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. . . .

Interview with Risto Uro on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

9780567086075Here’s part two of my interview with Professor Uro:

(CWS) 4. To your mind, what is the relationship, if any, between the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John?

(RU) I agree with Ismo Dunderberg that the attempts to reconstruct a conflict between John’s and Thomas’ communities are on a shaky ground. I also find helpful his idea that both the figure of the beloved disciple in John and the apostle Thomas in the Gospel of Thomas should be seen in the context of other figures of authentication that abound in early Christian literature. There are interesting points of contact, though, and both gospels seem to roughly derive from same stage of the Christian movement as 1Timothy, Hebrews, and some of the Apostolic Fathers.

(CWS) 5. Another research interest that I have and one that I hope to promote on this blog is the historical Jesus. What implications for historical Jesus research does the Gospel of Thomas have? In your opinion is there anything in Thomas that is old enough to be potentially illuminating about the life of the historical Jesus? If so, what?

(RU) I think the most important contribution of Thomasine studies to historical Jesus research is methodological. As I explained above, one of my first interests was to use Thomas’ materials to understand the tradition process in light of orality and literacy studies. Now the field is often called orality-scribality-memory studies. The results of such studies may not be as direct or dramatic as tracing some “authentic” traditions in Thomas, but I have been influenced by E.P. Sanders too much to take the sayings tradition as a point of departure in the study of the historical Jesus.

(CWS) 6. What scholars pursuing research on the Gospel of Thomas (and/or Christian Origins) have you found most helpful for your own work on the Gospel of Thomas?

(RU) As to the scholars, I cannot overstate the influence of the “original” Thomas project team in Helsinki (Dunderberg, Marjanen and Uro). We worked together intensively musing over Thomas and other Nag Hammadi writings on countless occasions for a period of several years. Moreover, my post-doctoral studies in Claremont brought me under the influence of the so-called Koester-Robinson school. I haven’t been a very obedient member of the school, but I always think with appreciation of what these great scholars have done to promote the study of Nag Hammadi and extra-canonical writings.

In terms of books, I have already mentioned Davies’ The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom and Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel. Steve Patterson’s The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus was on my desk constantly while working on Thomas.

Interview with Risto Uro on the Gospel of Thomas (Part I)

iso-uroAfter a short hiatus I am back and ready to post the first part of my interview with Finnish Thomas scholar, Risto Uro. Professor Uro is Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki. He has been a prominent voice in the so-called “Finnish school” of Thomas studies. I would like to extend my thanks to Professor Uro for his willingness to be interviewed in this forum.

(CWS) 1. I have asked this question of each Thomas scholar I have interviewed thus far. Before I interact with your work on the Gospel of Thomas I would like to begin by asking what got you interested in studying the Gospel of Thomas in the first place?

(RU) I wrote my dissertation on Q and after I had completed my doctoral studies I was invited to Claremont (The Institute for Antiquity and Christianity) by James Robinson, who was gathering a large international research team to produce a Critical Edition of the Q Gospel. During my stay in California, I also took an elementary course in Coptic taught by Dick Smith. In the atmosphere of Claremont it was almost impossible not to get interested and somehow involved in Thomasine studies.  Besides, my curiosity had already been awakened by Stevan Davies’s thought-provoking book I had read earlier (I have told that part of the story in the prologue of my 2003 book on Thomas). In Claremont (where I was two times, in 1989 and in 1992) I made the acquaintance of many scholars (e.g., Jon Asgeirsson, Marv Meyer, and Greg Riley) who were enthusiastic about Thomas and enthusiasm is contagious. After my return to Finland, I met Antti Marjanen, who had studied in Switzerland and learned Coptic there. We translated the Gospel of Thomas into Finnish, applied funding for a larger research project on Thomas (a young promising scholar Ismo Dunderberg had joined us), and—hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant—the rest is history.

(CWS) 2. In your work you have argued that Thomas shows evidence of “secondary orality” (specifically, Thomas shows dependence upon Matthew and Q through oral tradition). Could you briefly explain how you arrived at this conclusion?

(RU) Originally I made this suggestion in a paper that was published in 1993 (Foundations & Facets Forum 9:3-4), one of my earliest works on Thomas. I got interested in orality and literacy studies, which by that time seemed to provide a fresh perspective to the timeworn issue of literary dependence.   Werner Kelber had published a pioneering study on orality and the gospel tradition in 1983.  Kelber’s study was insightful and seminal, but he emphasized the Great Divide view, the idea that there is a deep-going hermeneutic difference between the oral and written modes of transmission.  I wanted to modify Kelber’s ideas toward a model that would allow more interplay and interaction between orality and literacy in the tradition process, a view that actually became a dominant in later scholarship. Also Kelber has admitted that his initial thesis was too much on the side of Great Divide theory.  I picked up the term “secondary orality” from Klyne Snodgrass’ 1989 article, which argued that the author of Thomas drew on free oral traditions and interpretations of the Synoptic Gospels as used in the Gnostic circles. But I never meant that “secondary orality” be taken as a magic bullet that explains the relationship between Thomas and the Synopticts in the whole. The issue is much more complicated than that. For me “secondary orality” was one concrete example of the interplay between orality and textuality, which could possibly be identified in some sayings of Thomas. Recent studies on (social and cognitive) memory and the “sociology of reading” in antiquity have shown that orality and literacy were intertwined with each other in manifold ways. Some impressive steps of progress have been taken with regard to these questions recently. I hope to be able to return to the issue from the perspective of my ritual project in near future.

(CWS) 3. In one essay from your edited volume, Thomas at the Crossroads, you ask the question, “Is Thomas an Encratite Gospel?” Could you share what conclusions you reach on this question and whether or not you regard Thomas as Gnostic?

My argument that Thomas is not really “encratite” was a reaction against the view dominant in the earlier scholarship according to which Thomas represents an extreme form of sexual asceticism. If we consider the gospel in the context of the Christian world at the turn of the second century, there is nothing extreme in Thomas’ relationship to marriage and sexuality.  Ascetic ideals were common in early Christianity and can be found already in Paul and in later first-century writings, such as the Gospel of Luke and Revelation. On the scale of ascetic emphasis, Thomas can be situated somewhere between Luke and the Apocryphal Acts, Thomas the Contender etc.

As to the question of whether Thomas is Gnostic or not, in my 2003 book I argued that Thomas represents a similar cosmological view as the Dialogue of Savior. They both share a view of the divine origin of humanity and fail to give any signs of demiurgical traditions.  If you define Gnosticism so that it must embrace both cosmological views (divine origin of humanity and the Demiurge), Thomas obviously isn’t Gnostic. But this is a matter of how you define Gnostic and Gnosticism. In Finland and perhaps elsewhere in Europe, the terms are not as ideologically-laden as they are in North America, and consequently the stakes in deciding the issue are not as high.

Stay tuned for part two. . . .

Forthcoming Interviews

I have had little time to devote to blogging lately but I will be returning to a regimen of regular posting very soon. I just wanted to mention that in the next few weeks I will be continuing my series of interviews with prominent researchers on the Gospel of Thomas. If you’ve been following along you know that I’ve already posted interviews with Nick Perrin (here and here), Stevan Davies (here, here, and here), Stephen Patterson (here, here, and here), and Ismo Dunderberg (here and here). In the upcoming weeks I will be posting interviews that I have conducted with Risto Uro (University of Helsinki) and Marvin Meyer (Chapman University). Until then I am still in the process of moving into an office and into a new house so my posting will likely be sporadic.

Interview with Ismo Dunderberg on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

400000000000000090356_s4Here’s part two of my dialogue with Professor Dunderberg. I especially appreciate his lengthy answer to my question about prospects for future study on the Gospel of Thomas. Thanks again, Professor Dunderberg!

(CWS) 4. I know that you regard yourself as more of a Johannine scholar, but do you anticipate any further research on the Gospel of Thomas? If so, could you tell us about it? I also know that you recently had an opportunity to examine Codex Tchacos up close (Gospel of Judas). Did you pursue this research in preparation for a book? Are you planning to do more research into similar ancient Christian texts?

 (ID) I’m not working on Thomas any longer, but I am presently working on the Gospel of Judas. My article on this text and ancient theories of “anger management” was recently published in a collection of articles edited by April DeConick. And I’m presently working on an edition and commentary on the Gospel of Judas. For this purpose, I spent a week in Geneva this past December inspecting some of the pages of Codex Tchachos. I’m sorry to tell I had no great new discoveries; the present edition by Wurst and others seems very accurate!

 As I’m now moving back to New Testament studies “proper” from Thomasine and Valentinian studies, I’m now and then asked to give papers on the reception of New Testament texts in the second century. I haven’t done much of this so far but  it seems I should do more in the future.

(CWS) 5. Another research interest that I have and one that I hope to promote on this blog is the historical Jesus. To your mind, what implications for historical Jesus research does the Gospel of Thomas have (if any)? You argue that there is material in Thomas old enough to be illuminating about the life of the historical Jesus. How do these two research interests coalesce in your own scholarship?

(ID) I haven’t conducted any independent research on the historical Jesus thus far; perhaps I’m too much aware of the problem of circularity which is particularly vexing in this field of study? I think there are sayings in Thomas which may “sound like Jesus,” or may stand closer to him than the synoptic versions, but I hardly have anything original to say about that matter–except that I was surprised to see that the Jesus seminar found so little in the non-synoptic material of Thomas that could go back to Jesus.

(CWS) 6. What scholars pursuing research on the Gospel of Thomas (and/or Christian Origins) have you found most helpful for your own work on the Gospel of Thomas?

(ID) First of all, I should mention my two Finnish colleagues, Antti Marjanen and Risto Uro. Not only have I spent hours and hours with them discussing the Gospel of Thomas, but they have also painstakingly read and commented on everything I’ve written about this topic, and have opened with their own work many important perspectives to it, both in methodological issues and in detailed analysis. Riley and DeConick have been very important discussion partners, of course. I’ve always found Elaine Pagels’ research and discussions with her most inspiring for my work (both on Thomas and Valentinians). I should also mention Stephen Patterson, whose work has prevented me from thinking that Thomas was simply put together from bits and pieces derived from the synoptic gospels; Philip Sellew, whose work always opens new perspectives for understanding Thomas in a broader context of antiquity; and Stevan Davies, who has such a keen eye especially on what binds John and Thomas theologically together and on their background in Jewish wisdom theology. Finally, I should mention Tjitze Baarda, whose detailed presentations at SBL and articles warned against any kind of generalizations and false security as to our conclusions about Thomas.

(CWS) 7. To your mind, what area(s) of Thomas research is/are in need of further investigation? If you were going to supervise Ph.D. students in this area, what avenues of study would you suggest?

(ID) There are of course many areas where further investigation might be necessary. One promising path is the increased interest in how the Gospel of Thomas might have been understood in Egypt in the fourth century. What was it in this text that attracted attention among early Christians of this period? Why was it translated, by whom, and to whom? There’ve been initial attempts to analyze the individual Nag Hammadi codices as collections, and such analyses may shed light on this questions. The demolition of strict boundaries between “orthodoxy” and “heresy”, for which many have argued, may help us see affinities between Thomas and monastic literature more clearly than before.

Another big problem, that still needs further clarification, is the genre of Thomas. It is, of course, a collection of sayings of Jesus, but what are hermeneutical ramifications of this genre? Should we continue to try to find a unified theology in, or behind, it? Or should it be approached as a random collection of oracles, as Davies proposed some years ago?

 Due to my interest in the school of Valentinus, I’ve also developed a fancy for interactions of early Christian texts with philosophical traditions. I’ve been one of the editors of a book dealing with this topic, where there are chapters on gospels, Paul, Sethians, and Valentinians–but strikingly, none on Thomas! Risto Uro made some very promising remarks about this issue in his book Thomas (2003). In light of them, it would be worthwhile to explore more systematically whether the Gospel of Thomas was written (or could be placed) in dialogue with philosophers, like Paul or the author of John may have been.

Interview with Ismo Dunderberg on the Gospel of Thomas (Part I)

bb3b04f8-4202-4f1e-b20b-fa017a589b6aMy series of interviews with Thomas scholars continues. Today I am posting the first part of my interview with Ismo Dunderberg, Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki. Professor Dunderberg is the author of The Beloved Disciple in Conflict: Revisiting the Gospels of John and Thomas , as well as numerous articles and  several books dealing with Gnosticism, early Christian conflict, and John’s relationship to the Synoptics. I would like to thank Professor Dunderberg for taking time out of his busy schedule to respond to my questions.

(CWS) 1. I have posed this question at the outset of each interview I’ve conducted on the Gospel of Thomas. Before I interact with your work on the Gospel of Thomas I would like to begin by asking what got you interested in studying the Gospel of Thomas in the first place?

(ID) As I was writing my dissertation on John and the Synoptics in 1990s, I attended an introductory Coptic course taught by Antti Marjanen. He and Risto Uro were both interested in the Gospel of Thomas, and, after having published the Finnish translation of it in 1992, they started to plan a research project on this text. Because Greg Riley had reopened the question of the relationship between John and Thomas, they wanted to have a Johannine specialist in the team. I happened to be pretty much the only person available, and had some Coptic under my belt, so they invited me to the project, for which we then applied and got funding from the Academy of Finland.

(CWS) 2. Your work on the John-Thomas question represents the first attempt to challenge what I have called “the community-conflict hypothesis.” In fact, your series of articles (which subsequently became the basis for your book, The Beloved Disciple in Conflict) largely served as the impetus for my own work in that area. Could you briefly summarize your views on the relationship between John and Thomas and on the theory that John was written in response to Thomas?

 (ID) Perhaps I should start by saying that although I was invited to the project, I wasn’t asked to defend or rebut any particular view of John and Thomas!

 I agree with Riley and DeConick that John and Thomas are close to each other in spirit, and I find their work important because they brought that issue under discussion. Yet I found problematic the steps they took from the narrative world of John to the social world behind it. The methodological problems seemed similar to what other scholars (e.g., Joachim Kügler whose carefully articulated studies I read when writing my dissertation) had detected Louis Martyn’s reading of John as “a two-level drama.”

 My own view is that John and Thomas both share common ground and disagree on a number of issues but the disagreements aren’t specific enough to show that there was a mutual conflict between them. Different views, yes, a real-life conflict, no. (These are two different things, really.) If John was written to combat the Gospel of Thomas, or more broadly Thomasine traditions, and if this was one of the author’s main objectives, one could easily imagine clearer ways for expressing this than what we now have in John. It doesn’t even seem to me that Thomas is utterly badly treated as a character in John 20, if we compare his figure to the way the other followers of Jesus are depicted in John.

(CWS) 3. In your book, The Beloved Disciple in Conflict, you focused on social and religious issues, specifically looking at the paradigmatic “beloved disciple” figure behind the Gospels of John and Thomas. For readers of my blog who may not be familiar with your work, would you provide a brief description of your thesis.

The basic problem related to the Beloved Disciple is that, among the New Testament gospels, he is only mentioned in John, yet in John he appears in stories which have parallels in other gospels. From this, most scholars reason that the Beloved Disciple was a leader of the Johannine community who was secondarily inserted into the gospel story. I argue, against the usual consensus, that we have little evidence–much less than you would imagine in reading scholarly literature!–for the Beloved Disciple’s leadership in the Johannine community.

I also point out that similar figures gradually emerge in other early Christian texts to lend them authenticity. Hence my suggestion that the Beloved Disciple was invented for the same purpose. The crucial difference I saw (but many disagree) between John and other early Christian texts featuring beloved disciples is that the Beloved Disciple in John isn’t characterized as being the most perceptive of all disciples.

I also argued that one special reason to introduce the Beloved Disciple in John was to offer a replacement for the brothers of Jesus (cf. John 19:25-27), who in John 7 are portrayed as unbelievers.

 More to come. . . .