John Meier on Thomas and the Synoptics

I’m not sure if anyone’s been paying attention, but John Meier (he of A Marginal Jew notoriety) has recently been turning his attention to the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas. Over the past year or so Meier has published three articles on logia common to Thomas and the Synoptics. I had a chance to discuss this research with John last summer at the annual meeting of the Catholic Biblical Association and he indicated that the parables of Jesus figure prominently in his fifth and final volume of A Marginal Jew. Since Thomas and the Synoptics share numerous parables of Jesus, this means that Thomas will also figure more prominently than in his previous four volumes. (As a huge nerd, I was excited to hear all of this because it merges several of my strongest interests in one volume: NT Gospels, historical Jesus research, and the Gospel of Thomas.)

The first essay appeared in the Festschrift for Frank Matera which I edited along with my good friend, Kelly Iverson. That essay was entitled, “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants in the Vineyard: Is the Gospel of Thomas Independent of the Synoptics?” There Meier concludes,

[F]ar from being an independent and primitive form of the parable of the Wicked Tenants, Thomas represents the logical conclusion of tendencies already visible in Matthew and Luke’s redaction of Mark. On the large scale, the parable’s core narrative is increasingly abbreviated (from Matthew to Luke to Thomas), and yet each abbreviator adds a few redactional touches of his own along the way.

The second article, entitled, “Is Luke’s Version of the Parable of the Rich Fool Reflected in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas?,” appeared in the July 2012 fascicle of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. In this essay, Meier compares Luke 12:13-21 and Gos. Thom. 72 and 63 and concludes:

Looking back on these various probes….I readily grant that no one observation, taken by itself, would establish the dependence of CGT 72 on Luke 12:13-15 or CGT 63 on 12:16-21. However I think that the detailed comparisons we have run through, when viewed together, do provide converging lines of probability that argue in favor of some sort of dependence.

The third article, “The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30): Is Thomas‘s Version (Logion 57) Independent?” appeared in the final fascicle of the Journal of Biblical Literature published in 2012. Meier closes out this article as follows:

In sum, then, the palpable influence of Matthew’s Gospel on Thomas‘s version of the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds is hardly an isolated phenomenon. Alongside Lukan influence, Matthean influence on Thomas needs to be more widely acknowledged.

Along with the fine work being done by Simon Gathercole and Mark Goodacre, Meier’s discussions have sought to establish Thomas‘s knowledge of the Synoptics, specifically locating numerous elements of Matthean and Lukan redaction in individual Thomas sayings. Perhaps this holy Trinity of scholars will help to resurrect the disputed notion that Thomas had an awareness of the Synoptic gospels. This is the direction in which I lean and I’m glad to see it getting some serious attention from serious scholars.

Raised from the Dead According to the Scriptures (Book Notice)

New Monograph by Lidija Novakovic

I was very excited to receive this book in the post yesterday: Raised from the Dead According to Scripture: The Role of Israel’s Scripture in the Early Christian Interpretations of Jesus’ Resurrection (T & T Clark, JCTS 12; 2012), by Lidija Novakovic (Baylor University). This monograph includes a foreward by James Charlesworth. Given the intensifying interest in the resurrection language and theology in the New Testament in recent years, I am curious to see what Novakovic adds to the discussion, especially from an intertextual point of view. I am especially interested in the “three-day motif” in the Gospels as well as how resurrection relates to Adam-Christ typology in Paul – both topics that this monograph treats.

Helen Bond Guides the Perplexed on the Historical Jesus (review)

Helen Bond

Over the Christmas break, I had a chance to read several books I have eagerly been waiting to dive into. One on the top of my list was Helen Bond’s The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (T & T Clark, 2012). This “Guide” series is aimed at introducing a certain topic to a wider audience unfamiliar with the history of study and the jargon that normally is understood in in-group scholarly conversation. Bond does an absolutely fantastic job discussing the study of the HJ in view of the intended audience.

The book (of about 170pp.) is divided into two parts: Background (chs. 1-2) and Snapshots of Jesus (chs. 3-13).  In the first section, Bond deals with the scholarly tools and approaches to the study of HJ. In the second part, she offers a kind of guided tour through the life of Jesus based on the Gospels, but especially with a view towards the material from the gospels that historians can feel some confidence as reflecting historical reality.

Now, that Bond is optimistic about the quest for the historical  Jesus does not mean she is naive regarding the pitfalls and limitations of historical inquiry. She recognizes its subjective nature and the complexities of working with the gospels as sources. However, in the end, she argues: “This does not meant that the search for the historical Jesus is bound to fail, only that we have to be extremely careful about the way in which we go about it” (3).

Chapter 1 (In Quest of the Historical Jesus): In this brief chapter, Bond takes the reader on a tour of the history of the HJ “quests.” She follows the normal divisions of Old Quest/No Quest/New Quest/Third Quest. I learned a few new things here. For example, regarding Bultmann and the “No Quest,” Bond points out that it is not the case that Bultmann took no interest in the HJ at all. In fact, Bultmann wrote a book on Jesus (Jesus and the Word) which attempted to outline his life and teaching from a historical perspective. However, he maintained the viewpoint that “faith could not be dependent on the shifting sands of historical enquiry” (Bond’s words about Bultmann, p. 14).

Bond also points out that during this so-called “No Quest” phase, there was still HJ study, but it tended to be pushing forward outside of Germany. She flags up, in particular, the work of Jewish scholars like Claude Montefiore and Joseph Klausner.

At the close of this chapter, Bond gives sustained attention to nine modern HJ scholars and their impacts: Geza Vermes, E.P. Sanders, Richard Horsley, J.D. Crossan, David Flusser, J.P. Meier, N.T. Wright, J.D.G. Dunn, and Dale Allison. I found this section invaluable and, when I teach on the HJ, I will undoubtedly turn to Bond here for her concise summaries of contributions.

Chapter 2 (Sources): Bond’s discussion of Biblical sources for the study of the HJ is rather standard, but I found most helpful here final remarks on the reliability of the Synoptic Gospels.

…modern study of memory has shown how unreliable and fragile human recollections can be, and how dependent it is on unconscious inferences and wider assumptions. Dunn is surely correct in arguing that it is unrealistic to expect to sweep away the faith perspective of the Gospels and uncover a different historical Jesus behind them. The Gospels reflect the impact Jesus made on his earliest followers, and to a large extent this impact is the historical Jesus, or as close as we are ever likely to get to him. While we may be able to disentangle some of the clearly later elements in the Gospels (post-Easter theology, pastoral concerns reflecting the later church and so on), we will never be able to present an uninterpreted Jesus, completely cut free from the hopes and dreams of those who followed him. The Synoptics, then, are an extremely good source for the life of Jesus, but we should not ask more of them than they can possibly give. (52)

In a nutshell, this is Bond’s perspective on working with the Synoptics:

…the actual words spoken by Jesus (even if they could be recovered) would not take us very far. In general, I shall assume that those who formulated the Gospel worked creatively with their traditions, that some sayings may have been originated within the church (perhaps under the inspiration of Christian prophets?), but that, in general, the Gospels are a broad indicator of the types of things Jesus’ earliest followers remembered him doing and saying…Although the words of Jesus will clearly play some role in what follows, my more immediate concern will be with the broader picture of what Jesus stood for, how he saw his role, and why he died on a Roman cross (53).

Chapter 3 (Historical Context): Nothing to add here. A good standard discussion.

Chapter 4 (The Birth of Jesus): On the subject of the “virginal conception” Bond points out that, while Matthew and Luke suggest that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus, “Large sections of the [NT] appear simply to assume that Jesus was the son of Joseph” [she talks through Paul, John, the genealogies]. Bond concludes: “The simplest way through the evidence is to go along with the assumption of the majority of the New Testament writers and to take it that Jesus was born quite naturally to his father Joseph. The story of the virginal conception, preserved by both Matthew and Luke, seems to have been an early attempt to show both that Jesus’ miraculous birth signalled from the start that he would be a great man, and also an attempt symbolically to underline his divine paternity” (70).

When it comes to the birth storied in Matthew and Luke, Bond sees so much theological symbolism in these narratives that she is persuaded that they were constructed to serve as “theological overtures to the rest of the works” (71).

Chapter 5 (Galillean Origins): In this chapter, Bond delves into the controversial subject of the social setting of Galilee in the first century. Was it more Jewish or more Hellenized? After a helpfully succinct summary of the debate, she concludes that “Galileans at the time of Jesus were thoroughly Jewish, that they shared the the Judean’s devotion both to the Law and the Jerusalem Temple, and that they embraced their southern neighbours’ hopes of future restoration…In all the ways that mattered, Galileans were Jewish” (75; her conclusions lining up with Sean Freyne).

What about Galilean economy? Again, the evidence is not crystal clear, but Bond believes that it points to a prosperous city “relatively at ease with its Jewish ruler” (p. 77).

Did the story really happen where Jesus chats up the Temple teachers when he was 12? Bond thinks not, since this kind of story appears so frequently in ancient literature (of a precocious lad, such as Josephus).

Was Jesus poor? Bond would feel comfortable classifying him as a peasant, his family “self-sufficient,” but never far from poverty.

Was Jesus able to read? Bond is skeptical, but allows a decent possibility that Jesus had very basic reading skills (especially for the purpose of studying Torah) (p. 79).

Chapter 6 (John the Baptist): Did John the Baptist really baptize Jesus? Bond allows the criterion of embarrassment to confirm this (85). In terms of chronology of John the Baptist’s ministry and that of Jesus, Bond favors the perspective of the Synoptics over John (going against the opinion of folks like Dunn, DM Smith, and Meier).

Chapter 7 (Jesus’ Messsage): Of course, in this chapter, Bond addresses Jesus’ preaching of the “Kingdom of God” which she explains as “God’s active reign over the human word” (89).

The Kingdom of God, then, is a shorthand way to describe what the world would be like if God were in control, and to symbolize his reign of justice, mercy and peace (89-90).

This reminds me of John Drane’s paraphase of the expression “Kingdom of God” – God’s way of doing things.

When it comes to the thrust of Jesus’ teaching, Bond follows the rather wide stream of scholarly opinion that detects a strong “apocalyptic dimension” in his messages (94).

Bond thinks the “Son of Man” self-designation of Jesus is historical and important to understand.

It stresses his shared humanity, but also his particularity (the Son of man), perhaps underlining his sense of having been chosen for a special purpose by God. (101)

Chapter 8 (Healer and Exorcist):  “That Jesus healed the sick and exorcized demons in a way that struck onlookers as miraculous is virtually certain” (102). But Bond adds: “Yet the stories themselves give no hint that Jesus got to know the people he healed, or that he made any attempt to understand their emotional, psychological or social problems” (108). Rather, his healings were probably meant to be indicators of the dawn of the new age as expected according to the Jewish Scriptures (see 108).

Chapter 9 (Family and Supporters): Did Jesus have female disciples? Probably, BUT: “Tempting as it might be to see Jesus as a ‘feminist’, the evidence cannot support such a claim. Women play a role in his movement not primarily because of Jesus’ radical social views but rather because Jewish society of the time allowed them to act in these ways” (p. 116). And, on the question of how scandalous it would have been for women to travel with Jesus, Bond thinks that it would not have appeared as progressive as some scholars suggest “particularly if the [women] were seen to oversee domestic arrangements” (117).

Chapter 10 (Opposition in Galilee?): Bond thinks it unlikely that the Pharisees were the driving force behind Jesus’ execution. That is, the idea that they plotted to kill him is an exaggeration and perhaps a vilification of the Pharisees. Bond thinks it likely they did not like Jesus, but “The Pharisees were not in a position to kill anyone, they had no reason to wish to do away with Jesus, and when he was eventually executed the people who handed him over to Rome were not the Pharisees but the chief priestly rulers” (130).

Chapter 11 (Jerusalem): “Jerusalem was both the most Jewish and the most Hellenistic city in Israel” (p. 135)

Did Jesus predict his own death? Bond is quite confident that the canonical Gospels offer predictions that seem to come from knowledge after the fact. However, she is quite open to seeing Jesus as aware of the direction he was going and the possible measures that could be taken by his opponents to stop him (145).

Chapter 12 (Trial and Execution): How historical are the trial scenes? “While the broad outline of events may be assumed to be historical, the details of the various interrogations owe much to the theological outlooks of the evangelists” (154).

Chapter 13 (Resurrection) Can this be studied historically? Bond is appropriately cautious, but she admits: “One of the strongest arguments for its historicity is its strangeness. As Wright notes, the account is remarkably free from the Scriptural allusions that permeate so much of the Passion narratives” (170).

While you cannot “prove” the resurrection historically, you cannot establish it as historical “fact,” what you can say is that it is likely that the disciples “found the grave disturbed and empty” (171). Also, she seems to be giving a hat-tip to N.T. Wright again by confessing: “The Christian claim [for the resurrection of Jesus] would have been a bold one, but it would have taken something of enormous magnitude to explain the sudden and unprecedented outpouring of devotion to Jesus among early Christians very soon after his death” (174).


I personally am undecided regarding what I think about the value and benefits of the ongoing study of the historical Jesus. Nevertheless, I highly value Bond’s very self-reflective “chastened” use of the standard authenticity criteria. One may disagree with her here and there on a given issue, but she has done her historical and archaeological homework, and she knows there are many hills on which she refuses to die! I found almost all of her conclusions reasonable, even though I tend to be a bit more maximalistic regarding authenticity.

I don’t say this often, but this book was just a “fun read.” It would work well for a course on Jesus where you want to dip into the “Quests” and you want to offer “snapshots” of life in Jesus’ time from a critical perspective. I think Helen Bond was the perfect person to write this guide-book combining eloquence, mastery of the subject, and concision.

Those who are a bit more advanced will find the notes up-to-date and extremely useful.

If I had to pick out some weaknesses in the book, I might say that I wished she would have talked more about what the HJ may have said about salvation and heaven. Also, I was a bit disappointed to see rare appeal to and discussion of the Gospel of John. While it was normal to leave John out of the conversation in the mid-1990’s, times have changed and thanks to folks like Richard Bauckham, Marianne Meye Thompson, Craig Blomberg, Craig Keener, and Paul N. Anderson, I think it behooves Jesus scholars today to give the last Gospel a good consideration as a source.

Neither of these criticisms do much to lower my high opinion of this guide-book and Bond’s outstanding mind. If she teaches like she writes, Edinburgh students are very fortunate. I have said this before and I will say it again, if you are interested in doing a PhD on the historical Jesus, you cannot ask for much better supervision than what Bond can offer.

Anthony LeDonne On My Little Thomas Book

Over at the Jesus Blog, Anthony LeDonne has been reading my book, What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas. I am proud of this little book so I am always grateful when others (especially scholars whose work I hold in high regard) find value in it. I am thankful to Anthony for his very positive estimation of my work. So, if you haven’t gotten your copy yet, don’t take my word for it, listen to Anthony! 🙂

Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters 2.2 – On Galatians

While I take some responsibility (as co-editor) for the late appearance of the fall issue (2.2) of the Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters (Eisenbrauns), might I dare to suggest – IT WAS WORTH THE WAIT!

This issue is unintentionally thematic – all of the articles and essays are focused on Galatians. Well, it started out as happen-stance and we sort of thematized it as we arranged articles. Mike Bird called this a Galaterfest and I think this is one of our best issues yet.

“Salvation History in Galatians and the Making of a Pauline Discourse” (Bruce Longenecker)

“The Nature of Salvation History in Galatians” (Jason Maston)

“Salvation History in Galatians?” (response to both above by M.C. de Boer)

” ‘It Has Been Brought to Completion’: Lev 19:18 as Christological Witness in Gal 5:14″ (Michael Suh)

” ‘Once Upon a Time’: Galatians as an Apocalyptic Story” (Todd Still)

“Davidic Messiahship in Galatians” (Joel Willitts)

“The Messiah ben Abraham in Galatians: A Response to Joel Willitts” (Matthew Novenson)

“Dissertation Summary” (Stephen Carlson)

Two Reviews on Recent Galatians Commentaries

All that for a yearly subscription of $30 ($45 for libraries)?

While the articles are fantastic, I will also say the reviews (Ciampa on Schreiner, Peter Oakes on de Boer) are very insightful.

I am very pleased with how JSPL is growing and thriving. We are just finishing year #2, but Mike Bird and I have a better sense of how we want this journal to contribute to academia and I think next year will be very promising as well. Please do send us your articles for consideration. We are always looking for good contributions that our editorial board can consider.

Reading the Gospels Wisely with Pennington Part II

In the first installment, we reviewed the first four chapters of Jonathan Pennington’s book, Reading the Gospels Wisely (Baker, 2012). Now we are on to chapters 5-8.

Chapter 5: Texts and History: The Testimony of the Fourfold Witness

In this interesting chapter, Pennington (hereafter “P”) engages in the current debate over Scripture’s relationship to history and theology. P. sets his discussion up by referring to the debate between Tom Wright and Richard Hays over how to study Jesus in the Gospels.In P’s understanding, Hays criticizes Wright for giving the “upper hand to historical grounding and historical reconstruction as the basis for doing theology, even over against a canonical and ecclesial reading” (P’s words, 75). P. links historical study with wider questions about epistemology and questions the Jesus Questers’ own categories of knowledge (see 81).

If P. finds thoroughgoing historicism to be problematic, so also non-historical theologizing. He is a bit more optimistic about a third category he calls “theology through history,” seen especially in the work of G.E. Ladd. P summarizes Ladd’s both-add approach this way: “Ladd rejected Bultmann’s demythologizing solution…and instead argued that the historical-critical method has a place in analyzing ‘ordinary’ history, while faith is required to understand ‘redemptive’ history” (p. 86). Apparently, Ladd called this “biblical realism” (see P, 87).

So, what to do with the Gospels? Ultimately, P appeals to the work of Richard Bauckham and supports the language of “testimony” which bridges history and faith.

[W]hen we read the Gospels as eyewitness testimony (in literary form),we care about real history, but we are not attempting to reconstruct the history behind the Gospel texts as if their trustworthiness depended on their verifiability. (102)

A bit later he writes:

The Gospels are simultaneously making theological and historical claims, not as separate, dual goals but as one exercise, given to us through testimony. Balance is again required. We may so emphasize one of these adjectives at the expense of the other that we cancel out both (104).

So, do we need historical criticism?

Yes, historical-critically derived information is still valuable, but No, if and when it becomes the sole or even primary avenue through which theological understanding is gained (104)

Chapter 6: Reading Holy Scripture Well: Three Avenues

In this chapter, P. digs deeply into critical questions of hermeneutics – how does one find meaning in the Gospels? Here he appeals to three commonly understood worlds: that which is behind the text (historical factors), within the text (especially literary features), and in front of the text (particularly theological reception and interpretation).

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. He has a chart on pg 112 (a bit confusing, but he explains it throughout the chapter) which shows that authorial intent in important, but only when one focuses on the worlds behind and in the text. When it comes to the world in front of the text (involving canonical and theological reading), this is where the human author of the text is not an important factor (see 117). This comes into play, for example, when we deal with progessive fulfillment of OT Scripture (let’s say in Matthew). The OT author intended a meaning that was extended in the NT into what P calls (following RT France) a “bonus” meaning (see 118).

You will have to see P’s chart to see how rich (and complex) the issue of “meaning” is when it comes to Scripture. He sees there being three “avenues” (historical, literary, theological) for reading Scripture, and all are needed. He compares this to a song sung in three-part harmony, where the three voices together make a beautiful song.

Chapter 7: Reading Holy Scripture Well: Intent, Meaning, and Posture

I was recently in an SBL meeting where a well-known theologian told us that when he teaches hermeneutics he outlaws the classroom use of the word “means”‘/”meaning” (when it must be used, it is called the “M word”). Why? Because it is such an elastic and confusing word. Well, in this chapter, P. boldly engages in the wider conversations that have been going on about the meaning of…meaning! After a brief discussion of the philosophical study of meaning in the last few centuries, P concludes: “the history of Christian interpretation shows us that authorial intent is valuable but not ultimately determinate or all-constraining” (127).

One major point that P. makes in this chapter is that it simply won’t do to divide up the interpretive process into observing “what it meant” and re-thinking later about “what it means” today. For P., application is a natural part of understanding. This is his major thesis statement:

To be painstakingly clear, this ‘meaning=application’ understanding does not suggest that a text can mean anything- in fact, just the opposite; there are bad readings or applications of a text that do not cohere with its thrust. Rather, a text’s meaning cannot be limited to some ‘original’ historical meaning and then all else is application or significance. Or to put it more positively, a text’s meaning is as many right applications as it has. A variety of meanings/applications orbit around a text, not all equally good or beautiful or coherent, but all good ones stemming from the text. We must continually return to the source of Holy Scripture to hear its meaning/applications anew. This is what theology is: the reading/applying of Scripture by us as God’s people (p. 135)

While what P. is saying here is not new or all that controversial (though I disagree with it, see my conclusions below), what he writes next really surprised me. P. devotes a section to talking about that situation when you (an educated seminarian or professor) endure your mother-in-law proof-texting from Scripture: P. calls this “The Mother-In-Law-Jeremiah 29:11 Refrigerator Magnet-Diet Principle. What do you do when your mother-in-law tries to apply God’s promises of blessing on Israel to her recent diet resolution?

Even though her reading and application of this verse may not be very sophisticated or theologically astute, I would suggest that ultimately what it possesses is greater than this deficiency. At one level her reading is in fact more theologically perceptive than our systematized view might be. That is, in a very real sense a promise like Jeremiah 29:11 does apply to the individual who is in Christ. Jeremiah’s words are God’s words; they reveal God’s heart and disposition toward his people, who are now defined no longer ethnically but based on faith response to Jesus–that is, all Christians. To read Jeremiah Christianly is to receive this as God’s promise to us, albeit in light of the full picture of Scripture in which the church is now in a time of sojourning exile awaiting the return of the Son (p. 140)

Just a page later he restates his point

…a reading that results in greater love for God and for neighbor, no matter how poor the exegesis, is in some real sense good. (141)

Now, P. does say there is a place for good instruction – we must teach Christians to develop competent reading habits and to study the texts in context. But we must always keep in mind that the goal of reading Scripture is the development of “a posture and practice of love for God and neighbor,” he urges (p. 142).

Chapter 8: Foundations for Reading the Gospels Well

This chapter is a bit of a break from his discussion. P. offers a chance to summarize and assess. In his assessment, he draws out five implications of what he has argued about the Gospels thus far.

I. There is a limited and circumscribed role for historical Jesus studies – P. is not alone in this (e.g., McKnight). The Gospels are testimony and, thus, Christians prize them for what they say about Jesus, not just because they give us a window into the past. He writes, “At their worst, historical Jesus studies give us only a reconstructed, behind-the-text, theologically and ethically vacuous data set of information about the man Jesus–a far cry from who Jesus is and from the whole purpose of the Gospels” (149).

II. We should focus on vertical over horizontal readings of the Gospels. This is, of course, the conviction that each gospel on its own presents a vision or depiction of Jesus that should be understood before trying to put the four Gospels together.

III. We should read the Gospels as witnesses. We trust these storytellers as theologians as well as witnesses or historians.

IV. We should receive the Gospels as testimony. Similar to the previous point.

V. We should read the Gospels according to their purpose-theological and transformational.

In this chapter comes, perhaps, my favorite illustration P. uses – one that I plan on sharing with my Gospel of John students. P. tries to explain how the Gospels work as a blending of both fact/reality and interpretation. He uses an example from the Kentucky Derby. After the race, the whole thing is broadcast again for viewing, “but now with the expert commentary and analysis, since the winner was now known.”

That is, once the race was completed and the commentators knew the outcome, then (and only then) were they able to provide insight into what was happening at certain points in the race-which moves at turn three or what action of the winning jockey in the last straightaway proved significant….This postevent television viewing is precisely what we have in the Gospel accounts: expert commentary and analysis of the events after their conclusion and based on knowing the final outcome and goal of the story (p. 152)

Another helpful portion of this thick chapter has to do with how we engage with the Gospels. P. supports a two-fold model composed of Revelation and Identification. First, we must ask how God is revealed for us in Christ in the text (p. 159). Thus, our first concern is about Jesus as the center of the story. After that, we can “turn to ways in which the Gospels focus on us as readers, on how they invite us to identify with the characters in the stories, including Jesus” (160).


These chapters are exceptionally thought-provoking and this is some of the best material on genre-based hermeneutics you are going to find. My first reaction to this was – Pennington is trying to do a lot – too much! I’ll leave that up to you to decide. I think this book has given me much material for use in my classes. However, it is way too dense for undergrads, and perhaps for many seminary students.

My second reaction is that I am quite uncomfortable with his discussion about meaning. You can argue philosophical theories all you want, to me there is no getting around the fact that if we don’t retain the “what it meant” and “what it means” the Bible will become impossible to teach. What do you do in a NT survey course? Even though I fully agree with Pennington that the Scriptures are meant for formation, I cannot collapse application into “meaning.” Part of the problem is definition. What do you mean by “meaning” and “meaning-in-a-text?” Surprisingly, I don’t think Pennington manages to define how he uses the word. Thus, perhaps he means by “meaning” what I mean when I say “significance.” Perhaps not.

Another issue is the limit of good or right readings. He says that there is such a thing as a bad reading. OK, but how do we recognize one and who decides? A community? A denomination? A church? An individual? A professor? Does meaning “change” over time based on culture? Is there any kind of “one-meaning stability” in the text? He uses the illustration of the three-part song (meaning behind the text, in the text, in front of the text), and the first two presumably are “stable,” but do all three contribute to “meaning” in the same way or to the same extent or with the same level of importance? I do think he may be on to something with his chart that still retains a place for authorial intent. However, we need to work towards a simpler model than the one he offers.

Also, I am hesitant to accept his argument about those that misunderstand and proof-text Scripture, but yet who are “good readers” because their own reading leads to right living. It is one thing if someone is close, but I am not sure Pennington is saying that. Of course, he does think teachers need to continue to teach exegetical accuracy, but he also seems to be content with exegetical naivete if the “posture” is correct. Again, I am just not with Pennington on this, though, again, I like his emphasis on virtue and formation. How far is too far? If they are loving God through Scripture reading, why correct them at all on historical misunderstandings? 

What about those of you who have read the book – did some of this seem troublesome to you??

Overall, I admire Pennington’s sharpness and ability to synthesize current discussions and create models and analogies that are memorable. I normally get dizzy and tired when I read about philosophical hermeneutics, but Pennington manages to make it digestible and interesting. However, I am not sure what folks will take away from chapter 7 in particular. I think he may have been trying to bite off more than he can chew (or perhaps feeding us more than we can swallow!). Nevertheless, I can see how he is trying to fit this all together in a wider model or framework for engaging with the Gospels.

The next part of the review will, of course, cover the remainder of the book.

Gospel of Thomas Interviews

Today I was doing some organizing on my blog and I wanted to point out that I’ve added a new page. Over the past several years I have been posting interviews with prominent scholars who have done significant work on the Gospel of Thomas. Up until now the interviews have been scattered across my blog but now I have created a separate page for them. To this point I have posted interviews with Nicholas Perrin, Stevan Davies, Stephen Patterson, Ismo Dunderberg, Risto Uro, Marvin Meyer, and Simon Gathercole. Soon I hope to conduct an interview with Mark Goodacre on his recent research (though I have now promised him the interview questions two different times and have failed to deliver). If you’re interested in Thomas research, I do hope you’ll check out the new page.