Interview with William Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas: Part One (Skinner)

Bill ArnalFor the past several years, while blogging over at PEJE IESOUS, I’ve been interviewing scholars who have done important work on the Gospel of Thomas. Today I am posting the first installment of my interview with Dr. William Arnal, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Regina. I am extremely pleased that Bill has taken so much time to answer my questions in such great detail. This means that I will most likely be forced to break up the interview into three posts. Enjoy!

(CWS) 1. I have posed this question to every scholar I have interviewed thus far: What initially sparked your interest in studying the Gospel of Thomas?

(WA) I’m hesitant to admit it, because of what I’m going to say in response to some of your other questions, but the truth is that as an undergrad as I was absolutely fascinated by the development of the sayings-tradition, and especially by what might be called “form criticism” or, better, “tradition-history.” This was in my second year as an undergrad, and I had a wonderful teacher named Michel Desjardins (at the time at University of Toronto, now at nearby Wilfrid Laurier University) who made this material come alive, mostly by really effectively demystifying it all. And I just thought it was fascinating the way you can actually see presentations of Jesus’s teaching being changed before your eyes, whether (most clearly) by the evangelists themselves, or (less clearly but even more intriguingly) in seams and breaks and strange connections within given sayings or among variant versions of sayings. It’s this set of interests that initially got me into Q. But Michel was no respecter of canon, and had done his dissertation on Valentinian Christianity, so he was quite comfortable throwing the Gospel of Thomas into the synoptic mix. And it just blew my mind. Here was exactly what someone interested in tradition-history would have asked from a fairy-godmother: a whole, new (from my perspective, that is) list of over a hundred ancient variant versions of sayings of Jesus, with an obviously independent perspective on the character of those sayings. Basically, Thomas was a fourth synoptic gospel. For someone fascinated by the patterns of agreement and disagreement among the synoptics, Thomas is simply a wonderful text, adding data and complexifying the problems. So I’ve basically been struggling to understand it and make sense of it ever since Michel first introduced me to it way back in 1987. (Incidentally, while I learned Greek as an undergrad, I didn’t have the chance to learn Coptic until grad school, whereupon I took introductory Coptic from the amazing Egyptologist Donald Redford. The class only had two students: me and Nicola Denzey.)

(CWS) 2. You have well-formed (and well-known) opinions about Thomas’s genre and theological outlook. Would you articulate these views to our readers and provide a rationale for why you argue as you do?

(WA) In terms of genre, Thomas conforms perfectly to a known, and common, type of ancient writing, the chreia collection. If you read it side by side with something like Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, especially the material on Diogenes of Sinope (VI.20-81), the similarities are too striking to ignore. While Thomas lacks the biographical and bibliographical skeletons provided by Diogenes Laertius, the “meat” of the life of Diogenes, especially, is simply of list of scattered quotations introduced by “he used to say,” or “in response to such-and-such person saying x, he said,” and the like. And it’s not alone. There’s a ton of this stuff in Plutarch, including “sayings [apophthegms] of kings and commanders,” “sayings of Romans,” “sayings of Spartan women,” and others besides. There’s Lucian’s Demonax. Among Jewish writings, there’s Mishnah’s tractate Aboth. And Quintillian describes and defines the chreia, and indicates grammatical exercises that students can be asked to perform on chreiai. So Thomas exemplifies a known, and quite common, ancient literary genre. Moreover, the content of Thomas’s chreiai often conform to proverbial wisdom: “if a blind man leads a blind man, they will both fall into a pit”; “it is impossible for a person to mount two horses”; and so on. But alongside these chreiai with proverbial wisdom sayings, we also have chreiai whose content is more developed, elaborated, and metaphysical: “Adam came from a great wealth and a great power”; etc. In any case, Thomas is clearly a form of what is sometimes called wisdom literature, and, very specifically, a chreia collection.

As for the theology of Thomas, I have argued in the past that it developed over (at least) two stages: an initial stage marked by aphoristic wisdom, and a redaction of that initial collection marked by – as I describe it in a 1995 HTR article – a reorientation of the wisdom material in a more “Gnostic” direction, mainly as a rationalizing effort. But that was an argument I made a almost twenty years ago. I still do think that Thomas offers us at least two stages of literary development: a stage in which fairly traditional, proverbial Jesus-aphorisms were collected; and a second stage in which these sayings were embedded in a larger literary framework that presented the aphorisms as having a “secret” meaning with a more metaphysical point of reference. Or to put it differently, and perhaps more plausibly: Thomas in its current form has an authorial perspective, and it has source material that it has shaped to conform to that perspective. This view stands whether one regards Thomas as dependent or independent of the synoptic gospels. If you think Thomas drew from the synoptics, then they are the pre-Thomas source of the aphoristic wisdom, subsequently redacted to conform to Thomas’s perspective. If you think that Thomas is independent of the synoptics, then their parallel materials (at least) must be accounted for by some common source (including perhaps oral tradition), and it is that common source that Thomas redacted. I also note that such a process would hardly be unusual within the synoptic tradition: it’s what we posit for Matthew and Luke as well (i.e., they are redactions of Mark with additional material thrown in).

Where my opinion on Thomas now differs from that earlier perspective is in how I would describe the document’s redactional perspective. I have been thoroughly convinced by Michael Allen Williams and by Karen King, among others, that we need to be more careful and self-conscious about how we use the term “Gnostic,” if we use it at all. I certainly no longer think there are any demiurgical references in Thomas. Steve Davies and I went around on that years ago, and in retrospect it’s clear to me that he had the better part of the argument. In any case, throwing such a loaded label on Thomas’s ideological agenda is not helpful at all. So while I maintain that Thomas is redacted from a more or less mystical and metaphysical perspective, I’d want to characterize that perspective today, with Stephen Patterson (and Elaine Pagels, and Arthur Droge, etc.), as Middle Platonic, and as esoteric. Not everything with esoteric pretensions needs to be viewed as “Gnostic.”

And anyway, it’s funny, once you have Thomas’s generic parallels in view, talk of seeking after Thomas’s theology begins to sound a little weird, and perhaps a tad over-specific. Do we really want to know the theology of Demonax, or even of Aboth? When confronted with these documents, instead, what springs to mind are much more ordinary questions: why did people write documents of this sort? What sorts of techniques, agenda, literary sources, etc. were used in their construction? What were these texts used for? What kinds of people read them? Some of my more recent work on Thomas has tried to address precisely these questions. Unfortunately, it’s been published in collections that have little to do with Thomas (one in a book on ancient rhetoric, another in the Festschrift for Stan Stowers [The One who Sows Bountifully, 2014]), so it’s easy to overlook. But my point is that speaking of Thomas’s “theology” really directs our attention to very specific questions, and to a considerable degree also pre-determines the answers to those questions. Worse, it directs our attention away from questions like the text’s function and use, and from questions about the base capacities, that is, the cultural, physical, and economic resources, needed to produce or to make sense of a writing like this.

In the next installment, Bill talks about Q and interesting prospects for future research on Thomas.

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