New Book: Urban C. von Wahlde, Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century (Skinner)

von WahldeOver the past year or so I have been transitioning into research on the various reconstructions of the Johannine community and how those reconstructions impact our understanding of the ethics of the Johannine literature. To that end, I am currently co-editing a book for Fortress Press with my friend, Sherri Brown on the (mostly implicit) ethics of the Johannine literature, and working up a proposal for an authored monograph on history and ethics in the Johannine community. More on that anon….. Of obvious importance to any reconstruction of the Johannine community is understanding the background and content of the Christological claims being made by the so-called “secessionists” in 1 John. Yesterday I saw that Urban von Wahlde–whose work on the Johannine literature I have very much appreciated–has just published a new book with LNTS entitled, Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century. Here’s a description:

In this book von Wahlde provides an exploration of three distinct cultural and religious backgrounds against which scholars have frequently proposed that the Gospel and Letters of John are to be read and understood.

von Wahlde examines each of these three possibilities in turn, and shows how they may be regarded as plausible or implausible depending upon the evidence available. von Wahlde shows that there are features within the Gospel and/or Letters of John that do in fact suggest that they were influenced either by Gnosticism, Docetism or one of the variant forms of Judaism. However, in each case, while some of the evidence suggests a particular background, von Wahlde shows that it is equally evident that not all of the evidence can be seen to suggest the same background. Through an examination of the origins and purpose of the gospel, and drawing on the conclusions of his well-regarded commentary on the Johannine literature, von Wahlde presents a new way of understanding the Gospel in its wider contexts.

I’m hoping I can convince the peeps at T & T Clark to send along a copy, which I will not only use for my own research but happily review for the blog.

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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.

On the Gospel of Thomas and the “Gnostic” Label

In a post from a few days ago I made a passing comment about the notion of a “garden variety Gnosticism”–which is essentially a contemporary scholarly fiction–and it got me thinking again about the commonly-used but rarely-thought-out “Gnostic” label that is often applied to the Gospel of Thomas. I have written on this topic in several places, though I think I am ultimately going to write something more substantive on why this label is erroneous when applied to Thomas. Since this is on my mind today, I thought I would share my own brief assessment, taken directly from my recent book on the Gospel of Thomas (footnotes appear according to the original text):

Generally speaking, most early researchers regarded Thomas as a gnostic text,2 though Quispel3 and Koester4 both offered formidable challenges to that conclusion. The supposition that Thomas was gnostic seems to have been based, in large part, on its discovery among a group of mostly gnostic texts. Though some have questioned the earlier consensus, it has been somewhat difficult for Thomas to shake the “gnostic” label, especially in popular discourse.

Among those who challenge the old consensus, at least two issues have contributed to doubts about Thomas‘s gnostic outlook. First, that Thomas was used by Gnostics is not necessarily an indication of its thoroughgoing gnostic character. This conclusion is supported by the presence of other non-gnostic texts in the Nag Hammadi library. A growing number of recent commentators have recognized that while Thomas may contain some gnostic traditions or, at the very least, ideas that would have been attractive to second-century Gnostics, this does not in itself constitute a gnostic outlook.5 In recognition of this trend, Stevan Davies has commented that gnostic interpreters used “a range of scripture from Genesis to the Psalms to Homer, from the Synoptics to John to the letters of Paul.”6 Interpreters of Thomas must remain aware of the syncretistic proclivities of early Gnostics and evaluate Thomas’s theological outlook against that backdrop.

Second, the nebulous and elusive definition of “gnosticism” in the late first and early second centuries has also been an obstacle to identifying Thomas as a gnostic text.7 Scholars have argued that encratic, hermetic, and other ascetic traditions previously identified as “gnostic” have been improperly categorized. Suffice it to say that if one still wishes to argue that Thomas is a gnostic document, one must make a more careful and qualified case.

Current scholarship on the question of Thomas’s theological outlook has arrived at five major proposals: Gnosticism, Wisdom, Asceticism, Mysticism, and Platonism. Because these five categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it is difficult to discuss them all individually without referring to at least one of the others (What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas?, pp. 59-60).

I think in our academic writing and especially in our teaching, we need to be more careful in our distinctions about the theological outlook of important extracanonical works like the Gospel of Thomas.

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2 Among others, see Grant and Freedman, The Secret Sayings of Jesus; Wilson, Studies in the Gospel of Thomas; Gartner, The Theology of the Gospel According to Thomas; Kasser, L’Evanile Selon Thomas: Presentation et commentaire theologique; and Leipoldt, Das Evangelium nach Thomas.

3 For his part, Gilles Quispel regarded Thomas as a Jewish-Christian gospel that was based on a gospel that is now lost. The hypothetical “lost gospel” may have had some connection to the Gospel of the Nazoreans and/or the Gospel of the Hebrews. Since Quispel was one of the first scholars to examine Thomas thoroughly, his view should properly be considered the first scholarly opinion on Thomas‘s theological outlook. However, his viewpoint was quickly overtaken by the rampant speculation about Thomas‘s gnostic origins. See the pertinent sections in the following (in chronological order): “The Gospel of Thomas and the New Testament”; “Some Remarks on the Gospel of Thomas,” NTS 5 (1958/1959): 276-90; “L’Évangile selon Thomas et les Clementines,” VC 12 (1958): 181-96; “L’Évangile selon Thomas et le Diatessaron,” VC 13 (1959): 87-117; “The ‘Gospel of Thomas’ and the ‘Gospel of the Hebrews,’” NTS 12 (1966): 371-82.

4 As already stated, Helmut Koester regarded Thomas as an example of wisdom literature. His views and publications remain a fixture in discussions of Thomas‘s theological outlook. For a list of his important publications on this issue, see note 9 in Chapter One.

5 This point is made by a number of scholars, most recently by Petr Pokorny, A Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas: From Interpretations to the Interpreted (Jewish and Christian Texts in Contexts and Related Studies 5; London/New York: T & T Clark, 2009).

6 Stevan Davies, “Thomas: The Fourth Synoptic Gospel,” BA 46 (1983): 7.

7 On this topic, see Michael Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”” An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

Four Views on Thomas: Thomas as Gnostic Text (Part II)

Despite the trend in understanding Thomas as something other than gnostic, a handful of scholars still regard Thomas as such. In his revised dissertation, Das Thomasevangelium: Einleitung, Kommentar, und Systematik, Michael Fieger (1991) includes an 11-page introduction that rehearses many of the standard issues, including date, provenance, and theological outlook. Fieger argues that Thomas is a second-century gnostic gospel that is largely dependent upon both the Synoptics and gnostic traditions available to the community in which it was composed. Fieger identifies two types of material in Thomas: synoptic-like sayings and gnostic sayings, the latter of which provides the interpretive grid through which the entire gospel can be understood (cf. pp. 3-6).

The process by which Fieger approaches Thomas is somewhat circular. Fieger reads every logion in Thomas through the lens of gnosticism, resulting in gnostic interpretations that further reinforce his premise that Thomas is gnostic. In his review of Fieger’s monograph, Stephen J. Patterson (JBL 111 [1992]: 361-63) criticizes the book’s approach, suggesting that a large number of Fieger’s gnostic readings are not demanded by the text but are imposed by the gnostic grid with which he begins. Patterson’s critique echoes an assertion that is commonly voiced by scholars today—for one to interpret Thomas as a gnostic text, one must import gnosticism into the text. Patterson also points out Fieger’s failure to recognize the presence of sapiential material in Thomas. How, he asks, have both wisdom traditions and gnostic traditions come to exist side-by-side in Thomas? Fieger’s gnostic model fails to address this question.

William Arnal also sees both sapiential and gnostic material in the Gospel of Thomas, though unlike Patterson he does regard some of the material in Thomas as genuinely rather than incipiently gnostic (cf. “The Rhetoric of Marginality: Apocalypticism, Gnosticism, and Sayings Gospels,” HTR 88: 471–94). Arnal argues that gnostic themes are part of a secondary redaction to the original, wisdom-oriented gospel. Through the introduction of gnostic material, a gnostic interpreter has co-opted the original and pressed it into the service of gnosticism.

The terms “gnostic” and “gnosticism” have also appeared in the titles of several books by Marvin Meyer, and in one volume, Meyer’s translation of Thomas is accompanied by a gnostic interpretation of each logion (with Harold Bloom, 1992). More recently Meyer has taken a more nuanced stand, acknowledging that “[w]hile the Gospel of Thomas has some features in common with gnostic gospels, it does not seem to fit the definition of Gnosticism. . . .to a significant extent. Thus I prefer to consider the Gospel of Thomas to be a gospel with an incipient gnostic perspective” (The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus, 2005). With this comment Meyer affirms what a growing number of scholars are recognizing. The use of Thomas by later gnostics is not enough for scholars to consider it a full-blown gnostic text.

Overall, recent scholarship on the Gospel of Thomas appears to be moving away from the supposition that Thomas is a gnostic text, while remaining aware of the interest Thomas held for later gnostic interpreters.

In our next few posts we will look at the view that Thomas is an example of Christian wisdom literature.

Four Views on Thomas: Thomas as Gnostic Text (Part I) (Repost)

What follows was the first post in the intended series. I’m reposting it here and then I’ll move forward from there.

A few weeks back I mentioned that I would be “thinking out loud” in a series of posts on the theological outlook of the Gospel of Thomas. Four theological categories seem to be most prominent among scholars: Gnosticism, Wisdom, Asceticism, and Mysticism. These categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive and I will try to make this clear when discussing them. Today I want to begin by looking at the idea that Thomas is a gnostic text.

Most early scholars working on the Gospel of Thomas assumed it was a gnostic text. Initially, there were at least three reasons for this conclusion:

First, Thomas was found among a group of other supposedly gnostic documents. In truth, this conclusion amounts to “guilt by association,” and offers no real proof for Thomas‘s gnostic outlook.  Not every text found at Nag Hammadi is gnostic, as evidenced by the inclusion of the Sentences of Sextus and Plato’s Republic in the NHL.

Second, there are *some* gnostic ideas in Thomas (or, at the very least, ideas that would have been attractive to gnostics). Again, this constitutes no real proof for Thomas‘s supposed gnosticism. After all, the Fourth Gospel is not a gnostic document though it contains ideas attractive to early gnostics. In fact, the first known commentary on the Gospel of John was written by the second century gnostic, Heracleon (ca 150 – 180 CE).

Third, a certain circularity attended most early discussions of Thomas‘s date/provenance, relation to the canonical gospels, and theological outlook. Thomas was assumed by many to be gnostic, dependent upon the synoptic gospels, and later than the canonical tradition. These three related premises were often discussed in connection with each other without any substantive proof being offered.

In recent scholarship, previous conclusions about Thomas‘s gnostic outlook have been questioned. In the next post I want to look at several recent scholars who identify Thomas as a gnostic text.

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.

Four Views on Thomas: Thomas as Gnostic Text (Part I)

A few weeks back I mentioned that I would be “thinking out loud” in a series of posts on the theological outlook of the Gospel of Thomas. Four theological categories seem to be most prominent among scholars: Gnosticism, Wisdom, Asceticism, and Mysticism. These categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive and I will try to make this clear when discussing them. Today I want to begin by looking at the idea that Thomas is a gnostic text.

Most early scholars working on the Gospel of Thomas assumed it was a gnostic text. Initially, there were at least three reasons for this conclusion:

First, Thomas was found among a group of other supposedly gnostic documents. In truth, this conclusion amounts to “guilt by association,” and offers no real proof for Thomas‘s gnostic outlook.  Not every text found at Nag Hammadi is gnostic, as evidenced by the inclusion of the Sentences of Sextus and Plato’s Republic in the NHL.

Second, there are *some* gnostic ideas in Thomas (or, at the very least, ideas that would have been attractive to gnostics). Again, this constitutes no real proof for Thomas‘s supposed gnosticism. After all, the Fourth Gospel is not a gnostic document though it contains ideas attractive to early gnostics. In fact, the first known commentary on the Gospel of John was written by the second century gnostic, Heracleon (ca 150 – 180 CE).

Third, a certain circularity attended most early discussions of Thomas‘s date/provenance, relation to the canonical gospels, and theological outlook. Thomas was assumed by many to be gnostic, dependent upon the synoptic gospels, and later than the canonical tradition. These three related premises were often discussed in connection with each other without any substantive proof being offered.

In recent scholarship, previous conclusions about Thomas‘s gnostic outlook have been questioned. In the next post I want to look at several recent scholars who identify Thomas as a gnostic text.