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

bb3b04f8-4202-4f1e-b20b-fa017a589b6aMy series of interviews with Thomas scholars continues. Today I am posting the first part of my interview with Ismo Dunderberg, Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki. Professor Dunderberg is the author of The Beloved Disciple in Conflict: Revisiting the Gospels of John and Thomas , as well as numerous articles and  several books dealing with Gnosticism, early Christian conflict, and John’s relationship to the Synoptics. I would like to thank Professor Dunderberg for taking time out of his busy schedule to respond to my questions.

(CWS) 1. I have posed this question at the outset of each interview I’ve conducted on the Gospel of Thomas. 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?

(ID) As I was writing my dissertation on John and the Synoptics in 1990s, I attended an introductory Coptic course taught by Antti Marjanen. He and Risto Uro were both interested in the Gospel of Thomas, and, after having published the Finnish translation of it in 1992, they started to plan a research project on this text. Because Greg Riley had reopened the question of the relationship between John and Thomas, they wanted to have a Johannine specialist in the team. I happened to be pretty much the only person available, and had some Coptic under my belt, so they invited me to the project, for which we then applied and got funding from the Academy of Finland.

(CWS) 2. Your work on the John-Thomas question represents the first attempt to challenge what I have called “the community-conflict hypothesis.” In fact, your series of articles (which subsequently became the basis for your book, The Beloved Disciple in Conflict) largely served as the impetus for my own work in that area. Could you briefly summarize your views on the relationship between John and Thomas and on the theory that John was written in response to Thomas?

 (ID) Perhaps I should start by saying that although I was invited to the project, I wasn’t asked to defend or rebut any particular view of John and Thomas!

 I agree with Riley and DeConick that John and Thomas are close to each other in spirit, and I find their work important because they brought that issue under discussion. Yet I found problematic the steps they took from the narrative world of John to the social world behind it. The methodological problems seemed similar to what other scholars (e.g., Joachim Kügler whose carefully articulated studies I read when writing my dissertation) had detected Louis Martyn’s reading of John as “a two-level drama.”

 My own view is that John and Thomas both share common ground and disagree on a number of issues but the disagreements aren’t specific enough to show that there was a mutual conflict between them. Different views, yes, a real-life conflict, no. (These are two different things, really.) If John was written to combat the Gospel of Thomas, or more broadly Thomasine traditions, and if this was one of the author’s main objectives, one could easily imagine clearer ways for expressing this than what we now have in John. It doesn’t even seem to me that Thomas is utterly badly treated as a character in John 20, if we compare his figure to the way the other followers of Jesus are depicted in John.

(CWS) 3. In your book, The Beloved Disciple in Conflict, you focused on social and religious issues, specifically looking at the paradigmatic “beloved disciple” figure behind the Gospels of John and Thomas. For readers of my blog who may not be familiar with your work, would you provide a brief description of your thesis.

The basic problem related to the Beloved Disciple is that, among the New Testament gospels, he is only mentioned in John, yet in John he appears in stories which have parallels in other gospels. From this, most scholars reason that the Beloved Disciple was a leader of the Johannine community who was secondarily inserted into the gospel story. I argue, against the usual consensus, that we have little evidence–much less than you would imagine in reading scholarly literature!–for the Beloved Disciple’s leadership in the Johannine community.

I also point out that similar figures gradually emerge in other early Christian texts to lend them authenticity. Hence my suggestion that the Beloved Disciple was invented for the same purpose. The crucial difference I saw (but many disagree) between John and other early Christian texts featuring beloved disciples is that the Beloved Disciple in John isn’t characterized as being the most perceptive of all disciples.

I also argued that one special reason to introduce the Beloved Disciple in John was to offer a replacement for the brothers of Jesus (cf. John 19:25-27), who in John 7 are portrayed as unbelievers.

 More to come. . . .

Interview on Romans with Craig Keener

Craig Keener (Prof. of NT at Palmer Theological Seminary) has recently published a very insightful Romans commentary in the New Covenant Commentary Series. It is as if you have been invited to a party to hear the keynote speaker (Paul), but you don’t really know anyone that will be at the party.  Well, Keener is your party guide who gives you the scoop on everyone in the room.  His knowledge of ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman parallels and backgrounds is astounding and the commentary is busting at the seams with references which will become the student’s treasury.  Craig has so much knowledge of the ancient world and it is a no-brainer that we can all benefit from having some access to some of the connections he is able to make between a host of ancient religious leaders, philosophers, and leaders.  Also, he is very sensitive, in the commentary, to pastoral issues.  Too many scholars focus squarely on “historical” issues and never really address the ethical and theological aspects of the text.  Not so with Craig’s work.  You really get the best of both worlds!  I highly recommend buying it, but at least encourage your library to order it!

Craig was kind enough to answer some questions in an interview as we have a premier exegete of the NT taking on Romans.  This interview will be in two parts. [Update: The second part is HERE.]

NKG: Can you tell us about this New Covenant Commentary Series and why you decided, not only to participate, but also to co-edit the series?

CK: Mike Bird, the other editor, actually conceived the series and proposed it to Cascade/Wipf & Stock, but when he invited me to participate I was excited about the idea.  Several authors were already chosen before I came on board, but for the most part I got to participate close to the beginning.  We wanted to make good scholarship available at an accessible and affordable level.  We also wanted to give the authors the flexibility to play to their strengths—for that reason you will see differences in the approaches even of Michael and myself in our respective commentaries.  One of the most distinctive elements of the series, however, and perhaps the element that most excites me, is the cultural diversity of our authors.  Most commentaries are still being written in the west, but the global church has exploded over the past century, and most theological reflection in the world is therefore taking place outside the west.  We wanted to assemble a team of scholars from various parts of the world, to hear more of the voices of the global church and gain insights that many readers might not otherwise have access to.

NKG:  I presume that you had your pick of which book you might like to do.  Why Romans?  I am sure some scholars would find it too daunting to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to develop a new commentary alongside so many Romans scholars.  What inspired you to take this particular book on?

CK: Hubris (smile).  Actually, I have long planned to write a commentary on Romans, though eventually a much larger one.  In this version I could employ only a very small percentage of my research, especially on primary sources from the ancient world, even though my coeditor kindly let me run over my assigned word limit!  Though I have been working in the Gospels for a number of years, I worked in Paul earlier.  I spent years working through Acts (a commentary that is unfortunately so long that it is taking a long time to appear), and my plans were to return to Paul afterward.  From my work in Greco-Roman sources, I found that 1-2 Corinthians made perfect sense (and had worked on these letters for a short commentary for Cambridge that came out in 2005).

When I got to Romans, though, I realized the difficulty to which you refer.  I thought that leaving the Gospels meant that I was leaving the realm of severe controversies, and was looking forward to the break.  But the “New Perspective” with which I was familiar earlier has become the “new perspectives,” and is a matter of serious debate.  I had to rethink a lot of issues and try to come to the most balanced conclusions that I could.  I guess it is not possible to avoid controversy!  At least in Pauline studies, though, I think that most scholars are willing to read other scholars who disagree with them.

NKG: What did you discover, in the course of your research for this Romans commentary, that surprised you?  Put another way, what presumptions did you have that were disabused?  Were their issues and texts that were seen in a completely new light?

CK: Many of my ideas were changed along the way.  I am glad that a lot of shifts and debates took place before I returned to Pauline studies, often involving ideas I took for granted a decade or two ago.  They serve as a warning to think cautiously about other issues and not to make sweeping claims based on consensus, since consensus is rarely constant.  I’ll give a few examples.

First, we overdo rhetorical criticism when we arrange letters as if they were speeches (and speeches designed like the models in rhetorical handbooks at that!).  On the other hand, Paul’s letters are not by any means typical letters–most of them, most prominently Romans, are full of argumentation.  So what we learn from rhetoric about argumentation, rhetorical devices, and so on is still profitable.  But I don’t think you can outline Romans as a speech.

Second, I excitedly embraced E. P. Sanders’ argument about ancient Judaism in Paul and Palestinian Judaism when I first read it over two decades ago.  Because I studied with him at Duke afterward, I also have an ingrained loyalty to my professor as a scholar and a friend.  But a number of serious criticisms have been raised (Avemarie, Gathercole, etc.), and they have to be taken into account..  I think Ed’s central argument–that Judaism taught grace–is solid and has won the day; even those who argue against aspects of his thesis almost always agree with this point, and we often forget that this was not the case when he wrote.  But the details are still being debated, and we can learn from this discussion.

Third, let me comment on an area where I still think what I thought before but for better reasons: having worked again through Romans, I think that the question of Jewish and Gentile relations is a central issue in the book.  What got my attention in a new way was the first part of chapter 15, to which I hadn’t paid enough attention before.  I do not by any means limit the theological implications of Romans to its original concrete situation (I believe some commentators have lent that impression of their approach), but I do believe that grappling with the concrete contexts that Romans addressed helps us to grapple with the sorts of concrete situations we face today, including some that reflect many analogies with the setting of Romans.

NKG: While reading your book, I was stunned by the level of your knowledge and interaction with ancient Greco-Roman and early Jewish literature and how you interconnected related material.  How does a broad and deep knowledge of ancient extra-biblical texts (from the same time period) contribute to one’s understanding of a New Testament document such as Romans?  (One can certainly see you at work on the relevance issue in the commentary, but what would you say to someone with the mentality that the text’s message is perspicuous as is – or, as I sometimes call it, the ‘just give me Jesus’ approach?)

CK: I have tried to take to heart Martin Hengel’s warning that the NT is a short book, as far as scholarly disciplines go, and NT scholars ought to know its context better.  I actually read a lot of ancient Mediterranean sources—Tacitus, Plato, Homer, Virgil, the Greek tragic and comic dramatists, and so forth—before my conversion to Christianity, as a young atheist.  I hadn’t read more than a chapter of the Bible before I was converted.  As a young Christian, I ditched these other sources and just immersed myself in the Bible—many weeks reading 40 chapters a day.  But as I was immersing myself in the Bible, I realized that I wasn’t taking all of it seriously, despite my stated intention.  If Paul says that he writes this letter to the “set-apart ones in Rome” (Rom 1:7), one has to take into account how they would have heard it.  To ignore that question is to fail to take seriously this passage that explicitly anchors Romans in a concrete historical setting.  It is simply naive to take a document written to a particular ancient setting, written in Greek, using figures of speech and cultural allusions that were shared assumptions by the ancient author and the author’s intended audience, and assume that we can read it without taking any of that into account.  I’m not saying that we can’t get many correct ideas from a translation without additional background, but you will also miss a lot.

That is why I have spent a couple decades collecting data, reading through ancient sources and thinking of connections with the NT documents (and, in time, how what I learned from some ancient Mediterranean sources provides context for other Mediterranean sources).  I enjoy exploring ancient literature, but I want especially to make my work useful for those who want to understand the NT better.