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

Arnal 3Today I am posting the third and final installment of my interview with Bill Arnal.

(CWS) 5. In light of your answer to question 5, I’m wondering if you are planning any future projects on the Gospel of Thomas?

(WA) I’m currently working on a commentary on Thomas as a wisdom writing. This is contracted with the SBL for the series on “Wisdom Literature from the Ancient World.” I planned to have it done sometime in late 2015, but health issues have slowed me down a little bit.

(CWS) 6. Another interest that I have, and one that I hope to promote on this blog, is research on the historical Jesus. Your past publications and scholarly involvements suggest that you are also interested in such questions. In your opinion, is there anything in the Gospel of Thomas that goes back to the historical Jesus? If yes, what? If no, explain why not.

Actually, you know, I don’t think I’ve ever drawn any positive conclusions about the historical Jesus. Everything I’ve written on the topic is negative. For instance, I’ve argued that the “indisputable facts” about Jesus (per Sanders) are not nearly so “indisputable” as he claims. I’ve argued (at some length) that the turn toward a “Jewish Jesus” since the 1970s is basically meaningless, allows few substantive conclusions, and is driven by today’s ideological problems. I’ve argued that source-critical conclusions have no real bearing on one’s image of the historical Jesus. And I have argued that the quest for Jesus doesn’t matter. It’s simply not a coherent or significant historical question. Our sources are terrible, the relevance of Jesus to the development of Christianity is dubious, and our obsessive interest in him is driven by religious concerns. The whole thing is like trying to explain the fall of the Roman Republic by writing a biography of Caesar. It’s the kind of thing that few serious historians would think to do, at least with material we didn’t regard as “religious.” So I am very negative about the value or prospects of historical Jesus scholarship in general, and my interest in Thomas is not driven by any assumption that Thomas is (or is not) a good source for Jesus. Let me be as clear about this as possible: my understanding of Thomas has no implications for the historical Jesus.

With all that negativity in mind, it seems to me that there is very little in Thomas that we could (were we so inclined) trace back to the historical Jesus with any confidence. I’m pretty sure the name “Jesus” (or rather, its equivalent) is historical. And I imagine Jesus said stuff, sometimes, so that’s probably accurate too. I’m not especially confident about anything else. I suppose it’s plausible enough to claim that, for instance, Thomas’s parables about the assassin (saying 98), or about the woman with the broken jar (saying 97), go back to the historical Jesus, but I don’t see how one could prove that, nor do I see what difference it would make.

Many thanks to Bill for taking the time to contribute to our ongoing interest in the Gospel of Thomas!

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