and that he then advocated its positions to the gentiles.

I might ask how it was that Jesus taught in such a way as to bring about groups known for breaking the Judean law, or were there already such groups and he joined with them? I would be interested to trace back Pauline antinomianism (I think the best thing to do with the New Perspective on Paul is to understand it as a politically inspired movement of the late twentieth century and patiently wait for it to go away) to Jesus’ antinomianism. So I would seek the historical Jesus, beginning with questions like these and analyze descriptions of Jesus vis-à-vis the Judean law as found in Mark 2 or in various Thomas sayings (e.g. 14, 53). Historical Jesus was perhaps a spirit possessed Galilean prophet encouraging Judeans via YHWH’s Spirit to take a Galilean sort of attitude to Torah. That should be enough upset some Pharisees. Then along came James and then Matthew to try and convert Jesus into a Judean rabbi. But they failed and so we eat the grilled ham and cheese to this very day.

(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? Is there anything in current Thomasine research that causes a visceral reaction in you?

(SLD) I think the Finnish scholars are doing solid competent work, Risto Uro for example, but it’s not breakthrough exciting stuff (cf. my review of his book Thomas at the Crossroads in CBQ October, 2004). I agree with you that the line of reasoning that leads to the conclusion that the John gospel is reacting against the Thomas gospel is invalid (but I don’t think you argued strongly enough against it and that you really wished you were writing a study of John [cf. Christopher Skinner’s John and Thomas]). I think much of April DeConick’s work is speculative rather than convincingly argued (cf. my review of her book Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas in CBQ October, 2007). Nicholas Perrin’s notion that Thomas is largely based on the Diatessaron is, I think, no more probable than that Thomas is based on the Necronomicon (cf. my review of his book Thomas: The Other Gospel in CBQ July 2008).

 (CWS) 7. You have written three books and a number of substantive articles on the Gospel of Thomas. Are you planning to pursue any more research on the Gospel of Thomas? If so, what other projects do you currently have planned (or in the works)?

(SLD) I’ve written only two books on the Gospel of Thomas, but one was re-released in an expanded edition and that might count for three. Since writing The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom I have written books on the Historical Jesus, and the Apocryphon “Secret Book” of John. I’m not planning on doing a whole lot more with Thomas, unless I think of something clever, except to revise and extend my remarks about Thomas being a source for Mark.

 Lately I’ve been working a lot on Mongolian Vajrayana iconography and my most recent book (The Infancy Gospels of Jesus, 2009) is about the fictional but fascinating infancy gospels.

(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?

(SLD) I’d suggest a logical analysis of the arguments for and against independence. That’s the crucial question and should be settled, but the whole issue needs some clarity and rigor that it has never had; e.g. what counts as evidence for and against. Instead of new argument we need a philosophy for argumentation of this sort. I would similarly encourage a dissertation on Thomas as a source for ideological conflict within scholarship and to clarify the motives for some scholars’ efforts to make Thomas disappear from the agenda of the study of Jesus, which would be a sociology of religion dissertation. Oh yes, I would like to see a dissertation that would examine the Odes of Solomon and their relationship to the Gospel of Thomas. I think the Odes are probably pre-Christian and that the community from which they came might also be at the root of pre-Christian Thomasine sayings that came to be attributed to Jesus. That would be an interesting project.

Stevan Davies, Professor of Religious Studies, Misericordia University

Again, I want to express my thanks to Professor Davies for his time and his outstanding answers to my questions. Stay tuned for more interviews in the near future!