My Advice to Incoming PhD Students (Skinner)

PHDReaders of this blog will know that I recently moved from North Carolina, where I’ve been teaching for the past six years, to Chicago to take a position at Loyola University. These past two weeks have been filled with various sorts of orientations as we prepare to begin classes next Monday, so it’s been difficult to to find enough time to get back on the blog. I’ll return to series of posts I was working on very soon, but while I had a moment today, I wanted to share something that has been on my mind since Monday.

One of my new roles here at Loyola will be section coordinator for the PhD in New Testament / Early Christianity. Earlier this week I had a chance, along with the other three section coordinators, to meet all of the incoming MA and PhD students and welcome them to Loyola. We were asked by the graduate student caucus to discuss our responsibilities as section coordinators and then to share any advice we would like to give to the students. I thought it might be helpful to repeat that advice here on the blog and also share something I was a little hesitant to say on Monday (but probably should have).

(1) Make friends while you’re here. A well-known refrain from one of Maya Angelou’s poems reads, “Alone, all alone, Nobody, but nobody, Can make it out here alone.” Doctoral study can be one of the most difficult, most intense, (and for many) loneliest periods of your adult life. This is especially true if you are in a hyper-competitive or isolated environment where every student is out for himself/herself. I encouraged our students to make friends with one another and thereby create a support system that will sustain them throughout the program and even after their time in graduate school. For my part, I was privileged to have four friends with whom I remained close during my time at Catholic University. When I published my dissertation, I thanked all four of them for the role they played in my transformation, but also for how their friendship sustained me through the long and difficult period that is PhD studies.

Alongside the transformative element of making friends in your program—let’s be honest—establishing and maintaining friendships in this field is also a matter of sheer pragmatics. Finding success in academia—which is measured by things like gainful employment and publication—like many professions, is significantly impacted by who you know. In other words: opportunities accrue to those with robust social networks. I have now collaborated on three different book projects with two of the four friends I mentioned above and have met numerous people in this field as a result of my relationships with them (and vice versa).

(2) Start presenting your research and publishing as soon as possible. I am well aware that this piece of advice will not be as universally agreed-upon as my previous point. I conceded this when talking with the students and then said, “On this point, I’m talking specifically to the PhD students in New Testament / Early Christianity.” More and more, we see freshly-minted PhDs entering the job market with numerous professional presentations and a handful of publications already listed on their CVs. In a perfect world, students would focus on getting through their coursework, finishing comprehensive exams, and writing a solid dissertation before attempting to publish. (There’s obviously greater flexibility for publishing during your program if you’re in a European setting.) The problem is that the job market is saturated and therefore incredibly competitive; everyone is doing everything within reason to make their CVs as impressive and competitive as possible. This might not have been great advice 20 years ago, but it seems to me it’s a necessity in the current market.

(3) Enjoy yourself. Very few people have the opportunity to take several years out of their lives to read, study, and learn about a topic of great interest alongside other students and experts on the subject matter. As difficult as it can be at times, it can also be intoxicating….so try to enjoy yourselves.

(4) *What I didn’t say (but probably should have).* What I would have said if (a) I weren’t brand new and eager to make a positive first impression, and (b) I didn’t want to completely discourage the entire room, is that PhD studies require tremendous sacrifice over a period of years during which many people quite literally put their personal lives on hold. So, if there’s ANYTHING ELSE you think you might want to do other than this, press pause and go do it. If there’s enough uncertainty, you should think long and hard about what you’re about to do. At the end of your period of study and sacrifice, there’s no guarantee that a job will be waiting for you. In fact, the outlook for the academy here in the United States is presently, very grim, especially with nearly 51% of college faculty serving in a contingent capacity. In other words, you will expend a lot of energy over several (possibly many) years, potentially sacrificing a great deal, and it could all very well be just an exercise in personal enrichment.

I hope that advice was neither too extreme nor too grim, but reflective of the realities of pursuing a PhD in our field in 2016. I would love to hear what others might have added (or removed) from my list.

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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.

Gnostics as Intellectuals? DeConick Responds to Hurtado (Skinner)

A few days ago when I read, then discussed Larry Hurtado’s blogpost about how the gnostics were not to be regarded as intellectuals, I wondered to myself if April DeConick wouldn’t eventually respond. Well now she has, with a fairly substantive post of her own. I would love to see this turn into an ongoing conversation between the two.

Gnosticism, Wisdom, Asceticism, & Mysticism: Four Views on the Gospel of Thomas (Repost)

Back in May, before my move to North Carolina, I wrote the following:

Awhile back I mentioned that I am finishing a book about current scholarly opinion on the Gospel of Thomas. The book focuses on three critical questions: (1) when was Thomas written? (2) what is Thomas‘s relationship to the canonical gospels? and (3) what theological outlook does Thomas present to the reader? I am currently working on the third question and I thought a series of posts might be a good way to flesh out some of what I’ve been reading/writing in recent weeks. I will be focusing on four schools of thought:  Thomas as a gnostic document, Thomas as an example of Jewish or Christian wisdom, Thomas as an ascetic work (likely reflecting the ethos of early Syrian Christianity), and Thomas as an example of Christian mysticism.

Now that I finally have some time to devote to this subject, I figured now would be as good a time as any to return to it. I posted one entry on the subject and then I was forced to stop. I hope to repost the first installment later today and begin again from there. Hopefully no major life transition will get in the way this time.