Anthony Le Donne on His New Book, Near Christianity (Skinner)

near-christianityMy friend, Anthony Le Donne, has recently written a book entitled, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God (Zondervan, 2016). I have long been a fan of Anthony’s more academic writing (here, here) and his student-oriented (here) and popular-appeal books (here) about Jesus, but this book is a departure for him. I recently had an opportunity to interview Anthony about the book and the motivations for writing about such different subject matter.

(CWS): You say at the start of the book that you’re writing for fellow Christians. How much of your motivation was to expose Christians to an alternative history of Christianity?

(ALD): I am interested in alternative versions of history. Our histories are always being revised. Sometimes this is good, sometimes not. Christians in particular tend to revise our histories to suit our positive self image. We remember great “fathers” and historic episodes heroically. We tend to see the expansion of Christianity as a spread of the good news. I guess part of my book is about trying to listen to voices from beyond the Christian echo chamber. It turns out that our religious neighbors remember the expansion of Christianity differently. We need as many different voices in the study of our history as possible.

(CWS): In the book you write: “How did Christian morality look in Nazi Europe? What dogmatic shape did it take? And if we find that it looked similar to the Christian moralities at work in the heresy hunting of early Christian theology, or Constantine’s vision, or the Crusades, or our major church splits, or manifest destiny, or the Salem witch trials, or Confederate America, or the Red Scare, or countless acts of harm to LGBTQ+ children, should we not stop to wonder if there is a deeper sickness at work?” Do you think that a deeper sickness is at the heart of Christianity? And if so, what is it?

(ALD): I call this the “mythological foothold.” It is the very old Christian strategy to create a caricature of an “other” who represents some sort of danger, and then triumph over the caricature we’ve created. I don’t think that this needs to be the heart of Christianity. But, for some reason, many Christians need an ideological enemy. This is a very old problem in Christian thought and it began with our attempt to supplant Jews and Judaism. But we’re now seeing the same sort of ideological strategy at work in western Islamophobia. We’ve created a stereotype of Muslims and we’re using it as a rallying cry. It really is the worst version of Christianity. The good news is that we don’t need an enemy to be faithful Christians. We have it in our spiritual DNA to remedy this.

(CWS): In your chapter on Christmas, you denounce Donald Trump as a demagogue. I imagine that ledonnemany evangelicals will not like this description, and this book is published with Zondervan, an openly evangelical press. What, do you think, is the appeal of Trump’s politics to conservative Christians?

(ALD) : Well, I guess that I ought to define “demagogue” as I neglect to do it in the book. So here the Merriam-Webster definition: “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power”; or “a leader championing the cause of the common people in ancient times.” Aside from the “ancient times” portion of this, I think that this is a perfect description of Mr. Trump. He comes up in the book because he contributes to the so-called “war” on Christmas. My point is that Christians ought to be focusing on Advent rather than fueling a culture war. As a Christian, Advent is important to me. But national surveys show that most American Christians do not observe these important weeks of preparation before Christmas. We have allowed something sacred to be lost. Advent is a time for anticipation, remembrance, and listening for God. But we’ve allowed this time of year to become a consumer frenzy. This is what C. S. Lewis called his “pet abomination”—one can only imagine what he would have thought of people being trampled at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. One of the consequences of this secularization of the Christian calendar is that we’ve created a season of protest. We’ve allowed the news media to draw us into culture wars and Advent becomes a time of celebrating Christmas as a show of religious freedom.

(CWS): Since this book is about your “journeys along Jewish-Christian borders,” can you give us a preview of some of the important insights that have come to you in your interactions with Jewish friends, Jewish customs, and Jewish texts?

(ALD): Sure. But first let me say that my experience of Jews and Judaism is idiosyncratic. Everything that I write in this book reveals only my particular experience. I imagine that others might gain different insights from different sort of inter-religious conversations. In other words, nothing that I say should be used as a general stereotype. This book is more about what I’ve learned from my conversations and less about simply retelling bits of wisdom I’ve digested. That said, here are a few things I’ve learned about Christianity: (1) Christians are much more powerful than we know. We have to get over the us-against-the-world myth. Our inferiority complex is dangerous on a global scale. There are 2.7 billion of us. That we have considerably more power than we think we do is both good news and bad news. It is an enormous responsibility. (2) The best and fastest way to make the world a better place is for Christianity to become the best version of itself. This is not something that I learned from a book or a rabbi or some ancient bit of wisdom. It’s just something that would have never occurred to me unless I had journeyed along Jewish-Christian borders and fault-lines. Finally, (3) most of my Jewish friends want me to become a better Christian. I find this especially motivating. My devotion to God through Christ actually makes me a more interesting dialogue partner at this particular table. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think that I can say the same thing about my Christian friends. I find that the more time I spend at the Jewish-Christian fence, the more I want to be a good neighbor.

I hope this is enough to whet your appetite. I never cease to be entertained and informed by Anthony’s writing. This book is no exception. Now that you have read the interview, you should go and buy a copy of the book (or two). I’m sure Anthony would appreciate that.

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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.

Gospel of Thomas Interviews

Today I was doing some organizing on my blog and I wanted to point out that I’ve added a new page. Over the past several years I have been posting interviews with prominent scholars who have done significant work on the Gospel of Thomas. Up until now the interviews have been scattered across my blog but now I have created a separate page for them. To this point I have posted interviews with Nicholas Perrin, Stevan Davies, Stephen Patterson, Ismo Dunderberg, Risto Uro, Marvin Meyer, and Simon Gathercole. Soon I hope to conduct an interview with Mark Goodacre on his recent research (though I have now promised him the interview questions two different times and have failed to deliver). If you’re interested in Thomas research, I do hope you’ll check out the new page.

Mark Goodacre on Thomas and the Synoptics

Over at the NT Blog, Mark Goodacre has begun posting excerpts from his forthcoming book, Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptic Gospels(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012). He has indicated that he will do this a few more times. This a nice “tease” for those of us who are anxious to get our hands on the book. I think it’s working too! I am looking forward to reading and interacting with the book here on my blog. Also, just as I did with Simon Gathercole a few months back, I will soon be posting an interview with Mark about his views on Thomas in anticipation of his book’s release. Stay tuned.

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

346151376_640Here’s part two of my conversation with Simon Gathercole on the Gospel of Thomas:

(CWS) 4. I am looking forward to reading your forthcoming book, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences. Since this subject is addressed in your book, I would like to explore your understanding of Thomas’s compositional language. As you know, over the past decade Nick Perrin has sought to advance the position that Thomas was originally composed in Syriac and is dependent upon the Diatessaron. What are your thoughts on his thesis?

(SJG) One of the things I tried to do in my book was to take a very large sample of the “semitisms” that some have argued point in favour of a W. Aramaic or a Syriac origin for the book and show that they are basically all useless as evidence for a Semitic original. In terms of Nick Perrin’s thesis in particular, one of the difficulties is that we have hardly any Syriac literature from the first and second centuries CE, and so we can’t reconstruct the grammar and vocabulary of Syriac in that period with any degree of confidence. On the specific matter of Nick’s argument about the Diatessaron, the problem is compounded further, as we don’t have the Diatessaron in anything like its original form – not a word of the original Syriac (if that even was the original language of the Diatessaron) survives.

(CWS) 5. I know you’ve got a book to sell….so please don’t give away too much. But can you briefly provide an exposition of your view on Thomas’s relationship to the Synoptic Gospels?

(SJG) Part of it I’ve already given away in what I said about about Luke. I expand the argument to include Matthew as well. Matthew is an interesting case because the disciple Matthew is referred to in GTh 13 as an authoritative spokesman (alongside Peter) for a view contrary to that of Thomas. So I think it’s very likely that this in an attempt to undermine the Gospel of Matthew.  There are also instances where, as with Luke above, Matthew’s redaction of Mark is clearly incorporated into Thomas. Overall, my view is that Matthew and Luke shaped the oral tradition upon which Thomas drew, and there is a substantial degree of influence upon Thomas from the Synoptic gospels.

(CWS) 6. What is your view on the compositional history of Thomas? In other words, do you regard Thomas as a compositional unity or are you persuaded by the piecemeal, “multiple accretions” approach advocated by April DeConick? Do you find either of these approaches convincing?

(SJG) I don’t find it too much of a problem to conceive of it as a relative unity. There are obviously a number of sources, and these haven’t necessarily been combined into a seamless whole. But I suppose I go slightly against the consensus in thinking that the Greek fragments are not too different from the Coptic version. It doesn’t seem to me that the text is very fluid and constantly open to extra accretions.

(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.

(SJG) I think that there is a lot in the Gospel of Thomas that – at least in broad general terms – goes back to the historical Jesus. The parable of the sower and the parable of the wicked tenants, for instance! One of the difficulties with this question is the demise (of which I approve) of the criteria of authenticity. How can you tell if something like Thomas’s parable of the assassin is authentic? I don’t know. My own preference is to look at the works as a whole for their portrayal of Jesus. In this respect, I think Thomas is miles away from the historical Jesus – rejecting the prophets and circumcision (GTh 52-53) and speaking in semi-Platonic language about the true image within (GTh 83-84). Thomas seems to me a far cry from the milieu reflected in the canonical gospels which fixes Jesus much more clearly in a real first-century Jewish world.

I’m sure Simon could have said a great deal more about these issues had it not been for time constraints. I do want to again offer my thanks to Simon for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. His book, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences, is due to be released at the end of March. We look forward to the conversations that will surely take place at that time.

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. . . .

More Interviews on the Gospel of Thomas

One of things I have tried to do since starting this blog is provide something of a clearinghouse of scholarly views on the Gospel of Thomas. While I have other scholarly interests (the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, narrative criticism, etc.), many of these are well-covered across the web and throughout the blogosphere. When I started this blog, I wanted to turn my attention to an area that did not have as much web coverage as some others in biblical and early Christian studies. Since I was in the process of researching and writing on the Gospel of Thomas, I thought it might be helpful to those looking for good information to have a place to go. Based upon my blog traffic, I was right that web surfers would return to a site that had a storehouse of information on the Gospel of Thomas. The interviews have proven to be the most visited posts on this blog.

Thus far I have conducted interviews with a good number of the most important figures working in contemporary Thomas research: Stephen J. Patterson, Nicholas Perrin, Stevan Davies, Risto Uro, Marvin Meyer, Ismo Dunderberg, to name a few. Over the next few months, both Simon Gathercole and Mark Goodacre have books coming out on the Gospel of Thomas. In the coming weeks will be interviewing each of them about their books and their views on important questions in Thomas research. Stay tuned. . . .