In the recent fascicle of Journal of the American Academy of Religion (JAAR), Bill Arnal reviews my, What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas? The review is actually rather lengthy (four pages) for such a short book (121 pages). It’s clear to me that Bill has read the book thorougly and thought about its contents (believe me, not every reviewer does this). Also, like the other four reviews the book has received thus far, Bill’s review is largely sympathetic. However, the review ends with this paragraph (reproduced verbatim):
Generally speaking, the book does a good job of representing things as they are. It turns out, however, that what Skinner illustrates is that at least the bulk of scholarship on the Gospel of Thomas is going around in circles, visiting and revisiting the same old questions, and neglecting–culpably–the opportunities Thomas provides for learning something new about ancient Christianity, or about ancient religion in general. The arena of biblical scholarship, against all odds having actually found some new data, seems content to approach that data in terms of the same old “New Testament Introduction” issues of date, literary, sources, theology, and–perhaps worst of all–the historical Jesus. In the end, all of these matters are really just occluded debates about value, ultimately reducing the question whether the Gospel of Thomas is good or not. There is better work than this being done, work on Thomas’s explicitly esoteric hermeneutic, work on Thomas’s genre, work on Thomas’s relationship to other literary forms and to the ideological currents of the Roman Empire, and work on Thomas’s social history, the identity and characteristics of the people who composed and/or transmitted the text. Thomas can tell us a great deal about the role of literacy or orality in the context of Christian origins and of ancient society in general. It can teach us something about the role of intellectuals, about the prestige associated with esoteric knowledge. It seems to me that focusing on these kinds of discussions–question that many scholars of Thomas really are addressing when they are not caught up in what amount to preliminaries–would move our discussion forward from the endless and sterile claims and counter-claims about Thomas’s value. By reducing “what they are saying about the Gospel of Thomas” to the three or four still-dominant trigger-issues of date, sources, theology, and the historical Jesus, Skinner runs the risk of perpetuating the very impasse he bemoans.
I must admit, I especially appreciate the rhetorical flourish in Bill’s closing statement. I’m a sucker for a good “punch” at the end (even if it’s aimed in my direction). There’s actually a lot in this paragraph with which I agree. This critique is similar to the one provided by Ian Brown. It seems to me, however, that Bill’s biggest complaint is more with the state of Thomas studies than with my book (which he admits above is an accurate reflection the bulk of current scholarship on Thomas.) I would also respond by saying that, had I chosen to write a book on the issues Bill identifies, the book would have amounted to little more than a chapter. However, I agree that more and better work needs to be done in the areas he mentions (specifically in the areas of orality and literacy) and I look forward to further conversations about these.