Reading Conflicting Mythologies in the NT Gospels (Skinner)

I’m currently doing some research on the various views of evil reflected in the Gospels of Mark and John for a conference paper I’m writing. In recent days, I have really been stimulated by the work of John Riches on mythology in the NT. I am just beginning his monograph, Conflicting Mythologies: Identity Formation in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (SNTW; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000) and I have also recently read his related article, “Conflicting Mythologies: Mythical Narrative in the Gospel of Mark” JSNT 84 (2001), 29-50. In his article he asks:

[T]he root of this disagreement [over interpretations of evil in Mark] lies precisely in the area of cosmology: what kind of view of the origins of evil in the world underlies, is promoted by, Mark’s story? Is evil ultimately the work of some angelic/demonic power or does it derive from the rebellion of the human will? And: how will God intervene to overcome it? Will he send his son to destroy the dark powers in a heroic struggle with Satan and his cohorts, or will he sent him to teach and to heal, to demonstrate in his own obedience to the divine will the ‘way of the Lord’ (p. 33)?

He goes on to demonstrate that both a cosmic dualist cosmology and a forensic cosmology exist side-by-side in Mark with no apparent attempt to reconcile the two. He goes on to say:

[T]here is a therapuetic function in bringing out, if not into tthe open, then into popular and publicly recited story, the fundamental dilemmas of human societies. All this can, I think, be seen as true of Mark’s Gospel. The answers to the question that profoundly troubles the Judaeo-Christian tradition–whence is evil? unde malum?– are played out against each other in this drama in such a way that the story confirms above all one truth: neither of the prevailing explanations, cosmic dualist or forensic, will adequately account for the experience of the community that has made this story its own (p. 48).

All too often I come into contact with students and friends who approach me with the uncritical assumption that the NT offers a singular cosmology. Riches’ work is a useful reminder that not only do multi-faceted understandings of cosmology appear across the NT, but such potentially conflicting mythologies also appear in individual writings like the Gospels of Mark and John.

On the Benefit of Textual Criticism (Or: Snake Handling is Not Such a Great Idea) (Skinner)

snakes-620x362I was just discussing the so-called “Longer Ending” of Mark (16:9-20) with my students last Monday and I mentioned that the primary proof-text snake handlers have for their practice is found in a piece of tradition that is most likely not original to Mark’s Gospel:

15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

Since we are located in NC, I was not surprised that several of my students had visited a church in which snake handling was a regular practice. When speaking of this issue I (somewhat sarcastically) joked about how a even a little knowledge of textual criticism could be very helpful for determining certain Christian practices. Then today I saw this story about a reality show snake-handling pastor from Kentucky who just died from an untreated poisonous snake bite. To seminary and divinity students I say (with a certain level of seriousness), truly a little bit of textual criticism can go a long way.

Rodney Decker on the Characteristics of Mark’s Greek Style (Skinner)

Language of the NTI am presently reviewing a volume entitled, The Language of the New Testament: Context, History, and Development (Leiden: Brill, 2013), co-edited by Stan Porter and Andrew Pitts. I have been enjoying the volume so far (though as with many academic monographs of this kind, the contributions are uneven in terms of substance, writing style, and ability to provoke interest). One bright spot has been Rodney Decker’s essay, “Markan Idiolect in the Study of the Greek of the New Testament” (pp. 43-66). I have taught through Mark several times in the past and I am currently in the midst of my course on Jesus and the Gospels. In both classes I discuss the distinctive nuances of Mark’s Greek style but (to this point) I hadn’t found an article to give my students on the subject that is both substantive and concise. Decker’s essay fits the bill. He discusses Markan parataxis, redundancies and dualities, multiple negatives, periphrasis, indefinite plurals, diminutives, use of euthus, the historical present, asyndeton, and anacolouthon. Those interested in such discussions will find Decker’s treatment useful.

Interview with Mark Goodacre (Part II)

goodacre-2Here is the second installment of my interview with Prof. Mark Goodacre on the Gospel of Thomas (see part one here):

(CWS) 4. Awhile back on your blog, you provided a list from your index of the most cited scholars in your book. You also indicated that the frequency of a given scholar’s appearance in the book is unrelated to your extent of agreement with him/her. What scholars have you found to be the most helpful for your own Thomas research and why?

(MG) I really like the work of Stephen Patterson.  He is a clear thinker and a clear writer. Although I disagree with many of his conclusions, he analyzes the evidence with fairness and clarity. And in general I like scholars who lay out their case clearly. I am less keen on what I think of as “shifting sands” scholarship, where you simply cannot be sure how the case overall is panning out. You shouldn’t have to re-read a scholar’s work multiple times in order to work out what they are saying.

For my case on Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptics, I found myself frequently in agreement with Christopher Tuckett and Klyne Snodgrass, both of whom write with clarity and force. Given that I had disagreed with Tuckett in my Q book, it was nice on this occasion to be joining him in battle. And now too I find that I agree with Simon Gathercole’s views on Thomas to a major extent. Although we wrote our books independently of one another, like Matthew and Luke on the Two-Source Theory, it turns out that we agree on most of the issues.

(CWS) 5. I know you have a forthcoming article in which you discuss the Nag Hammadi discoveries. Other than that, are you planning any future projects on the Gospel of Thomas?

(MG) The Nag Hammadi article arose out of my research on Thomas. I wanted to write about the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices but when I researched the topic, I found that there is not one version of the story but several. And the more I looked at the different versions, the more worried I became about how much we can really know about the circumstances of the discovery.  The article, “How reliable is the story of the Nag Hammadi discovery?” should come out later this year in JSNT.

I don’t have anything else currently planned on the Gospel of Thomas but I have a piece on the Gospel of Peter that I hope to get published before too long, and I am also doing some work on the Gospel of Mary and related texts.

(CWS) 6. You are one of the most outspoken opponents of the “Q” hypothesis. Many scholars see “Q” and Thomas as early examples of the wisdom genre applied to Jesus’ sayings. Obviously, since you reject the notion of Q, you would also reject this line of thinking. To your mind, what theological outlook do we find in the Gospel of Thomas and why?

(MG) I think the comparison between Q and Thomas has been pretty damaging and in several ways it has thrown us off the scent. The comparison is largely an accident of our own social location.  Q was one of the biggest and most successful hypotheses in twentieth century research on Christian origins, but its hypothetical nature always caused scholars some residual anxiety. One way of dealing with the anxiety was to align the hypothetical Q with the newly discovered Thomas. Coptic Thomas was discovered in 1945, but only began to seep into scholarly consciousness in the seventies and eighties, at the same time that Q was taking on a life of its own.

The difficulty for those who want to align Q and Thomas is that these works are only superficially comparable. Anyone who has done any actual research on either realizes that the differences are far more striking than the similarities. I have argued that reflection on the differences helps us to see how the true Sayings Gospel (Thomas) differs from the hybrid scholarly reconstruction (Q).  The latter makes much better sense as a scholarly extraction of parallel material from Matthew and Luke, not as a discrete work.

Moreover, and to get to the heart of your question, Thomas’s theological outlook could hardly be more different than Q’s. To take two really obvious examples, Thomas differs from Q on the Old Testament and on eschatology.  Thomas disdains the Old Testament – it only refers to Adam, it never explicitly quotes the Old Testament, and it thinks of the prophets as “the dead”. Q, on the other hand, loves the Old Testament, cites its heroes, and quotes many key texts.  Similarly, Thomas and Q differ on eschatology. Thomas has a protology rather than an eschatology, and is looking to get back to Eden, to the singular human being before the fall. But Q is driven-through with eschatology at every turn, and repeatedly talks about the kingdom, the future, and the Son of Man.

I do not, of course, accept the existence of Q, but I point out these contrasts in order to show how some of the clear problems with making them representatives of the same trajectory in early Christianity.  To put it another way, Thomas is a “sayings gospel” because it really believes that salvation lies in interpreting Jesus’s words, whereas Q is only a “sayings gospel” insofar as it represents scholarly efforts to extract and over-emphasize some of the sayings material in the Synoptics.

(CWS) 7. Another interest that I have, and one that I hope to promote on this blog, is research on the historical Jesus. 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.

(MG) I share your interest in the Historical Jesus and I suppose to some extent this also comes back to your first question about one’s initial interest in Thomas. I began by hoping that perhaps it could provide us with some extra material on the historical Jesus, and I was disappointed when I found otherwise. I do think that there are likely to be historical Jesus traditions in Thomas, but I think that they are found in the Synoptic parallels that make up half of Thomas rather than the new material that makes up the other half of Thomas. I don’t rule out the possibility that historical Jesus traditions occur in the newer, unparalleled materials, but I find it unlikely. Bear in mind that even the Jesus Seminar, which tended to favour Thomas as a source for historical Jesus research, struggled to find much historical Jesus material in the unique material. Broadly speaking, they were using Thomas as a means of corroborating parallel Synoptic traditions about Jesus.

My reading of the earliest materials persuades me that the Historical Jesus is likely to have been a Jewish eschatological prophet who valued the Hebrew Scriptures, quite unlike the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas, who disdains eschatology and the Hebrew Bible.

Many thanks to Prof. Goodacre for taking the time to answer our questions!

Interview with Mark Goodacre (Part I)

MarkGoodacreThis morning I am pleased to post the first part of an interview I conducted with Prof. Mark Goodacre in which we explore his views on the Gospel of Thomas. Prof. Goodacre presently serves as Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Duke University. Anyone paying attention will recognize that Prof. Goodacre is quite well-known around the web, not only for his scholarship, but also for how he makes NT scholarship accessible to so many. Along with the very useful website, NT Gateway, and his blog, Mark provides regular reflections on various subjects through his podcast, the NT Pod. He has recently written a book entitled, Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’ Familiarity with the Gospels. I have already given this book my strong endorsement, as have others across the blogosphere (see here, here, here, here). I will say it here again: the book is very good and deserves the attention it is getting. No one interested in the subject matter can afford to ignore this book–even those who disagree. I hope you enjoy this first half of our interview.

(CWS) 1. I have asked this question of every scholar I have interviewed on this blog: What initially sparked your interest in studying the Gospel of Thomas?

(MG) Well, I have always been really interested in the Synoptic Problem and I have spent a lot of time investigating the double tradition and the hypothetical “Q” source.  My skepticism over the existence of Q often led people to ask the question, “But what about the Gospel of Thomas?”  After all, scholars have often paired Q and Thomas, making them early witnesses to a trajectory within early Christianity that specially emphasized Jesus’ sayings, and which was not very interested in Jesus’ death.  So my interest in Thomas proceeded in part from my interest in Q.

I found also that there are many fascinating Synoptic-type questions to be explored in the study of Thomas. Indeed, quite often Thomas has been discussed in ignorance of detailed knowledge of the Synopsis and the Synoptic Problem.  I suppose that I felt that I could see a few things that others were missing when they were looking at Thomas.

Having begun there, I then found that I greatly enjoyed where Thomas was taking me – into the world of second and third century Gospels with which I had been unfamiliar.  I used to fall victim to canonical bias in my teaching and focused almost exclusively on the New Testament.  Now I find that some of my favourite teaching is in Non-canonical Gospels, including Thomas but also many other works.

(CWS) 2. I have had an opportunity to work through your recent book, Thomas and the Gospels. In the book you make a sustained (and quite compelling) case for Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptic tradition.  Can you provide here a sketch of your view(s) on Thomas’s relationship to the Synoptic Gospels?

(MG) The case begins by asking a key question that is almost universally missed in studies of Thomas’s relationship to the Synoptics:  how similar are they?  Is there sufficient verbatim agreement between Thomas and the Synoptics to suggest that there is a direct link?  I argue that the verbatim agreement in several parallels between the Synoptics and Thomas is so striking as to make a direct link highly likely.

Where one has this kind of agreement, one next needs to ask whether the characteristic features of one work show up in the other.  I call these “diagnostic shards”, borrowing a term from archaeology, and I suggest that there are good, strong cases of Matthew’s and Luke’s redaction that show up in Thomas.  The Gospel of Thomas, for example, uses Matthew’s favourite term “kingdom of the heavens”.  And it has parallels to places where Matthew and Luke are clearly redacting Mark.  On one occasion (Thomas 79), Thomas has such clear parallels to Luke’s distinctive setting, language, imagery and theology, that it becomes unlikely that Thomas is not using Luke.

(CWS) 3. As you know, some scholars have written at length about the supposed relationship between Thomas and the Gospel of John. (This question is of particular interest to me, since I wrote an entire dissertation on the subject!). To your mind, what, if any, is the connection between John and Thomas? Please explain.

(MG) I must admit to feeling a little guilty about writing a book called Thomas and the Gospels and then dealing so little with John!  As it happens, I think it’s one of the most fascinating things about Thomas that it has at times a kind of Johannine feel, with Johannine echoes, and yet it does not feature the same kind of verbatim agreement that you see between Thomas and the Synoptics.  I think it is possible that Thomas knows John but it is difficult to establish.  I wonder whether it is in part a question of timing.  If I am right about the date of Thomas (I argue for a date in the 130s, Chapter 9), then John may not yet have the same degree of authority as the Synoptics have, and so its author is less inclined to look to its sayings to lend the account legitimacy.

I have very much enjoyed the work of several scholars, including yourself, on the relationship between John and Thomas.  I always introduce students to Elaine Pagels’s and Gregory Riley’s work on the relationship, not least because it provides such good intellectual stimulation on these important early Christian texts.  It’s an issue I want to think about some more in due course.

Two Books Everybody Should Be Talking About (Part One: Goodacre on Thomas & the Synoptics)

My semester is now complete and I have been able to get to some much-needed reading that I began prior to the SBL meeting in Chicago. I have spent the past few weeks reading and digesting two books that I am convinced need to be discussed in much greater detail both in the blogosphere and in the classroom. The first of these is Mark Goodacre’s Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics. Those of us who read Mark’s blog and listen to his podcasts know that he relishes the role of “spoil sport,” especially on issues that are taken for granted within certain segments of academia. Well, he is at his spoil-sport-best in this current book, taking on the canons (accepted in many quarters of North American scholarship) that Thomas is early and independent of the canonical tradition. What makes this book so good is the combination of Mark’s erudition and creativity, along with his knowledge of the Synoptic problem, utility in the Greek synopsis, and skill in evaulating source-critical arguments. While I haven’t read everything that’s ever been written on the Gospel of Thomas, I have recently written a book on Thomas scholarship in which I attempted to explore the range of scholarly opinion within contemporary research. That book required me to read….a lot. Against the backdrop of that (at times, painful) reality, I can tell you that this is one of the most insightful and well-written books on the Gospel of Thomas that I have read. I will soon be posting an interview with Mark as I have with other Thomas scholars and I hope to find the time to do an in-depth review of his book. For now, let me provide my endorsement and strongly suggest that, if you have any interest in the gospel traditions, you get this book.

Interview with Simon Gathercole on the Gospel of Thomas (Part I)

GathercoleIt has been awhile since I conducted an interview with anyone working seriously on the Gospel of Thomas. Today I am glad to post the first part of my conversation with Simon Gathercole, Senior Lecturer in New Testament in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University. Dr. Gathercole has published numerous books on topics as wide-ranging as the christologies of the Synoptic Gospels, the soteriology of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Book of Tobit, and the Gospel of Judas. In recent years he has turned his attention to the Gospel of Thomas with essays on Thomas’‘s relationship to Paul and Luke, respectively. Dr. Gathercole’s forthcoming monograph, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences, is  set to be released next month. I wanted to catch him in advance of the book’s publication and provide him an opportunity to discuss his views. Thanks, Simon for agreeing to participate.

(CWS) 1. I have asked this question of every scholar I have interviewed on this blog: What initially sparked your interest in studying the Gospel of Thomas?

(SJG) Since first studying the New Testament I have always been interested in different views about Jesus, whether those purport to come from the NT or elsewhere. I suppose that both in the popular realm and in some scholarly circles there has been a growing interest in seeing the apocryphal gospels as equally legitimate interpretations of Jesus by comparison with the canonical gospels. I’m interested in evaluating the differing portraits of Jesus that one finds in all the gospels, both canonical and non-canonical.

 (CWS) 2. Several years ago you wrote an essay exploring Thomas’s relationship to the writings of Paul (“‘The Influence of Paul on the Gospel of Thomas [53.3 and 17]’, in J. Frey, E. E. Popkes, and J. Schröter, eds., Das Thomasevangelium: Entstehung – Rezeption – Theologie [BZNW 157; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008]). Very little has been written on this topic to date. To your mind, what, if any, is the relationship between Thomas and Paul?

(SJG) I don’t think there’s any direct literary relationship – at least it can’t be demonstrated that Thomas  had read Paul. (It’s impossible of course to prove that the author hadn’t.) But there are some telling similarities, in particular in sayings 3, 17 and 53 – the latter in particular with some very close parallels to Rom. 2.25-3.2. It may be, and here one is speculating, that Thomas emerged from a kind of “ultra-Pauline” circle, such as produced the Epistle of Barnabas, but it’s very difficult to know.

(CWS) 3. The relationship between the Synoptic Gospels and Thomas is a notoriously thorny issue for those working in Gospel studies. In a recent article on the relationship between Thomas and the Gospel of Luke, you write that “Thomas constitutes an interesting chapter in the reception history of Luke” [“Luke in the Gospel of Thomas,” NTS 57 [2011]: 114-44). Can you briefly summarize your position and explain why you think Thomas is (possibly indirectly) dependent on Luke rather than vice versa?

(SJG) I think that there are clear examples of instances where Luke has redacted Mark, and that some of those Lukan redactions of Mark appear in the Gospel of Thomas. I argued this in my NTS article (2011) [see bibliographic info listed above]. One of the things which strikes me most is that in three cases, Luke introduces an element into Mark, and then Thomas expands upon that Lukan element. So for example, in the image of the “light under the bushel”, Luke adds that the light is “for all who go in”, and Thomas expands it further to “all who go in and come out” (GTh 33); Luke adds a single “perhaps” into the parable of the wicked tenants, then Thomas includes this and adds another again (GTh 65); Luke adds a reference to prayer into the controversy about fasting, and Thomas includes this addition, and adds an extra reference to prayer (GTh 104). Again, I don’t think this is a matter necessarily of Thomas having read Luke (though this is impossible to rule out), but it reflects Thomas or his sources having known the stories in their Lukan forms, and elaborating on them further. So there is a gradual expansion, in these sayings at least, from Mark to Luke to Thomas, which I don’t think can be read in any other order (unless one denies Markan priority). The arguments for Thomas having influenced Luke in other sayings (which I also discuss in my article) seem to me to be based on very poor evidence.

Next time Simon will discuss his forthcoming book and his views on the recent theories of Perrin and DeConick. Stay tuned for Part II. . . .